Yes, I know their music has the subtlety of an aircraft carrier and their lyrics are often teeth-grindingly sexist — but I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, and so the part of me that will always be a naive 16-year-old will always love them. And now, I’m one of the twenty million or so fans who are fascinated by their reunion gig this past Monday night at the O2 in London. And the fact that the show has received rave reviews and everyone (except for the band, of course) is talking about a tour just keeps the fire stoked. I’ve been listening to Led Zeppelin all week long, amused at how songs like “Misty Mountain Hop” or “The Immigrant Song” sound to me now, now that I’m about three times as old as I was when I first heard them. For all their flaws, their best work can span the decades as effortlessly as classics by the Beatles or Dylan or the Dead.
Last night I was poking around online checking out what Led Zeppelin fans have to say, when I found this amazing sentence in the Wikipedia entry for Robert Plant:
He is known for his powerful style, often mystical lyrics, and wide vocal range.
Okay, fair enough. After all, he does sing about Valhalla and Thor and Tolkien’s ringwraiths and a lady who’s buying a… well, you know. Meanwhile, Bron-Yr-Aur, broken levees and forests echoing with laughter have a shimmering presence within my imaginal consciousness. And perhaps the signature piece “Kashmir” (quoted in this post’s title) comes closest to being a bona fide song about spiritual searching. But as much as I love Robert Plant (at least, when he’s not being demeaning to women), I just can’t wrap “mystical” around him. Mythical, yes; otherworldly, for sure. But he just ain’t mystical; not by my definition of the word anyway.
I know I’m in the minority here. I define mysticism narrowly — for me, it’s about heightened consciousness, union with God, and heroic virtue that cannot be attained by merely human effort. Yes, mysticism is about reverie and ecstasy and waves of joy flooding into experience, but these cosmic goodies flow out of the mystical experience, they are not essential elements of mysticism and in fact most mystics report that they eventually fade away (it’s hard to go through the dark night of the soul with an endorphin rush). And while I tend to focus on Christian and/or monistic mysticism, I’m willing to accept that pagan mysticism is possible: but I don’t think Led Zeppelin has written the soundtrack to it, and certainly not the how-to manual.
I suppose nobody really cares what some Wikipedia editor thinks about Robert Plant’s lyrics, and I really shouldn’t waste any more of my time on it either. But it reminds me how theologically illiterate our world is, if we think songs with mythological allusions are mystical. Not only is this supremely unfair to the rich and profound tradition of mysticism, but it also short-changes mythology as well, by lumping it together with something it’s not. After all, myth is a powerful force and deserves its own recognition. Just don’t call it mystical.