In December 2012, Led Zeppelin reached the pinnacle of western civilization with their recognition by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Each year, JFKCPA selects a group of artists to honor. Their criteria reads, in part, "The Kennedy Center Honors provide recognition to living individuals who throughout their lifetimes have made significant contributions to American culture through the performing arts."
I was pleased for the band and amused at the cultural ironies involved. Then I learned David Letterman was being honored in the same program. Letterman and Zeppelin are not even in the same talent universe, but I didn't have a vote, so...
Photo: Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images
Jack Black was tapped to introduce the honorarium for Zeppelin.
The first two minutes of the video above contain Black's intro for the band, as well as the video montage that highlights a few of the reasons for their inclusion. In a statement that will have as many strident defenders as detractors, he names Led Zeppelin the best Rock and Roll Band on the planet - better than the Beatles, better than the Stones...
The encore of the evening is led by Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart singing Stairway to Heaven...
There has been a tremendous amount of discussion over the years regarding the meaning of the song, whether it contained satanic messages if played backwards, and whether Robert Plant would ever sing it again (which he did in 2007). What I see in the video above is perspective. Playing any song over and over again, night after night, no matter how good it is, must get old. The magic that Plant and Page caught in a bottle at Bron-Yr-Aur and Headley Grange back in 1970 had diminished over the decades. But on this night it was clear that distance had made the heart grow fonder. That is as much a testament to the greatness of the song as it is to the sterling performance by the Wilson sisters, Jason Bonham (son of the late Zeppelin drummer John), and the supporting orchestra.
Stairway to Heaven means a million things to a million people. Something else I noticed when viewing the performances of Zeppelin's songs: the audience. In particular, there is one lady who appears to be 'praising' during Stairway to Heaven, her hands raised, eyes closed. Others in the assemblage are also lost in the music.
Even more powerful to me were the reactions of the band. We can only wonder at the thoughts passing through the minds of Jimmy, Robert and John as they sat in their tuxedos, beside the President and other luminaries, listening to their anthem...what memories were playing out behind teary eyes? How many shows? How many faces in the crowd? How much pain and loss remembered as the familiar chords echoed across the auditorium?
If you watch the entire program you will hear Jack Black reiterate his challenge - his statement of fact - from the introduction: Best band...ever.
But for all their greatness, for all their amazing music, for all the wonder I have felt when listening to their songs...I know in my heart that Led Zeppelin do not stand at the foot of that stairway. John Bonham's death was tragic. Robert Plant's son's death was tragic. But Jesus' death on the cross was the most tragic event in human history, while at the same time the most powerful and uplifting. Because Jesus truly is our Stairway to Heaven.
This is not a popular sentiment. People get offended when you tell them there is only one way to get to Heaven. Just like the meaning of the song Stairway to Heaven, people want to define their own wisdom, their own understanding, their own path, their own truth. The disciple Thomas was a skeptic. In John 14:6 Jesus tells him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me."
Yet later, in John 20:29, Thomas finally accepts the truth of things while being chastised just a touch when Jesus says, "Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed."
Paul writes that when we accept Christ as our Savior, when we put our feet on the true Stairway to Heaven, we are to put off the old man and put on the new.
One of the things that seems to puzzle critics of the Church is how it can be filled with people who still sin. In 2001 I accepted Christ as my Savior. I had a real and personal experience that left me, like Thomas, with no doubt that Jesus is who He says He is. In the intervening years I have worked to be the man that God created me to be but I am still very much a work in progress. How can I be a Christian yet still listen to Led Zeppelin and wonder at the amazing talent and true giftedness of these four mortal men? As long as I don't put them ahead of God, I think I'm going to be okay there. The very first Commandment God gave us was that we were to have no other gods before Him. I've heard Zeppelin called the gods of rock. Look at the Kennedy Center audience again. There are some worshipping folks in that crowd.
But Led Zeppelin won't get you to Heaven, no matter how many times you play the song. The three surviving members of the band won't get you to Heaven, no matter how many honors they receive - no matter how much praise you give them. People talk about how great Heaven is going to be. They discuss who all will be there, wonder if they will get to see their favorite old dog again, and if their friends and family will greet them as they walk through those pearly gates. Over the years I've heard people talk about the music that will be made in Heaven by all the artists that have gone on before us. And perhaps they're right. Maybe Heaven will be a big party.
Who knows what the Stairway to Heaven will be...
All I know about Heaven is what's in the Bible. Near the end, John writes, "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away."
The Bible also says that we will worship Him and any rewards we might get for things accomplished on Earth in His name will be cast at God's feet. I've heard folks say, "How boring if that's what Heaven is all about...just standing around and worshipping God for eternity."
From my perspective, trading in death, mourning, crying, and pain for an eternity in God's presence sounds pretty good to me. But hey; I'm still human. Maybe Led Zeppelin will be there. Who knows? But I'm not too worried about them playing for me. If they are there, they will be too busy playing for One who is much more worthy.
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
What do you think?