SONG TITLE: FREE BIRD

PERFORMER: LYNYRD SKYNYRD

SONGWRITER:

YEAR OF RELEASE: 1976

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SONG TITLE: STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

PERFORMER: LED ZEPPELIN

SONGWRITER:

YEAR OF RELEASE:

COMMENTS: These two songs are the twin peaks of AOR radio. They are the ultimate statements of vision for many fans. They are also the two songs titles that every band for decades have heard requested to the point that it is an in-joke among rock fans to call for one of these songs in the most unlikely of places. Bands as far afield as Moxy Fruvous and They Might Be Giants get mocking requests for these songs nearing the turn of the century. It may be a joke about cliches now to be requesting these songs, but it is also a recognition of their iconographic status. They didn't get to be such standards by being jokes.

 

Also, these songs are taken by many fans as representing the deepest profound meaning of life. These two songs are the ones most commonly played and requested as eulogies when some young friend has died.

 

This is certainly easy enough to understand about "Free Bird." It really is a beautiful description of the grieving process, cherishing someone and learning to let go. Ronnie starts slowly and regretfully, tactfully expressing to his lover that he must leave her. "If I stayed here with you, girl, things just couldn't be the same." Then the band starts working slowly up to a gallop, letting the guitars try to explain the hope of new things over the horizon. It is the tenderest and most effective and transcendent statement of the all-things-must-pass theme in the history of rock music. This meaning was only greatly re-inforced by the tragic death of most of the group a couple of years after the song was released.

 

"Stairway to Heaven" is rather more enigmatic, though it follows a similar musical strategy. It starts as a quiet, contemplative pastoral ballad before working up a roar like Zep is trying to storm the gates of heaven or something.

 

They are both undeniable classics, but the top prize definitely must go to Skynyrd on the basis of the lyrics. "Free Bird" makes sense. The lyrics and music have resonance on multiple levels, but also the surface level is clear and meaningful.

 

On the other hand, what the hell are the lyrics of "Stairway to Heaven" about? Perhaps Jimmy Page has some very precise but secret meaning he hasn't told the rest of us. To me, though, it is just a bunch of gibberish imagery picked up from playing with a deck of tarot cards. Even having studied tarot, the point is still obscure. We know that Page was into a lot of occult stuff, and it sure does sound like they're saying something about singing because they love Satan when you play it backward. This does make for a dark, spooky aura around the song for which I would give them extra credit.

 

Most fans aren't picking up on such things, though, when they call in to request that the song be played on the radio in memory of a dead friend. The title and the rising epic strains of the music are all they need, and indeed they are more than enough for me.

 

Both of these songs are ultimately epic statements of transcendence, passing from the worldly to the otherworldly and finding meaning in the passage.

 

Hall of Fame at last, boo-yah!

Lyrics

   

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