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.

45s and the Summer of 1979

1979 was an interesting year in my life. And, as 11 year-olds are wont to do, I tried to make sense of what was going on by listening to music written and recorded by adults. I didn’t own any music of my own yet, other than making a few purchases of 45 rpm singles. These have now gone the way of carbon paper and the phone booth, but at that time in my life they were very important to me.

Commercial radio, then and now, relies on hit singles to bring listeners in. Back in the late 1970s, hit music could be found on the AM radio dial. FM radio was around, but at least in my home town, AM radio was where it was at. Specifically–and I don’t know why I remember this but I do–it was WCVS, 1450 AM. My parents’ old stereo, had an AM dial, but I don’t think I could have tuned to FM radio if I wanted to back then.

They also had a turntable, which played 78s, 33 1/3 rpms, 45s, and 16 rpms. I have no idea what those kids of records must look like, but I used to change the speed on a record as it was playing. It seemed funny to my adolescent mind.

Hearing a song on the radio makes you want to own a copy of it yourself. That’s how recording companies stay in business, after all. But in the pre-iTunes days, the options were pretty limited. You could buy an entire album with the song on it, or you could just buy the song itself as a 45 rpm single. Singles were a dollar, I think, and entire albums were maybe six or seven dollars. But if you only wanted on song, it didn’t make any sense to buy eight or nine other songs you didn’t want, just to get the song that you did want.

I think about some of the 45s I bought back in the day, and I wonder what I was thinking. The Village People’s “Y.M.C.A” and “In the Navy” are two that I haven’t blocked out, but there were some other disco numbers in there, as well. That’s what got played on the radio in 1979, and so I listened and went out and bought them for myself.

But the one single I remember the most was the Knack’s “My Sharona.” For starters, I had the single version with the picture above, and for an eleven year old boy, Sharona was  the next best thing to flipping through a Playboy. And the indifferent, spaced out look on her face added to it, as well. It said to me, “Yeah, here’s the song, but it’s not such a big deal.”

The song went to number one on the charts, and stayed there for over a month. I couldn’t relate to the sexual undertow of the song just yet, but even then I knew it was a thumb in the eye to the disco that was dominating the airwaves. And I liked it. Nobody will ever confuse the Knack with Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones, but their song that year made a huge difference in shaping the kind of music that I still listen to, all these years later.

A postscript is that there is actually a Sharona, who was seventeen when the song was written about her. And yes, that really is her wearing the white shirt and holding the Knack album. She registered the domain MySharona.com, and going to it leads to the introduction to the song. She uses the site to promote her real estate business in California. She’s obviously used the song as a springboard to better things. Doug Fieger, the Knack’s vocalist who wrote the song for Sharona, passed away last year, but not before giving a lasting gift to me and, I’m sure, lots of others who related to the song as I did.