Stairway to Heaven — Meaning?
[Here’s a piece that seeks a deeper understanding of “Stairway to Heaven,” and attempts to interpret its lyrical content.]
“Stairway To Heaven” (Lyrics)
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 is one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll.
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
Not surprisingly, there appear to be several accounts of how the lyrics of “Stairway” came to be written. In one, Plant says that he wrote it after a period spent before the fire contemplating “spiritual perfection” at the band’s country house in Headley Grange. In another, Plant says that Page played him the chord changes and his hand spontaneously began writing the immortal first words (this is known as “automatic writing”). In another version, Page recalls that Plant jotted down about three quarters of the lyrics on the spot at the band’s very first rehearsal of the song. Stephen Davis maintains that Plant had written under the spell of Lewis Spence, particularly his Magic Arts in Great Britain. Of course, these versions are not mutually exclusive – one or more could be combined – but I don’t want to dwell on origins so much here, fascinating as it is, as I believe the words speak for themselves.
The first notable thing about “Stairway” as far as that’s concerned is that the first verse – at least as it is transcribed in official Zep songbooks, etc. — doesn’t make sense in the context of the rest of the song. If the lady who is sure that “all that glitters is gold” is really “buying a stairway to heaven,” and not hell, there’s nothing to sing about. But clearly the A minor chord and the continuation of the song make it clear that there is something dark about this woman, she’s headed down the wrong path. She should be taking a highway to hell, but she’s not. So what’s going on? Is Plant singing “heaven” or “hell” in the first verse?
Both. Listen carefully and you will hear that Zep apparently tried to fudge it in the studio, perhaps because the use of this particular four-letter word would have jeopardized the song’s airplay. Of course, that didn’t stop it from being labeled “Satanic” and God knows what else because not only is there strange stuff going on when you play it forwards, but apparently backwards as well. It’s called “backmasking” – hiding messages in the song that can only be discovered when played backwards. Kids have had fun doing this with “Stairway” for three decades, allegedly hearing stuff like “Glory in Satan” and “My Sweet Satan” (I remember as a freshman in college a fellow cross country runner, newly born again, spent an entire night trying to play this song backwards, finally succeeded, and swore that he heard “My Sweet Satan” in there.) [Note: Since writing this piece, I have listened to the “Stairway” backwards, and I do hear all that stuff in there. I don’t believe that Zep intentionally put the stuff about Satan in there, but rather that they did draw these dark entities into their music via their lifestyle and Page’s then fascination with Aleister Crowley. Personally, I also want to note, much of Zep’s music feels “satanic” to me, perhaps especially “Stairway,” and I do not find their music appealing as I once did. It feels dark to me now.]
People have claimed that Zep made a pact with the devil in exchange for their brilliant success – a pact that included including such messages in their songs, not to mention the death of their drummer, John Bonham. Of course, Zep denies the whole thing. Wouldn’t you?
But far be it for me to cast any aspersions, especially as I love the group and this song. How ironic it is that one of the most satanic songs in the history of rock was an attempt to express some deep spiritual truths. Archetypal truths that really resound deep in the psyche. Truths such as:
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.
Where have we heard that before? Plato, Christ, the Upanishads – any number of ancient spiritual traditions have proclaimed that there are two paths – the good and the pleasant. The Noble Path or righteous living, and the easy path of comfort and sense gratification. The well-trod path of the many, and the “road less taken” by the few. An ancient Sanskrit text, the Samyutta Nikaaya, reads:
“Therefore do the paths of the good and the evil of this world divide; the evil go to hell but the final destination of the good is heaven.” (Tasmaa satan ca asatan ca naanaa hot ito gati, asanto nirayam yanti santo saggaparaayanaa.)
Another ancient Sanskrit text, the Katha Upanishad, likewise says:
“The good is one thing, the gratifying is quite another;
Their goals are different, both bind a man.
Good things await him who picks the good;
By choosing the gratifying, one misses one’s goal…
But you have not taken to the way of wealth,
Where many mortals sink (to ruin).”
The gratifying path (preyas) is identified with the “way of wealth,” as it is in Stairway. There is the golden road (of unlimited devotion), and then there is the fool’s gold road, the highway to hell. The latter is that taken by the woman who thinks that all that glitters is gold and is buying her way to oblivion, another materialistic, superficial person in a superficial, materialistic society.
While I could have picked any one of a number of traditions to quote here, I chose Hinduism because there appears to be some reference to a reference to reincarnation at the end of the song Although in fact these ideas can be found in all traditions – Celtic, Jewish, Christian, Rock ‘n’ Roll – it doesn’t matter as great minds think alike.
Many of the Sixties white bands were influenced by the music of black Americans, particularly the blues and rhythm and blues, as well as the negro spirituals. By the late Sixties, the name of the music was shortened to “rock” Zep’s fourth album seems to be a kind of meditation on rock and roll.
In “Rock and roll,” Plant sings, “I gotta roll, can’t stand still, got a flamin’ heart, can’t get my fill.”
But then later Plant seems to contradict that when he sings, in the end of “Stairway”:
“To be a rock and not to roll.”
Meaning: Stop the cycle of incarnations, get off the wheel of death and rebirth. It’s a very deep message, and I will grant that Plant’s lyric may indeed have been inspired by the spirit world, but whether by the spirit of an angel or a demon, who can say?