Sunday, July 20, 2014

The meaning of "Stairway to Heaven"

When I run or hike my mind often plays songs repetitively. If I don't like the song or don't know enough of the lyrics to make it a pleasant experience the resulting monotony can get quite burdensome. But if I'm lucky, a beautiful ballad that I know and love will play and I can enjoy the experience. "Stairway to Heaven" is one such song. Written in 1971 by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, performed by the incomparable Led Zeppelin, it played endlessly on the radio when I was in high school. And every time it came on, I turned up the volume and let the spell of that song carry me away. At over 8 minutes long, with lyrics scattered sparsely throughout, it's arguable that the lyrics aren't central to the song. It's one of the greatest rock anthems of all time - who even listens to the lyrics? I certainly didn't. Not until it started playing endlessly in my head. When you are forced to listen to a song 15 times in a row, you get past the awesome guitar solos and the ethereal mood of the song and you start to wonder, "What the F--- is this song really about?" At least I do.

When I first heard the song it seemed to be about some rich lady who bought her way into heaven. The line "your head is humming and it won't go, in case you don't know" seemed appropriate to the endless loop I was experiencing. But it took a long time for the story to come together in my mind.

As I got into it, there seemed to be a lot of non-sequiturs. Consider the line "in a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings, sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven." Where did THAT come from? We were just talking about the Stairway lady. It made me wonder.

In time I realized the song is not a linear story. It's a series of images altered by the later context. It's kind of like a movie that starts in the middle of the story and only later supplies the context to understand what you've seen.

"There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold, and she's buying a stairway to heaven." The lady and her stairway represent materialism. There's also a hint that she may be misguided because all that glitters is NOT gold. "When she get's there she knows, if the stores are all closed, with a word she can get what she came for." Money, privilege and power. Pretty simple so far. "There's a sign on the wall, but she wants to be sure, 'cause you know sometimes words have two meanings." She doesn't trust anyone. Money has cut her off from people.

Then comes the apparent non-sequitur. "In a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings, sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven." So far the song has been about a lady and a stairway, or if we're already on the metaphorical bandwagon, it's about materialism and the way that cuts us off from other people. We can't understand this line except in the context of the rest of the song, but we'll soon see that a change from an old way of thinking to a new one is the real theme of this song. So eventually we'll understand that this line starts the real theme of the song and everything that came before it is a metaphor for the old way of thinking.

The refrain is "Oooo, it makes me wonder." Wonder what? The singer is rethinking something. But what?

The story takes a personal turn with the line, "There's a feeling I get when I look to the west and my spirit is crying for leaving." This is a lovely poetic line that boils down to "Facing death makes me think about what's important in life." Because the sun sets there, west has been a metaphor for death since at least ancient Egyptian times.  

"In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees and the voices of those who stand looking." Rings of smoke denote campfires, indicating that people live there, despite being hidden. Those who stand looking are people who witness evil, but say nothing. The people in his thoughts are coming out of hiding to stand up for what's right. 

"And it's whispered that soon, if we all call the tune, then the piper will lead us to reason." The vision continues.The tune and the piper are musical metaphors connoting the spread of the goodness and truth seen in the vision. "And a new day will dawn for those who stand long and the forest will echo with laughter." As the vision gathers momentum, the people are no longer hiding in the trees.

But we're still not sure what this great vision really is. Does it have anything to do with the lady or the materialism she represents?

In the next few lines, we the listener are brought into the song somewhat ambiguously. "Your" and "you" could refer to the lady, but as we'll see later, they don't. "If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now. It's just a spring clean for the May queen." Very poetic again, and very British. Some translation is needed. In rural England the hedgerow is the line of shrubs denoting the property line between your estate and the next, so a "bustle in your hedgerow" means something is changing in your life or your mind. The May queen was chosen by a village to represent youth, beauty, newness, and hope for a better future. So this line boils down to "if your old ideas start crumbling, don't be alarmed, you have new and better ideas forming in their place." It's also possible that the May queen is another reference to the lady, though significantly changed in her ways.

