Stairway to Nowhere


It’s been fifty years since I first heard the Pipes of Eld. I was fifteen when the ancient-modern sound emerged: flutes, crude wood or shining silver, reed-pipes, recorders and penny whistles, panpipes of all kinds. The gods’ own breath rose from spinning black discs, and blew through the invisible realms of ether, air molecules, and radio waves.

Approaching the Stairway to Heaven, millions of kids, millions of times, had to wait through two double-tracked recorders—a plaintive wisp of fake English folk-culture. By many beloved, and by a few much reviled, this high kitsch anthem was the cosmic trigger that blew countless teenaged minds.

A cryptical graybeard geezer apppeared on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s fourth—nameless and unnamable—record. On the front of the album was a picture of an anonymous old back-country codger, bent under a huge bundle of sticks. He leaned on a staff, or crude crutch, and aimed his eye directly at me. Only his right was visible. The left was obscured, by shadow or scar. What were those sticks he carried, I wanted to know. Fuel for his hearth or a sacrificial fire? Rude materials to build a wicker effigy? Why did he stare back at me with that dark rheumy eye?

He was a picture of a picture. That is, he’d been captured in a framed print, nailed to old plaster with the tattered wallpaper peeling off. Flipping the album over, the perspective shifted, and I saw that the old man hung on an interior wall exposed by demolition. He was a ruin of a man, lost and found on the ruin of a wall. Beyond were more signs of urban awfulness, a weedy scrub-scape with modern slum towers in the distance. There was not a single word anywhere on the album cover.


The wrecking ball swung, a slow arc through the cold December air. It might’ve been an old anarchist-style bomb, the iconic black sphere of destruction. Instead of a short sizzling fuse, however, a long chain ran up to the crane’s peak. The ball didn’t contain explosive. Its power was in momentum and mass. No black powder—no dynamite—no gelignite—no TNT. It was solid iron: scarred, dust-coated, pitted from thousands of impacts. Bits of broken masonry and flecks of paint stuck to its surface.

The wrecker was a pendulum, though not as regular as the works of a grandfather clock. More like a great pocket watch on a rusty fob chain, the ball swung, smashed, and swung again. Time itself was sliced with the rhythm, the impacts telling the hours like the great bells in a crumbling cathedral. The iron stroke of daylight had struck twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen.

As the crane rotated at its base, the ball and chain reached their back-swing apogee, reversed, and with the pendulum’s impulse, glided through the sky to slam in slo-mo against the prison wall. 

The solid iron sphere and clanking links might’ve been used to hold a giant prisoner. Though there was no leg shackle at the end, the ball and chain might’ve been discovered in some ancient cave, the bones making a secret tumbled Stonehenge in human form: imprisoned and forgotten in subterranean darkness.

But there was no giant. And no massive bones. It was just a century-old prison, being freed of its rigid geometrical form by the wrecking crew. Time’s war-club broke the armor of brick, stone, mortar, concrete. It revealed the empty chambers inside. In the past few weeks, everything of value had been removed and auctioned off: records, thousands of mug shots, even the copper pipes. I’d stood there watching day after day, witness to the slow ponderous demolition.

Sections of brick still hung, once orderly geometry, now full of zigzag cracks and ragged stone wounds. More fractures appeared as the ball dropped again on the roof, a perfectly spherical iron fist, beating time on the prison’s stoney skull. Slabs of brick fell, straight edges made wild and irrational. Some sections still hung in midair while others had already crumbled. The ball swung again and jail bars were blasted from their moorings.

Now the crane’s skeletal sky-arm turned and the ball was dragged straight up, higher than before. It moved over the roof—hovered above for a few seconds, poising—then dropped. Not a slow swing like before, but a sudden plummet. It met the slate roof, and the world—the air, the ground—shuddered. One single subsonic shock wave. Jets of dust blew from the windows; trickles of powdered mortar and concrete ran like tears to the ground.


Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn had been released a few years before, and its title was the most obvious reference in Brit-rock to the Great God Pan and his wild way with music. That album was drenched in dreamy childish acidhead innocence. It was psychedelia, though, not real pagan evocation. In 1971, Pan’s own sound, the rural British mystic piping, made its entrance onto American radio, and into my head.

