“They talk of days for which they sit and wait and all will be revealed…”

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.

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  • scottthedot

    would being legends count towards being mystical?

    Saw their gig and they were magic so maybe wikipedia is right after all.
    ;)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    I think there’s a difference between being magical and mystical, and you’re right — Zeppelin certainly falls into the magical category.

    Glad you enjoyed the gig, I’m trying not to be envious of you or the other 18,000 lucky folks. I just hope they do tour and that Atlanta makes the itinerary.

  • Peter

    I think I’m in the same minority with you, Carl: in the pickiness about word definitions, particuarly the word ‘mystical’ [where my definition may be even narrower than yours]–and in the sensitivity that Led Zeppelin may be a great magical conveyor of myths but is quite far from the stream of genuine mysticism that you so strongly and consistently represent.

    I remember a ‘mystical’ or at least transcendent moment–one of those that always stick with a person and remain available to the memory later–where I was enjoying the spiritual atmosphere resulting from the intense efforts of one of my favorite Christian rock bands, and attempting to convey this feeling to an aspiring (and genuinely mystical) young Christian musician. The words that came out of my mouth at that point had something to do with the “music behind the music” and the “worship behind the worship,” and I remember trying to tell this young saint that the worship that would remain in the silence long after the strobe lights and fogging machines and amps were shut off was the worship that was substantial and worthwhile. I think I even said something to the effect that this ‘form’ of worship was only a symbol or a sample [or at its worst only a counterfeit] of the worship God is seeking: “True worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and Reality [truth]. for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is Spirit, and his worshipers must worship him in Spirit and Reality [truth].” John 4:23-24.

    I could throw in something here from Meister Eckhart about “God deliver me from god” and related thoughts, but my point is that the “means” of expression such as heavy rock music (or beautiful robed choirs in the liturgical tradition, or a dozen other “forms”) at best provide the atmosphere, the possibility, of true worship of the Father from the heart, and at worst serve as an impediment in the way of true worship, true ‘mysticism.’ I too was an addict of Zeppelin, and Jefferson Airplane, and their contemporaries–and I enjoy the reports of this reunion gig–but I say ‘Amen!’ to
    Carl’s necessary distinctions between this kind of expression and mysticism according to its purest (and even its most functional) definition.

    Thanks again for listening to me,
    Blessings to all,
    Peter

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