"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." This is a major clue to the still nebulous vision. It's a vision about a change for the better, one that we the listener can make.

"Your head is humming and it won't go, in case you don't know. The piper's calling you to join him." Since the bustle, hedgerow and May queen were so mysterious, this stanza restates and clarifies the previous one. The piper, as mentioned earlier, represents the vision, now evidently an idea because it is humming in our head. It's also a popular idea because here the piper is portrayed like the Pied Piper whose pipe magically lured rats and children to follow him.

"Dear lady can you hear the wind blow, and did you know, your stairway lies on the whispering wind." There's a lot going on here. Blowing wind is a metaphor for popular opinion, just as it was in many other songs from this era. Now we see the flaw in materialism, represented by the lady. Her money is only good if people accept it. And her reliance on it has cut her off from those people to the point where she may not be able to hear them at all. "Dear lady" is a clue that the lady also represents the materialist part of ourselves, one of the "two paths you can go by."

"And as we wind on down the road, our shadows taller than our souls." I really love this image. This song could have been about other people's flaws, but it's not. As time goes by, we inevitably grow more materialistic. One day we realize that we haven't lived up to the idealism of youth. Our material selves are now more important to us than our spiritual selves. 

But why shadows? A close inspection of the entire song shows a consistent differentiation between things seen and things heard. Things seen are false and misleading. Things heard are real and from the heart. This might seem strange, but remember, we're listening to a song. The truth is coming to us aurally, not visually.

"There walks a lady we all know, who shines white light and wants to show, how everything still turns to gold." The shadows of the previous line come from the shining white light of a materialistic point of view. If we cast a shadow, it's because our materialism is showing.

"And if you listen very hard, the tune will come to you at last." The tune returns. Like last time, the tune is the new way of thinking, the second path, the non-materialist way of living that is more genuine, and keeps us connected to other people.

"When all are one and one is all. To be a rock and not to roll." It's too bad this line is so hard to understand in the recording because it really ties everything together. If the new way of thinking is good for one person, it's even better for a group. If enough like-minded folks get together and form a community then we'll live in a real, solid and reliable paradise.

"And she's buying a stairway to heaven." If not, the materialists will take advantage of the rest of us.

So that's how I interpret the song. It has added immensely to my enjoyment of Stairway to Heaven. I hope it does the same for you.

26 comments:

Leilani and Dave Randall said...

Brian - You're not that much out of practice writing. That was good stuff!!!!

Brian Rowlett said...

That was a bunch of fun Brian. It has been a while since I have visited those lyrics with as much attention as you gave them. And again, they have proven worthy of it. Nice post.

Witchy Ways said...

Ran across this while looking up "The piper's callin' you to join him." Thought provoking read. Thank you.

Contrive I T said...

Very enlightening! I think you came as close to nailing the meaning than anyone ive read thus far. Rock on bro!

LaneyB said...

Nice work! There's an element of paganism in the hedgerow and the May Queen. Love of nature and its creatures. If the lady is evolving, she may be enveloped in 'white light' representing spirit? Thanks for doing this!

Frank Colesanti said...

Quite plausible. Thank you for sharing, I enjoyed your interpretation.

Matej Hlavacka said...

great stuff! thanks for taking time to put it down

The Wine Bar said...

Not meant to be analyzed by our thinking brain interpretations. That's the point. Plant not trying to have any "meaning" in our "reality" . It is beyond that.

Unknown said...

It may be a year and a half after you wrote this... it is certainly still thought-provoking an excellent piece.. I was rather pleased to know others have song lyrics play over and over like you describe.. I tend to mix the lines together and need to sit and review them..and begin making sense of them as you so artfully spell out,. Thank you

Jeff Teel said...

It may be a year and a half after you wrote this... it is certainly still thought-provoking an excellent piece.. I was rather pleased to know others have song lyrics play over and over like you describe.. I tend to mix the lines together and need to sit and review them..and begin making sense of them as you so artfully spell out,. Thank you

TheFlyDutchman1 said...

