The older I get, the more I realize how superior the wizened brain of an old fart like me is, compared to the brutish, one-dimensional sorts which are housed in the admittedly superior bodies of teenagers and twentysomethings.
One of the benefits of a mature brain is a highly developed ability to imagine alternate realities, particularly with regard to analyzing history. I’ve noticed this ability in myself increasingly over time as I’ve gotten older.
The latest particular example was some time recently when I was reading about Luther and his posting of the 95 theses on the door of the Church at Wittenburg. I happened to be reading an article about recent political events in a journal, and the author invoked Luther for some reason or other. Not being terribly interested in the main thrust of the article, my mind wandered back to 1517, and started imagining what it would have been like to be German, reading those theses at the time. I wondered what it was like to believe in God back then, and I had a series of the most wondrous revelations. I realized just how much knowledge we had collectively gathered since 1517, and then, expertly, I purged all of that knowledge from my brain, leaving myself a somewhat befuddled, mostly ignorant middle-ager (middle age being a period of history, not a period of life).
Well, as such, I momentarily believed in God in a very different way than we probably do today. It was a belief that transcended just about everything else.
I probably had some ability to imagine this way when I was back in college, but it was an order of magnitude less developed than today. As they say, it is a shame that college is wasted on youth.
Anyway, today I was driving home from work when deejay Carol Miller came on Q104.3 with her latest installment of Get the Led Out, her tribute to Led Zeppelin. She described the genesis of the BBC Sessions, only the second live recording of Led Zeppelin music ever, released in 1997. The material includes sessions recorded in front of public BBC audiences from 1969 to 1972, of mostly new and (at the time) unreleased material.
She played Stairway to Heaven from a 1971 session. As the song started to unfold, it sounded very familiar, even down to the peculiar way that certain notes were picked out in the acoustic guitar opening. It piqued my curiosity.
I live in a reasonably remote area, and radio reception is uncertain on the roads near my home. I could sense the radio was about to go on the fritz, but my heart was beating a little stronger, and I realized that I really wanted to hear this song, and so I pulled off to the side of the road in quite an inconvenient spot.
The song continued to unfold, and I was amazed by it. Of course I have heard Stairway to Heaven thousands of times. I've even heard it many, many times recently, listening, as I do, to Q104.3 and other like stations.
The thing which amazed me as I listened were the same things that amaze me in the studio version that we all know: the careful lyrics of Robert Plant; the unconventional but somehow incredibly satisfying drum riffs of John Bonham; the varied and surprising transitions; and finally the inexorable progression from plaintive ballad to screaming tumult.
Those who know something about music know the magic which can be wrought in a studio. As this song became second nature to me over the years, somehow I came to the opinion that many of those quirky aspects of Stairway had been crafted in the studio when it was recorded. It was a masterpiece of modern music created with the benefit of mixers and afterthought.
But no, here was a live recording which predated its studio version, and it proved that Led Zeppelin meant all of these things to be in that song from the very beginning. They crafted the whole damn thing from scratch. I was stunned. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page had always been held in my reasonably high esteem, but now they were sitting in the Pantheon of Gods.
As I sat listening to the song reach its crashing conclusion, cars occasionally whizzing around me, I realized what it must have been like to be sitting in that 1970 audience listening to such a strange sound.
Only 38 years of history can give us the dull equanimity required to sit listening to Stairway to Heaven and not either wonder or rejoice. Kids today take it totally for granted. They’ve heard it so many times, and the kinds of music which it invented have become so standard, that the song is unremarkable today.
But to those studio audiences in 1970, it must have been quite something indeed.
It took progressing to a point in my life where my knees creak to imagine life before music as I know it, transport myself back to 1970, and truly enjoy Stairway to Heaven.
Middle age (the life-stage this time) brings on all sorts of neuroses, including an unquenchable thirst to regain youth. Well, age does have certain benefits, including the ability to be filled with wonder while sitting in a car at the edge of the road, imagining an alternate reality as if it were my own. Kids need substances to achieve such bliss; I can do it all by myself.
PS: If you haven’t done it in a while, go get yourself a pair of really good earphones, put on Stairway to Heaven, and pretend that you’ve never heard it before (without substances!).