PLENTY OF PEOPLE, and most music critics, regard “Stairway to Heaven” as a childish indiscretion, a song we enjoyed in our shameful adolescence because we didn’t yet know how to change the road we were on. Lester Bangs is one of those people. Erik Davis, who wrote the (superb) 33 1/3 book on Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album1, is one of those people. Heck, Robert Plant is one of those people. In interviews with him on the subject, he comes off a bit like William Shatner in that great SNL sketch where he addresses the gathering of Vulcan-eared Trekkies: “You turned an enjoyable job I did as a lark for a few years into a colossal waste of time!”
I do not hold with the haters. I think “Stairway to Heaven” is an unequivocal masterpiece, and I love it without irony or qualification. I love the hauntingly beautiful opening guitar part; that it was supposedly lifted from Spirit’s “Taurus” doesn’t bother me any more than the plot of Romeo and Juliet being appropriated from a cheesy Arthur Brooke play.2 I love the way the song builds and doesn’t hew to the usual verse-chorus-verse-chorus formula. I love the way Bonzo’s drums come in when they do. I love the bustle in the hedgerow. And I love that it conjures up memories of high school dances and Battles of the Bands and adolescent wanting and the glory of teenage night.
The song, and Led Zeppelin in general, represents, along with Charlie Chaplin, Michael Jordan, Breaking Bad, and beignets from Café du Monde, one of those rare instances where larger-than-life hype is completely and totally deserved. Like the beignets, “Stairway” is a guilty, decadent pleasure. Like Chaplin, it’s universally popular—but more so in America than in Britain, where it was born. Like Jordan, it never loses. Whenever classic rock stations trot out their “Most Requested Songs” gimmick, “Stairway” is always, always, always number one. The only suspense, once the top five is breached, is whether the second track will be “Satisfaction” or “Hey Jude.” As Davis argues in his book:
“Stairway to Heaven” isn’t the greatest rock song of the 1970s; it is the greatest spell of the 1970s. Think about it: we are all sick of the thing, but in some primordial way it is still number one. Everyone knows it… Even our dislike and mockery is ritualistic. The dumb parodies; the Wayne’s World-inspired folklore about guitar shops demanding customers not play it; even Robert Plant’s public disavowal of the song—all of these just prove the rule. “Stairway to Heaven” is not just number one. It is the One, the quintessence, the closest [album-oriented rock] will ever get you to the absolute.
And like Breaking Bad, it presents both the very best and the very worst of the human condition. If there is light in “Stairway,” there is also darkness. Specifically, the Prince of Darkness, my sweet Satan. For we cannot write about “Stairway to Heaven” without discussing its alleged diabolical undertones. While the Devil rumors are silly, they are also sticky, so we may as well address them up front.
Ozzy Osbourne played in Black Sabbath, a band named for the Satanic mass. He allegedly bit the head off a live bat, and otherwise behaved as though he was in fact possessed by daemons. As a solo artist, he wrote a song called “Mr. Crowley,” as in Aleister Crowley, the notorious occultist and black magician. Later, he starred in a reality show with his family, elevating his talentless daughter Kelly to the status of C-list celebrity—which could only have happened in some sort of soul swap with Our Dark Lord. The dude’s basically spent the last 40 years jumping up and down shouting, “Hey, guys! I worship Lucifer! Look! See how I’m making devil horns with my hands?!” And yet no one seems to object, probably because Ozzy is not, and should not be, taken seriously. Jimmy Page, meanwhile, evinces a scholarly interest in the occult, buys Crowley’s lakeside estate, maybe sneaks in some vague Satanic messages on an album, but otherwise keeps whatever sinister religious beliefs he may have to himself…and he’s somehow the antichrist. How does that compute?
Certainly Page cultivated an air of mystery, which his alleged devil worship served to enhance, but his allegiance to Lucifer is overblown. That’s not just my opinion. Pamela des Barres, his companion around the time the fourth album came out, had this to say about the Zeppelin-as-Satanists rumor: “Absolutely not true. The only band member into anything occult was Jimmy, and he was intrigued with Aleister Crowley and his ‘do what thou wilt’ message….Jimmy definitely tiptoed along the edge of darkness and danger, but never once did I hear any mention of Satan!” If Page was into the devil, he certainly wasn’t proselytizing.
But then, it may be that the sneaky way in which Zep’s Satanism (supposedly) reveals itself is what gives the rumors legs. Unlike Sabbath, whose very name announces its daemonic affiliations, Led Zeppelin’s alleged allegiance to the Devil is backmasked on “Stairway to Heaven”—a song that insists that “words have two meanings” but that “if you listen very hard, the tune will come to you at last.” For confirmation, we must play the record backwards, in just the right spot, and all is revealed. Sort of.
