June 13, 2005

Musical Meanings Monday

Today we have Stairway To Heaven. Details below the fold.

Stairway To Heaven - Page/Plant

There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
And when she gets there she knows if the stores are closed
With a word she can get what she came for

Woe oh oh oh oh oh
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven

There’s a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
And you know sometimes words have two meanings
In the tree by the brook there’s a songbird who sings
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven

Woe oh oh oh oh oh
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven

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

Woe oh oh oh oh oh
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven

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 forest will echo with laughter

And it makes me wonder

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

Your head is humming and it won’t go because you don’t know
The piper’s calling you to join him
Dear lady can’t 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 shadows taller than our souls
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 all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll
Woe oh oh oh oh oh
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven

There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
And when she gets there she knows if the stores are closed
With a word she can get what she came for

And she’s buying a stairway to heaven, uh uh uh.

Yes, we’re all familiar with the song. What the heck does it mean to you?

Posted by James at June 13, 2005 9:44 AM
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Comments

Specifically, what the hell is a "bustle in your hedgerow?"

Meant to be taken literally???

Posted by: James at June 13, 2005 9:51 AM

There was a Straight Dope article about this song, long ago. I think the official explanation was that the guys of Led Zeppelin spent a lot of time trippin'.

To me, the song means that it's spring. When I was a kid, they would play this song a lot during the spring, but never (or rarely) during the winter. So I've come to associate it with melting snow, sunny days and little buds of green on the trees.

Posted by: Julie at June 13, 2005 1:24 PM

Some of the lyrics could be about a girl who is a drug user and the dark fate that awaits her if she doesn't leave them behind. Plant may have interwoven that idea with some folklore elements to make the song seem timeless.

Posted by: Mike at June 13, 2005 1:31 PM

I think "and you know sometimes words have two meanings" is their subtle way of telling us how deep their song is...

What glitters that is not gold? Is heaven actual heaven, in which case the song might be about organized religion, or is the song about drugs (ooh, look out for that subtle double meaning)?

This:
And itís 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 forest will echo with laughter

sounds like an ad for some crazy religion to me.

Posted by: Maggie at June 13, 2005 2:54 PM

I'm wondering about the line:
"Itís just a spring clean for the May Queen"

Is this referring to the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem, 'May Queen'?

Posted by: Sara at June 13, 2005 3:25 PM

Maybe I am very naive, but there is something innocent and tragically romantic about 'a lady whoís sure all that glitters is gold.'

In the following lines I also sense some tragic romance:
"And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our souls
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold"

But probably, this "lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold" is a drug which makes the user feel safe even though it takes away from their identity.

Posted by: Sara at June 13, 2005 3:40 PM

i agree with sara, there is some tragic romance in those lyrics. i disagree with that it's "probably" something to do with drugs. Plant was very much into eastern myth, ancient history and the middle ages. you can see these references in the song. "Stairway to Heaven" is from zeppelin's fourth (and famously unnamed) album which is filled with these kind of references and allusions to kings and queens.

In fact, this song is a bit of a "fuck you" to George Harrison of the Beatles. He called out Jimmy Page, saying that Led Zeppelin never made any ballads in the early 70's. So Page composed a 7 min long instrumental opus and played it for lead singer Robert Plant. In the time it took Page to play the song Plant had scribbled the bulk of lyrics to what is regarded by some as the greatest "rock ballad" of all-time. The best part of this story, however, is that in the solo at the end Page played a few bars of Harrison's song "Something" as one final jab.

Posted by: ryan at June 13, 2005 11:50 PM

Okay, they're seven minute lyrics. They're "found a cliche that fits the music" lyrics.

;-)

Every time I read it over I get religious babble. It just sounds like somebody who thinks his way is the right way, telling everybody else that if they just listened, we'd all be okay.

