Friday, November 16, 2018

But Really, It's About Satan - "Stairway to Heaven"

Despite its Celtic feel, "Stairway to Heaven" opens with clearly modern imagery: a rich, specifically nondescript woman who places her wealth above all else, whether knowingly or through her naivete (and despite her surety).  She's there on Rodeo Drive or in Palm Beach and well aware that if the stores are closed she will still get her way. Plant, when in the mood, acknowledges the simplicity of the first verse: "It was some cynical aside about a woman getting everything she wanted all the time without giving any thought or consideration. That first line begins with that cynical sweep of the hand …and it softened up after that," though in a later interview, Plant is less nebulous and fairly clear that "Stairway to Heaven" has no actual meaning. Plant said, "Depending on what day it is, I still interpret the song a different way - and I wrote it." 

In the 2nd verse, there are signs, literally, that she may be wrong. The lady encounters confusion regarding her entry into Heaven. The "sign on the wall" is useless in that words have two meanings. "It makes me wonder" is sung here for the first time, suggesting the quandary we all face about making the right decisions.

The next verse addresses mortality and questions why things happen, how one may feel toward the end of  life, ready to move on to the next stage in the spiritual world, but still immersed in the physical. Thornton Wilder's Our Town comes to mind.  The speaker whose "Spirit is crying for leaving" may be facing a difficult or painful death, or simply fear the unknown; worse, fear the finality. 

It makes me wonder.

The forth verse introduces the piper, who we all pay, and brings to mind Robert Browning's, "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," wherein the piper is hired to rid the town of rats by playing his magical pipe. When the town refuses pay, he uses his pipe to lead the children from town, presumably to their death. The legend certainly has an ominous ending, but the piper in "Stairway" hardly seems vindictive.  Here the piper will "lead us to reason." The sentiment is furthered in the following verse, the spring clean for the May Queen. The lady's lesson is clear, "There's still time to change the road you're on."  But is it clear for the lady (it makes me wonder)?

Our new character, the May Queen, the Queen of Light, is the girl who leads the parade for May Day celebrations wearing a white frock and a flower crown to symbolize her purity. However, in British folklore, the tradition has a sinister twist—the May Queen was put to death once the festivities ended. Like the piper, the May Queen has an ambiguous and ominous air, but personifies that death is a part of life and ultimately, hopefully, renewal: Heaven, incarnation, an afterlife.

The Lady's head is humming. She's not sure why. The piper is calling to join him, summoning her to death.  The lady is asked whether she thinks she did the right thing.  Can she hear the wind blow?  Does she know her where her stairway lies?

Here the tempo lifts in an anthemic charge, the drums enter, the guitar is electrified. When the vocals resume, they're intense, and the subject is no longer what the lady needs to do to get into heaven, but what we must do.

As we go through life, we accumulate baggage—all the bad things we've done, or things we failed to do by default; the "shadows taller than our souls." And they often outweigh the good. As the lady reemerges as the focus, she's passed on, presumably finding her way, a white light now guiding us all to heaven, but we must listen very hard. "To be a rock and not to roll" is the final lesson: be a rock for one's family, friends and those in need.  Use one's talents for the good of all.  Stand firm.  The a capella final line is more a refrain than most would assume; ultimately the lady indeed buys, through her actions and not her pocketbook, "the" stairway to Heaven (not "a" stairway to Heaven). "Stairway to Heaven" is about everything and nothing, about finding the way, or losing it, about life and death and the afterlife - quite a bit more to it than the six notes allegedly lifted from "Taurus."

Jimmy Page commented that, "The wonderful thing about 'Stairway' is the fact that just about everybody has got their own individual interpretation to it, and actually what it meant to them at their point of life. And that's what's so great about it. Over the passage of years people come to me with all manner of stories about what it meant to them at certain points of their lives. About how it's got them through some really tragic circumstances. Because it's an extremely positive song, it's such a positive energy." 

"Stairway to Heaven," like "The Battle of Evermore," was written at Headley Grange. Page strummed out the chords while Robert Plant wrote the lyrics. Plant claims that while writing the song, something overcame him, causing him to write the lyrics he did. "My hand was writing out the words 'there's a lady is sure (sic) all that glitters is gold and she's buying a stairway to heaven.' I just sat there and looked at them and almost leapt out of my head."

Makes me wonder...