Writers, wrongly or rightly, wish they were able to compose songs. The highest goal of a writer is to make someone feel at all what they might during the meanest moment of the worst song. Capturing music in written form is difficult. But it is possible, as long as you don’t forget that to get off the ground, you need to flap your wings pretty hard.
On October 8, 2012, “Little Black Submarines” was released by The Black Keys. Entertainment Weekly called it an “edge of sanity epic”, and the song did very well on the charts. That is also the day that “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin became redundant. It had to happen sooner or later. Someone had to replace that 8-minute opus with something a bit more immediate but just as big, with something that also strives for an impossible reality but in about half the run-time. And that’s what The Black Keys did. They re-wrote “Stairway to Heaven”, knowingly or unknowingly, and consigned the Zeppelin classic to the history books as a result.
We could argue plagiarism, but what isn’t copied anymore? I like to fantasize about inspiration, but the reality is that I get a good jolt in the appropriate creative direction anytime I watch a good movie, read someone else’s novel or short story… or hear a song that I would dearly like to replicate in written form. As The Black Keys say: “Oh can it be? The voices calling me. They get lost, and out of time. I should’ve seen a glow, but everybody knows, that a broken heart is blind.” In fact, Zeppelin would agree with me, I think: “And if you listen very hard, the tune will come to you at last. When all are one and one is all, to be a rock and not to roll.” That’s right: they invited replication, and 41 years after “Stairway to Heaven” was released, someone finally managed it.
And really, am I buying a stairway to heaven or even thinking about it? In this day of crumbling church attendance and redefinition of religious devotion, what does it mean to have accumulated enough wealth and yet have that epiphany that all the money is not going to get you a spiritual slam dunk? It’s not like there are ample comfortable people out there anymore, as we split the rich and the poor further and further. I should be so lucky as to aspire to a new pair of shoes now, let alone a one-way ticket to a perfect eternity. Led Zeppelin wrote about a time that has expired, and as a result, so has their great song.
But Little Black Submarines has it right. It is the slow build-up that we need, and then the drop – the long, bottomless drop that is typically reserved for the meanest dub-step. The song explodes, as perhaps I would like to do, and lays it out there with a force and immediacy that doesn’t dream – it simply tells us how it is. And that’s what we need – to remember how it is, because the church isn’t going to do it, and neither are our politicians. In this day and age, music is more important than ever, and so we turn to our artists to explain the world to us. Or at least to remind us of it. For example: “Treasure maps, fallen trees. Operator, please call me back when it’s time. Stolen friends and disease, operator please. Patch me back to my mind.”
Indeed, patch me back to my mind. Forty years after the much-proclaimed greatest rock song of all time was released, we are back to trying to find our own minds, occasionally even aware that we might have misplaced them. And if we forget, turn up the volume. Blow up the speakers. And scream the words until you taste and then embrace your own inner madness. The Black Keys have given us the anthem for our times. They have given us a self-portrait that creeps up on you (as self-awareness usually does) and then crashes in that edge of sanity epic that finally fills the gaps. I don’t think we can ask for more than that from our artists.
And so back to the writing. You know, it makes me wonder, why I write fiction, but I’m reminded of the answer every time I hear a song that blows my mind and then fills me with the desire to make anyone anywhere feel a tenth of what I’m feeling in that moment. This is desire. And need. And it starts from earthly delights rather than heavenly aspirations; it’s built from the solid ground on which I tread, not the puffy clouds of a hoped-for ascent. Cheers! The piper may be calling us to join him, but a broken heart… Well, a broken heart is blind.
If anyone wants to hear a modern version of Stairway to Heaven that has some serious chops, try this (that’s Ann and Nancy Wilson from Heart!):