Back in December 2012, HEART‘s Ann and Nancy Wilson delivered a moving rendition of “Stairway To Heaven”, LED ZEPPELIN‘s signature song, at the Kennedy Center Honors. They were joined by Jason Bonham, son of original drummer John and the drummer for LED ZEPPELIN‘s 2007 reunion show. Their version of the track gradually grew to include a string section, a horde of backup singers and the Joyce Garrett Youth Choir. Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones sat watching from the balcony and were visibly moved, particularly Plant, who had tears welling up in his eyes.
Robert reflected on the experience of watching HEART perform the ZEPPELIN classic in a new interview with Vulture. He said: “Look at the company I was keeping that night. Who was I sitting next to? What was going on? I didn’t even know the people anymore. How did we move across from being a British blues band to this ridiculous achievement? Well, ridiculous is a multifarious term. We all stood back at the end of the sessions, reeling from the transitions throughout the song. But ‘Stairway To Heaven’ has its own life. Later I often felt estranged. It began intimate and vulnerable and sincere, and then the years carried on. It was no longer ours and neither should it be. Now it’s out there driving people to distraction and then maybe driving a hard bargain.
“I’ve left so much of it all behind. And that night I was watching a reenactment — clever, well intentioned and respectful,” he continued. “I was in the gallery peering and following an excellent display. Me and my contribution to it all were hung out to dry in the land of timeless tributes, so far from the cover and the scene, and so far from the home that we’ve given it. I felt estranged from the whole deal, from the song, and the fact that the years did carry it through. It had its own impetus. I watched it go. It was like a beautiful feather, balloon, or bubble. Something out of a clay pipe that had been blown with soap.
“It was just something that I’d never, ever thought I would look at from this gallery. I didn’t ever see myself as smarting around seeing an artist’s impression of it. I knew it was coming — the Kennedy Center told us to expect something — but I didn’t know how it was going to be. It was a spectacular performance. I’m now a voyeur. I’m not responsible for it anymore. I’m not in guitar shops being told not to do it. I’m not going down the aisle at a wedding playing it with a flute. I love the song. It came upon me and stripped away all the years of being a part of all that. It just rubbed it right back to the bone. Because maybe it was all over for us a long time before it was all over. It was definitely all over without John. I mean that. We’re talking here about one song from 50-plus years ago. It’s just a magnificent performance to watch and it kills me every time. It kills me in two or three different ways. It’s just like, Oh my God.
“Some people are completely trapped in their achievements, and that must be real hell,” Plant added. “But perhaps one of the things about ‘Stairway To Heaven’ was that the development of the song was exactly that. Somehow it was something very, very special, which I don’t really have a great connection to. But that night at the Kennedy Center, it made me remember that I had some responsibility, for better or worse, for that song. It wasn’t really about who did a great job, although Ann‘s a spectacular singer. The whole choreography of it was blindingly sort of a ‘we’re not worthy’ moment.”
Two years ago, Ann reflected on the experience of performing for ZEPPELIN members in an interview with Vulture. She said: “There was a possibility that both [Nancy and I] could’ve dissolved into nerves, so we turned and looked at each other right before we walked out and said, ‘We’re not going to think about this right now and we’re going to keep our eyes on the ball.’ I had been learning and studying meditation at that point, and I told her to do the thing … you have a bowl of water and you’re holding it and you don’t want to spill any, so you just concentrate on the bowl of water. The bowl of water in this case was the song. [Laughs] And then we’d freak out afterwards. And we did!”
Asked if she felt that she and her bandmates achieved something spectacular, Ann said: “I actually felt every second of it as a real, not to overstate it, but pretty damn close to orgasmic in terms of bliss. I felt wide awake and alive, and I felt the emotional content of the song all the way down to the ground. It was really authentic. The emotions involved in performing that were wide awake and in the moment.”
She added: “‘Stairway To Heaven’ represents a whole universe of LED ZEPPELIN and so many people love that song. Everyone thinks that they know what it means and have their own little idea about how to interpret it, but there’s something about the poetry of that song that’s really hopeful and upbeat. Something about unity. Hey, there’s a better day coming. That message is ancient and pure and universal. That’s what I felt performing it. That’s why I almost teared up singing it — it’s so beautiful.”
Regarding LED ZEPPELIN‘s reactions to HEART‘s rendition of “Stairway To Heaven”, Ann said: “When you check out their reactions while the song is being performed, you can see how different they are. Jimmy is smiley and twinkly. Robert is emotional. John Paul is both. I think Robert looked down and saw Jason, who was just a child when LED ZEPPELIN was together … he was probably running around during their band rehearsals as a little tyke. For Robert to look down and see him on drums at the Kennedy Center, this big production of their most beautiful song, must have been very emotional. It probably brought back a lot of nice memories.”
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