If you play guitar you’ve tried to play Stairway to Heaven – it’s undeniable. It may even have been the first song you ever tried to play, or the 2nd, or the 3rd – but you tried, and tried it early on. You probably tried to play it on piano too – even if you didn’t play piano – it wasn’t that hard. If you were visiting your Grandma and she had an organ, you tried to play Stairway there. You did this at friend’s houses, or in shopping malls or music stores. Wherever there were young people with access to any kind of keyboard – someone walked up to it and started playing Stairway. It’s just what we all did.
This resulted in Stairway becoming the most butchered and hack-played song in the history of music. There’s a reason that there’s a “No Stairway” sign at the music store in the Wayne’s World movie. It wasn’t a joke – it was real and absolutely necessary. There was a time at the height of this madness when walking into any music store guaranteed that you would be greeted by a cacophony of dudes ham fistedly trying to play Stairway at extreme volumes. It was horrible. I actually saw my first “No Stairway” sign in 1985 at Steve’s Music in Montreal – probably the same place Mike Meyers first saw one. (Steve’s Music was a legendary Canadian music store and the “No Stairway” sign I saw in 1985 also had “No Jump” on it too.) You couldn’t escape it.
If you were a decent player you worked Stairway out of your system very quickly, and would later divorce yourself from playing it entirely just to avoid association with all the hacks. But it was almost impossible to escape. When other people found out you played, Stairway would be the first song they requested of you. If you were at a house party, and word got out you were there, some dude would come out from a back bedroom with a guitar in hand and thrust it into your arms demanding you play Stairway. These back-of-the-closet guitars were the worst. Almost all of them being ancient relics of some vague Asian manufacture that an uncle bought in Bangkok on the way back from ‘Nam, or some long forgotten piece of garbage that someone was given for helping a neighbour clean out a garage. Having a hundred drunken teens at a house party chanting “Stairway” in unison while you held one of these is the stuff of night mares. There’s just no winning. Damned if you do…
And this sucks because Stairway is a beautiful song. Deceptively simple, but full of complex nuances and dynamics, Stairway yields itself to few and is actually incredibly difficult to pull off. And for a band? Virtually impossible. In the whole recorded history of the universe there have probably only been about 3 or 4 bands that have ever performed the song with any justice – with any sense of not sucking major balls – and anyone or any group considering performing Stairway is best advised to run away from it and never utter the phrase “We’re going to do Stairway” ever again. That’s the smart money. Like Joshua tells us all in War Games: sometimes “the only winning move is not to play”.
This was a lesson that smart guitar players learned early on – you just don’t do Stairway. Well you can imagine my shock when, at the beginning of the school year in the 9th grade, my fellow band mate came up to me all excited and announced that we were going to perform in the upcoming school talent show followed by the phrase “We’re going to do Stairway“.
My band at the time consisted of three core members; myself (on bass & rhythm guitar), Jan N. (lead guitar and our defacto leader) and Tim M.(drums) and a rotating series of vocalists. We were crack musicians all three of us and very well schooled and experienced for our ages – prodigiously so. Aside from our own rock band doing house parties and even a few bar gigs, we played in several Jazz combos and Stage Bands and were a tight and grooving rhythm section to contend with. But aside from Tim, who could sing lower register Wilson Picket and Doors type stuff, neither Jan nor I ever sang and finding a vocalist with range and skill to match us proved nearly impossible. So as I stood there processing what Jan had said, I responded in a way that should have ended the Stairway talk right there. “We’ll never find a vocalist” I said with some relief. It was true – that would be our out. We couldn’t even find a guy to sing Billy Idol tunes let alone tackle Robert Plant. But Jan shut me down almost immediately and looked me straight in the eye. “Don’t worry. I’m gonna sing it. I got this!” As the youngest member of the band there was no arguing with Jan – I just accepted it. Holy crap! I though. We’re gonna do Stairway.
