The Song Remains the Same

After decades of marriage, 'Stairway to Heaven' still puts a bustle in my hedgerow

We met on a blind date, introduced by a college friend known for recording Eric Clapton's "Layla" on a cassette tape for his car, a rendition that repeated the song endlessly without pressing rewind. My blind date lived in a studio apartment, his long brown hair a remnant of the '60s. He was my only boyfriend to play a steel-stringed guitar, the first and only one who ever serenaded me.

Never mind that his voice was creakier than Dylan's. Sitting next to me on his waterbed, he wanted to show off the one song he'd mastered: "Stairway to Heaven," a rock magnum opus I'd never heard before. He picked perfectly through the 58-second guitar intro. He got the words right, but his vocal delivery could be considered a bit grating. He crooned in his unique discordant way:

There's a lady who's sure

All that glitters is gold

And she's buy-yi-ying

A stair-air-way to heaven

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Not your traditional love song, yet I fell for the man who serenaded me again and again—not under the moonlight, like in 1950s black-and-white movies, but in a dark, walk-up apartment facing an alley. He was my rock star, building with intensity through the eight-minute iconic song. His vocal style was way off-key, but his guitar rhythms were somewhat in sync—unless my love was totally blind.

It turns out love is not only blind but deaf as well. Because of, or in spite of, his questionable vocalization, we married a year after we met. His hair was cropped shorter for his transition from post-college aspirational guitar soloist to a young businessman. We chose a more traditional yet contemporary romantic song for our first dance: the Beatles' "Here, There and Everywhere." Still at that stage where I objected to nearly every one of my mother's preferences, I warned the band leader at our Sunday afternoon wedding that he should not, in any circumstances, play "Sunrise, Sunset." My mother won this battle (I suspected she bribed the band leader). "Is this the little girl I carried?" was her "Stairway to Heaven."

Our stairway to marriage centered on a ritual of listening to the radio every New Year's for the annual countdown of quintessential rock songs. We always cheered, and kissed each other in celebration, when "Stairway to Heaven" consistently topped out as #1.

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Our daughter did not share our taste in music. When she was 13, we drove her and three teammates to an out-of-town soccer league competition. On the way home, the sweaty, exhausted girls dozed off in the back seat. Suddenly my daughter awoke to what she considers the most traumatic nightmare of her childhood: her father singing along to Dylan's "Desolation Row," over 11 minutes of surreal lyrics screeching from the car CD player. Or as she called it: the never-ending song by a man, like her father, who couldn't sing. She grew up insisting Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Loudon Wainwright III were all one person, the same off-key chorister.

As inevitable as "Stairway" is always ranked as one of the greatest rock songs of all time, my daughter was less than impressed when I sat her down to listen to the song that made me fall in love with her father. Had we raised her wrong? Each generation forges its own music preferences. I admit to rolling my eyes whenever my mother swooned over Russ Columbo, an American songwriter famous for "You Call It Madness (But I Call It Love)."

Today, my daughter is the same age as I was when I married her father. She tempers her laughter when he bursts into song, playfully pleading with him to shush and not embarrass himself, or her, in public. I agree that his renditions are far from tuneful, but after decades of marriage, my "head is still humming" and my "stairway lies on the whispering winds." And yes, "oooh it makes me wonder" if I can still feel like that 22-year-old falling in love. Being wooed by a man pretending to be as cool and confident as Robert Plant or Jimmy Page, even though he was a Jewish accountant with a Long Island accent.

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Today, my long-haired beau is balding slightly, and his guitar is stored in a dusty case in the basement. His calluses are ancient memories, as he's too busy with work deadlines and caring for his 94-year-old mother to practice his strumming. But on every wedding anniversary, we listen to the song that united us. The "piper hasn't always led us to reason," yet we're still harmoniously together. Our love and marriage has evolved from LP to CD to Spotify. Sometimes we even share a set of headphones on an iPhone, the way today's teenagers rock as one. If I "listen very hard," I can still picture my young beau as the "songbird who sings."

Tags: music

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