Ambiguity #4: Robert Plant: Environmentalist or Stoner? Or both?

Back in high school, a good friend of mine used to work at a local skate shop, and I would sometimes hang out with him there. His job was to sell skateboard parts and bike pads and suchlike to local kids, but we spent far more time hanging out and watching videos on the wall-mounted TV. This being a skate shop, the TV was ostensibly to be dedicated to the showing of VHS tapes showing the greatest moves and tricks of Tony Hawk and co., but when that grew tiresome, he would pop in concert films.

One of the heavy-rotation movies was Led Zeppelin’s 1976 concert film The Song Remains the Same – though this was the late 1980s, my friends’ and my audio diet was quite heavy on the “classic rock” of the 1960s and ‘70s, and Zep was one of our standbys. (Haven’t listened to them in years now, but I suppose they’re fine. Always liked the odder Zeppelin stuff, like “No Quarter.” Anyway.) Actually, now that I think about it and do a teensy bit of internet research about it, maybe the Led Zeppelin concert film we watched was not The Song Remains the Same, but rather some sort of bootlegged concert film of some kind. No matter, though.

The lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s inescapable song “Stairway to Heaven” – you know, the song that classic-rock radio stations all across the nation declared, year after year, to be the Single Greatest Song Ever Recorded In The Whole Rockin’ History of the World – read, in part,

And it’s whispered that soon if we all call the tune

Then the piper will lead us to reason.

And a new day will dawn for those who stand long

And the forests will echo with laughter.

In various versions of this song – I honestly don’t remember now if this was exclusive to live versions, or if this may be found in the album version, as well – Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin’s lead singer, would often append, at the end of this verse, a spoken question: “Does anybody remember laughter?” The implication of this query was something along the lines of “Our modern world is so sad – we have lost touch with the very spirit of laughter,” or something more or less like that. I don’t necessarily consider Zeppelin to have been hippies, but that sentiment – and, indeed, much of the imagery in “Stairway to Heaven” – certainly jibes with the general hippie ethos.

Anyway, in the particular Led Zeppelin concert film that we watched so often in the back of the skate shop in my hometown, Plant, apparently extemporaneously, changed the words of that little post-verse query. His question was now

Does anybody remember forests?

This little lyrical change — which you can hear, in an excerpt, in the YouTube link below — creates a small but historically interesting ambiguity.

When I was 16, and my friends and I heard, in the live version of “Stairway to Heaven,” Robert Plant make this little change, our immediate assumption was that Plant was really stoned, and forgot the lyrics to a song that he had co-written. Knowing what we knew, even then, about the recreational drug use by the members of Led Zeppelin, this was not an unreasonable assumption. Those guys did a lot of drugs.

But there’s surely at least one other potential reading, and it strikes me now as the more likely. Maybe Robert Plant, in identifying forests, rather than laughter, as a long-lost, unremembered entity, was attempting to call our attention to the deterioration of global environmental conditions. Admittedly, it would have been a somewhat meager wake-up call: a single, ambiguous, uncontextualized line in a pop song does not an environmentalist make. But, even if it was not necessarily making daily headlines in the mid-1970s (or whenever that concert took place), deforestation was a known fact back then. First-wave environmentalists like Rachel Carson and John Muir, both dead by then, had raised that call quite loudly; more contemporaneously, the outspoken John Brower was indeed a figure whose name appeared in print quite often by the early 1970s. (Brower is the subject of John McPhee’s terrific 1971 book Encounters with the Archdruid, among other mainstream publications.) Though it was not the coherent movement/phenomenon that it is today, environmentalism was surely a “known thing,” and perhaps Robert Plant, in making that lyrical change, meant to align himself with it. It certainly seems plausible.

If indeed I can be said to have one, my point about this extremely mild ambiguity is just that: historical context can and often does play an important role in how we read texts. As I’ve noted, 20+ years ago, my particular frame of reference (rock ‘n’ roll, classic-rock radio, rock history in general [hell, I’d read Hammer of the Gods by that point in my life]) encouraged me to opt for the “druggie” reading; today, having witnessed the American environmentalist movement, and its attendant generalized environmental awareness, rise to prominence over the last two decades or so, I’m far more inclined to opt for the environmentalist reading of Plant’s reference to ill-remembered forests.

It is, I would submit, an entirely natural and reasonable thing to read or interpret texts by reference to the historical context that is most prominent or dominant in one’s mind or experience at the time of encountering the text. When we are aware of, or alerted to, a specific phenomenon on a regular basis, that phenomenon assumes a greater importance to us, and may be seen to serve as a kind of lens through which we understand other phenomena. A current example may be the way in which everyone talks about the “carb” content of food these days – a fairly new development in nutrition, and one which I think we can safely attribute to all of the attention that such programs as the Atkins Diet have received over the last decade or so. I don’t ever recall even the staunchest dieter talking about carbs as recent as fifteen years ago. When a text is ambiguous – even mildly so, as in the case with the live version of “Stairway to Heaven” – we are all the more likely to understand it through the lens of the context or frame of reference which is, at the time that we encounter the text, more pertinent and prominent in our minds.

I have no idea, by the way, why this particular song and its attendant small ambiguity entered my brain recently. I haven’t heard “Stairway” (as we used to call it) in years, and I don’t do a lot of thinking about Led Zeppelin or forests. But it does strike me as a good example of how different historical contexts can suggest new meanings for a text.

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Posted on January 7, 2012, in Ambiguities, Music and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Plant made the “forests” for “laughter” substitution several times on the 1977 tour; Seattle, Oakland, and Houston, maybe at other shows as well. I figured he had probably seen “Silent Running,” and it had made an impression on him.

  2. Great post! I look forward to your next ambiguity-related musing.
    Context is one of my favorite aspects of language, as is grammer.

    My wife was venting about something and afterwards she apologized. I told her it wasn’t necessary. The phrase I used was:

    “Eh, no problem. I don’t mind listening to you bitch”

    I then remarked how a comma would drastically alter the sentence:

    “Eh, no problem. I don’t mind listening to you, bitch”

    Good times, good times.

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