Okay, so how did I miss this. Led Zeppelin was honored at The Kennedy Center Honors in 2012 and HEART played Stairway to Heaven. I watched it yesterday and I still haven’t really recovered from the emotional blast that hit me when it ended.
We’ve heard this song hundreds of times, but this performance (with choir and orchestra) is just sensational. The guy who plays Jimmy Page’s solo nails it. For reasons that maybe only another guitarist could understand the repeating lick at 3:55 hit me really hard. It’s a simple, easy-to-play repeating bit. But it’s iconic, a really important moment in the dynamic of the overall solo (which itself is the like a distillation of the whole arc of the song itself).
So I’m watching this, seeing the old Zeppelin guys, seeing Heart (who were inspired by Zep in their formative years), remember all the times I was driving in my car at age 16 with this song blasting, drumming on my steering wheel, windows down, summer breeze, sunset in my rearview, waiting for the guitar solo so I could sing every note . . . I’m watching Heart and I’m thinking “they’ll probably skip or shorten the guitar solo.” I’m preparing myself for the disappointment . . .
Then this guitar player steps forward (he’s had years of practice; he learned this solo note for note when HE was 16; this is a moment for him) and now he’s playing one of the most iconic guitar solos in the history of rock RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE GUY WHO ORIGINALLY PLAYED IT, and I’ve got goosebumps and tears. I know exactly what that guy is feeling.
When you know how to make those sounds with a guitar, you know that they don’t start from the amp, the pick, or the strings, or your fingers. That sound comes right out of your angst-filled teenaged heart, the place that never grows any older, the place that hasn’t learned all the lessons it’s going to learn. That heart believes in the dream and the dream is sound. It doesn’t know what “To be a rock and not to roll” means, but it feels the meaning.
And so I see this performance and I look back on that 16 year old in his car and see with such bittersweet clarity that I was right. The song did matter, it was as important as I thought it was. And all those hours playing solos in my bedroom were not wasted.
Those were the hours that counted the most.
Eric Edstrom is the author of the YA science fiction series The Undermountain Saga and The Scion Chronicles
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