Last time we did the first three songs of Led Zeppelin IV. That might not seem like much, but it certainly gave us enough for a post. Here’s the second part. I promise it’s got the rest of the album.
Stairway to Heaven
Do I even need to talk about this song? Well, OK. For you. It’s actually less overtly fantastical than the song that precedes it, “Battle of Evermore.” It brings in the countryside, certainly, and that feeling of mysticism that nature can inspire in people. The guy who does the DruidCast podcast once said that he was convinced anyone listening to a Druidry podcast could probably lay hands on at least one way to listen to “Stairway to Heaven” without trying. It’s the sort of thing a Druid or Druid-adjacent person would own somewhere. It takes the listener through a spiritual journey in three parts, with the music changing each time the journey itself changes. By the end, the sympathetic listener is in an altered state of consciousness, having been led through the gates of consciousness by the song. Jimmy Page was an occultist, after all. Maybe he still is? I don’t know. I mean he was when he helped write this song.
Three of Pentacles
Here’s another card that, at first glance, doesn’t seem to match the song. But this one also makes sense. The three of pentacles, unlike the five from last time, is more hopeful but also calmer. This card is often viewed as an artisan working on the decorations in a church. I mean, it’s literally what Waite said was going on in the card. That indicates a steady and strong artistic effort, carried out with patience and physicality. This isn’t the person who stays up for three days straight and writes their manifesto. It’s the person who paints the ceiling of a church every day for years and years. And “Stairway to Heaven” is about that slow, patient journey. The woman wants a shortcut, a way around the tough stuff. But the song is about how you don’t get that, you get the path that takes as much time as it takes. You don’t have to run down it, but if you look for a shortcut you’re just wasting your time. The song has the classic complaint about the upper classes: they think they can just buy everything. The card, according to Waite, could actually point to the aristocracy or, at least, renown. I would suggest that the song is about the “truly noble,” those who drink of the May Queen’s water and wonder while they watch the sun and walk through the woods.
What’s particularly interesting here is that the song and the card go together to say that spiritual journeys take time, they’re worth spending that time, and they’re earthy. We tend to think of spiritual life as separate from the physical world. It’s that good old fashioned Cartesian dualism again. The tarot can reinforce that dichotomy, actually. But here we remember that churches are on Earth. There’s no need for them in Heaven. That would be the “country” element the band discussed.
Misty Mountain Hop
Here’s another overt Tolkien reference. The song itself doesn’t really lend itself to super obvious associations with The Lord of the Rings. But the title definitely references the mountain range in Middle-Earth. The song also reverts back to the city, as the speaker walks around and sees people in a park gathered together. Ultimately, the speaker gets sick of how little anyone cares about anything and dreams of leaving for Middle-Earth.
Ten of Cups
There’s a happy card. There’s a rainbow full of big golden chalices. That must be dangerous. The card traditionally cautions people to keep in mind that simple things bring the greatest happiness. Hence the cozy family scene in the rural area, with the river in the background and the house on a hill. Tens also indicate the rollover from nine to one again — it’s the end, but an end that indicates something else beginning. I think that’s where the song comes back into this. This track is the first on side B, after all. It’s the end of the big fancy side with Stairway on it, but it’s the beginning of the new stuff. I would say the speaker here is looking for what the card depicts. He can’t find it, and dreams of going somewhere else, somewhere magical and lonely and simpler that what he’s used to. The song blends some meaningful lyrics with a nearly chanting delivery (sometimes) and more rowdy, bouncing music than we’ve gotten used to the past two tracks.
This is a song I’m actually not all that familiar with. I love the way it sounds. We’re back in the night time, with a red-running river and a need for flight. The speaker still wants to escape, like in the last song, but here the problem seems more personal and far more urgent. “Misty Mountain Hop” seems like a recurring thought that the speaker has entertained for years. This song sounds like the speaker is about to lose it right now.
Ace of Cups
This card is a beginning, usually of a new stream of emotional feeling. Generally the aces are positive, but they aren’t always. They can indicate the need for more nourishment, particularly here with the overflowing cup and the bird flying with its mystical sign in its beak. Back in the song, “the river runs dry,” at least hypothetically. The song is about that moment where things are about to break, maybe in a relationship (probably, let’s be honest here). The title refers to Bonham, who played the song with two pairs of drumsticks. The time signature is also crazy, something Zeppelin is better known for doing in “Kashmir.”
Going to California
The speaker here is still “parched” because he aches and he’s out of wine. He’s looking for that special someone, and just packs up and moves on to seek her out. He’s got an ideal, though, not a picture of a real person. He’s basically looking for that classic hippy type. There are a lot of songs on this album about traveling, from this and “Misty Mountain Hop” to the figurative paths we all walk in “Stairway to Heaven.” Near the end, the song references a white horse and a hill of dreams. That sound suspiciously like a story from The Mabinogi, where Pwyll sits on a hill where anyone is guaranteed either a wound or a wonder. He sees a beautiful woman ride by on a white horse. This is Rhiannon, whom he eventually marries after chasing her down himself and asking her to stop (before, he sent servants after her and they never spoke). So the speaker is looking for that kind of amazing encounter. But, and this is important, until Pwyll speaks Rhiannon is always just out of reach, no matter how fast Pwyll’s horse goes.
Nine of Pentacles
This woman seems to have it all. She’s got a crazy robe, a big old bird, and a pile of money in a beautiful garden. But she looks bored, too. Usually the card is about the perfection of earthly desire, which can ultimately bore us if there’s nothing else added in. Without more than one form of stimulation, we can get used to anything, even powerful emotions like grief or ecstasy. Here, the seeker in the song has a lot of things, but wants that one special thing. He’s looking for that otherwordly queen because he’s bored with what he has. He has good reason to be, but after all he’s not looking for something concrete. A lot of this album is dreamy and hypothetical, with the speaker talking about wanting something he can’t quite figure out how to name. In this song the speaker doesn’t fly to California to find Mary or Jeannine, but some abstract image of a woman. He’s certainly unhappy where he starts, but will he be any happier out in California?
When the Levee Breaks
And the album ends as it began, with heavy rock and blues sounds. I love this track. And here’s travel again, “going to Chicago” while a flood makes a “mountain man leave his home.” Is the album about the forces — internal and external — that make us move, that pull us back and forth between two places? In this song, the sound and the lyrics combine to make us feel like the pressure is increasing moment by moment. It’s slow but it’s inevitable, that build up of force. What do you do when there’s nothing you can do? In the blues tradition, of course, you sing about it.
Here’s a weird one. The Hierophant, otherwise known as The Pope, points to a tradition, possibly spiritual. However, the Hierophant can also be a false guru, someone in a position of authority who offers nothing to their followers. In this case, my first instinct is to point to the tradition of blues itself. The album uses the dreamy fantasy-rock to make its point about inner turmoil and dreaming. Then it uses hard blues sounds to show what that leads to — a creative life that makes use of traditions to speak something deeply personal. Music critics cleverer than me have said it’s the most authentic blue song they did.
The whole album seems to be about motion, going somewhere because here is intolerable. I guess the question, then, isn’t what’s at the other end — we don’t know — but what makes things so intolerable? I think that, despite the reliance on classic “my girlfriend’s left” tropes, the pressure is always internal. This album is about pushing yourself forward, for good or ill. We stay up late, listening to “hypnotic” music (see that link above) and eating ourselves alive. And if we get sick of that, we move, internally or externally. We just have to hope we aimed ourselves in the right directions.