The lawsuit over Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” was a miscarriage of justice.
Not because the Los Angeles, Calif., court ruled in favor of Zepp and against the estate of Randy California, the late Spirit guitarist. No, it was a travesty because Page, Plant et al, instead of being sued for copping California’s licks, should have been taken to court for writing incomprehensible lyrics. But more about that later.
For those of you who’ve been living in a cave — one mercifully lacking Internet, TV and sufficient cellphone bars — an LA jury ruled June 23 that LZ songwriters Jimmy Page and Robert Plant did not copy what is perhaps their group’s signature song from “Taurus,” a 1968 work written by Randy Craig Wolfe. (Wolfe’s last name was changed to California by none other than Jimi Hendrix, but I’ll get to that in a bit.) That brought to an end what apparently was rather a bizarre trial.
The original complaint, filed by a trustee for the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust — an organization formed by the Spirit founder’s family after he drowned in 1997 while trying to save his son — reads like a strange brew of legal boilerplate and rock fan jargon. It more than once refers to “Stairway to Heaven” as rock’s greatest song of all time. (For what it’s worth, it ranks only 31st on Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”; VH1 has it at No. 3 on its top 100, however.)
The attorney representing the Wolfe Trust put on quite a show at the trial, trying to make a case of Led Zeppelin’s rock and roll lifestyle — their drug use was the reason they didn’t remember the Spirit song — and referring to Page and Plant as the “alleged” writers of “Stairway to Heaven.” Zepp’s legal mouthpiece, not to be outdone, said that no one would remember Spirit’s music, and that Wolfe’s late mother had an illegitimate son who actually owned the rights to “Taurus.”
The complaint notes that LZ opened for Spirit on several tour dates in 1968, and therefore had an opportunity to hear “Taurus” performed, and that Zepp played a Spirit song at its early gigs. The Wolfe Trust’s attorney also presented as evidence a list of instances where Page, Plant et al borrowed all or parts of songs without giving writing credit. (Heck, “How Many More Times,” from the first album, seems to cop from two or three other songs.)
The defendants countered that they didn’t remember hearing Spirit, much less “Taurus.” That seems less than credible — they opened for another band, then walked out of the venue? — and Page felt the need to explain the presence of a Spirit album in his record collection by claiming not to know how it got there.
News accounts say that the jurors found that there were significant differences between the two songs. (They weren’t allowed to listen to the original versions, because of copyright considerations, instead hearing other artists perform them from the sheet music.) The defendants were entitled to a jury of their peers, but based on that analysis, instead got a jury of Captain Obvious’s peers.
I always liked Spirit, and own a compilation CD of the band. But the song “Taurus” drew a blank, so I bought the album it was a part of, Spirit’s self-titled debut LP.
My conclusion: the opening chords of “Stairway to Heaven” do sound like some of those early in “Taurus.” But those chords in the Spirit song also sound vaguely like the opening riff in Johnny Rivers’ “Summer Rain.”
The most Captain Obvious difference between the Led Zeppelin and Spirit songs is the lyrics: “Taurus” has none. “Stairway to Heaven” includes words, although they often seem to be quite unrelated to one another.
Another fairly obvious difference is that “Stairway” is structured in three sections, differing in tempo and intensity and building to the conclusion. “Taurus” seems to have very little structure, being a collage or mélange of sounds and styles — not unpleasant, but rather disassociated.
The lyrics of “Stairway” also appear to be divided into sections, of varying degrees of coherence to each other, and to comprehensibility. They begin with a reference to a lady — groupie? girlfriend? — “who's sure/All that glitters is gold” and can buy a stairway to heaven. That segues into a few unrelated lines about a bird that sings “Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiving.”
(I’m wondering if whoever transcribed the lyrics mistook “misgiving” for “misgiven,” which would make more sense grammatically. But the lyricist says it makes him wonder, too. Sure.)
Then we veer off into what appears to several allusions to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, something Zepp has done in a number of their songs. (Not always with good effect: “'Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor/I met a girl so fair” — from “Ramble On” on the band’s second album — never made any sense to anyone with a passing understanding of Middle Earth.)
“In my thoughts I have seen/Rings of smoke through the trees” makes me think of Frodo meeting the Elves in the forest, but the lyrics then veer off in another direction, and the songwriter again writes “Ooh, it makes me wonder.” Me too.
But soon come lines that made me wonder even more: “If there's a bustle in your hedgerow/Don't be alarmed now/It's just a spring clean for the May queen.” (I always thought they were singing “sprinkling for the May queen,” which made about as much sense as the transcribed words — and the preceding two lines.)
Next, there’s a seeming reference to the lady in the opening verse, the one who’s buying the stairway. Then, as the music starts building towards a crescendo, “as we wind on down the road,” there’s a bit of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” “Our shadows taller than our soul” — except that T.S. never would have compared the heights of shadows and souls, singular or plural.
Then we’re told “There walks a lady we all know/Who shines white light and wants to show/How everything still turns to gold.” This sounds more like Galadriel, the Elven queen in Tolkien’s books, than the gold digger in the opening verses.
But the crescendo that the music has been building toward arrives, in the nick of time, with the seeming non sequitur, “When all are one and one is all/To be a rock and not to roll.” And the final, quiet line reminds us that “she's buying the stairway to heaven.” Which she?
With the music, it adds up to a magnum opus that has become quite popular (including the use of the song title as the theme for more than one Junior Prom). But as I note in “Don’t Play It Again, FM” — an installment of my Struggling Weekly newspaper column, which can be found in the archives of this blog — I’ve heard it enough to last me a while.
Taking a brief tour through the “Spirit” album last night, though, inspired me to listen to more of that band’s not-so-greatest hits. The band at times sounds like a Left Coast version of Rotary Connection, the Chess Records psychedelia experiment and long a favorite of mine.
And if you’ve been waiting with baited breath to find out how and why Hendrix named the writer of “Taurus” Randy California, it was because the then-15-year-old Wolfe played in the late, legendary guitarist’s pre-Experience band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. There was another member of the band with the same first name, who Hendrix dubbed Randy Texas.
Hey, that at least made sense.