The back story on this was that Jan had been working on singing in private – possibly even with a vocal coach – I never got the full details. Though we had never played Stairway on guitar in each others’ presence before, we could both play it well enough individually to immediately start working on an arrangement. Stairway demanded two guitars so we both knew that we’d need someone to cover bass duty to free me up to play guitar. There really was only one call to be made for that – our good buddy John L. Usually a trombone player, John was a tall lanky kid who used to come to school dressed as one half of the Blues Brothers. He could play bass well enough – he had a post punk sensibility to him – and was one of the funniest and nicest guys in the school. The four of us had an emergency meeting with our Jr. High School’s band director – a great great man who I honour here by using his full real name: Bob Labonte. Sadly Bob passed away a few years ago but I’ll never forget him and neither will the 1000’s of kids whose lives he touched with music.
Mr. Labonte heard our Stairway pitch – it was 1983 – he’d seen countless bands fall before Stairway. He’d probably been in some. He knew the score for sure – but he also knew us and he told us that it would be hard, but he thought we could pull it off if we did it right. He immediately offered to help. First: he’d write an arrangement for the Fender Rhodes and find a pianist for us who could pull it off. Second: he’d write out an arrangement for the recorders and get a woodwind ensemble together to play it. Lastly: he’d get a small group of girls from the Jazz Choir together and would write and conduct a backup vocal arrangement. Our job, he said, was to “learn our parts and stitch it all together”. So that’s what we did.
Now part of the reason I didn’t shut Jan down that fateful day he told me we were going to do Stairway was that I knew that it meant I would be playing guitar not bass. For me this was a big deal – not only was I stepping up into the guitar from bass (I had guitar envy for sure) but in many ways I was going to take the lead on the song. Jan looked to me to do the heavy lifting as he was going to be singing, but he still wanted the solo. I was fine with that and working out all the nuanced parts for both guitars was really cool. There was no tab back in those days so this took a lot of effort. But one day it just clicked-in between Jan and I. Everything started to flow like a brook. We’d found some Stairway magic together.
Rehearsals with the larger group were closed door sessions in the band room after school. We initially barred everyone from the sessions but the performers (no girlfriends or boyfriends) and spent several weeks putting it all together with one small omission. Jan didn’t want to sing it yet – he didn’t want to give it all away in rehearsals and spoil the surprise. This gave us pause and we queried him – “Jan — you sure you can sing this?” He assured us yes – and so did his parents (who were both heavily involved and supportive). They’d heard him – and he’d been working it up at home and sounded awesome. “He’s going to be great” we were told.
It took a little while for the pianist to get the hang of the Fender Rhodes. Mr. Labonte’s arrangement was spot on, but the Rhodes has a swing to it and so does Stairway. Classical pianists struggle
a bit with the transition to swing time and the mechanics of the Rhodes. I don’t remember her name, she was an older student – maybe 15 or 16 – but when she finally got it it was a joy to play with her.
As time progressed and the song came together we introduced the woodwinds. If I remember correctly we had one or two flute players and a couple of clarinetists. It wasn’t until that first rehearsal with them that I started getting really excited. Not only did it look like we might actually pull this off , it looked like we might actually pull it off really really well. The woodwinds took us to a whole other place – just lifted the arrangement off the ground into the clouds. The rehearsals opened up a bit after that as more people in the band meant more people hanging around outside the doors. The Jazz choir girls had these little harmony parts worked out for the cadences at the end of some of the vocal phrases. They did some cool “OOOOOOs” and “Ahhhhhhhs” during the strumming sections – just really nice little touches. Even today, 32 years later, I can say with authority that we sounded awesome. Beyond awesome actually.
We sounded so awesome in those later day rehearsals that I knew my whole life was about to change. At 14 I was always the younger straight guy in the band; the intellectual bass player who stayed in the background holding down the bottom end. But now I was basically leading the arrangement on guitar – holding the performance together with the continuity of my playing. Who cared about the solo – Jan could have that. I had Stairway the song beaten. I imagined myself out front. I imagined the adulation and accolades and all the attention I would get from the girls. That last idea really stuck in my head. I realized that’s why bands all want to do Stairway. With great risk comes great reward – and the rewards were almost in my hand.
