[SoundStage!]For a Song
Back-Issue Article

January 2006



Stairway to Heaven

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.
Ooh, ooh, 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 misgiven. 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 stand 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 a stairway to heaven.

"Stairway to Heaven": Gold Beneath the Glitter

Many of the lyrics to this classic song, originally recorded by the archetypal heavy-metal band Led Zeppelin, are metaphorical, cryptic, or both. Through the years, people have put forward notions that "backwards messages," "the occult," or allusions to Tolkien explain the song. I find examining the lyrics as self-defining and unified -- seeing what the parts tell us about each other and what their interconnections indicate about the song as a whole -- yields a fairly obvious set of conclusions. Not to say such imaginative and elaborate lyrics are reducible to a pat "meaning"; just that the song itself is about a few specific images and ideas, not anything and everything about which some details might remind some listeners.

Meet the lady

The phrase used as the title and sung at key moments -- the beginning and end -- is an absurdity, as some people in Tower of Babel days could have informed the builders, saving them much strain and grief. The opening line -- "There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold" -- in contradicting the familiar maxim "All that glitters is not gold" -- tells the listener someone is deceiving herself by absurdly accepting surface appearances as meaningful reality.

Knowing she can buy the illusory stairway even if she arrives at "the stores" after closing time -- ostensibly management will put in "a word" for her -- suggests her privileged status (she is identified as "a lady," not "a woman") and convinces her she can have anything she desires, even if it cannot exist. The "sign on the wall" that might "have two meanings" could refer to a posting of store hours she believes do not apply to her and to the proverbial writing on the wall she refuses to read: reality that belies wishful or delusional thinking. Many of the song’s opening lines, taken together, tell us she believes material things can provide happiness or even entry into heaven, as if they possess moral value that transfers to their owners.

The lady as warning

"Ooh, it makes me wonder" and the more urgent "Ooh, it really makes me wonder" (emphasis added) express the singer’s skepticism about the lady’s beliefs and concern about their sources and implications. This non-specific expression usually denotes skepticism about authority, received beliefs, a sociopolitical status quo. It is not usually applied to something trivial.

The literary conceit of receiving wisdom from a songbird -- "In a tree by the brook," influenced by nature and natural impulses, not false notions that lead humans astray -- impels the listener to give special weight to the warning "Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven."

The lady’s belief is misgiven by a misguided society. By expressing it, she in turn misgives it to others. "Misgive" literally means "to cause fear, doubt, or suspicion in: said usually of the heart, mind, conscience, etc." The beliefs lamented in the song engender misgivings in the singer. So "There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west" -- in the direction of the setting sun, often suggesting the end of life -- moves the singer to yearn for death: "And my spirit is crying for leaving." Even though "west" is not capitalized, the values the song laments are stereotypical of the West, as opposed to the East -- materialism as opposed to spirituality, a shortcut to heaven as opposed to lifelong Buddhist or Taoist practices.

Beyond the personal

The next two lines -- "In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees, / And the voices of those who stand looking" -- are a bit cryptic. Something alarming must be going on as this is the first time "really" makes it into "Ooh, it makes me wonder." "[T]hose who stand looking" suggest the existence of some other, contrasting group, ostensibly those who take action rather than stand by passively while harm is done.

The next verse supports that. "If we all call the tune" -- if we take charge instead of pursuing "all that glitters" -- we can prevent some kind of destruction and instigate some kind of renewal. "A new day will dawn," and, rather than send signals that destruction is taking place -- smoke coming from a distance, seen "through the trees" -- the forest "will echo with laughter." Reason is promoted by "the piper" -- not seeking to lead everyone astray, but to lead everyone back from foolishly pursuing "all that glitters" to genuine impulses like those of the above-mentioned bird.

These thoughts echo as the song proceeds to its conclusion. "There’s still time to change the road you’re on": You can follow the piper who shows you the right way rather than distracts you with more glitter. "Your head is humming" with the piper’s call to join him; the humming "won’t go" till you make the right choice, to follow him. You have to "listen very hard" to hear the right tune. You will then be "a rock" rather than "to roll" with every superficial promotion.

But while that theme develops, the singer again addresses the lady of the song’s opening lines, rhetorically asking her whether she can hear the wind blow and whether she knows the stairway she seeks "lies on the whispering wind." A hint there of Bob Dylan’s double entendre "You don’t need a weather man to know the way the wind blows." To know what is going on beneath popular deceptions. And the militant Weathermen, notwithstanding history’s possible assessments, represented progressive 1960s efforts to debunk narrow, oppressive, divisive, consumption-promoting doctrines. How to be led to reason is "whispered": Spoken quietly among people in the know, not broadcast like things that glitter? Spoken discreetly to avoid persecution by demagogues? Warning against society’s materialistic and consumption orientation has long been portrayed as subversive by those whose private interests it threatens.

The lady persists

The last verse says we are not yet where we need to go in our collective societal journey toward reason. "Our shadow" is "taller than our soul" because we are still easy prey to what glitters. The lady -- not just a particular individual as is possible in the song’s opening lines but someone "we all know" -- seeks to make us all believe what glitters actually can turn to gold. "[I]f you listen very hard" -- past the promotions, the gimmickry, the hyperbole, the demagoguery -- you can be that "rock," that reason- and reality-valuing person. When we all choose that path rather than "the stores," we can live as one -- ostensibly free from conflict generated by illusory materialistic striving and free to create a peaceful world by living less recklessly.

That last standalone line -- sung in a lamenting tone and a cappella in the original, as the full arrangement suddenly drops away and never returns -- evokes a feeling of emptiness. The right choices have not yet been made. We have a long way to go. She’s still buying that stairway. Hence the need to consider what is said between the opening and closing lines.

"Stairway to Heaven" remains popular. Who among us is hearing the piper who leads us to reason, and who is just hearing one glittering CD among millions, oblivious to the entirety of the song’s message as I was before sitting down to study it more than three decades after first hearing it? Similar messages abound in popular music, religion, literature, philosophy, politics, and elsewhere. The "smoke through the trees" is becoming less distant. Songbirds are becoming less abundant, diverse, and respected, along with their trees and brooks. New pipers pipe up every minute through more and more channels. I hope someone is listening very hard and that there is still time to change the road we're on.

...David J. Cantor
davidc@soundstage.com

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