What’s interesting about this, to me, is not that backmasked appeals to “my sweet Satan” can be heard—they can—but that this was discovered in the first place. Who the hell was the originator of this allegation, the prime mover who presumably sat around playing rock records backwards, seeking out Satan in his humming head? In 2014, this sort of thing would be tracked back to some blog post on some obscure website, or perhaps a stray tweet, written perhaps by this guy. Before social media, news traveled more slowly—it, ahem, winded on down the road. Like occult secrets, it was distributed solely by word of mouth. Davis traces the backmasking rumors as far back as 1981, to a Michigan minister, Michael Mills, who announced the findings on Christian radio, ten full years after the album’s release. While Mills was certainly the one who brought the infernal brouhaha into the mainstream, I have difficulty believing that he stumbled upon this himself. I asked des Barres about it3, and she confirmed my suspicions. “The rumors started way before ’81,” she said, “when Robert’s son died unexpectedly and Robert was involved in a terrible car accident,” in 1977 and 1975, respectively. This bit of arcanum was known to Zep cognoscenti for years, then, perhaps leaked to a select few by the band’s mad genius manager, Peter Grant, a big believer in Word of Mouth. What better way to compel thousands of people to buy a ten-year-old record than a hidden endorsement from Satan Himself? How many copies did Mills personally buy, only to destroy them by playing them backwards? Did this idea originate with Page? Grant? Producer Andy Johns? Was it a complete coincidence? We’ll never know, and in the end, it doesn’t matter.
“The fact is that, within two minutes of singing, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ contains at least seven reversed phrases of a suggestively devilish nature,” Davis writes, “…buried in a tune about pipers and whispers and listening really hard, a tune that, for a spell, ruled the world. I’m not saying supernatural forces are afoot. I’m just saying it makes you wonder.”
All of which would be more relevant to the task at hand—deciphering the meaning of the song—if the lyrics were written by the guy des Barres says was the only member of the band into the occult.
But Jimmy Page didn’t write the words to “Stairway to Heaven.” Robert Plant did.
Plant was born in August of 1948 in the Black Country of the West Midlands. His father was a civil engineer. His mother was of Romany descent—the people known popularly as gypsies. He left home at 16, immersed himself in the blues, and four years later had hooked up with Jimmy Page to form Led Zeppelin. He was twenty; Page was almost five full years older—an important fact to remember, when considering the dynamic between the guitarist and the front man.
As a teenager, Plant studied stamp collecting and the history of Roman Britain. His well-documented immersion into the blues meant that he hung around with a lot of guys like Steve Buschemi’s character in Ghost World. He read poetry and mythology and Tolkien. If Dungeons & Dragons had existed, he would have played it obsessively. Simply put, the guy was a nerd, albeit one packaged in the body of a self-styled “golden god.” Just as he wore low-rise jeans 30 years before they became popular, he was the prototype of the cool geek.
The lyrics for “Stairway” were written at an old stone castle called Headley Grange, Davis reports, a dismal place that Plant did not like but Page thought was boss, late in the year 1970. The two of them were sitting by the fire one night, perhaps high on something perhaps not, and Plant scribbled down the first words to the song. He would later report that they came to him as if written automatically.
So: “Stairway” was composed by a 22-year-old closet geek, a Lord of the Rings fanboy who knew all about Vespasian’s run as governor of Britannia, while his de facto older brother, who may or may not have worshiped the devil but certainly liked to dabble in the occult, was beside him, in a 200-year-old stone building that was once a poorhouse, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night. This sort of information is relevant to our reading of the lyrics.
Few songs have offered such a wide range of interpretations as “Stairway to Heaven.” The comment board at Songfacts contains any number of them, many interesting, many insane. Some find Satanic messages lurking; others read it as a Christian parable. RapGenius is all over the Biblical allusions. Plant himself remarked that his own interpretation changes all the time, and he wrote the freaking thing. As Davis describes the lyrics: “It’s a zoo in there.”
But go back to the fireside, where Plant sat with his pen and paper, Page hovering demonically nearby. Is it possible that there was a deck of Tarot cards on that table? If Page owned rare Crowley manuscripts and first editions, he was certainly familiar with the Oswald Wirth book on Tarot. It’s inconceivable that he did not own a Rider-Waite deck, given that everything about the design of the fourth LP derives from the Tarot.
The cover of the album is a stylized version of the ninth major arcana card, The Hermit, while the inside cover—that is, the poster that your roommate had on your wall freshman year in college—is almost identical to the Rider Deck image:
Also, the four “runes” that comprise the album’s title represent the four tarot suits…
…Swords, Cups, Pentacles, and Wands/Staves, respectively.
Here’s Davis on the runes:
The first thing that must be said is that there are four of them, and that they appear on the fourth record released by a quartet, a record that features four songs on each side…all these fours suggest the most fundamental of occult quaternities: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, the four elements once believed to make up the whole of material reality…decisively linked to the four suits of the Tarot deck by the French magus Eliphas Levi….Levi expanded magic’s network of correspondences by correlating Earth, Air, Fire, and Water to, respectively, [Pentacles], Swords, Wands, and Cups.
