“I think of my songs as children with strengths, weaknesses and secrets that reveal themselves over time.”
Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven is easily one of the greatest rock songs ever written, as it stretches the bounds of conventional songwriting with its Tolkien-esque imagery in the lyrics, and the multiple layers in the song structure.
For many people, listening to Stairway to Heaven is an experience that they only wish they could have for the first time again. It’s one of those songs that make a lasting impact on you, where you could likely be able to trace back the exact moment in time and place when you first felt its reach.
Heart singer Ann Wilson, who performed the song in tribute to Led Zeppelin during their Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, very well shares this sentiment. She said in an interview, “It’s like when you get to be older and you see young couples with babies and you see how hard they’re working and how happy they are and how much fun it is and how fresh it is and how deep it goes into your soul. That’s what Stairway is like.”
She said of the song’s composition, “It’s beautiful, a complete marriage of music to lyrics. They go together so well. It’s just one of those situations where you couldn’t have one without the other. I’m a word person, and the lyrics are so poetic and so imaginative. We all know it’s inspired by Tolkien, but at the same time they’re widened out so they’re more universal than that. Those were such optimistic words that fit with the whole hippie mentality. I think people really identified with the lyrics.”
Yet, one person is known to absolutely hate the song, and that is its own writer, Robert Plant.
The reason is simply that Plant no longer feels connected to the song as he once was, especially when it was newly written.
Over the years, Led Zeppelin has turned down millions of dollars for a reunion, as Plant has felt that no amount of wealth can get him to sing Stairway to Heaven like he meant it, night after night, after night.
“I’d break out in hives if I had to sing that song in every show,” he said in a 1988 interview. And his feelings towards the song haven’t changed much over the decades. He even went so far as to donate $1,000 to a radio show for it to never air Stairway to Heaven again, calling it “that bloody wedding song.”
While he has acknowledged how well-written the song is, even saying that he feels overwhelmed when he listens to it again, he still has trouble relating to it “because it was so long ago.”
As Plant explained, the song was written at a time when society was still shaken from the Vietnam War and political corruption. He remarked, “There was a mood and an air of trying to make it through.”
In the song’s abstract imagery, Plant felt at the time that the song was offering hope to its listeners.
“I would have no intention ever to write along those abstract lines anymore,” he said. “I look at it and I tip my hat to it, and I think there are parts of it that are incredible. The way that Jimmy (Page) took the music through, and the way that the drums almost climaxed and then continued…It’s a very beautiful piece. But lyrically, now, and even vocally, I go, ‘I’m not sure about that.'”
While Plant’s dislike for a masterpiece such as Stairway to Heaven may be mind-boggling, it’s actually not unusual for artists to feel the same way towards their own work.
Oftentimes, the work we create have a journal-like aspect to it, that is reflective of the time and headspace in which they are created in.
Just as you’d glance through your old journals and think to yourself, “I can’t believe this was what I was bothered with” or “It’s embarrassing to see how I was back then” — it’s the same sentiment when you look back at your old work, as they revolved around events which don’t weigh as much on you anymore now, and also likely because your skillsets were less refined then.
Personally, I seldom look back at my articles after I’ve written them. But in the very rare occasions that I do, I too get the feeling of disbelief at whatever frame of mind I was in when I wrote those articles.
I may look back at some articles and feel proud of myself for having written them, but that shade of discomfort is still there, particularly in the sense that I could have written them better.
But perhaps the meanings of our work do not have to be set in stone. Just as we are constantly changing as individuals, so does our work, if we allow them to.
We can always look at our work through a different lens, and make them relevant to our current station in life, in whatever way we can, if we only want to.
A good example of this is John Fogerty, who wrote the song Have You Ever Seen the Rain while he was in the band Creedence Clearwater Revival. The song was about being betrayed by his bandmates, and the band’s impending break up.
Despite being an emotionally difficult song for him to perform, it has become a favorite among his fans since its release. And with that, Fogerty chose to reinterpret the song for himself. He has attached a different, positive meaning to it, as being about his daughter instead.
As he told a crowd at a 2012 Arizona concert, “It started out as a sad song many years ago. It was about a sad occasion in my life, but I refuse to be sad now. These days, it’s a very happy song, because it reminds me of my beautiful, little baby girl, Kelsy, and that is the truth…Kelsy is a rainbow in my life, and this song has a rainbow in it.”
That’s the beautiful thing about art, isn’t it? The meaning that we find in it is always subjective to our own interpretation.
As Robert Plant himself sings in Stairway to Heaven, “Sometimes words can have two meanings.”
When Heart performed their epic and heartfelt rendition (pun intended) of Stairway to Heaven during Led Zeppelin’s Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, Plant, especially, was visibly shaken throughout the entire number in particular.
He hated Stairway to Heaven, but for the first time in his life, he was at last able to understand and feel what it was like to be in his listeners’ shoes, to be so deeply affected by the music that he had written.
After the ceremony, he approached the members of Heart. “I usually hate it when people try to cover Stairway to Heaven,” he told them. “But I like your version.”