First of the true pagan pipers was Ian Anderson, front man for Jethro Tull. No one manifested better the frenzied goat-god than Anderson, with his huge snarls of hair and shaggy beard. Spinning, gyring, growling, using his flute as a magical wand and a musical phallus, he was foul and crude and mad for rutting.

This was the real Eldritch, the presence of old at a time when youth culture was supposed to have conquered the world. For their earlier album, This Was, Tull dressed in shabby rural Dickensian clothes, dyed their hair gray and white, and stood with canes and bent backs, like four cackling shit-kickers who’d wandered in from a previous century. How was this supposed to sell records? Yes, hippies had been heading out to the country to get their heads together. Yes, old bluesmen—such as Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Son House—had near-mythic stature for young white Brits who wanted to play the real thing. And yes Tull and Zep had started out doing slavish blues imitations. This however, was a new kind of old. And in ‘71, this manic piping came out of the shadows and sold millions of albums.

On the cover of Tull’s most successful album, Aqualung, was an image of Ian Anderson, shown in a fallen, forgotten state. Wearing a tattered overcoat, boots held together with rope and rags, with his tangles of hair and ratty beard, he might’ve been just another sleazy derelict in any big city. His nose wears a reddish glow, a faint suggestion of a drunken randy Santa Claus. He hunches down with bent knees and twisted back, as though expecting a blow from some invisible enemy. Defiant, he sticks his hand into his buttonless coat, perhaps to pull out a bottle of whiskey, a crumpled dirty picture, some candy for an unsuspecting child, or his ancient flute.

It was the face, the grimace of the mouth and the wild gaze, that gave him his quasi-mythic power. He looked insane, enraged, and at the same time driven by some kind of mad secret knowledge. And he could only see out of one eye, the right eye. He glared at an unseen object of scorn, or lust. Or was the eye turned inward, staring fierce and free into his interior landscape? The left eye was blurred, squinched down in blindness or madness, pain or confusion, or sniggering glee.


The Monroe County penitentiary had been built ten years before the Civil War began. And it lasted until men had walked on the moon. It stood as a time-bridge, spanning the gap between antique-then and modern-now. But the bridge was falling. Again the black bomb dropped and one hundred year old dust plumed upward. It tasted dry, dead, bitter. More fault-lines appeared in the walls. Now, a huge chunk fell, groaning, and secret chambers appeared in midair, like long-empty cells in a split-open beehive. Tiny barren rooms, narrow corridors, and a stairway that led into the uppermost nowhere.

The wrecking ball finished its work. The crane pulled back and bulldozers moved in, pushing debris, crushing together the remnants of empty cell galleries and offices. For a short while, the boilers and dynamos were visible in the basement, as though the bulldozer’s blades were huge scalpels dissecting a vast animal and finding the dead heart, and the cold brain, of the beast.

The bulldozer, jetting black smoke, hunched into the wreckage and the dynamos were lost to sight. A steam shovel bit into the ruin, hoisted up a load of rubble and dumped it into the waiting trucks. Dozens of them were lined up, a sullen diesel-thrumming parade.

Dank air breathed out from the ruin. Even at a distance, behind the safety fence, I could smell dampness, rot, sour sewerish vapors, coal dust, sulfur and rust.

“Hey, kid.” More cough than a voice.

“Me?” There was no other.

The Great God Pan had fallen and disappeared, but now was there before me, a wretched old bum with bad lungs.


I came closer. “Me?”

He might have been deaf, or so far gone that words didn’t mean anything. That eye, though, still was alive.


“Stairway to Heaven” starts with acoustic guitar, of course, fey and folksy. Then come twin recorders, quaking with cheesy elfland emotion. Seven minutes later, millions of kids had taken the venerable ride again, from vapid fairy realms, through grandoise rock bombast, and back to Robert Plant’s pseudo-profound final word, “heaven.”

