And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our souls
There walks a lady we all know
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Liphook Road junction at Headley
From the moment it was released, Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" has courted controversy and polarized opinion. Interpretations of the song have ranged from the pedestrian to the downright mystical. Some see it as a simple love song or song about drug addiction, bad choices, or some other everyday, earthbound thing. Others have seen in the song complex arrangements of Tarot archetypes or symbolism inspired by Aleister Crowley's Thelema. The latter would actually be feasible, by the way, if the song was written by Jimmy Page, who was (and far as we know still is) a student of Crowley's Thelema, but the lyrics were actually written by Robert Plant, who never showed a similarly abiding interest in the study.
Still others have taken the occult angle of "Stairway to Heaven" even further, all the way into the shadows, seeing the song as an anthem to the worst of dark arts—Satanism. This dark interpretation of things is only encouraged by the "sweet Satan" lyrics supposedly concealed in backmasked messages that can be heard by playing the vinyl backwards. Whether or not the words "sweet Satan" are actually spoken, of course, is itself another matter of debate. Some researchers have concluded that it's just noise which our minds fill in to sound like "sweet Satan." Regardless, the sound is close enough and the story embedded deeply enough in urban legend that it will probably never go away entirely, true or not.
It wasn't just the meaning of the song that created a ruckus, though. Even the quality of the song has been debated. The song is nearly always the most requested classic rock song on any given radio station in any given year, yet the song is also often mocked for being overplayed and unimaginative. Some critics cherish the song; others disregard it as soulless popcorn. Even the song's creators are divided, with Page hailing it as a masterpiece while Plant derides it as a forgettable lark.
Plant and Page c 1973
(thanks Heinrich Klaffs)
Through the decades of debate, there was only one area of the song that seemed to remain sacred, and that was the story of its creation. Most of the basic logistics, at least, were agreed upon. The song, the story went, was written in the fanciful Bron-Yr-Aur cottage in Machynlleth, Wales, along with such other Zeppelin tunes as "Over the Hills and Far Away," "The Crunge," and "Friends." This bit of trivia was important in a sense, because Bron-Yr-Aur is a magical kind of place and an established part of the Zeppelin story. For many years, the story of "Stairway's" genesis went together in a satisfyingly elegant and poetic way.
Then, on June 16, 2016, while testifying during a trial over the origin of the song's opening guitar riff, Page exposed a vile secret that destroyed even this one area of calm.
According to testimony, Page had actually written the music by himself and unveiled it to his band mates at Liphook Road, Headley, Hampshire. Plant wrote the lyrics there in one day. The Rolling Stones had a mobile studio on site that Zeppelin used to record the songs for Led Zeppelin IV
. Bron-Yr-Aur never factored into the song at all...and thus is jukebox innocence destroyed.
For nearly any other song, this bit of news would be essentially meaningless. "Stairway" is no ordinary song, however. It has touched the hearts and imaginations of countless people. It is the signature song of the one of the most legendary musical acts to ever play. For a song of "Stairway of Heaven's" magnitude, this news is akin to discovering that the pilgrims landed on the Jersey shore rather than at Plymouth Rock.
Decades of fans had made trips to Bron-Yr-Aur to see the place where the immortal song had been conceived. Sure, other songs could be verified as being written there, but the crown jewel of the mythos was always "Stairway." And now it's all gone.
Zeppelin went on to win the trial, proving that they did not steal the opening guitar riff for "Stairway to Heaven" from Spirit's song "Taurus." In the process, however, they destroyed countless rock and roll fantasies.
For the record, Headley Grange still stands as of 2017, but is now a private residence. Page can be seen going through the house in the documentary It Might Get Loud
. Originally, in 1795, the building was a "poorhouse" or "workhouse," meaning that it was a government-subsidized structure for "needy" people. The building was still serving this function in 1830 when its "needy" workers rioted.
The building's fate changed in 1870 when Thomas Kemp bought it and turned it into a private residence with the Headley Grange name it still holds today.
Eventually, the building became a favored recording location for several bands of the '60s. Plant explained to Mojo
magazine in 2010 that, "The reason we went there in the first place was to have a live-in situation where you're writing and really living the music. We'd never really had that experience before as a group, apart from when Robert [Plant] and I had gone to Bron-Yr-Aur. But that was just me and Robert going down there and hanging out in the bosom of Wales and enjoying it. This was different. It was all of us really concentrating in a concentrated environment and the essence of what happened there manifested itself across three albums." The three albums Page referred to were Led Zeppelin IV
, Houses of the Holy
, and Physical Graffiti
Genesis, Fleetwood Mac, Bad Company, Peter Frampton, Pretty Things, Clover, and Ian Dury are other acts known to have recorded at Headley Grange. It's a rather auspicious history, all things told, for one lone house in a village that, as of 2017, still has less than 5,500 residents. Even without those other facts, however, "Stairway to Heaven" would be more than enough to ensure a footnote that will last in the history books long after the house itself disappears.
Headley Grange, c 2005
(thanks, Ben Gamble)
How much does any of this story actually change the song? Not at all. It does, however, change rock and roll mythology, something which seems to happen continually more often as we advance into the Information Age.
In a way, the "Stairway to Heaven" origin story is a microcosm of the evolution of music history and journalism. From the time people starting whispering about wanderers selling their souls at the crossroads to become great bluesmen, American music has cloaked itself in mystery and magic. The immortal acts of the 60s and 70s rock scene germinated in the cauldron of myth. Those artists were figures larger than life because the only perspective that the audience ever had of them came from below as they looked up at those towering figures on the stage. Musical and artistic genius set certain people apart from the rest of the human fold in the popular imagination.
Today, that's all changed.
The myth of the mysterious, mythical rock artiste continually rolls back, driven out by the science of history. Year after year, the legends of music are debunked, leaving us with a little more wisdom and a little less mystery. How much is lost versus what is gained, we can't really be sure.
Some time ago, in talking about the passing of the real life Madam Marie from the song "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," Bruce Springsteen stated, "There's enough mystery lost in the world, we need all the fortune tellers we can get."
It's a touching sentiment that seems trivial in daylight, but under the cover of night in our lonely hours, seems perhaps more potent than we'd like to admit.
Or maybe a person needs to be old enough to remember life before the Internet to feel that way. Maybe a person has to experience the beauty of mystery in order to miss its loss.
Maybe not. Maybe it doesn't really make a difference. Maybe nothing does.
Hell, it's just a song. Right?
~ Jeff Suwak
Songplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He writes for The Prague Revue, and has a blog about Pacific Northwest travel (Northwest Nomad.com)
. He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at beyondthetempestgate.com
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