Great stuff! Robert Plant has claimed he barely knew what he was writing at the time, but he has expressed his delight and amazement at the wide variety of interpretations people have presented for it. I've done my fair share of Stairway-interpretation too (definitely my all time favorite song) and I largely agree, although I thought that maybe 'the lady' was buying a stairway to heaven not just for herself but for everybody (might be more in line with 'when all are one and one is all').

Nissim Levy said...

I have been obsessed with this song since I was 9 years old. I first heard it in summer camp in 1973 and I was mesmerized. In the novel I'm writing I mention this obsession.

theesotaricscholar said...

Oh my God sir, I cannot thank you enough for this intepretation!!!

Connie Alsup said...

Reflection and realization of everyone and everything in life, comes into focus for those of us intune with aging and our inevidable demise!
As a baby boomer, 1954, forced into retirement and Disability at age 57 from a horrific car accident, that has put me in the position of recovering from damages to body and brain! I am also very aware, like most of us, of the likelyhood of us tapping into links of altered states we view the world. Like so many that have lived through tramatic events, I heard a voice saying if I stay, I will never be the same!
After waking up in the hospital, my brain chose to remember this bartering offer!
As a control freak, I have learned how to relive my life! Experiencing the personal loss of parents, family, friends and classmates on an almost daily basis, I have learned one thing for certain! As we close our eyes, be content with ourself and our efforts that day and feel fortunate if we are given another day! So many are not afforded this luxury!
I too see more in this son today that when it was first released! Maturity often can give us with hard lived lives deeper perception over others who have lived a serene life or a young one, although old souls do exist!
In conclusion: Material goods are not possessions at all, but what spiritual and loving gifts we give to others! Fortunately, I worked with the elderly in their last days. Not one comment about earthly possessions, events and such were ever mentioned! Their positive thoughts included childhood, family and their own loves and families. Contentment was in theirs eyes and what they voiced! People gravatated toward them, not the resentful and hatred hearts who were vile in their comments!
I have learned patience, contentment, acceptance and spirituality and a passion of listening! We will all pass on from this life into a promised but unknown adventure. What we leave behind should be just as important as the peace we take with us...

J S Ku said...

Excellent interpretation of the song, although people could inject their own life experiences to interpret any part of the song so it would give more meaning to them. Such is the beauty of art, music, poetry, etc.
Thank you for this thoughtful post. I just discovered it today and it's a fitting moment as a jury has decided that the song was not plagiarized.

mefromstlouie said...

I had to look up the meaning of these lyrics from such a wonderful piece of art. Reason being my brother passed away a few weeks ago, immensely sad to an overdose.
In choosing music from the list provided to me from the Funeral Home- I was surprised to see 'Stairway to Heaven' on the list. It was a favorite of my brothers. My oldest brother picked that song as one of 3 to be played by the organist. She sang the verses as well, but she has a set part of the song she performs - not in its entirety. It was beautiful along with the other two I chose- Bridge over troubled Waters and I Will Remember You. After the service was over I was speaking to a man about the eulogy and songs... he replied 'Stairway to Heaven was very awkward. I asked what he meant - he just said it was really awkward. I felt terrible about choosing that song. But after reading the words and not really being able to interpret their meanings, I was very enlightened by your vision of what you feel the lyrics represent. I am now comfortable with having this song play at my brothers memorial. I think many parts of it are very fitting. And since then I have recently gotten emails and text messages about his service and what great song choices we had made. One even went as far as saying they were the best songs she had ever heard at a service. So thank you for reassuring me.

took the other road said...

And the stairway is your breath, it is the whispering wind.

Endrgizer2112 said...

After a recent trip to England, driving through the endless country-lane maze of hedgerows comprising all of the rural south, of course Stairway with the May Queen and her spring cleaning intruded my brain regularly. Thanks for the interpretation of a little-understood song that's been in the public consciousness for 45 years.

Aaron Hyde said...

This is probably the best interpretation yet that I have found for Stairway to Heaven. Thank you for writing this!

Vladimir Borisov said...

