November 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 7
November 8 saw the release of the fourth album from the British rock group Led Zeppelin, with a song that would become God’s gift to the American marijuana industry: “Stairway to Heaven.” The album, commonly known as Led Zeppelin IV , had for its actual title a group of cryptic symbols that was rendered very roughly as “#&@%” in Lenny Kaye’s Rolling Stone review. Kaye singled out “Rock and Roll” and “When the Levee Breaks” for especial praise, mentioning the eight-minute “Stairway” only in passing. Yet the song’s blend of mystical and apocalyptic imagery with Zeppelin’s usual incendiary riffs, pounding bass, and thunderous drumbeat—building, in classic rock-anthem style, from a quiet acoustic introduction (with recorders, even) to a thrashing, head-banging climax—has proved irresistible to generation after generation of adolescent potheads. It is still the most popular rock song of all time among frat boys and people with nothing better to do than phone in to radio-station listener polls.
The song spawned myths and rituals that have long outlived Led Zep’s 1980 breakup. Concertgoers began lighting matches and sparklers when Jimmy Page launched into the opening notes, creating what William S. Burroughs in Crawdaddy called “the atmosphere of a high school Christmas play.” The recondite lyrics elicited endless hours of discussion in between bong hits, and the fanciful interpretations multiplied when Robert Plant’s screeching delivery led to misunderstood lines like “And there’s a wino down the road.” Such confusion was easily avoidable, since the words were printed inside the album’s gatefold cover, which listeners generally opened at least once a day to clean more dope. In most cases, however, they were in no condition to read them.
In the ensuing decades other bands have paid tribute to Led Zeppelin’s warhorse, from the Butthole Surfers’ Hairway to Steven to a recent album called Elevator to Hell . The ultimate accolade came in the 1992 movie Wayne’s World , when Mike Myers, idly playing the first few notes in a guitar shop, is admonished to stop by the proprietor, who points to a sign on the wall reading NO STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN . Unlike most of the 1970s-heavy Wayne’s World canon, though, “Stairway to Heaven” does not rely on hip-to-be-square irony to justify a contrived return to coolness. It has never gone out of fashion, and as long as marijuana grows in the fields, back yards, and basements of America, it never will.