Who is the song’s shining White Light Lady with something she “wants to show?” She might be a pagan goddess, the unattainable female ideal, the Shechinah of ancient kabbalistic lore, or perhaps an angelic visitor. Or she’s Guinivere, a beautiful Playboy pinup, Titania the Fairy Queen, maybe some eldritch dream-girl. I had read Tolkien and got Led Zeppelin’s overt references: to Gollum, Mordor, “over the hills and far away,” and Strider. More subtle, perhaps, was the influence on Robert Plant as he looked to the west and got a special feeling in “Stairway.”

I didn’t care about the fairyland twaddle, glittering golden ascension, misty rings, or a soft-focus White Light Lady. It was the old man on the cover who’d broken through and laid his bleak gaze on me.

Besides Led Zeppelin IV and dozens of other albums, I also bought paperback books—stacks of science fiction, horror, and fantasy. Most were throwaway trash, but one 95 cent wonder, published by Pinnacle Books, served as the Opener of the Way. It was in this collection of five novellas by Arthur Machen that I first encountered The Great God Pan.

The book was brand new in 1971, though the novellas had been first published in the decades on either side of 1900. The cover illustration is a pseudo-trippy mess. The blurbs make it clear how little the book packagers at Pinnacle understood Machen’s importance. “A trip backward into evil – a collection of superb stories by the master of the occult! First time in paperback! A rediscovered genius of the macabre!”

At the back of the book was a list of recently released “fast-paced action-packed best sellers.” Everything You Need to Know About Abortion, Blood Patrol, Cast Your Own Spell, Stay Young With Astrology. Kill Quick or Die (featuring The Butcher), Talking to the Spirits. The Executioner—“The most exciting series ever to explode into print!”—gets a full page ad.

Tucked in with all this occult drivel and adolescent murder fantasy was a collection of Machen’s best work. He wasn’t the only witness as the ancient god returned in poems and stories, music, paintings and sculpture. But his testimony in “The Great God Pan” more than any other, opened the way to “the world beyond the shadows.” He describes an “unutterable, unthinkable gulf that yawns profound between two worlds, the world of matter and the world of spirit; I saw the great empty deep stretch dim before me, and in an instant a bridge of light leapt from the earth to the unknown shore, and the abyss was spanned. There is a real world, but it is beyond the glamour and the vision, beyond them as beyond a veil. The ancients knew what lifting the veil means. They called it seeing the god Pan.”


More fearsome old men—grizzled, grim, shaggy—appeared that year. And millions—truly millions—of teenagers gazed on those strange geezers as though gazing into the empty eye sockets of God. They’re bent over, feet planted heavily, having labored for decades against the pull of the earth. They know the weight of the planet and feel it in their bones, ligaments, tendons.

They are earthbound and earthen-hued. Sepia and sienna, ocher and umber. Skin, ragged clothes, beard, even the sky in their world is a brownish blur. I glimpsed in them traces of another world, another century, the ancient ways, secrets and mad whispers of wisdom. 

I bought Uriah Heep’s 1971 occult offering, Demons and Wizards. Like an oafish version of Led Zeppelin, Heep tried to weave spells and conjure up pagan strangeness. The music is obvious and ham-fisted, but it’s the cover that made the biggest impression on me. For this album, Roger Dean created a full, wraparound painting that features a one-eyed Nordic shaman standing at the edge of a waterfall, icy streams at his feet plummeting into the stellar void. A dead tree has snagged a black sun in its branches. The wizard wears a beard, a wolf’s head cowl, wristlets, leggings made of animal skin, and a billowing cape. He twists toward the viewer, captured by the artist in mid-gesture. The album was cartoonish and absurd, but I knew exactly what I was looking at: the old man of power and magic. From his open left hand and his right—which holds a flute-like magic wand—bubbles of white ectoplasmic power overflow and escape upward.

Low Spark of High Heel Boys, Traffic’s album of that haunted season, features woodwind player Chris Wood. The first sound on the album’s first song—“Hidden Treasure”—is a breathy minor key melody played on flute. Even the foetid fountainhead of all heavy metal, Black Sabbath, had a flute drift into one song on their autumn ’71 offering, Master of Reality. In short, the goat-god Pan was everywhere: calling out for me to join him. The Genesis album, Nursery Cryme, which also appeared in November of that year, brings out the mystic piping for “The Musical Box,” a song that begins with an evocation of Old King Cole and tells of a “kingdom beyond the skies.” Who was this lost personage who’d been “waiting here so long,” because “all this time has passed me by?”

