Stairway to Heaven: why Led Zeppelin’s masterpiece is actually a personal growth lesson

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There are songs that, after listening, fade away without leaving marks; and there are others that transcend music and trespass into poetry and eternity. Stairway to Heaven, Led Zeppelin’s immortal masterpiece, is one of the latter. Its lyrics are rich of cryptic references to allegories and mysticism, and it’s nothing about that boorish satanism that many detractors read in it. Robert Plant, the author of the lyrics, has repeatedly pointed out that he has drawn inspiration from the works of the Scottish writer Lewis Spence, notably from his book Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. Celtic esotericism and spirituality, therefore, have been the main sources of inspiration. Nothing else.

The narrated story is introduced by one of the most famous arpeggios of the history of music:

There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven

Who is this ambiguous female figure? The fans of the occultist theories have argued that this is a metaphor to indicate the initiation into a new type of pagan religion, some obscure, unknowm belief. But it’s easy to answer to this argument. There are, in fact, many references to Christianism, going forward in the lyrics. According to some, the lady who shines is the Virgin Mary, and Led Zeppelin gave a hidden confirmation about it, talking in the lyrics about the May Queen (May is traditionally the month dedicated to Mary).

But let’s avoid to enter into this kind of debate, and let’s read the lyrics for what they really represent. Analysing without prejudice, it’s understood that the woman is nothing more than an allegory of the society, a fat and arrogant society focused on material goods, thinking that it can acquire everything it wants (including a starway to heaven) just with the power of money.

Let’s move on, while Jimmy Page’s guitar and John Paul Jones’ keyboards cuddle us with their dreamy music.

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

The West is a clear reference to the idea of purity of the Wild West, which certainly was no longer very wild in those days, but still indicates an idea of adventure, mystery and charm. So in essence, the recipe to allow us to elevate ourselves from the materialism of contemporary society is to turn our attention to the unknown, to the stranger. Robert Plant wanted to guide us into a sort of spiritual journey, to help improve ourselves and the people around us. In this sense, those who wait and see (“Those who stand looking“), could refer to the conservatives who disapprove this kind of spiritual journey, imprisoned in society materialism and unable to look forward. But, just when we least expect it, the call will finally come, and men will live in peace and harmony with nature (“And it’s whispered that soon, If we all call the tune / Then the piper will lead us to reason“).

We come now to the famous verse that, if listened in reverse, would contain a disturbing invocation to Satan. We won’t enter into this, leaving the answer to what Plant himself stated in an interview: “To me it’s very sad, because ‘Stairway to Heaven’ was written with every best intention, and as far as reversing tapes and putting messages on the end, that’s not my idea of making music.” Which should actually close the question once and for all.

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

Here’s the reference to May Queen that we talked about earlier. The bustle in the hedgerow represents our mind, confused in front of the revelations of the new spiritual path, or perhaps simply unprepared; but, moreover, if it’s true that you can choose many ways to change yourself, you always have the opportunity to switch and go for another path. There are no destinies already written, we are all free to take our decisions in full autonomy.

Moving forward with the lyrics, we arrive at the last verse before the solo explosion of Jimmy Page:

Your head is humming and it won’t go
In case you don’t know
The piper’s calling you to join him

Here we finally have the call: our mind is still confused, but the sweet melody of the piper is resounding in our heads, leading us towards spiritual perfection. The message is then addressed to the lady mentioned in the beginning of the song, so society: the wind is changing, it’s time that everyone realizes it, humanity can really aspire to something better than what is normally offered. At the bottom, the rough stairway to heaven, made of tangible goods, is founded in the air (“your stairway lies on the whispering wind“). It’s a path, but it’s fragile like any other path, perhaps even more, because ithere is no spirit behind it.

The lyrics now takes a break, leavind space for Jimmy Page’s magnificent guitar, which unleashes a riff powerful and dreamer at the same time, considered by many the most beautiful solo of all time. But the song still has something to say, one last appeal to listeners:

And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll

The last verse is the synthesis of the message contained in the whole lyrics: no matter how great our faults or our dark sides are, we will always have the possibility to understand, listening to ourselves and to the others around us. Materialism and individualism will be always there, ready to tempt us, selling out their way as the simplest and easiest to follow, but the choice relies on us, intended as united mankind. This is the only way to find harmony, to be united and “not to roll”, overwhelmed by a life imposed by stereotypes.

Here it is, therefore, our stairway to heaven: our goal in life, according to Led Zeppelin, must be to discover the power of the community, the need to live all together, in harmony with our souls and with nature. Only in this way, we can really improve ourselves and others, escaping the real evil of society, framed in materialism, selfishness and disinterest towards others (“When all are one and one is all / To be a rock and not to roll“).

Stairway to Heaven, in conclusion, is everything but a perverse ode to evil and darkness: just the opposite, it’s a splendid message of solidarity, brotherhood and equality. Together we can really change the world around. To be a rock and not to roll. Maybe it’s just an illusion. Perhaps we will never be able to really get together and do something concrete to make our life better. But, the message is there, and that’s what Led Zeppelin wanted from us.

Below you can find the beautiful version of Stairway to Heaven interpreted by Ann and Nancy Wilson, for the tribute at the Kennedy Center in 2012.

And here the full lyrics of the song:

There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for
Oh oh oh oh and she’s buying a stairway to heaven

There’s a sign on the wall
But she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings
In a tree by the brook
There’s a songbird who sings
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiving

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

There’s a feeling I get
When I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving
In my thoughts I have seen
Rings of smoke through the trees
And the voices of those who standing looking

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

And it’s whispered that soon, If we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason
And a new day will dawn
For those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow
Don’t be alarmed now
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen
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
And it makes me wonder

Your head is humming and it won’t go
In case you don’t know
The piper’s calling you to join him
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow
And did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll
And she’s buying the stairway to heaven

.

Dario Giardi loves music, photography and writing. He is the author of “Trip among the notes. The Secrets of Musical Theory and Harmony”. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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