Today I'm feeling grateful for not taking a bad path in my life.
This has to do with the kind of music I listen to. Music is such an important part of life for so many of us that it's important to be mindful of what music we're listening to and why. I feel good about the music I listen to, which gives my life more richness than I can know. I know I take it for granted most of the time, especially now with the internet.
When I was young I was in danger of going down a wrong path with my music, allowing other people to shape my listening choices in regrettable ways.
I'm talking about rock and roll.
Specifically, I'm talking about how some people tried to stop me from listening to rock and roll, and for a while I was in danger of following their misguided warnings.
I was young and impressionable when I first heard scandalized reports of the evils of rock music: bands with names like Black Sabbath and The Grateful Dead – horrors! It wasn't quite like the movie Footloose – I didn't live in a small town and the church had no problem with dancing (of the right kind), but the knee-jerk fear of the strange and different was just as strong at home and at church. I remember telling my younger sister that rock and roll was devil worship and that I wasn't going to listen to it.
I didn't keep that resolution for very long, for two reasons: my older sister's discovery of MTV and my older brothers' record collection that they left behind when they went away to college. It was a treasure trove, full of Led Zeppelin, Rush, Yes and the like. And as my sister continued to sneak views of MTV at night, she started buying more records of the bands she was hearing: mid-80s stars like Ratt, Cinderella, Poison, Def Leppard, Guns n Roses . . . my parents were very worried. I could tell that there was illicit subject matter in some of the stuff, but I had no clue that “Pour some sugar on me” was supposed to be a sexual metaphor, and I thought that Van Halen must be heavenly messengers after I watched the video of the Blue Angels stunt flying to “Dreams.”
This went on for some years, and as adolescence eroded my innocence I did sometimes suffer pangs of conscience for listening to some of the music that I did. Every once in a while I had to confront some explicit warnings from the authorities. Some I could shrug off without too much guilt, like my youth leader who thought that Queensrÿche's nifty logo looked Satanic. Others were harder to ignore.
One Sunday when I was 17, the Priests' Quorum lesson consisted of a recorded talk by some minor general authority about the perils of inappropriate music. I don't remember the who or when or where the talk had been recorded, but I had heard plenty of this kind of thing over the years, and progressing through my youth I had developed quite a selective ear for the rock music I liked so much. I knew the Rolling Stones were right out, of course, because of the story of Gene R. Cook talking to Mick Jagger on an airplane and hearing out of Mick's own mouth that their music was calculated to drive teens to have sex. (You can read about this in several places, for example here and here.)
In truth, I've always found the Rolling Stones a bit boring, so that wasn't really a problem. I had put aside a lot of rock and especially pop music that I decided was not worth my time – in fact, my 18th year of life was when I was most heavily into Rush and Queensrÿche, and had decided that a lot of other rock music just didn't measure up to those standards. Not to mention that I could see how many of my youth leaders, in being worried about heavy metal, completely missed the more blatant sexual messages in the more mild-sounding pop music they listened to.
So I was feeling pleased with myself as I listened to this talk, and allowed myself a bit of arch amusement at this old guy's immoderate hysteria about rock music, and then he dropped the bomb. He mentioned a song that everybody knew about which had the hidden lyric “Here's to my sweet Satan.” He mentioned this as an example of the really dangerous rock music out there that we just couldn't afford to dabble with.
But he didn't name the song or the group!
I was seized by doubt. Who was it? I didn't ask if anyone in the room knew; I wasn't that outspoken. Besides, I was truly afraid of finding out: what if it was a band I really liked? What if it was Rush? I could already tell that Neil Peart was skeptical about God, and there was that 2112 album cover with the pentagram. I had come to terms with Neil's expression of his beliefs in his lyrics, and I didn't listen to "Ghost of a Chance" or "Anthem." I could forgive Neil for not believing in God, I could even forgive him from preaching selfishness in his youth, but what if . . .
No, it couldn't be Rush. Could it? Well then who? Maybe it was Black Sabbath? I didn't listen to them, only “Iron Man” when it came on the radio.
The question sat at the back of my mind for years. I wanted to know who had done it, but at the same time I didn't, just in case I might find out that I really had been dangling from the devil's hook unknowing for years. So over 20+ years of the World Wide Web I've never looked it up online – until just a few days ago.
Actually, I stumbled across it, as I was reading about something else, viz: the recent lawsuit brought against - and won by - Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement, for the opening riff of “Stairway to Heaven.” (I won't discuss that in this post.)
I feel like I'm late to the party in discovering this weird little nugget in The Greatest Song in the World, but, it's sad to admit, I have a history of unease with “Stairway to Heaven” and Led Zeppelin generally. The first time I heard it (I was young and impressionable) was with a family member who was analyzing the lyrics and mentioned the possibility that instead of being a song with a Good Message, as seemed plain to me, it might actually be a song with a Bad Message. In other words, what if that “piper” were really the Devil? She never said anything about the supposed hidden message in the recording; I don't think she had heard about it.
And that album cover – well, it was certainly mysterious, wasn't it? Kind of spooky, with those arcane-looking sigils. My due respect for Led Zeppelin was retarded by that initial suspicion, so that the timeless wonder and quality of their music took a long time to erode my wary defenses. On the way, of course I heard a bit of schoolyard and lunchroom rumors (though never the one about the backmasked message): “dude, they wrote the song while they were high on some drug.” “Isn't that song about the devil or something?” “Didn't they sell their souls to the devil?” In the pre-internet information-scarce environment of public schools, any scandalous rumor seemed as likely to be true as the next. It didn't help that I saw a record-burning on the news with Led Zeppelin albums prominently displayed.
