To be a rock and not to roll

"There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold and she’s buying a…"

If I were a real journalist held to the rules and regulations of obscenely lucrative rock and roll copyright, publishing the words to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” could get me slapped with a lawsuit so deep, I wouldn’t have a chance of paying it off unless I negotiate the sale of my own private stairway. And for all my religious clout, Heaven may as well be a giant, exploding Zeppelin blimp, simultaneously symbolic of the eradication of hate-based politics and the explosive nature of sexual intercourse. If that’s the case, what’s the point of taking the risk?

“Stairway to Heaven” is simply too high to touch, its classic rock anthem status anchored by its hefty price tag, its mystique deeply imbedded in the rock and roll consciousness. It is the most frequently played, instantly recognizable song of all-time, so ever-present that you can go years without a single listen, only to hear it by freak accident in somebody’s backyard and have every lyric and guitar note possess your soul to the point where you can really get your Led out on the spot without really knowing how it got there in the first place. A question begs, and it’s been begging for more than thirty years now. What is it about “Stairway to Heaven” that makes it the most overrated song in rock and roll history?

Like pretty much all of Led Zeppelin’s music, “Stairway to Heaven” is musically fascinating but lyrically complacent with mediocrity. From the opening chain of acoustic intrigue building to the unfinished solo, the song’s composition emits deliberate mysticism that stays with the listener to the point where, arguably, the vocals are negligible in comparison. Even though his drum kit is glaringly absent for the first half, John Bonham explodes onto the scene like he showed up late to the studio, raging drunk, just in time to hit the skins before I fall asleep. Jimmy Page’s normally dominating guitar godliness doesn’t ascend until much later, but when he finally tears into his ax, it’s worth the wait. His solo is the big payoff, killing the folk element of the song with a .45 and no mercy. It’s as if they attempted to replicate the preceding song, “The Battle of Evermore,” with more ambiguous lyrics, and then halfway through they just gave in to their primal instincts, going all out in triumphant blues-rock overcompensation.

*Side note: If you’re not familiar with Led Zeppelin’s penchant for overcompensation, check out any live recording of the song, “Dazed and Confused,” which, while this is my favorite Led Zeppelin song ever, when played live it unfortunately became an excuse for Jimmy Page to make love to his guitar (sometimes using a violin bow) for 27 minutes straight (my theory is that he always felt he had to prove that he was a better guitar player than Jimi Hendrix, and this feeling of inadequacy propelled him to solo much longer than necessary, inspiring a league of long-soloing followers in the ‘70s. Or maybe it was Page’s heroin habit extending onto his instrument; he just couldn’t stop. Or his obsession with black magic. Either way, 27 minutes? Good thing the entire arena was high at the time).

In true overcompensating fashion, “Stairway” ends with a rush, and with it, an abrupt reminder that Zep did try the downplayed, introspective acoustic ballad route on this one, but thankfully, it went haywire. But that doesn’t mean that that lady isn’t still buying her Stairway to Heaven.

There are several widely subscribed theories as to what the lyrics mean. Here are three that I’ve taken to heart: (1) “Stairway” is about nothing and everything, depending on which way you look at it. Creative process research doesn't really help explain anything. Robert Plant was flying high on The Lord of the Rings trilogy way before Peter Jackson was geeky enough to get his hands on it. Imagine him, with his head full of curly blond hair, sitting in front of the fireplace in some castle, fantasizing about an elf queen, the words writing themselves in some Gaelic calligraphy.

Led Zeppelin’s head honcho, Jimmy Page, was absent from the songwriting process, reportedly beginning a slow descent into heroin addiction that would do wonders for his guitar virtuoso. Smack may have clouded his judgment when he probably told Plant the lyrics were brilliant and then went off and composed the accompanying music during his next nod. Whatever really happened the magical day “Stairway” came into being, I refuse to believe the lyrics to the song were inspired by anything more than really strong weed and the power of the One Ring.

Zep’s stock has always been in the twin forces of band dynamic and individual musicianship/improvisation. Lyrical content suffered as a result of the band breathing the sex-drugs-rock-and-roll air like oxygen, every day. Even better-than-usual subdued flavors like “Tangerine” were often soured by borrowed full-frontal fantasies like “The Lemon Song," but the beauty of Led Zep is that the guitar solo in “The Lemon Song” can always sweeten anything sour.

(2) “Stairway” is about the Devil if you play it backwards on a turntable (also, "Stairway" could probably be about sex if you think about it).

(3) “Stairway” is a recipe for disaster. In other words, it is a waste of your time. In still other words, the lyrics to “Stairway to Heaven” are a lot like wrapping paper. They can be recycled. Over and over again. Hence, inevitably, cemented status as most overplayed and overrated song of all time.

My own attempt to make sense of “Stairway” lyrics as poetry has been so fruitless and unfulfilling, I'm left wondering whether “Stairway” would have been a better song if Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, or even Jimmy Page had written the lyrics. The symbolism plays out like a collective cry for help navigating the meaning of life, as if it’s some tangible answer you can hearing in the whispering wind. Everything leads back to the Piper leading us to reason, buying your way to Heaven rather than finding it for yourself.

The most troubling lyric to me ruins the final stretch of “Stairway,” intervening just before the song lays itself to bed with a bang. “And if you listen very hard, the truth will come to you at last. When all is one and one is all…to be a rock and not to roll.” This apocalyptic aspect of finality, all-knowing, everything-is-as-it-is is a slap in the face to everything rock and roll signified during the early 1970s. Change, originality, protest, questions, questioning the answers, rocking and rolling. “To be a rock and not to roll.” Even today, there are too many rocks rolling around for me to take that statement as more than wordplay gone awry, an empty message carelessly, thoughtlessly tacked on the end of a (instrumental) rock masterpiece.

If you examine other rock songs that have been elevated and revered in much the same way as “Stairway,” you won’t find the empty lyric syndrome. For example, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is fierce, relentless, yet quietly disaffected. Its meaning is implied, never blatantly stated, buried beneath the power chords and shabby chic MTV video for anyone who cares enough to find it. But strangely enough, I wouldn’t be surprised if, when I do get out on the street and take a poll, the same percentage of music fans would know the meaning of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as the meaning of “Stairway.”

You know, it makes me really makes me there anything wrong with not knowing what “Stairway” means? And if “Stairway” is not about anything, what is so bad about that? Why does everything have to be about something? Maybe I just had delusions of grandeur, perhaps, that one of the supposed greatest rock songs of all time could have a conscience, a message, a deeper meaning, the fascinating inner workings of a brain within what was one of the best visceral blues-rock acts ever. You may be playing on the hour, every hour, “Stairway,” but I’m onto your overblown mystic hype. My Stairway does not lie on the whispering wind. I don’t hear no Piper calling me to join him. And I sure as hell don’t want to be a rock that can’t roll.



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home