Fifty years of “Stairway to Heaven” and not knowing what you think you know.
There’s a joke that everyone who has ever sold guitars makes, and that’s to preemptively ask customers not to play Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”
An epic behemoth of rock songs, “Stairway” is the number that has always seemed to tower above all others since it entered the world fifty years ago, on November 8, 1971. “Stairway” is massive in every way, drawing on Tolkien-type mythology, the constituents of Valhalla, and various musical styles ranging from folk to blues to straight-up rock to quasi-classical to punishing heavy metal. It’s songsmithing via the farrago approach, but for all of its composite parts, it was seen as a dinosaur early on. Played to death. Emblazoned in one’s mind and ears. Not really needing future listens. Even passé.
I believe that the best art is that which makes itself new to us at the various stages of our lives. That is, if we’re canny enough to come back to it for another whirl. I’m not a big travel guy, but I’ll see these people here in Boston who boast about all of the places they’ve been.
Sometimes we’ll be together, and I’ll cite somewhere in the city, and they’ll have no idea what I’m talking about, because they take where they’re at for granted.
A song like “Stairway” can be the same way. I’ve listened to it throughout the various parts of my life, and I find that as I change, “Stairway” seems to change. I know that’s not what’s actually happening. But it’s as if art is encoded with parts of our future selves, and when we get to that next iteration of who we are, that time-delay aspect kicks into effect, and we experience that art as the person we’ve now become.
My first life-level experience of “Stairway” was in eighth grade, when I thought Zeppelin was the coolest band there had ever been, and I was pretty rad, too, because I listened to them. I slow danced to all 7:55 of it at an eighth grade social with a girl I told myself I loved, who later informed a buddy that dancing with me was like torture. Wrecked me.
But I kept listening, and I kept hearing “Stairway” anew. I locked in on Robert Plant’s vocals, and that changed my ideas about what it meant to sing well. You could even say that the way Robert Plant sang “Stairway” helped get me into Billie Holiday, who would seem to have nothing to do with Zeppelin. But there was a stunning range of emotion, and being able to coruscate that way as a singer meant more than “mere” technique ever could.
I’ve gotten the most from “Stairway” in recent times when I focus on the playing. There’s a guitar solo from Jimmy Page close to the end, a fugato tour-de-force in which an instrument sings like a human voice. The solo conjures up both Holiday and J.S. Bach. It talks without talking, strictly speaking. It enjoins. It has a voice beyond a voice. People don’t write about it, they don’t talk about it. I’m not sure how much they hear it, because they think they know this song. Death by presumed ubiquity.
To which I say, you never even really know the back of your hand. And a great work of art is always making itself known in new ways. So do what I’m going to do on November 8, and play “Stairway” at ripping volume. Art is about ascending to new places. Just be sure to take the stairs.