By the time I was 17, I had shed almost all of my unease or guilt at listening to Led Zeppelin – I had taped just about all of their songs that got regular radio airplay, and I spent my senior skip day listening to my brothers' old Zep LPs (including #4) on a friend's turntable. Never let your schooling get in the way of your education.
If I had been told at that age that “Stairway to Heaven” had the hidden message “Here's to my sweet Satan” in it, I don't know what I would have done. I mean, I might not have been able to play it backwards for myself to check, but knowing how credulous I was I might have believed it. And that might have caused me even more psychic retardation. As it was, I got rid of a CD I bought of symphonic arrangements of Led Zeppelin songs when I was in my early 20s partly because the artwork made me uncomfortable. It was too . . . magical. I regret getting rid of that CD, partly because of my silly squeamishness, partly because the crushing rendition of “Kashmir” was worth the price alone.
Because the thing is, of course, Led Zeppelin is magical! Good British lads, they tapped into the same rich soil of Faerie that J.R.R. Tolkien did in their own way – after all, Tolkien was one of their big inspirations. I've written already about how much I loved fantasy fiction and role-playing as a teenager, and during that time I vehemently defended these hobbies against the accusations of Satanism that came from “ignorance andprejudice and fear.” I assuaged my feelings of guilt at listening to “Stairway to Heaven” with the thought that a new day dawning with laughter echoing in the forests could be understood not only as an image of the Millennium but also sounded like Bilbo and his buddies having a great time in the Shire (I'd be willing to bet my lunch tomorrow that Plant was thinking of something out of Tolkien when he wrote that line). Forests echoing with laughter sounds like the kind of world I would like to live in. I want to pack my bags for the Misty Mountains!
If I had had cause to believe seriously that all of this was really tainted by an earnest profession of allegiance to Satan I might have turned decisively and ventured too far down the path away from all that: away from the color, vitality and wonder found in so many creative expressions influenced by or alluding to magic, whether labeled as fantasy or otherwise. I might never have picked up Robert Bly or Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung; I might have decided to really sever my relationship with fantasy fiction for good and all, I might have never started listening to King Crimson . . . who knows, I might have even decided that Harry Potter was of the Devil.
I don't like to think of myself in such a state.
Fortunately, my exposure to this strange and amusing sonic coincidence has come at a stage in my life where I'm more skeptical than I've ever been and also seldom shocked or offended by anything I see, hear or read. And I had already been inoculated against taking backmasking seriously. When I first heard about the “my sweet Satan” hidden message I thought the man was talking about a subliminal message that you might have to turn the sound up or speed up or slow down to hear, not a silly backwards thing. I don't know if I misheard or misremembered, or if the speaker was misinformed and simply took his bad information as a reliable report not needing any questions. I'm more inclined to believe the latter.
Being curious, I've still done my own investigation. I've heard the section of “Stairway to Heaven” backwards, listened to it slowed down, made phonetic transcriptions, heard multiple versions and gotten to the bottom of how that vocal line can sound like “my sweet Satan” backwards. Because I do have to admit: hearing it for the first time was unnerving. After all, hearing any human speech backwards gives an uncanny effect (as David Lynch exploited to hair-raising effect in Twin Peaks). If your mind is primed to hear “Satan” it's possible to assign that word to three utterances in the clip. This whole thing has been a good chance for me to reflect on what I learned in Linguistics about the brain's way of picking meaning out of sound, and the weird things that can result when we impose our need for pattern recognition on random stuff (think of A Beautiful Mind, for example). For years I've enjoyed reading mis-heard song lyrics, and the other day I just about wet my pants laughing to this video of Orff's “O Fortuna.”
Back to "Stairway." Listening closely and repeatedly – as digital technology makes possible – shows that only the first utterance that you might parse as “Satan” really comes close to having all the right sounds. The others are really just “say” - reversed from “yes” and “fiy” reversed from “if” pronounced with a diphthong. But the glottal stop that Robert Plant started each does sound like a hasty N in reverse, giving those backwards utterances a resemblance to the Standard American pronunciation of “Satan.” In the first (or the last) Robert Plant led off from the glottal stop with a little nasal hum before articulating the dental fricative in “there's still time.” On the reversal that sounds like an N, giving the backwards “there's” a really close resemblance to “Satan,” priming the ear for the “yes” and “if.” Since he pronounces “time” more like “tom” the vowel keeps its purity in reverse and can sound like “my” or “mah” instead of “miah.” That makes it easier to hear “sweet” instead of the “tleet” that's really going on. The L is slightly rounded too, and with some aspiration (the common leaky articulation) of T forwards, there's your SW resemblance backwards. Also the background instruments obscure the vocal sounds, giving an even more vague input for the mind to try to process into something. With such mushy uncertainty, the pattern-making mind could fill in all sorts of weird things – like the nonsense of the rest of the supposed hidden message.
If it had been recorded today, someone might have parsed the reversal as “jest my tweet Satan.” Whatever meaning anyone might extract from that could make as much sense as that silly toolshed. (Now if it had been seeing something nasty in the woodshed, we might have a case here. Though I can't think of any lyrics that would make any sense to backmask “I saw something nasty in the woodshed.” The closest I can get is “the stove and tea, it's on, meat sauce, yeah.”)
Now why anyone would think that the mind's desperate attempts to make sense of backwards singing should mean that those improvised meanings are actually assimilated unconsciously going forward is hard to imagine . . . until you remember that people who come up with these kinds of scenarios aren't generally in the habit of thinking scientifically or even critically.
I feel silly admitting a need to have done so, but feels good to fully debunk this rumor through my own sonic/linguistic analysis. Like a Hogwarts wizard dispelling a boggart, I say “Riddikulus!” and laugh.
And I play the song for my children, glad that they are hearing it in its glory, without prejudice.