The true meaning of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven

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There are songs that, once you’ve listened to them, fade away without having any impact. Then, there are others that transcend music, achieving poetic status and enduring for eternity. Stairway to Heaven, Led Zeppelin’s immortal masterpiece, is the latter. Its lyrics are rich with cryptic references to allegories and mysticism, offering far more than the simplistic satanism that many detractors argue is its main theme. Robert Plant wrote the lyrics of course, and he has repeatedly said that he drew inspiration from the works of the Scottish writer Lewis Spence, notably from his book Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. And it is that Celtic esotericism and spirituality that truly comes through in the lyrics – no more, no less.

The narrative begins with one of the most famous arpeggios in 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? Fans of occultist theories have argued that this is a metaphor for an initiation into a new type of Pagan religion; an obscure, unknown belief. But this notion has an easy counter in the many references to Christianity in the song as a whole. According to some, the lady is the Virgin Mary, and Led Zeppelin seem to tacitly confirm this, mentioning the May Queen later in the song, May being traditionally the month dedicated to Mary.

But let’s avoid entering into this kind of debate and read the lyrics for what they really represent. When you take the lyrics at face value, you can see that the woman is nothing more than an allegory of a greedy, materialistic, arrogant society that believes that everything, including a path to heaven, can be acquired with money alone.

Moving on, Jimmy Page’s guitar and John Paul Jones’ keyboards embrace us with their ethereal melodies.

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 in the Wild West, which was no longer wild in those days by any means, but is still a representation of adventure, mystery and charm. In essence, it is the place where we can remove ourselves from the materialism of contemporary society and turn our attention to the unknown, to the stranger. Robert Plant wanted to guide us on a sort of spiritual journey, to help improve ourselves and the people around us. And those who hesitate and are watchful (“Those who stand looking”), could be those with a conservative outlook, who disapprove of this kind of spiritual journey because they are imprisoned in societal materialism, unable to look forward. But, just when we least expect it, we will be called to live in peace and harmony, at one with nature and each other (“And it’s whispered that soon, If we all call the tune / Then the piper will lead us to reason”).

It is now that we arrive at the famous verse which, if listened in to reverse, supposedly contains a disturbing invocation of Satan. Instead of giving this notion any more airtime though, let’s leave the rebuttal to Plant himself: “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.” This really should be enough to put the idea to bed 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

This is the reference to May Queen that we mentioned earlier. The bustle in the hedgerow represents our mind, confused by the possibility of this spiritual path, or perhaps simply unprepared for it. But if it’s true that you can find many ways to change yourself, then it is also true that you always have the opportunity to hange your mind and take another path. There are no destinies that have already been written; we are all free to make our decisions with full autonomy.

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

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

It is here when we finally get the call. Our minds are 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 at the beginning of the song: the winds are changing and it’s time that everyone realises that humanity can really aspire to something better. At the bottom, the rough stairway to heaven, made of something tangible, is nevertheless floating in the air (“your stairway lies on the whispering wind”). It’s a path, but it’s fragile like any other – perhaps even more so, because it represents the spiritual, not the physical.

The lyrics then give way to Jimmy Page’s magnificent guitar, which unleashes a riff, powerful yet dreamy at the same time. It is considered by many the most beautiful solo of all time, but it isn’t the last word; the song still has something to say in the form of 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 a synthesis of the message contained in the lyrics as a whole: no matter how great our faults or our dark sides are, we will always have the chance to listen to and understand both those around us and ourselves. Materialism and individualism will be always present, ready to tempt us, presenting their way as the simplest and easiest one to follow, but the choice relies on us andour intentions to unite 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 together, in harmony with our souls and with nature. Only in this way can we we really improve ourselves and others, escaping the real evil of society, framed in its 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. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, a splendid message of solidarity, brotherhood and equality. Together, we can really change the world around us. 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 lives better. But the message is there, and that’s what Led Zeppelin wanted from us.

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

You can also read the full lyrics in all their beauty:

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

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5 comments

  1. “There’s a feeling I get when I look to the West and my spirit is crying for leaving” is a pretty obvious reference to LOTR and the elves, which highly influenced Plant for a time (Ramble On literally mentions Gollum)

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