What's the story behind Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven?"

April 25, 2003

Dear Cecil:

I know you probably don't know yet, and aren't too keen on finding out (I quote, "Just don't ask me to explain 'Stairway to Heaven'"), but just what is the song "Stairway to Heaven" about? My two favorite songs are "Hotel California" and "Stairway to Heaven." You explained HC very well, but S2H remains a mystery. Help!

I've been putting this off for 30 years. Time to bite the bullet. You understand that rock lyrics, like the quantum mechanical universe, are subject to a sort of Heisenberg uncertainty principle, meaning we can't really know the truth but merely glimpse it, as through a glass darkly, etc. (And no, I'm not reprinting the words to "Stairway to Heaven" — anybody who can't remember them after more than three decades of steady airplay probably can't read anyway.) With that caveat out of the way, some theories about the song:

(1) It doesn't mean anything. The song was written in 1971, which culturally was pretty much still the '60s, and you know what that means. According to band lore, Robert Plant composed most of the lyrics in a single day during sessions at Headley Grange, a former poorhouse in Hampshire, England, then being used by rock groups as a rehearsal space and studio. To give you a feel for Plant's range as a writer, here's an excerpt from "Black Dog," which appeared on the same side of Led Zeppelin's untitled fourth album as "Stairway": "Hey, hey, baby, when you walk that way, watch your honey drip, can't keep away. / Ah yeah, ah yeah, ah, ah, ah. Ah yeah, ah yeah, ah, ah, ah."

In sum, we've got the well-known psychosociochemical influences of the era, we've got an extremely compressed compositional time frame, and we've got a poetical sensibility that, to be objective about it (and believe me, I like "Stairway to Heaven"), probably rates between 2 and 3 millishakespeares. So I think it's safe to say that what we're hearing aren't so much lyrics as the unmediated pulsations of the reptile brain.

(2) It means something really deep. Browsing on the Web, I find the following commentary, allegedly extracted from a 1991 Esquire article and attributed to Robert Walser, professor of musicology at UCLA and author of the 1993 book Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music:

Musically, "Stairway" fuses powerful "authenticities" — which are really ideologies … We find a set of concepts (that pretty much sum up the central concerns of all philosophy): signs, words, meanings, thoughts, feelings, spirit, reason, wonder, soul, the idea that "all are one and one is all." We find a set of vaguely but powerfully evocative symbols: gold, the West, the tune, white light, shadows, paths, a road, and the stairway to heaven itself. At the very end, we find some paradoxical self-referentiality: "To be a rock and not to roll." The words … are resonant, requiring no rigorous study in order to become meaningful. Like the music, they engage with the fantasies and anxieties of our time; they offer contact with social and metaphysical depth in a world of commodities and mass communication. "Stairway to Heaven," no less than canonized artistic postmodernism, addresses "decentered subjects" who are striving to find credible experiences of depth and community.

Translation: I have no frickin' clue.

(3) It means whatever you want it to mean. Continuing our peregrinations on the Internet (OK, so I'm not exactly busting my hump this week, but honestly, can you think of a better place to research this?), we find the following theories:

  • The lyrics recall the bumbling efforts of one Erma Rees-Gwynn, a divorcee and aspiring contractor, to build a three-story deck--with a stairway leading up from the garden--at the rear of a castle that guitarist Jimmy Page owned in Wales. Presumably meant satirically, but one never knows.
  • When played in reverse the lyrics are a paean to Satan. Que stupido, you say. Compared to what?
  • It's about drugs. Just like every other rock song.
  • Plant had this bimbo girlfriend, see, and she took his Visa card and went to the mall, and got the idea of buying the escalators. Another satire. Unfortunately, that's about as funny as it gets.
  • "A bustle in your hedgerow" refers to menstruation, and when taken in conjunction with the reference to "the May Queen" signifies a woman's coming of age. Plant has denied this, but he's obviously unfamiliar with semiotics. Have a seat, Bob. We know what you wrote. Now let us explain what you meant.
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