Posted by: Maggie at June 14, 2005 7:20 AM

Well okay, I've never heard this song before, but I've studied these lyrics and here's what I came up with:

Thereís a lady whoís sure all that glitters is gold
Implies the singer knows a naive person who believes if it looks good, it *is* good.
And sheís buying a stairway to heaven
You can't buy your way into heaven or paradise goes various dogma. I believe this is a reference to the eye-of-the-needle--you know it's easier to get a camel through the eye of the needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven. (Eye of the needle referring to a small gate in a specific city, Jerusalem?, which was so narrow it was hard to get a camel through.)
And when she gets there she knows if the stores are closed
With a word she can get what she came for
Further commentary on the naivete of this person. Why does the singer choose to sing of this person? Is this just a general commentary on the spiritual dead-end of materialism? Things won't bring you happiness? Is the singer speaking to us all really, and using this woman as an example? I think so.
Thereís a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
She can read the "writing on the wall" that says this isn't the way to happiness/heaven, but she wants to find out for herself.
And you know sometimes words have two meanings
Well that just screams, HEY! THE NEXT LINE IS FULL OF SYMBOLS!
In the tree by the brook thereís a songbird who sings
What is the tree? What is the brook? Who is the songbird? Beats me.
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven
I had to look it up. Misgiven means suspicious, apprehensive, or doubtful. A reference back to the naive lady buying her way to happiness... maybe one shouldn't hold it against her that she is doubtful. After all we're all doubtful sometimes.
Thereís a feeling I get when I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving
Switching tracks? I look toward the sunset and my spirit cries for leaving? Is the singer expressing a desire to escape? Does this hearken to the idea of "getting away from it all"? Is this being connected back to the woman who wants to buy happiness? She's trying to escape, just like any of us wishes to?
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees
And the voices of those who stand looking
Now here's a curious pair of verses. Rings of smoke? Through trees? Who stands looking at rings of smoke through the trees? This *could* be a drug reference I suppose, as could the concept of buying happiness. But I'm going to go out on a limb here and say the singer is referring to smoke signals, and American Indians, or any sort of other native peoples who might use smoke signals (those who stand looking). The question is why? I think what he's trying to say is the way to happiness is nonmaterialistic, happiness comes from living a simple un-thinged life, like the Amerinds. Their value system is the smoke signals, and we ought to be getting them.
And itís whispered that soon, if we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason
The singer is the piper, and he is trying to lead us to a simpler, nonmaterialistic way of living, because that way lies happiness. That is the "reason" he is trying to lead us all to. All we have to do is sing along.
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long
And the forest will echo with laughter
Obvious reference back to "those who stand looking". If we all come to reason, all of us will be better off, particularly those who live simple lives, for whom our raucous lifestyle has been making things difficult. When we finally get it, "the forest will echo with laughter", those folks will laugh with both joy at the prospect of a better future and amusement at how long it took us to figure it out.
And it makes me wonder
Will it ever really happen?
If thereís a bustle in your hedgerow
Donít be alarmed now
Itís just a spring clean for the May Queen
Now what the heck does that mean? The May Queen is a girl crowned in the "sports of May" (May Day) according to dictionary.com. Tennyson wrote a poem about a girl crowned may queen (titled: The May Queen) who had to gather garlands and flowers (spring cleaning ?) in order to properly celebrate may day, and sadly she died a mere year later. Could that be the bustle in your hedgerow? The May Queen gathering her flowers for her shortlived celebration? Is this a reminder that life is short? If you're going to choose the "right way" to live, now's the time?
Yes there are two paths you can go by
but in the long run
Thereís still time to change the road youíre on
Would seem to indicate that the May Queen verse was a reminder that life is short. You can still change your ways though.
Your head is humming and it wonít go because you donít know
The piperís calling you to join him
The singer has planted the idea in your head now, and even if you don't realize it, it's there and will grow.
Dear lady canít you hear the wind blow and did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind
Don't you know which way the wind blows? Can't you see that the path you've chosen will not get you to paradise? Buying happiness or buying your way into heaven is a pipe-dream, a castle in the air, a whisper on the wind. Forget it.
And as we wind on down the road
(of life)
Our shadows taller than our souls
Long shadows, sunset or sunrise. Reference to souls--sunset probably. Walking into the sunset, in our later years, when we are old--near death, reference to wisdom. We will be wise in our old age, and will realize the folly of materialistic living. Beautiful image btw, winding down the road our shadows taller than our souls. Very pretty.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold
Different lady. She shines white light, and she shows how everything turns into gold. She's truth, or wisdom, and she shows us how our happiness comes from everywhere, and everything. We don't need to pursue riches or things. Our wealth will come in happiness from a simple life and a rich experience of living. What "we all know".
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last
General comment to pay attention, the singer is trying to teach you something important. If you listen, you'll get it now, and you won't have to wait until your shadow is longer than your soul, and you are near the end of your life.
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll
Someday we all may finally "get it". When we all hold to this belief like a rock (you are the rock upon which etc.) and do not stray from it (not to roll). That will be a better day. When everything turns to gold.

