I know what you’re thinking, but let me set your mind at ease: this article is about more than “Stairway to Heaven.”
Well, I suppose I should say that I know what you’re thinking if you actually registered the existence of this article. Some Princetonians, even upperclassmen, probably don’t even know what The Nassau Weekly is (“Is the Nass a frat?” someone is rumored once to have asked). Some read it regularly and write for it occasionally. Some write for it regularly but hardly ever read it. Some even declare themselves the inaugural Crossword Editor as a sort of Swan Song while admittingly having their sophomore friend do all the work. But most who open the weekly alternative newspaper do so just for the Verbatims, little snippets of life on an Ivy League campus captured in the form of humorous overheard quotations. Others don’t open it at all.
Perhaps, however, you’ve gotten yourself up early for brunch this fine Sunday—around noon? —to meet a friend or get a head start on all that homework that you realistically won’t begin until three or four at the earliest (just face it and get yourself another Wilcox chocolate chip muffin). That said, your friend is late (“hey so sorry my mom called me I’m getting dressed now but I’ll see u in like 5”). Or, your phone is dead. Either way, you have to sit there at that yellow table, eating all alone, looking at all the other people eating alone and silently wondering if all those other loners who look so content in their solitude are all secretly judging you for your own solitude. “My friend is coming” and/or “I have so much work this week” you want to tell them all, but alas, you will not.
That’s when you spot a rectangular pile of colored paper just sitting there, right next to the napkins. “Reading something never hurt anyone,” you remark to yourself, “As long as it’s a series of short yet astute quotations about humorous facets of my familiar environment or general young adulthood.” You pull the folded pages towards you as you sip a glass of dining hall orange juice whose consistency you can only describe as “negative ten percent pulp.”
You’re hungover, of course (you sure had a big night last night, didn’t you?), so it takes a moment for you to realize that the news magazine is upside down. In that time, you read the title of the article: “Pete Recommends: A Critical Reappraisal of ‘Stairway to Heaven’.” You wonder why someone is writing an article about a fifty-year-old Led Zeppelin song.
Maybe you’re a huge Zepp fan and are therefore confused as to why one would choose to recommend “Stairway to Heaven” when “Going to California” and “Ten Years Gone” and “The Rain Song” all exist. On the other hand, maybe you don’t particularly like Led Zeppelin or classic rock in general. Indeed, you heard the band daily in your youth when your dad drove you around in his new, “I just turned forty” car and are therefore not interested in seeing what someone could possibly write about such a famous song that hasn’t already been said. Maybe you even scoffed at the notion of a twenty-one-year old dorm-room-guitarist and bumbling, aspiring writer genuinely thinking he was about to introduce his peers to classic rock, so you start reading the article, just for a laugh. Or, maybe you don’t care enough any which way, so you turn the pages, smile at a few Verbatims, then trek up to Firestone where you look at Instagram for an hour or so before finally starting that essay due Tuesday.
(Surely you won’t scoff, though. You’re much too nice to scoff, I hope. But please just give me this one and go with it for a little longer. Afterwards, you can go back to listening to Lizzo, I promise.)
But if you’re still reading this, I have one thing to tell you: “Stairway to Heaven” is amazing. Yes, everybody in the English-speaking world is aware of Led Zeppelin. Even if you’ve never turned on a classic rock radio station, you know the greatest rock band in the history of the genre by their veneration alone. You’ve heard their most famous track at least once all the way through and likely throughout your life in passing, in malls or restaurants or on your uncle’s boat or what have you. But both in spite and because of this ubiquity, “Stairway to Heaven” gets a little slept on, relegated to the status of “rock classic” and thought of as a song more to be heard than to be enjoyed.
Let me tell you, though, that “Stairway to Heaven” is truly astonishing. I’m not going to claim it’s the greatest song or even the greatest rock song ever written. I don’t even think it’s the best song on the album. It is, however, like nothing else out there, and I want you to trust me and give it another shot.
Use a decent quality speaker or put in your Air Pods and listen to the song as if you’ve never heard it before. When you listen to the individual notes of Jimmy Page’s descending acoustic guitar intro, listen to it as more than a stock riff played poorly by all twelve-year-old apprentice guitar players. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? When the flutes kick in, suddenly you feel as if you’ve come upon a pond in a forest, at the far edge of which there is a waterfall trickling through some rocks. Robert Plant starts singing softly about a woman who thinks everything can be bought, but you can tell from his tone that there’s more to the story.
Just as you begin to wonder where the song might go next (you forgot for a moment, even if you’ve heard the song hundreds of times), a twelve-string guitar comes in, as gentle and firm as a handshake from a graduate of a boy’s prep school. Jimmy Page famously popularized the Gibson EDS-1275 double-neck guitar because he needed to switch between a six-string and a twelve-string in the middle of playing this song live (trust me, far too heavy to justify owning one otherwise), but Page’s genius as a producer shines through on the album version in the layering of two guitars. The riffs get more intricate as Plant describes the rings of smoke through the trees and the voices of those who stand loving. He doesn’t specify the “feeling I get / as I look to the west,” but with the gentle twelve-string backing him up, he doesn’t need to.
John Bonham’s drums come in eventually, but they’re nothing like the cannons that dominate a track like “Good Times, Bad Times,” the explosive opener to Led Zeppelin’s debut. They’re subdued, almost laid back, yet without relinquishing any sense of force or control. Bonzo’s drums, masterful as they are, quickly fade into the background. They are lowered in the mix, but they blend so seamlessly with the already layered guitars that they come to act almost as another guitar. It reminds you of how, when you listen to good classical music, you don’t really know or care what instruments are playing, because they are all acting together create a musical wave broader than the sum of its parts.
Then, the repeating D chord, a D chord reminiscent of a line of trumpets announcing the arrival of royalty. For what else was Jimmy Page doing in 1971, a mere year after the death of Jimi Hendrix, but announcing the commencement of his reign as king of the electric guitar? When the guitar solo comes in, it’s nothing like you expected it to be, cheesy and overplayed generic rock and roll. No, it’s just another movement in the eight-minute-and-two second mini-symphony “Stairway to Heaven,” one that happens to showcase the virtuosity of one instrumentalist. The guitar builds from slower runs to a series of more intricate riffs into a screaming conclusion only matched by the subsequent megaphonic power of Robert Plant’s belting return: “And as we wind on down the road / Our shadows taller than our souls .”
It seems like ten voices, but it’s just his lone shriek, backed not with vocal harmony but by guitar armies and drum cavalry. When you don’t think you can go any longer, Plant lets us all down easy, accompanied only by the slight audio hiss: “And she’s buying the stairway to he-ea-vuuun.” You sit there for just a moment when the song ends and try to imagine what it was like in 1971 to hear that song for the first time, having never heard anything remotely similar in popular music. You don’t know whether you need to listen to it ten more times or put it away for a while so you can treat it like a normal masterpiece and relegate it to the rest of listening rotation.
Either way, it’s not quite like you remembered, was it? Maybe that should be the real takeaway. Not a guilt trip into reading more of a weekly college magazine. Not observations of a famous rock song that anyone with ears could stumble upon for themselves. Instead, it’s that sometimes there’s something whose beauty we take for granted. It’s ordinary in our eyes only because we haven’t learned to see it right yet. Maybe there are some things around us that can actually be really wonderful if we only take a moment and let them be.