Hearing “Stairway” for first time

Upon hearing Ann and Nancy Wilson, Jason Bonham, and a cast of hundreds whose names I don’t know present Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven as a gift to us all at the Kennedy Center, I wanted to offer a few words about the first time I ever heard the song. My hope is that young kids will see the performance, and feel the power of that song–and of rock and roll itself–and dedicate their lives to making music even better than that. “Better than Led Zeppelin” sounds like an impossible task, but the pursuit of that goal would be a worthy quest.

I heard the song performed live in the gym of my elementary school, back in either 1978 or 1979. Disco was all the rage on the airwaves, as played on WCVS in Springfield, Illinois. It was an AM station, and FM radio was somewhere off in the future for me. But it was all disco, all the time in those days, at least on the radio.

Hearing a guitarist, and a drummer, and a song that I had never heard before was something of a shock. All I remember of it, really, was the final line “And she’s buying a stairway to heaven” being sung. As someone who was educated in Catholic schools, I knew about the idea of Heaven, but the idea of trying to buy your way into it, or that a path to it even existed to begin with, struck my still-forming mind as being weird and disturbing. I guess the abstract meaning of the song was beyond my mental capacities at that stage of my life.

I’d love to say that I heard that song and went out and purchased a guitar. But it didn’t happen like that. I already had a little red acoustic guitar, but I couldn’t tune it, or get anything to happen when I tried to play a chord. So the song was something of a glancing blow for me. I went on listening to the disco junk that was on the radio, until rock and roll came storming into my life with the Knack and “My Sharona” late in the Summer of 1979.

Perhaps the “Stairway” performance at my school was in early 1979, before school let out for the year. That would make sense. But I really didn’t get into Led Zeppelin until I bought a cassette of their fourth album, specifically because it had Stairway to Heaven on it, a few years later. But this time the song took root, and my admiration for it, and for Led Zeppelin generally, has grown ever since.

I wrote about “Stairway” a month ago, for the first time, and am happy to revisit it here. Maybe I’ll write about it again one day in the future, when a young kid who’s just picked up his or her first guitar has succeeded in making music that sounds even better. That’s one piece I’d be happy to write.

A Sure Shot for the Rock Hall

To me, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a fraud. Rock and roll began as an expression of rebellion, and that gleaming building on the waterfront in Cleveland is anything but rebellion. Some of the bluesmen who helped to create rock and roll are enshrined there, but too many of them have been lost to history, unrecognized for their contributions.

Rock and roll was born when white folks began dabbling in “colored” music during the 1950s. The best Broadway show I’ve ever seen, Memphis, tells a fictionalized story about this time and place. It’s still playing in New York, and there’s also a touring company out there somewhere, but it’s well worth spending some time and money on if you have the chance.

But back to the hall of fame for a moment. The continued exclusion of KISS from the hall makes no sense at all. If there’s any better expression of the rock ethos than “Rock and Roll all nite,” please tell me what it is. But beyond that song, there’s a whole Army (literally) of fans out there who go to the concerts (with or without face paint on), buy the merchandise that has made Gene Simmons and the others rich, and keep the band going so that they’re more than an REO Speedwagon-type nostalgia act.

The first concert I went to as a 13-year old was KISS and the Plasmatics, and the clothes I wore that night probably still reek of pot. And the most recent concert I’ve seen was also KISS, at the United Center in Chicago. That might change when the Wall comes to Wrigley next summer, though. I’ve seen a lot of shows in between, but KISS brings it to the stage as well as anybody, and better than most. Why that’s not hall-worthy is beyond me.

But with this year’s nominees, there’s one I feel strongly about in a good way, and one I feel strongly about in a bad way. The good way goes first. With my non-existent vote for the Rock hall, I would put the Beastie Boys in, without a doubt.

A rock purist might disagree with me on this, because they aren’t a band in the Led Zeppelin mode of drums, guitars, and bass. That’s true, but they sampled Led Zeppelin repeatedly on their first album (which was my introduction to the group, even if I can’t listen to it anymore, since catchy and goofy isn’t a good mix). They clearly appreciate Zeppelin, and I can appreciate that.

They’ve also sampled the Beatles, Bob Marley, AC/DC, the Ramones, and many others. Their song “High Plains Drifter” is essentially the Eagles’ “Those Shoes” with a story told over it. They’re brilliant at what they do, and they couldn’t do it without rock records to draw from. Grandmaster Flash is already in, and Bono has given his blessing to Public Enemy, so there’s no reason why the B-E-A-S-T-I-Es shouldn’t be there, as well.

The one I feel strongly against is Guns n’ Roses. If you could just put one album in, I’d be fine with Appetite for Destruction being enshrined. Start to finish, it’s as good as anything that’s ever been released when it comes to rock and roll. And if you could put one video in, I’d cast my vote for “November Rain.” It’s head and shoulders above any video that’s ever been made. But the band itself now seems to consist of Axl Rose (which is an anagram for “oral sex” by the way) and whoever he can find to play with him.

Slash, Duff MacKagan, Steven Adler/Matt Sorum, and Izzy Stradlin are the band’s so-called “classic lineup,” but I promise you that not one of them would show up for the induction ceremony. No, it would just be a vanity night for the cornrowed Axl Rose, and a night in the spotlight for guys who didn’t write or record any of their classic work. Can you name any of them? I sure can’t. It gives me no great joy to say this, but putting Axl and his traveling sideshow in the Rock hall would be a mistake.

I’m curious to know how it all turns out, though. Heart is also on the ballot, along with Donna Summer (a true WTF moment for me), Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and others I can’t think of right now. But there’s only two that matter to me this time around.