25 June 2010

Led Zeppelin: Stairway to Heaven

Yes, you read the title correctly—this week’s installment of Lyrics, Weakly takes on a rock icon: Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”.

True story: The only time i’ve ever called in to a radio station to voice my opinion about something, it was as part of a discussion on whether “Stairway to Heaven” deserves all the airplay it gets. (I was on the emphatically no side. Not that this surprises you, probably.)

I’ve wanted to do this song for a while now, but i’ve been hesitant to ever since i heard Robert Plant, co-writer of the song, on the NPR program Fresh Air, where he admitted that he actually appreciates the many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many parodies that the song has merited over the years. (The discussion of “Stairway” starts around the 14:30 point of the interview.)

However, i’ve finally decided that this song’s lyrics really do need to be discussed in this forum, mainly because so many people seem to think that this is The Single Greatest Rock And Roll Song Of All Time, or at least classic rock radio station after classic rock radio station has told me so by placing it #1 on their Memorial Day/​Labor Day/​whatever other long weekend “Top 100/​500/1,000 Songs of All Time” lists.

Another story: Every few years, i get into listening to classic rock stations as part of my neverending hopscotch through musical genres. Well, in the early days of the world-wide web, the classic rock station i was listening to at the time (not the one i called into to protest their overplaying of “Stairway”, by the way) decided to let its listeners vote on its top-songs list—people could go to the station’s homepage during the month before a particular long weekend, send in their top-ten lists, and the station would compile those lists into a top-500 list to play over that weekend. (A listener’s #1 song would get ten points, their #2 song would get nine points, and so on to their  #10 song, which would get one point—and then they’d play the songs in countdown format, with the highest point-getting songs being ranked higher.)

Anyway, part of the shtick was that they updated the list of songs every day, taking the previous day’s top-ten lists into account each time. Well, the list started out with the station staff’s lists (which gave “Stairway to Heaven” the top slot and “Hey Jude” by the Beatles the second slot), and then each day there were updated lists. It was actually kind of fun to watch, with new songs popping onto the bottom of the list each day as people nominated songs that nobody else had thought of before, and with some shuffling of the songs up higher on the list.

So about a week and a half before this top-500 countdown was supposed to begin, “Stairway to Heaven” fell out of the top slot—and over the next few days it fell down to the bottom of the top ten, and then out of the top ten completely. Interesting. And then, a couple days before the weekend countdown, the updated-daily list was taken down, with a message in its place urging people to listen to the countdown itself. Also, at the same time—and i noticed this because i found it quite striking—the station’s promotions for the countdown stopped saying that it was a countdown based on listeners’ votes. In fact, a few times during the countdown itself, we were told that the ordering of the list was based on listeners’ votes and the “judgment” of station staff.

Given that, you won’t be surprised to hear that “Hey Jude” was the #2 song, and “Stairway to Heaven” the #1 song.

Not saying that there was anything untoward going on, but it does seem a bit odd, you know? (And it’s not like it would have killed the station to place it lower—even Rolling Stone placed it at #31 in their 2004 list. Of course, they placed Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” at #1, so it’s not like their vote ought to count either.)

Anyway, this has been a long intro. On to the lyrics.

There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold

So we start with some woman who’s inexperienced enough that she’s never seen silver. Or copper. Or quartz. Or diamonds. Or…I’ll stop there, but you get the idea—we’re starting out by straining credulity to the point of breakage. Not an auspicious beginning.

And she’s buying a stairway to heaven

There’s probably something deep to say here, but i get stuck trying to imagine what the cost of materials for such a building project would be.

When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for

Well, if what she came for was the chance to window shop without buying anything, then yes, she can easily get what she came for.

Really, the only way i can read this verse is as an attempt to sound deep by playing the counterintuitive situation card, but really not saying anything at all.

Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven

But the stores are closed. Too bad for her—well, unless a neighborhood general contractor is available. Then she might be able to work something out.

There’s a sign on the wall
But she wants to be sure
’Cause you know sometimes words have
Two meanings

No, “no parking any time” means no parking. Sorry, you’re going to get towed, and no amount of postmodernist reasoning is going to get you out of it.

In a tree by the brook
There’s a songbird who sings
Sometimes all of our thoughts are

First of all, did Mr. Plant really just rhyme two meanings with misgiven? ’Cause that’s a pretty amazingly bad rhyme.

Second, sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven? That’s not deep, that’s just bizarre and nonsensical.

And finally, does it seem to anybody else like Robert Plant simply had some random ideas for verses that sounded interesting by themselves, and then strung them together without any thought for whether they were logically coherent when put together? Yes? Good, i’m glad to know i’m not alone in that.

Ooh, it makes me wonder
Ooh, it makes me wonder

Oh, Mr. Plant, it makes me wonder, too—but not in a good way. But, of course, like you said, sometimes words have two meanings.