What do you think? Am I completely out to lunch? Can we now go back and figure out who the songbird is? Is the songbird TRUTH, the shining lady? Is the songbird another metaphor for the singer?

Posted by: Chuck S. at June 14, 2005 9:56 AM

I agree with your analysis on the whole, Chuck. I think he's pushing his idea a little hard, personally. (How could you have never heard this song? You didn't get the "no stairway" joke in Wayne's World?)

Don't you think that whole songbird paragraph goes together?

"Hereís a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
And you know sometimes words have two meanings
In the tree by the brook thereís a songbird who sings
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven"

The songbird seems to be saying the same thing she's feeling.

It does seem to hop somewhat randomly from thought to thought, though. And I get a chuckle at Ryan's explanation that it's a "fuck you" to George Harrison.

George Harrison: You've never written a ballad.

Plant: I have so!!
(Turns his back)
scratch, scratch, scratch...
6.5 minutes later
gold...souls... what rhymes with souls?
"To be a rock and not to roll."
Or is it "role"? Oh, well, doesn't matter...
scratch, scratch

There, see! I have so written a ballad!

George Harrison: What the fuck is a bustle in your hedgerow?

Posted by: Maggie at June 14, 2005 10:12 AM

LOL! I know *of* the song, and I know that practically anyone who learns even the slightest bit of guitar learns to play it. ;-)

So I got the joke... I've just never listened to it. Couldn't even hum a few bars. Isn't that sad?

Posted by: Chuck S. at June 14, 2005 10:20 AM

Y'know it's a little ironic to see a song about living a simple nonmaterialistic life sung by wealthy rock stars. ;-)

Posted by: Chuck S. at June 17, 2005 11:18 AM

After his father's death, Sting wrote a wonderful song which described prayer and faith as a "bridge to heaven". That song also had some beautiful imagery about losing one's faith in desperate times:

If a prayer today is spoken
Please offer it for me
When the bridge to heaven is broken
And you're lost on the wild, wild sea
I love his work. If you've never heard this song "The Wild Wild Sea" check it out, it's on the Soul Cages album.

Posted by: Chuck S. at June 17, 2005 2:06 PM

I think you're missing a big part of it. Led Zepplin was heavily influenced by the writings of JRR Tolkien. I mean, the title of this album was a bunch of runes. Ramble On from Led Zepplin II had a specific reference to Gollum from the Lord of the Rings. They really dug the whole middle-earth mythology thing. So I agree with some of you that the first two verses here are basically about the materialism of people. But after that he kind of weaves it into the lore of middle-earth. If I must, I can point out the specifics, but I'd rather not spend the time just to prove what a geek I am. Suffice it to say it's about elves and gods and whatnot.

Posted by: Bob at July 6, 2005 3:44 PM

Stairway to heaven is indeed a masterpiece! And to try to understand the lyrics... well, I think it says different things to different people.

Iīm swedish, so I dont have the complete understanding of a word. I mean, they could have "two meaning" for all I know.

A key to the lyrics, in my mind, is the piper. I thought he/she was playing the flute. But after consulting the dictionary he/she plays the bagpipes.

So my questions to you are,
1. What is a piper?
2. What instrument does he/she play?

Posted by: Andreas at September 6, 2005 6:09 AM

a piper is usually someone who's plays the flute (or an instrument of the same qualities). and people are usually drawn to following pipers, a la the story of the Pied Piper. It's yet another nod by Zeppelin to life in the middle ages.

Posted by: ryan at September 6, 2005 9:52 AM

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