You are a good man

Bob Wallace BobAtLex said...

https://youtu.be/78AhpI0laT4

If you ask a million people to give their interpretation of Led Zeppelins' Stairway to Heaven, without collaboration, you will get a million different interpretations. And each and every one of them would be absolutely correct. Where you are spiritually, will determine how you interpret anything in life. Even if you don't consider yourself spiritual, everything you see, touch, hear, smell, taste, feel, etc. is responded to spiritually, to some degree or another. Again it just depends on where you are at spiritually as to how you respond and or interpret anything. When reading any kind of literature that contains metaphors, EVERYONE is going to interpret it differently. And this song is written almost entirely metaphorically. I interpreted this song with a Christian point of view, so this video may not work for you if you are not a Christian. On the other hand, it's a pretty powerful interpretation, and should be interesting regardless what religion you are. Also, I found it virtually impossible to convey this song visually without creating it as, what I call, a wide awake dream. So it will require a bit of thinking outside the box. It normally takes me 4-5 days max to create a classic rock ballad video, but a lot of research went into this monster and took nearly 2 months to complete. And so, here is my interpretation of Stairway To Heaven, I hope you enjoy it.

"There's a lady who's sure, all that glitters is gold. And she's buying the stairway to Heaven"

There's a suggestion in this opening line that the "lady" is misguided, because all that glitters is NOT gold.
The 12th century French theologian Alain de Lille wrote "Do not hold everything gold that shines like gold".
I used an image of a golden serpent in the video not specifically to represent the love of gold and or wealth; (The root of all evil) But in my research of the meaning to these lyrics, I concluded that "gold" in this case, represents the seven deadly sins, (lust, greed gluttony, sloth, wrath, envy, pride). Unrealized by the "lady" in her misguided sense of entitlement.
I chose 1 Timothy 6:9 -10 as the Bible passage to summarize this part of the lyrics. (Verse 11 is added here, but comes more into play further into the song.)
"But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.
For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness."

"When she gets there she knows, if the stores all are closed, with a word she can get what she came for"
More clarification of her misguided sense of entitlement. This is pointing out the irony of they way she is leading her life. What is she going to do with the material things if that is all she has in her life?
I chose the doors ("stores") closing leaving her in darkness holding her "gold", to represent Heaven is not selling tickets for admission. Hence the money she is pouring up to heaven. Admission is a free gift from God, But the doors won't open until you get rid of that suitcase full of unGodly passions. There is a little more to it which comes in later, but for now this needs to be her first epiphany.
I chose Acts 8:20 as the Bible passage to summarize this part of the lyrics.

"But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!"
Click The Link Below To Continue Reading
http://classicrockballads.blogspot.com/

https://youtu.be/78AhpI0laT4


Led Zeppelin - Stairway To Heaven w/Lyrics - My interpretation in description

Simon Harris said...

Fun, plausible, speculation how about doing same for jabberwocky?

Jonathan Finnecy said...

Great stuff. Don't forget the nod to Tolkien in everything they did. The lines about looking to the West, and the hidden people in the forest - always makes me think of Tolkien's elves, who remained hidden, and who would depart "for the West" when they grew weary of the "mortal world". That certainly doesn't tie into the larger theme the way you have described it, but I will never hear the lines without thinking of that.

cheers

Russ said...

Nice but this is just your interpretation.

The lyrics actually have 'no meaning' whatsoever when penned by the authors....

Todd Giesler said...

Very thought-provoking and imaginative. I'm impressed. Thank you, from Boise, ID

Cassio Raposa said...

Your interpretation is very interesting and I agree with most of it. However, I disagree with the following verse:

When all are one and one is all. To be a rock and not to roll

I think it means that we are all united, but the thing is, while being in this world as a person (singular), and being part of a larger conscience composed of all the human beings (and maybe not only humans), the challenge is to be part of everything, not acting as the masses (doing stuff because they learned that way, without thinking about what they are doing). To be a rock - part of the collective - and not to roll - while not to do things a given way just because they were always done that way. Be a part of society in an observer's perspective, not an active one. After all, the wise learn by listening and not by making him/herself listened.

Naturally, that's just my opinion :)
Great post!