Another old rock music geezer appeared in late ’71, though in person, not on an album cover. This was Peter Gabriel, front man for Genesis, who used a variety of costumes to get across the songs. Most famous are the great black batwings on his head for “Watchers of the Sky.” But in ’71 he also began to appear on stage as the Old Man. This was for the end of “The Musical Box,” which I saw Genesis perform in the Masonic Auditorium where once my grandfather (decades before) had met in conclave with his brethren. The song tells a cryptic tale of murder (by croquet mallet), childish eros, and the magical transformation of an eight year old boy into a bearded old man. In concert, Gabriel donned his helmet-mask and became that impassioned Old Man for the climax of “The Musical Box.” With wrinkles, heavy eyebrows, a fixed scowl and exaggerated dome-like skull, he sang the desperate last words of the song, imploring some long lost girl-child to “touch me!” now now now now now.

The night I saw Genesis, this was the encore for the show. And as the Old Man shouted his plea, the darkened theater exploded with light on each repetition of the word “now!” Darkness—light—darkness—light: burning my retinas with glare and my brain with his tormented, hopeless longing.


Led Zeppelin landed at the Monroe County airport on September 11, 1971, as the Attica prison riot reached its climax. They played one night, unaware that the bloodiest prison revolt in U.S. history was erupting less than an hour away. They started with “The Immigrant Song” (and its primal howl, conjuring up “the hammer of the gods”) and ended with “Thank You” (plaintive and dreamy.)

After the release of their fourth album, Led Zeppelin loomed too large to play at a venue that only held nine thousand fans. Within weeks of its release, “Stairway to Heaven” was on its way toward becoming the most-requested song in the history of FM radio. So they flew into town for one concert while the towers of Attica burned, and flew off to their airy-fairy California drug-dream, never to return. They left behind one relic, this old degenerate with corpse breath and a black oozing hole where one of his eyes should’ve been. 

He was coughing, hoarse and pain-wracked, bent over, beneath his invisible load. He wore a shapeless hat with the brim curled up on one side. Brown—all of his clothes were brown. Dirt brown, tobacco brown, coffee-grounds brown, whiskey brown. The suit was loose, heavy, and rough, worn at the elbows with a big patch of darker brown on the left knee.

“Hey, kid.” He meant me.

When the black iron ball had begun to swing and crash, a loose crowd came out to watch. After a few days, it had had dwindled and few people stayed very long. Now it was just the old man andme, the filthy vision and the fifteen-year-old visionary.

I told myself he must’ve been real. I hadn’t conjured him out of the pipes’ plangent echoes. Over the groan of the bulldozer, I heard his croak. Though others chose to look away, I saw him creeping closer. And I smelled him: the rankness of his clothes and the foulness of his breath. “Smoke hole,” he said.

At first I thought he meant his mouth. But he pointed one yellow-stained finger to a black, wafting presence where a fumarole had opened up, with a ghost-trail of burnt vapors rising out of the ruins.   

“Smoke hole.” Down there, buried in rubble, in the collapsed basements and subbasements, were human remains. Not merely corpses of nineteenth century prisoners, not jumbled bones, rags, hanks of hair, and rusted chains. What lay now forever hidden was the source of that those vaporous tendrils.

“Smoke hole.” Any other kid—all of my friends—would have taken the old man’s approach as a pot dealer’s skewed come-on. The pipe, for all my friends, was for cannabis, not ancient music. I was the only kid I knew who didn’t smoke grass.

“The piper,” Led Zeppelin proclaimed, was once again, “calling you to join him.” You, not us. You—which meant me.


Pan was both goat and god, animal and divine. There was a lust in his belly and sex in the blood. Rank odors, damp fur, waggling beard, and wild primal music. Pan was the lord of rustic night-sound, pagan celebration song. He reigned as the god of shepherds, their flocks, wild mountain landscapes, hunting, fertility, intoxication, desire, conception, and the borning of new life. He was the specter of pleasure and the madness that pleasure demands. He appeared anciently as the Lord of Panic, and later as the Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the goat-eye god with rectangular pupils, the goat-leg god with cloven hooves, the goat-brain god with horns curving from his skull.

