I’ve been thinking about “Stairway to Heaven” a lot lately. Hearing the opening guitar notes in my head, followed by the sound of Robert Plant’s wailing voice. Usually he’s singing that penultimate line, “To be a rock and not to roll…” It’s the line that pretty much ruined the song for me.
Like a lot of people, I was impressed when I first heard the song back in 1971. Though “impressed” doesn’t quite convey the feeling, because the immediate teenage conclusion I came to upon hearing “Stairway to Heaven” for the first time was that it was deep—“fucking deep.” And when you’re a kid in high school there is, of course, nothing deeper than “fucking deep.” All of which goes to say that, yes, I loved the song—but I only loved it for a little while, after which my relationship with the song slowly went downhill.
If I recall correctly, I was on good terms with “Stairway to Heaven” throughout the 70s. As with some high school crush, I may not have been in love with it by the time I got to college in the middle of that decade, but I still liked being around it. Whether I was hearing it being played on a jukebox at some off campus dive in northeast DC, or on the radio in my Chevy Vega, I still enjoyed it. It wasn’t “fucking deep” anymore, but it was still good.
Somewhere in the 80s, though, that all began to change. That’s when “Stairway to Heaven” started frequenting a club that first opened its doors around that time. It was a club you could find in almost any city in the U.S., and it was called—lest you be so foolish to mistake it for anything else—“classic rock.”
As I was still in my twenties, “classic rock” seemed like the sort of label you’d only put on something that was irreversibly pale, totally irrelevant, and above all, certifiably dead. Toward the end of the 70s I was mostly listening to jazz, soul, and funk, and it wasn’t until I started getting into punk and “new wave” that I listened to anything that might be described as “rock music.” Classic Rock, I thought, was a just label created to get people to buy music that was well past its expiration date. And for me, the epitome of Classic Rock was Led Zeppelin and, especially, their song, “Stairway to Heaven.”
This isn’t to say that there aren’t people whose knowledge of and musical tastes I respect who still like Led Zeppelin—there are. But except for Led Zeppelin III—which because of its oddness still holds up for me—I find most of the band’s output unlistenable now. And it’s not because it wasn’t, at one time, good music. In fact, on a certain level, it may actually still be good music. But it sure as hell wasn’t the sort of music that could hold up to being played as often as it was.
As the 80s went on, I couldn’t count the number of times I’d hear a Led Zeppelin song start playing at a bar, then see some guy lay his drink down for the purpose of nodding to the beat for a full minute or two. What was worse was whenever “Stairway to Heaven” came on. That’s when this hush would go through the crowd, and there were always two or three people who would actually go “ahhhhh,” after which they’d look at each other as if to say, “yeah, this is deep. Fucking deep.” Then came the worst part of all. That’s when, toward the end, they’d sing along to the line, “To be a rock. And not to roll…” It always made me want to throw up. It was at this point when the words, “This is so fucking lame” would go through my head. And then I’d catch the bartender’s attention and order another bourbon.
Well, of course, maybe all this means is that I was hanging out at the wrong fucking bars in the 80s—the wrong bars for me, anyway—and that I have no right blaming Led Zeppelin. After all, I think this was just one of many things that helped push me to leave DC and move to New York later on. As for New York—well, that, I thought, was something deserving of being called “fucking deep,’ because there were layers of meaning there I’d never imagined before. And New York, at least before it got cleaned up in the mid-90s, was a place where anything seemed possible. And when I lived in New York, although I did hear Led Zeppelin and “Stairway from Heaven” played from time to time at the bars I frequented, the music didn’t bother me as much. This, I think, had something to do with the layers of meaning I found there, layers that went way deeper than the pseudo-profundity of “to be a rock and not to roll.”
And so a couple of decades went by. Decades during which I rarely ever set foot in a bar, which meant, also, that I rarely ever walked into a place where “Stairway to Heaven” was be playing. And though I may have run into snippets of it here and there, I know for a fact that I haven’t had to listen to the entire song in years. But that lovely winning streak during which I never heard all of “Stairway to Heaven” came to an end a couple of weeks ago. I was at home at the time.
I was sitting at the dining room table, working at the computer, when Maggie walked by and went into the hall, where she sat down at the piano. Then I heard it—well, part of it—the opening notes to “Stairway to Heaven,” played by my wonderful daughter. I was afraid at first, but when I found out that, bored by all the songs in her basic piano lesson book, Maggie was now learning to play “Stairway to Heaven” on piano, I didn’t mind. In fact, I may have even thought it was kind of cool.
This, I gather, is the manifestation of one of the side effects of being a parent—the obliteration of some of one’s more cynical proclivities and the relaxation of what are sometimes unnecessarily inflexible stances. I’m not saying that I love “Stairway to Heaven” again, or that I even like it again. It’s just that it’s OK with me again. Not everything is going to be OK with me, but “Stairway to Heaven”—well, sure. And when Maggie played the entire Led Zeppelin version on YouTube to help her get more familiar with the song, I didn’t cringe. And though we had just eaten dinner, I didn’t feel as if my meal was attempting to leave the confines of my stomach. No, I felt nourished, strong, and calm. Like a rock.
Yeah, like a fucking rock.