Though I played instruments, was involved in school and community bands and was even exposed to quite a bit of classical music, the popular music of the day was not an important part of my life in my younger years. The church community in which I was raised saw it as a worldly influence young people should avoid. It was not until the sixties, when I was a young pastor and family man, that I started listening more closely, but even then, the popular music of the day was not in my ears all my waking hours, as seemed to be the case with many people around me.
So now that I’m a seasoned dude (old, that is), I find myself interested in revisiting some of the musical trends I missed in earlier decades. I’m particularly curious about some songs that I often heard on other people’s radios and that seemed to resonate with their lives. That’s how I familiarized myself with Led Zeppelin and one of their best-known songs “Stairway to Heaven.”
I listened to the opening bars of quiet, haunting guitar by Jimmy Page, followed by the engaging first stanza, sung by Robert Plant:
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.
At first, I felt that I understood: The “lady” believes that all that glitters is gold and living a life of materialism and indulgence will lead to the fulfillment of all her desires. Of course, we know that many glittering things are not gold and will lead us away from our quest for a successful and satisfying life.
But then the song becomes more complex, both in its music and in its lyrics. Soon I felt that I wasn’t getting it, and I had to go deeper. In its 51 lines, the song’s lyrics took me on a fascinating journey through the struggle of a person trying to navigate life and its meaning. I decided to go on-line and see if the interpretations of others could give me guidance. I found that opinions were all over the place. One expert on rock-and-roll gave this broad summary of the various interpretations: Stairway to Heaven either means: (1) Nothing at all; it’s the addled stream-of-consciousness from a drug-confused mind out of the sixties and seventies; (2) Something really deep, with interpretations ranging from profoundly religious to strongly Satanic; or (3) Whatever you want it to mean; one blogger writes, “If you ask a million people to give their interpretation, without collaboration, you will get a million different interpretations. And each and every one of them would be absolutely correct, based on that person’s individual experience.” I decided that was a pretty big yard to play in with my own ideas of the song’s meaning.
As I continued to think about the song, my attention became focused on a two-line image toward the end:
And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul
That really spoke to me. One on-line commentator was sure it means “As we approach the end of our life” (shadows lengthen as the sun sets). Another took it as a reference to the struggle between good and evil; “Our desires overcoming our potential for goodness.” But I intuitively heard something else in these words, and I’m absolutely (?) sure (?) I’m right (?). To me it speaks of the ultimate tragedy of choosing to follow the glittering gold “stairway to heaven” — that the inner person shrivels to the point that even their shadow has more substance and significance than their diminished soul. As T.S. Eliot put it in his poem, “Hollow Men”:
This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang, but a whimper.
— Pastor George Van Alstine