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Stairway to Heaven, by Led Zeppelin, may be one of the greatest rock n’ roll songs ever written. VH1 seemed to think so, ranking it as the third Greatest Rock Song ever (and they’re not alone).
What was the group’s inspiration for the song? Did it come from none other than Satan, as is claimed by the aficionados who have played the song backwards and swear to have picked up on Satanic references? Or does the song hail rather from the forces of good?
Lyrically, at least (when played forward), Stairway to Heaven has always been a spiritual song in my mind. It speaks of the hope of those who have strayed, of those who are lost:
Here are the lyrics:
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.
There’s a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.
In a tree by the brook, there’s a songbird who sings,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.
Ooh, it makes me wonder, ooh, it makes me wonder.
There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west,
And my spirit is crying for leaving.
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees,
And the voices of those who stand looking.
Ooh, it makes me wonder, ooh, it really makes me wonder.
And it’s whispered that soon, if we all call the tune,
Then the piper will lead us to reason.
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long,
And the forests will echo with laughter.
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.
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.
And it makes me wonder.
Your head is humming and it won’t go, in case you don’t know,
The piper’s calling you to join him,
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind?
And as we wind on down the road
Our shadow’s taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
When we all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll.
Writers: James Patrick, Robert Plant, Copyright: Flames Of Albion Music Inc.
In the story told in the song, a confident lady believes that she can ‘buy’ divine favor (a stairway to heaven), if only because she has the ‘cash’ to do it.
We regular folk, on the other hand, do not share her conviction. Our ‘heads [are] humming and it won’t go [away]’. We don’t know what we’re doing orwhere we stand. Still, our situation isn’t hopeless: At this very moment, there’s ‘a songbird singing in the tree by the brook’ and the piper can ‘lead us to reason’ if we would only ‘call the tune’.
What makes Stairway to Heaven‘s songbird and piper special is that they’re privy to the chords of the universal song, to the ‘tune’ emitted by the guitar strings of creation. This music has the power to elevate our souls: ‘There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west, and my spirit is crying for leaving.’ And if we get there, if we’re able to pay attention to the tune, no matter what we have done or where we find ourselves, ‘in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.’
The one who’s lost is ultimately the ‘rich’ lady; she’s the one who fails to acknowledge that her ‘stairway relies on the whispering wind’, on the universal tune. As we all ‘wind down the road’, this infamous lady continues to wear her blinders, still believing that her ‘white light’ will turn everything to gold. Why is it that this ‘dear lady’ can’t ‘hear the wind blow’?
As the song hits a crescendo (this is the point where Jimmy Page emerges from his guitar solo), it is explained that if we ‘listen very hard, the tune will come to [us] at last, when all are one and one is all’. It is only then that we will stop rolling down the mountain without a course.
Music is one of the few things in this world which can take hold of me and change my mood within seconds. It can raise my spirits even during those periods where I didn’t think it possible. I believe that music has this awesome power because the harmony that can be found in it is one of few phenomena which can give a person a glimpse into the harmony underlying the universe.
There is a wonderful Hasidic parable that is said in the name of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidut:
A group of traveling musicians were once performing in a town square. Their sound was unlike any the townspeople had ever heard before, the majestic harmony, the beat of the drum perfectly in sync with the rhythm of each person’s soul. Pedestrians were unable to simply pass them by. One by one, the people stopped to enjoy the music. And the experience was so profound that they couldn’t merely stand by and listen. They began to move their bodies to the rhythm of the music. At first, a small group of friends began to dance together, but everyone soon joined in, dancing in circles, in lines, in chaotic patterns. Eventually, the entire town was dancing wildly, uninhibitedly.
At this point, when the town square was in a frenzy, a deaf man walks by. He sees the dancers, the contortions on their faces, the flailing limbs and yells out: “Stop this! Has everyone gone mad? What are you all doing?”
A red-faced man, who had never enjoyed himself so much in all his life, stopped dancing in pity for this passerby. The sweat was dripping down his sideburns, a boyish smile fixed on his face. He looked deep into the deaf man’s eyes, struggling to comprehend the question, and finally asked him, “Can you not hear the music?”
Maimonides writes in his Laws of Repentance that everyone is capable of being righteous: “Permission is granted to every man. If he wills to walk on the good path and become righteous, he is able to. If he wills to walk on the evil path and become evil, he is able to.” (Laws of Repentance, 5:1)
But what will it take to get ourselves on the good path? According to Stairway to Heaven, it would seem that we must connect to the tune that drives the world. Anyone who’s following a tried and true recipe will probably not get there, no matter how much ‘cash’ he or she has stored up. Such a person would be likened to the lady buying her stairway or the deaf man in the Hasidic tale.
This may be what Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, one of the leading Jewish thinkers of the last century, had in mind when he described the highest level of repentance, what he termed ‘repentance of understanding’. According to him, the ultimate goal of repentance is to attain “a clear perception that comes from an understanding of the whole world and all of life… It is towards this awareness which all eyes yearn, and it which will come in the future for those who search for it.” (Lights of Repentance, Chapter 1)
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll
There is always hope, but only if we will listen very hard.