About a week out from the performance we start pushing Jan a bit more for vocals. “Hey Jan – let’s do one and have you sing”. He was adamant: “Nope — Not yet. I’m savin’ it.” We just accepted it and moved on.
I started getting a little more nervous when we were only a couple days away. I was worried about vocal cues but Jan said he had it covered. He’d be practicing in private and those in the know continued to assure us all was well. I relaxed. The band was tight and this was going to be the best version of Stairway ever in the history of performances outside of Led Zeppelin. I was stoked beyond all measure and so caught up in the dream and fantasy of what that would mean for me that I had no fear. And it was good – there was no question about it. If you could capture us at that moment I think only Heart’s Kennedy Centre Honours performance would have bested us.
We rode the dream right down to the wire – to literally the day of the performance: This is it Jan — moment of truth — one hour before curtain call. We’re in the band room — Just the 4 core of us and Mr. Labonte – “we gotta do this at least once before we go out there”. Jan is walking tall with a swagger and a smile that said “Don’t Worry — I got this”. He’s so confident it’s infectious. We feel it. We know it. Jan’s got this!
I start the familiar opening arpeggios…. cue Jan….He steps up to the mic. “There’s a lady who’s sure…” That moment is still frozen in time for me. Jan’s voice was angelic – liquid gold & sweet like honey – it’s gorgeous. My heart skips a beat and I almost pee myself. My mind is running away – living out our imaginary future. We are gonna blow minds – I’m going to get so many chicks – we are gonna be legend… OMG OMG OMG I’m looking at Jan. He’s about to be the instrument through which all my teen aged fantasies get delivered. He continues to sing “… all that glitters is…. CROAKKKKKK… squeek, cough, sputter…… <nothing>“ The dream comes crashing down. Icarus.
Thirty minutes later the 4 of us take the stage – me on rhythm guitar, Jan on lead guitar, Tim on drums and John on bass. There’s an empty chair behind the Fender Rhodes and an empty choral riser behind us and no woodwind ensemble to be found. John steps up to the mic and counts us in. The setlist: Tommy TuTone’s Jenny (867-5309) followed by Billy Idol’s Dancing With Myself. Not a Stairway in sight.
It’s the only time in my life that I almost played Stairway in a band situation before a live audience. Had we pulled it off my whole life’s trajectory would have been different – all of our lives would have been different – but it was not to be. We did win the talent show, and split $50 prize between us. I bought a Jimi Hendrix Album (this one) and the rest of the guys bough smokes and liquor. Later that year Tim moved away and Jan got more interested in football than guitar so he stopped playing. I lost track of John – he was pretty devastated when one of our other friends, Shane (a trumpet player), his Blues Brothers partner, was killed in rollover accident out at the mud flats. Bob Labonte left our Jr. High at the end of that school year to teach at a combined Jr/Sr high so he could follow students right to the end of their high-school education, and I attempted to rebuild the music program at our school the next year with a new band instructor. Of them all I’m the only one that stayed with music until my own injuries from a car accident many years later forced me out of a classical music degree program.
But I don’t think of this as a sad story – I think of it as a glorious moment in time where we almost pulled off an impossible feat. And I can still revisit those moments and run the dream of us actually taking the stage, and Jan’s voice not breaking, and us pulling off the greatest live rendition of Stairway the world has ever known as if it actually happened. Because it almost did.
Flash forward to Christmas of 2015. I’m sitting with my wife on the couch at home – retelling this story to her for the nth time. Our discussion moves on to recording projects, and what I should do next (after a 20 year absence from playing music I had started playing and recording again in an attempt to rehab my old injuries and get music back in my life). She leaned into me and said: “You know what you should record?… Stairway!” Oh boy. Here we go.