Tuesday 11 May 2010

Where I come from 3: The Words, the Wonderful Words

Dear Freddie,

I think John Paul Jones, the Led Zeppelin bassist, describes the origin of Stairway to Heaven very poetically: “Page and Plant would come back from the Welsh mountains with the guitar intro and verse. I literally heard it in front of a roaring fire in a country manor house.”

The story goes that the song was conceived in Bron-Yr-Aur, an 18th century cottage in South Snowdonia. It was the year 1970 and guitarist Jimmy Page was trying to join together a number of acoustic and electric sections. Page remembers how he was instructions the rest of the band while Robert Plant, the lead singer, was leaning against the wall, listening and writing. “And all of a sudden he got up and started singing in, along with another run-through, and he must have had 80% of the words there.”

It all adds to the myth that Plant described what came over him as “my hand was writing out the words, 'There's a lady who’s sure, 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 seat.”

No doubt this origin story helped the song to its legendary status. But if I want to be able to take the song seriously, the image of Page and Plant returning from the Welsh mountains like Zarathustra, bringing Stairway to Heaven to the people... well.... it just makes me laugh. I can’t learn anything while being overwhelmed with pathetic, mystical obscurity.

It seems like quite a challenge to avoid being dazzled like that when a song is called “Stairway to Heaven”. What on earth is heaven? I don’t believe there’s a place above the clouds where good folks go when they die to sit by champagne fountains for the rest of eternity. Nor do I think interpreting the word ‘heaven’ as that imaginary place will help me understand the song.

I know that ‘buying a stairway into heaven’ is a standing expression for being generous only in order to achieve salvation. But come on, I don’t know what salvation is either. So rather than pretend I know what Plant means, I should accept that I don’t know what he’s trying to say. Instead, I will have to stick to the words in the song and look for clues that might tell me more.

The title alone tells me heaven is a destination. When looking closely at these three words, I notice that Plant doesn’t tell me whether this destination can be reached, has been reached or even exists. I don’t know whether it’s a place I should try to reach, or that I should try to postpone finding it. For now, I only know Plant mentions that there is a stairway that leads towards heaven, whatever it is. So, all I know is that, from where Plant was standing, he’d have to ascend or descend in order to get there. No more and no less.

Next time, I’ll try to find out more by looking closely at the first lyrics.




Read the next installment here:
Where I come from 4: Words that pay

Or read the previous posts in this series:

Where I come from 1: Pub Talk Philosophy and Where I come from 2: MA in Pedantry.


  1. I like that. You show an amazing honesty in admitting what you don’t know. This enables you to listen without judgement to what the other is trying to say. It reminds me of nonviolent communication. NVC is also based on a few very simple rules, but it is amazingly difficult to learn to speak the so called giraffe language with fluency. Somehow we seem to be hardwired to map new information onto frameworks we already know.

    Susan Fast, In the houses of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the power of rock music, p. 60 :

    What brings his lyrics further into the mythic/ epic tradition is that, as Bakhtin states it, “the absolute past is closed and completed in the whole as well as in any of its parts. It is, therefore, possible to take any part and offer it as the whole.” In other words, the listener seems to get parts of stories that remind us of the mythic/epic while telling no myth in particular.

    This might become an obstacle to your method of analysis.
    And maybe it explains how Robert Plant got his Michelangelo/ Picasso moment, e.g. perhaps he was overwhelmed by the sudden semiotic explosion when he wired his lyrics to an existing collective mythic/ epic tradition.

    > I notice that Page doesn’t tell me whether this destination can be reached
    Page? Do you mean the lyrics or the music?

  2. You’re right, Harald, it’s not that we’re lazy, that we’re not trying to learn something new, we’re violent. But it’s a bit like beating up a brick wall: I’m only chafing my own knuckles in doing so, the brick wall doesn’t care at all.

    I meant Jimmy Page. But it should have been Plant. Thanks for pointing that one out.

  3. It reminds me that I really should listen to the lyrics of songs more often.

  4. When hitting the wall becomes a habit, we are rewiring our minds. Mirror neurons become broken mirror neurons. The face of the other appears fragmented. Our knuckles hurt with every google hit. We feel alone up against the wall. So we hit it again.

  5. @Madamde DeFarge: listen to the lyrics of songs more often, look at the video's more closely, or both...
    Have you seen/heard the great 'literal video version' of Meatloaf's Anything For Love yet?

  6. This fellow had an interesting take on the meanings of the lyrics: http://www.inthelight.co.nz/ledzep/stairway.htm

    But this interpretation seemed a bit skewed to me: http://www.sunsetwestproductions.com/forever/stairway.htm

    I recall (back in high school) someone claiming that "If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now, It's just a spring clean for the May queen" refers to a woman getting her period.

    I guess, like most things artistic, it means whatever it means to each person.