Stealing Heaven

Staff Writer

I was never sure about the notion of buying a stairway to heaven, but now I know for sure that you can steal it. Just ask Jimmy Page, an immensely talented guitarist with an unmatched history of appropriating others’ songwriting as his own. Ask Jake Holmes about Dazed and Confused or Howlin’ Wolf about The Lemon Song and How Many More Times. The second biggest song of Led Zeppelin’s career, Whole Lotta Love, was ripped from Willie Dixon, who was eventually given writer’s credit on the song after filing a lawsuit in 1985.

But when it came to writing the most important rock song in history, Stairway To Heaven, Page turned to the talents of a fellow named Randy California, who had honed his own guitar mastery, writing and vocal skills in New York’s Village with Jimi Hendrix at age 14 and with four other men in the rock group Spirit. Among the timeless songs written by California were I Got A Line On You and Nature’s Way, both of which were popular upon their releases in 1969 and 1971 and were subsequently re-performed by dozens of groups. I Got A Line On You was released nine months ago by Alice Cooper’s supergroup, Hollywood Vampires.

Obscured by these more important pieces was a song on the band’s eponymous first album. This haunting instrumental, Taurus, was 2 minutes and 37 seconds and a staple onstage for Spirit when they headlined shows that included a warm-up act called Led Zeppelin.

And thus began a tale as powerful and symbolic as the song itself. Money, power and greed were matched by hazy memories, endless denials and prevarications that transcended the absurd. Page was the songwriter who had never heard Spirit nor heard of Spirit until years later and yet had given numerous interviews praising the group and their music. Taurus was inconveniently found in his record collection, and the jury did reject that defense. John Paul Jones is the Zeppelin keyboardist who couldn’t wait to be disassociated from this whole fiasco and asked that his name be removed as a defendant immediately. Robert Plant, the world renowned vocalist, was so embarrassed that he couldn’t make eye contact with the plaintiff, Mick Skidmore, for the entire trial. By dying 36 years ago, Zeppelin drummer John Bonham didn’t have to bear witness to all of this.

But those three living characters were only part of what turned this trial into a sham. Judge R. Gary Klausner made climbing the Himalayas backwards look like child’s play compared to proving this case. Spirit’s recording of Taurus was never played for the jury. Ever. Klausner ruled that the copyright was based on sheet music, so the audio of the song itself was not admissible. Sure, the best way to let eight regular people fairly judge a music copyright suit is to let them mull over the sheet music for a few days. Apparently MRIs were not available. And oh, by the way, Stairway To Heaven was played, in various forms, nine times during the trial.

Money and power are never more on display than when 17 lawyers for the defense take on one plaintiff’s attorney. Bravo for the intense efforts of Francis Malofiy, a David against Goliath. As part of the Zeppelin hypocrisy, they reportedly spent millions of dollars on attorneys fees and then presented “evidence” that the song had made only $850,000 over a three year period.

On a personal note, along with my brother, Bob, I filed a declaration with the court on this case. We were both listed as witnesses for the plaintiff. We would be testifying to matters involving California’s reaction to the Page/Zeppelin theft and to the radio airplay of Taurus. But in the interest of fairness, R. Gary Klausner ruled that our testimony would be hearsay and thus disallowed.

One thing I will gladly admit is my bias when it comes to this case. For virtually all of my adult life, I’ve known that my great friend’s work was stolen to help create the biggest rock song of all times. The saving grace is that now everyone with access to the internet, television or radio knows the same thing. Dozens of sites devastatingly show that by comparing the songs side by side. Stephen Colbert even replicated it on his CBS Television show. Covered by every major news outlet in the world, the Stairway To Heaven lawsuit is now the most notorious case in the history of copyright law. The verdict was pre-ordained. Not guilty. Just like O.J. Just like Robert Blake and so many other celebrity trials in LA, whereto Zeppelin succeeded in moving the trial.

Fortunately this one isn’t about murder or gloves that are too darn small. It’s not about justice in a courtroom. It’s about truth in the court of public opinion. Good morning, Jimmy Page. Keep the money. Die with the lie. The secret is out forever.

Every time you hear the opening notes of Stairway To Heaven, you will know who wrote it. And I promise you this: You would really have liked Randy. He was so nice, so honest and had so much integrity. Which will always distinguish him from the other writers of this tainted masterpiece.

About: Michael R Lee 

Mike was the co-founder of Brown Bag Productions. He is  a winner of many awards over the years, including the Silver Screen Award, the Billboard Radio Award and seven Telly awards amongst the list.

In his own words, Mike is forever a fan of Aussie radio and the many great people who have worked, and are working in it.

Mike Lee tells it ‘like it is’ – no BS.

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