An old Stairway story


This morning I was driving my daughter to a skating lesson, as I usually do on a Saturday morning. I complain about the early hours sometimes, but I know that I’ll miss these days when they’re over and my services are no longer needed. Such is life.

We got into our minivan, the little one and I, and I turned the radio on. I told her she could pick the music, and then the opening notes of “Stairway to Heaven” came on. And the offer to my daughter was immediately rescinded.

As the song played, and the music built toward its climax, I told my little one a story about the song. I’ve told several of them before in this space, but this one I had held onto for awhile.

Back in the late 1990s, I taught at a public high school in Chicago. My daily commute involved driving down Lake Shore Drive, and getting off at an exit named Oakenwald. And once I did this, the daily ritual began.

Cars still had tape decks in those days, and my Mazda 626 was so equipped. I pulled out a Led Zeppelin tape, put it into the player, and off I went.

The tape was always cued up to the final notes before Jimmy Page’s guitar solo began. Luckily, the roads between the exit and the school were sparsely traveled, and so as the solo unfolded, I was able to drive pretty fast, and let the soaring parts of the solo help to get me ready for the day ahead. I considered it to be an essential part of my day, and I never considered using another song for this purpose. No other song would do, really.

The final lyrics that Robert Plant sings, beginning with “and as we wind on down the road” were sung, or more accurately howled, by me as the school came into view. And the final lyric, coming after the last musical crescendo, was the part that brought it all home and got me ready to go out and be Mr. Harris for the day.

As that line played out on the radio this morning, I realized how long ago, and how far away, those days now seem. But the song lives on, and this allows me to share the story of its meaning with a ten year-old who wasn’t alive back then. And then she got to put on the music that she wanted, instead. Life goes on, just as it always has.

It really makes me wonder


There’s no doubt in my mind that Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven is the song of my lifetime. I’ve written about the song before, and it always seems to be able to lift my spirits up. And today, as I was contemplating the senseless attacks at the Boston marathon, the song worked its magic once again.

I had seen a picture of one of the fatalities on Facebook earlier in the day. His name is Martin Richard, and he was eight years old. It hit me hard, because eight years old is such a great age. Kids haven’t yet become jaded and cynical, and they haven’t learned that constant stimulation is necessary, lest they become “bored.” And the look on Martin’s face is enough to suggest that this was a good kid, the kind that anyone would want to have for a son.

So where does Led Zeppelin come in? The repeated lyrics about “it makes me wonder” came into play for me.

I wondered who would do such a terrible act, taking the life away from a good kid like this.

I wondered if other people will get any sinister ideas from this attack, and if so whether they will be able to be thwarted before other innocent kids are hurt.

I wondered if the person who made these bombs and detonated them had any remorse for the damage they did.

Whatever the answers to these might be, I hope that we, as a people, can learn something from Martin Richard’s senseless death. Let’s all hold the children around us a little bit tighter, and realize how precious they really are.

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.

And as we wind on down the road

I can’t think of a song that I’ve heard more often–or that I have more memories about–than Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” It’s almost a rock-n-roll cliche, because it’s been played and played and played again in the forty years since it was released. But it is the epic rock song by the greatest rock band there’s ever been, so maybe it deserves all the attention it gets.

I bring this up because this afternoon, I drove into downtown Chicago. I had a teenager and two younger kids in the car with me, and they wanted to listen to the hit music stations as we drove. And yet, after about ten minutes in the car, we reached the northernmost reaches of Lake Shore Drive.

The hit stations all had commercials on, so I tuned the radio in to the Loop, which I’ve listened to for decades now. And they’ve probably played the song as many times over the years as any other station has, and more than   most.

I remember a radio station in Albuquerque a few years ago that celebrated a change in its format by playing “Stairway to Heaven” repeatedly, over and over again, for 24 hours straight. At about eight minutes a play, that’s about 7 plays per hour, or more than 150 plays over the course of a single day. But if the Loop plays the song just once a day–which seems reasonable enough to me–it’s been played well over 10,000 times over the years. And it will be played 10,000 more times in the decades to come. It’s a song that I’m sure will always find an audience.

As I got onto Lake Shore Drive, the song progressed through the verses, and none of the children in the car wanted the song to be changed. Perhaps they weren’t paying attention to it, and perhaps they liked the song. But whatever the reason was, I didn’t get any resistance to it.

By the time the drums came in, just before the “if there’s a bustle in your hedgerow” line, we we’re starting to get closer to downtown, and the skyline was coming into view. The first time that I saw the Chicago skyline from Lake Shore Drive was back in the late 1980s, and I’ll never forget I was in a car with U2’s “Bad” playing on the radio. It was the most beautiful thing I had seen, in the purplish glow of an early evening. I told myself I had to live in Chicago someday, and I have done that for more than twenty years now.

As we approached the overpass at North Avenue, Jimmy Page’s guitar solo took flight. I’ve often though that the music soars, however briefly. There are certainly longer guitar solos, and possibly flashier guitar solos, but if there’s a better one at bringing a song to its fullest potential, I’ve never heard it. And after 30+ years of listening, that’s saying something.

The song came to its conclusion, as Robert Plant crooned the final few notes, just as we had crossed the Chicago River. I couldn’t say how many times I had heard the song before, but the visual treat of hearing it on my way into downtown Chicago made it just that much better.

The kids didn’t need to ask for the radio station to be changed when the song was over. I changed it myself, knowing that whatever the Loop played next was going to pale in comparison. Some things just can’t be improved upon.