In 1975, when I was six years old, a nice young lady came to our house with a suitcase containing an accordion and I was given a musical “evaluation”. I had to clap back rhythms and sing back some musical phrases in time before being strapped to the instrument to “play” a few simple melodies that she had shown me how to finger. I was heralded as having an “unusually strong” musical aptitude while both my parents stood by smiling – attributing my apparent natural talent as being an inherited trait from various “musical” relatives on both sides of the family. The evaluation itself was really just a sales pitch for music lessons and my parents signed me up on the spot for the not-so-low fee of five dollars a week with visions of me playing polkas on the Lawrence Welk show. I still have the original contract they signed. So began my musical career as an accordion player that would continue in one form or another until I was 13.
Being an accordion player in the late 70’s and early 80’s was like living in a special kind of hell. The true horror of this can only be understood if you can imagine the consequences of what my mother used to do: walking out to the playground while I was in the middle of a soccer or football game, calling out to me in a singsong voice in front of all the other kids, “Robbie…. time to come in and practice your accordion”. I played with elementary school kids who were bad ass enough at ten and eleven years old to have KISS tattoos in the 70’s back when the KISS army was real and only 50 year old Merchant Marines had tattoos. I’ll leave it to you to imagine how the whole accordion thing went down and how that might have affected my social standing in the neighbourhood.
I started plotting my escape from the accordion as soon as I could. I’d seen enough to know that guitar could be that escape. I’d pour through the Sears Catalog drooling over the various guitars they had for sale, picking out my favorites. One day I thought – One Day! That day came when I was around 9 or 10 — an acoustic guitar with thick steel strings and an action hovering about a full centimeter off the fret board was under my Christmas tree. Fretting notes was virtually impossible on that guitar, and the idea of barring a chord was an unrealized dream but at least it looked good. I had taken one step forward and then two back. But I persevered, and with my Mel Bay guitar instructional book I proceeded to teach myself how to play. I wasn’t getting far with Mel trying to play On Top of Old Smokey – but the Universe corrected that for me when I discovered Jimi Hendrix. Mel was out and Jimi was in. Try as I might, playing Voodoo Chile on an acoustic guitar strung with bailing wire was an exercise that did not yield enormous progress, but it was enough. I wasn’t just an accordion player anymore – I also played guitar.
I saw another chance to ditch the accordion with the school band in grade 7 when the opportunity to play bass came up. I jumped at it immediately but my parents still insisted I continue playing accordion as well. So I added bass player to my musical resume and that’s where things really took off. My musical foundation from the accordion was actually quite strong (yeah accordion), and within two years my progress on the bass guitar was quite prodigious. But I still burned to play the six string electric guitar and dump the accordion altogether and my parents knew this so they set a goal for me: achieve a certain conservatory level and performance grade on my accordion and they’d let me officially switch to guitar lessons (as my bass playing had all been self taught and self directed at that point). Part of what helped to motivate this change of heart for them was the fact that to go any further with the accordion I would need to purchase a new one — an expensive multi-reed behemoth costing between $3000 to $4000 at the time. A Fender Strat then was only about $1100 – a comparative bargain. And so at 13, with my last accordion examination over, I was done. I officially retired from the accordion and received my first 6 string electric guitar.
At this point you are probably wondering when I’m going to start talking about “Stairway” —- That would be right now – but we have to go back in time again to do it.
If you were a kid in the 70’s you knew about Stairway to Heaven. What you knew might have varied and how you heard about it depended on if you had older siblings or friends or how maybe hip or cool your parents were – but you knew something. My parents unfortunately were the least hip, just slightly pre-boomer parents in all of Canada. Case in point: when my mother was 30 years old (1973), a band called Pink Floyd released a little album called Dark Side of The Moon. That same year my mother bought one of her favorite albums of all time – The World of Jim Nabors. Led Zeppelin had just released Houses of the Holy and my mom was doing housework while ol’ Jim crooned to her in his unique bass baritone. So I heard about Stairway on the playground. What I heard, quite simply, was that it was the greatest song of all time and I had no reason to disbelieve that. Later – at church (which I attended on my own from the age of 5 to about 15 – a whole other story to be told) I also learned that it contained alleged Satanic Messages. Now being the professional accordion player that I was I had my immediate doubts about the Satanic messages – It didn’t pass my kid-brain smell test. I had listened to Stairway many times – and by my own assessment agreed with the sentiment that yes it was perhaps the greatest song of all time. I knew Bing Crosby’s White Christmas was up there too – I had heard that expressed on a radio broadcast once – but to my trained musical ears Stairway just seemed better; having more musical elements and a sophistication and majesty that White Christmas didn’t. I didn’t claim to understand the lyrical theme very well but there was something profound in the idea of a woman buying a Stairway to Heaven to me – but Satanic? I wasn’t buying that.
At around the age of 9 I can remember discussing the virtues of Stairway to Heaven at bible camp with the other kids. We all rejected the idea of backwards masking – that was bullshit for sure – but the other kids were under the vague impression that the lyrics themselves were somehow Satanic though they didn’t know which ones and none of us could remember any at the moment to even analyze. As we debated and pontificated (as 9 year olds do) we blew our own minds with the thought that our brains had most likely stored the lyrics in our heads and that under hypnosis we could probably all recite the whole song. Wow – we thought. Pretty heady stuff especially if there was something Satanic about the lyrics. Years later I’d witness two very stoned 16 year olds have this exact same conversation on a couch at a house party as a suburban teen. Back in bible camp I made the case that the song was still the greatest song ever written no matter what the lyrics were and although there was general agreement amongst us all in the conversation, someone must have told a councilor because later that evening we were given a small presentation at the group bonfire before bed on what appropriate Christian music was. It was clearly directed at us. This message would have been more effective if we hadn’t heard one of the young male councilors (in a private moment) trying to play Stairway on his guitar to one of the female councilors earlier that day. Those opening arpeggios are pretty specific and so too were the googly eyes she was flashing him while he played. I can say with clear memory that he was a hack – but she was still enamored with him and his every note so I filed that one away. There was a lesson there somewhere.
So at 13, as a freshly retired accordion player, I held my new Fender guitar (a hardtail strat styled model called the Lead III outfitted with humbuckers that could also be coil split) convinced that life would be infinitely better from this moment onward, and Stairway was one of the first songs I tried to learn. And learn it I did. Flash forward 33 years and today I’m sitting in my little home studio, holding that same Fender guitar, playing Stairway, and thinking about my life and my relationship to this amazing song – and the journey we’ve had together to get here. Those are the two moments that bookend my history of playing Stairway to Heaven and future articles will expand that history and explore my relationship to Stairway up to present day and my recent recording and release of a faithful note for note cover version of the song. I’m not sure what all will be revealed during the writing, but I look forward to sharing it with you.