I first listened closely to this staple of classic rock radio when, as a teenager, I was informed that it had BACKWARD MASKING EVIL MESSAGES TALKING ABOUT SATAN. (Listen here!)
I was pretty sure it wasn’t about Satan, but I thought it might be about Lord of the Rings (“all that glitters is gold”, “There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west”) and maybe English folklore and mythology (references to the piper and the May queen). But yesterday, when Paul and I listened to it in the car, because we are cheesy old farts who like classic rock, I realized it’s probably about nothing.
The strong musical development and the thematic repetition make it seem like it must be about something, maybe something profound and epic — but only if you’re not paying too much attention.
So, we start with a “lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.” This implies considerable shallowness on the part of the lady, as a figure trying to purchase salvation, a highly privileged person who can “get what she came for” “with a word” even if “the stores are all closed.”
Where is “there”? Heaven? It seems likely. And heaven is often depicted as having streets, and perhaps stairways, paved with gold. But heaven is almost never depicted as having an assortment of stores which might be closed. So, could “Heaven” be the ironic name of a ritzy shopping mall? Or are the “stores” symbolic? And, in this case, symbolic of what?
No clarity is supplied by the next line, “There’s a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure ‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.” Is “she” still the lady buying a stairway to heaven, which might be a shopping mall? Are we supposed to be able to guess what the sign on the wall says? “Open,” perhaps? Or “Closed”? Or “Major credit cards accepted”?
So, what does she do, given that she wants to be sure about this sign? Well, nothing. The lady who might be in a shopping mall disappears entirely, and the very next line is, “In a tree by the brook, there’s a songbird who sings.” (Ooo, good one! A songbird who sings!) So is heaven, which might be a shopping mall, also a passageway to the countryside? As the singer says, “Ooh, it makes me wonder.”
The next verse could be entirely a Lord of the Rings reference, with images of looking to the west as the singer’s “spirit is crying for leaving,” seeing “rings of smoke through the trees,” and “the voices of those who stand looking.” (Ents?) Of course, the construction suggests that he *sees* these voices, so it makes me wonder too. Lazy writing or a deliberate reference to synaesthesia? I know, I know, it’s too easy to assume that something written in 1971 makes sense if you regard it as a hallucinogenic drug trip.
The next verse could be a reference to social or political activism — “it’s whispered that soon if we all call the tune then the piper will lead us to reason.” But it doesn’t seem to follow on the previous verse. If the whole song is meant to be about activism, why do we start with a materialistic lady in a shopping mall? Is she a villain figure? It doesn’t seem that way. And, if the piper led us somewhere other than reason, I would assume he was a slightly sinister Pied Piper figure, leading us to the fairy realms. But, maybe, being led to reason is part of the overall pagan message?
And now we get to the verse that supposedly invokes Satan if you play it backwards! Forward, it says, “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now, it’s just a spring clean for the May queen.” Well, I guess that could be about Satan — or, more specifically, about the pagan gods or figures that made up the imagery that we now associate with Satan. But I can’t make any literal sense of it. If there are things rustling in my hedges, I should assume they’re fairies and not be alarmed? Why not? Fairies are terrifying.
The second thought of this verse, “Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on” might be considered anti-Christian if you’re of a particularly Calvinist sect, but other Christian sub-groups might embrace it. What it has to do with May queens I don’t know. Are the two paths good and evil, paganism and Christianity, hippies and materialists? War and peace? Or is it a Robert Frost reference?
As the singer says, “it makes me wonder.”
The next verse references the piper again, “calling you to join him.” The lady buying stairways seems to figure again, with “Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know your stairway lies on the whispering wind.” So, is the singer attempting to talk her into the path of — traditional English paganism — instead of modern materialism?
But the lady shows up again in the final verse, as “a lady we all know who shines white light and wants to show how everything still turns to gold.” So, does that mean the glittery stairway-buying materialistic princess has secretly been a figure of enlightenment all along?
WHAT THE HELL DOES THAT MEAN?
The next line calls back the piper — “if you listen very hard the tune will come to you at last.” Remember, if we ALL call the tune — suggesting that we all have to be united in our tune — the piper will lead us to reason. So this callback actually makes sense, taken on its own.
The next line, “When all are one and one is all” could be a religious reference. But the penultimate line, “to be a rock and not to roll” is just an unfortunate stab at wordplay, unless it’s meant to suggest that we should all stay put when we reach final enlightenment? Is that good advice? Is the idea that the piper going to lead us to reason and then we stay put?
The song ends with a reprise: “And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.” But this suggests that the lady hasn’t learned a thing.