“I played with energies which I did not understand,” Machen tells his readers. “I broke open the door of the house of life, without knowing or caring what might pass forth or enter in. When the house of life is thus thrown open, there may enter in that for which we have no name, and human flesh may become the veil or a horror one dare not express.”

And now he tottered before me, all his power leached out, leaving behind his human ruin, old beyond years.

“We know,” Machen insists, ” what happened to those who chanced to meet the Great God Pan, and those who are wise know that all symbols are symbols of something, not of nothing. It was, indeed, an exquisite symbol beneath which men long ago veiled their knowledge of the most awful, most secret forces which lie at the heart of all things; forces before which the souls of men must wither and die and blacken as their bodies blacken under the electric current.  Such forces cannot be named, cannot be spoken, cannot be imagined except under a veil.”


Where Led Zeppelin landed, riots erupted. As tickets went on sale, word got around about the pandemonium and panic at the first shows on their seventh tour of America. I’d heard that at some outdoor venues, fans kept starting fires, smoke rolling over the crowd, then mixing with tear gas shot by police from behind a wall of riot shields. Flying bottles and beer cans, fusillades of firecrackers, handmade signs proclaiming mad devotion to the band, massive intake of cannabis, pills of all sorts, ticket-scalpers and hysterical wannabe groupies: the tour came as a juggernaut of barely-contained chaos and left behind a wake of wreckage.

Warnings and dark rumors preceded their appearances. Anonymous death threats were called in to police and promoters, and at the concert that coincided with the Attica riot, both the band and their roadies claimed they saw guns flash near the front of the stage. I was too far back to know whether this was true or not.

After three songs, the band unveiled a new old: “Black Dog,” with its snarling, grinding hell-riff. From there they went into the doomsday chords of “Dazed and Confused,” which stretched into a murky stew of overloaded amp shrieks, moaning, feedback-sodden drones, fake-tantric chanting, holy oms and damned cries of ecstasy. Only then did they reveal the stairway (new to us all) and we ascended with the band.

Like Arthur Machen, I stood “face to face with a presence that was neither man nor beast, neither the living nor the dead, but all things mingled, the form of all things but devoid of all form. And in that moment, the sacrament of body and soul was dissolved, and a voice seemed to cry ‘let us go hence’ and then the darkness of darkness beyond the stars, the darkness everlasting.”


“Hey kid.” I growl the words now, peering through drifting smoke at the fifteen year old I once was. He is still alive somewhere, listening, feeling the energy of riot, caught up in Pan’s lust. “Hey kid.” He is still afraid, pulled forward and pushed away, as the boudaries dissolve.

I am an old man now, with the weight of years heavy on my back. My voice is still strong, yet I can hear the miserable croak, the painful rasp, creeping in.

The prison walls came down. The iron bars were blasted away and hauled off for scrap. The shackles were torn off like rags. Concrete, stone, plaster: all turned to dust. Empty and broken, the towers fell.

The rich old men who once were Led Zeppelin are now negligible. With their thinning long white hair, moth-eaten occultism, strutting like aged barnyard cocks, they are more embarrassment than threat. Yet kids still come to the altar and pay to lay down their offerings. Actual teenagers, and those who can’t let go of their juvenile fantasies, get misty-eyed when they hear about stairways to the counterfeit sky. The opening chords, the quavering wooden flutes, the lady who wants to buy her way to heaven: these still ring true for some sad fools.

I am old. It has been a half century since I saw the prison destroyed and heard an old man’s gravelly voice calling to me. “Hey kid.” What did he want? Finally, I know the answer. He wanted me to look at him without fear, to listen without judgment, to look across the bridge of years and to see myself.

“Smoke hole,” he growled at me.

“Smoke hole,” I growled back.

“Hey kid,” he said then.

“Hey old man,” I say now.

He vanished. I am still here. 

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