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.