The band famously insisted that there be no writing on the cover at all, no band name or album title. This invites us to read the lyrics as symbols, or rather as interpretations of various symbols. My theory is that “Stairway to Heaven” is a Tarot reading, a draw of the 13 cards that comprise one version of the Celtic Cross. Plant and Page may have laid the cards on the table as they were working out the words…who knows? As in actual Tarot readings, the story of the cards doesn’t cohere exactly, and lends itself to multiple interpretations.
“Stairway” as Tarot card reading would go like this:
1. The Empress
The Empress rules the empire, holds sceptered sway over all material things. Note the golden orb on her staff. The stars on her tiara suggest an otherwordly quest.
2. Five of Pentacles
This card is about lack, about not having. Here, beggars brave the elements outside a warm church, unable to go inside and enjoy the bounty.
In Tarot readings, the first two cards drawn form the querent’s central conflict: in this case, that of having great riches, and having nothing. The reading, and the song, is about resolving the conflict between material and spiritual gain.
3. Nine of SwordsThe card of despair. The “sign on the wall” are those swords, more swords than anyone could use, nine swords of Damocles ready to fall and cause injury.
The third card in the sequence is the root cause of the problems. In this case, a feeling of dread that likely has deeper meaning than a lack of material resources. All the glittering gold in heaven’s vault cannot buy the cure for the querent’s ailment.
4. Nine of Pentacles
Pentacles are about material things, generally, and this card is one of mastery. The falconer controls the falcon. This is someone at the height of his powers. But the fourth position is the past, an influence that is receding. This loss of control, too, plagues the querent. The falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
5. Three of Wands
This card is pretty much about the spirit crying for leaving. Which happens to be the attitude told by the card in the fifth position. The querent is ready to move on.
6. Five of Swords
The scene on this gloomy card appears to be the aftermath of a battle (“the pain of war cannot exceed / the woe of aftermath”). It indicates hope and learning from negative experiences.
The sixth position indicates the future, the coming influence. So, to recap, the mastery of the past has been lost, the present is all gloom, but the future suggests hope.
7. Judgement [sic]
By making the correct choices—and “Stairway” is all about choices—we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. By stairway, perhaps.
The seventh position concerns self-reflection—how the querent sees herself. Here, she seeks salvation, and hopes, but is not sure, that she is worthy.
8. Ten of Cups
The best card in the deck, perhaps, the Ten of Cups is the wish fulfillment card. All is right with the world. Peace and prosperity are here!
Unfortunately for the querent, this is illusory. The eighth card indicates how others view her, not as she views herself. She does not really have it all, even if she seems to. All that glitters is not gold!
9. Queen of Wands
Wands/staves/rods correlate to the earth, to the vernal renewal process. The Queen of Wands rules the spring, which makes her, yes, the May Queen. Her cheerfulness permeates everything. (“Bustle in the hedgerow,” incidentally, means literally that a piece of a Victorian woman’s dress has been discarded in the garden—the remains of last night’s orgy).
The ninth card indicates a factor that the querent has overlooked. In this case, her buoyancy of spirit.
10. The High Priestess
The High Priestess stands for mystery, the occult, hidden knowledge—all the stuff Jimmy Page is into. The “B” and “J” on the pillars behind her stand for Beelzebub and Jehovah—Satan or God, the binary choice.
The card in the tenth position indicates the outcome of the conflict, in this case the clash between material wealth and spiritual lack. But the High Priestess is fuzzy. There is no clear outcome. All is vague. Like the song.
11. The Fool
The Fool is not one in the modern sense of the word, but is more of an innocent, a naïf. He goes where his impulses take him, without a thought to the consequences, or to the dangers.
12. The Moon
The Moon symbolizes things that go bump in the night: our deepest fears, terrifying illusions that turn out, in the light of day, to be nothing but shadows.
13. The Hanged Man
The Hanged Man is still. He surrenders to his fate, and in his surrender, finds enlightenment.
Cards 11-13 comprise a summary of the reading. Here: the Fool is ready for his journey, encounters his deepest fears which give him pause, and winds up hanging from the tree of knowledge.
The final movement of “Stairway” achieves the same purpose, summarizing the querent’s conflict. The Fool winds on down the road, the “shadows taller than our souls” the fears that paralyze him. But he finds enlightenment. The key phrase is: “the tune will come to you at last.” This is a passive outcome. The querent does not come to the “tune,” but the other way around. Enlightenment is only achieved by stillness, quiet contemplation, and surrendering to the nature of things—”to be a rock and not to roll.”
The reading determines that the solution to the conflict between material abundance and spiritual salvation is the yogic pose of stillness. Or something like that. Like all Tarot readings, the lyrics only cohere to a certain point. Which is, ultimately, what Plant was going for with the words: that they have two (at least) meanings.
- Technically, the title of the album is the four glyphs, which means the title of his book is the four glyphs as well, but italicized. We don’t have the budget for that, so I shall refer to it here as Led Zeppelin IV. ↩
- Though it does give new meaning to “My Spirit is crying for leaving.” ↩
- Via our Weeklings music editor Joe Daly, who interviewed her on these pages. ↩