There’s a feeling I get
When I look to the west
And my spirit is crying
For leaving

For leaving this song, most likely.

And the feeling i get when i look to the west is generally a perception of brightness at sunset, shadow at other times of day.

In my thoughts I have seen
Rings of smoke through the trees

So what Mr. Plant is saying is that he has a pretty good imagination, and can imagine fog in the woods, or the remnants of a forest fire.

In other news, one of the best ways to pad a song to, say, longer than seven minutes is to talk about abilities you have that are completely normal, but to present them as if it’s some sort of mystical experience.

And the voices of those
Who stand looking

Mr. Plant hears voices in his head. Ask me if i’m surprised.

(Answer: No.)

Ooh, it makes me wonder
Ooh, it really makes me wonder

Yes, Mr. Plant, we all do. Again.

And it’s whispered that soon
If we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason

I’m very happy that Mr. Plant has seen fit to give us a geography lesson: The town of Reason is located fairly near the German town of Hamelin. This is impressive knowledge on his part, since i can’t find any other mention of it anywhere on the web.

And a new day will dawn
For those who stand long

Well, even if you started right after the previous dawn, a new day will dawn if you stand for only twenty-four hours, give or take a few seconds. Whether that’s long or not depends on your point of view, i suppose.

Well, unless you’re in Barrow, Alaska. Then you’d have to stand a really long time, and you’d get pretty cold while you were doing it.

And the forests will
Echo with laughter

The laughter comes from Mr. Plant’s agent, collecting his cut of the royalty checks for every time this song is played on the radio.

Oh, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, ooh, whoa, oh

Can you feel the excitement building? With an intro like that, the next verse must be amazing!

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow
Don’t be alarmed now
It’s just a spring clean
For the May queen

Or maybe it'll just be utterly opaque.

I actually heard Robert Plant claim, in an interview, that this is an environmental message—something about the need to protect and commune with nature or somesuch.

You know, if doing this blog has taught me one thing, it’s that nonsense songs that try to justify their existence by tacking on an alleged environmental message are actually simply nothing but nonsense songs.

Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run
There’s still time to change
The road you’re on

Though depending on how close the exits are, it might take you quite a while to get to the road you missed.

Of course, this song was released in 1971—with the widespread adoption of in-car GPS navigational systems, this isn’t nearly as much of an issue as it used to be.

And it makes me wonder
Aw, uh, oh
Your head is humming and it won’t go

I’d actually never really tried to parse all of the lyrics to this song before sitting down to write this up. So now my head is humming, but it’s the sort of humming that precedes passing out, so i don’t think that’s a good thing.

In case you don’t know
The piper’s calling you to join him

You know, i’m not really into wrestling, but even if i were, such an invitation would scare me.

Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow?

As a man, i feel incompletely qualified to answer this question. However, that said, the weather here at this moment is at a dead calm (despite the rain), so the answer is no.

And did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind?

You know, the children’s novel The Phantom Tollbooth was published in 1961, a decade before this song came out, and it has an important though relatively minor character named Reason (her sister’s name is Rhyme), and her castle in the air is reached via a windy stairway. I think Norton Juster should sue for authorship credit.

And then we have a guitar solo that lots of wannabe guitarists believe is The Greatest Guitar Solo ever, and therefore they have littered YouTube with their versions of it. Seriously, don’t click that link—it’ll just make you weep for the future of music.

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul

Obviously, this scene occurs either in early morning or late evening. I vote early morning, since only a couple minutes have passed since we were told a new day will dawn. Yeah, i know, there’s no logical grounding for that conclusion, but compare the utter lack of logical grounding in this entire song, and i’m sure you’ll agree that my crime is not the greater one.

There walks a lady we all know

Oprah Winfrey?

Who shines white light and wants to show

Oprah Winfrey with a flashlight, apparently.

How everything still turns to gold
And if you listen very hard
The truth will come to you at last
When all are one and one is all

This means, according to Wikipedia, that Mr. Plant believes that truth will come either from the three musketeers, or from Switzerland.

This is not what i would have guessed.

To be a rock and not to roll

True story: My freshman year of college, my roommate was from Japan. (Sort of. He was from Japan, and he claimed Japan as his home, but he’d done all of his schooling at a boarding school in Connecticut.) He had a collection of Japanese pressings of music, and one of them was the Led Zeppelin IV album on vinyl.

The best part of this album was the included lyrics sheet, which included Japanese translations of the lyrics to the songs, and alleged transcriptions of the English lyrics—and this line was rendered To be a rock, a natural.

Really, it makes just as much sense.

And she’s buying a stairway
To heaven…

Which she could afford by now if she’d been receiving the royalty checks for this song.

Anyway, that’s it for this week. Next week, back to the requests!

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