Paul Is Dead

And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. - Genesis 28:12

With a minimum of rock-and-roll excess—some spotlights, a fog machine—Martin Healy videotaped a hired band playing “Stairway to Heaven.” Oft voted the greatest song of all time, Led Zeppelin’s masterpiece is also famed for its supposed Satanic messages, audible if the song is played backwards. Healy trades on both these associations, solemnly filming the earnest musicians in serious black-and-white—with appropriate close-ups for vocals, drum, and guitar solos—and running the tape partly in reverse, making the last section of the song (where the insidious Satanic verses are thought to reside) into an endless loop; as soon as the band hits the last note, the footage is reversed, playing backwards until it comes to the bit about bustles, hedgerows, and May Queens,1 when it changes up and runs forward again.

Genesis 28:12, as Healy calls the video, after the Biblical passage describing Jacob’s ladder (the oneiric site of a covenant between man and God), traps the band, and the viewer, in an infinite and symmetrical alternation of progress and regress. This is the song that never ends, nor does it ever really begin, starting, as it were, in medias res. The video forms a visual and temporal palindrome, or even a kind of Rorschach blot, folded back upon itself in time, and we might well feel that the artist encourages us to try to discern the hidden and infernal meanings in the music. But in the end, Healy’s record of a live performance, even played backwards, summons far less sympathy for the devil than the phonetic reversals of Robert Plant’s original vocal track, and, without the utmost effort of the imagination, the gibberish we hear in the segment of the tape played backwards does not resolve into anything resembling intelligible English, let alone the grand pomp of Led Zeppelin’s lyrics themselves.

The band’s inability to (semi)coherently form the diabolic syllables points to their distance from the absent model, as do their sartorial choices (scruffy, modified grunge can never replace the majesty of tight bell bottoms, flowing hair, and mustaches), and the many discrepancies between their cover version and our memory of the 1971 recording. Instead of the magisterial bombast of Led Zeppelin, we get a gray imitation. And instead of an orchestrated movement to crescendo and denouement, we get ceaseless anticipation without climax, buildup without release, endless repetition without resolution. The song remains the same.

Our own distance from the mythic authenticity we desire, from the memory of overweening greatness, and from the sinister mystery in which we could once almost believe, may be Healy’s covert message. The unending rhythmic cycle of forwards and backwards in Genesis 28:12 delivers a contemplative frustration; we know nothing will be revealed, we know the power and the glory will be lacking forever and ever, but we remain enthralled nonetheless, not only with the wan spectacle before us, but with our very fascination with the copy that recalls the lost original. And it makes me wonder.

Joseph R. Wolin

i. Claimed by believers, at least in the early 1980s, to translate backwards into something about Satan, 666, and toolsheds. Surely the Prince of Darkness deserves better versifying than this!