As has been the inevitable trend for every nice celebration in 2020, this December’s annual Kennedy Center Honors was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, depriving viewers of more wondrous sights such as that time Aretha Franklin dropped her fur coat to the ground or when Big Bird redefined what it means to wear a sash. The Center’s 2020 recipients had yet to be named prior to the postponement (the plan is to do a “reimagined” version of the show in the spring), which, by our logic, means one thing: We will instead be honoring Ann Wilson’s virtuosic cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” from the 2012 ceremony, which in itself deserves to be inducted into some sort of cultural canon, possibly even awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
As the lore famously goes — and to be concise, for fear of spoiling the magnificent moment for new viewers — Wilson and her fellow Heart sister, Nancy Wilson, were recruited to perform this “Stairway to Heaven” cover alongside a stunningly large orchestra and choir section, which crescendos to the point of Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones being moved to various points of weepiness and pride. (We’re particularly fond of Page mouthing fuck! when the second choir reveals itself.) Completing the lineup was guitarist Shane Fontayne and drummer Jason Bonham, who, as you can probably surmise, is the son of Led Zeppelin’s departed John Bonham.
In the ensuing years, this version of “Stairway to Heaven” has generally been regarded as a — if not the — definitive Led Zeppelin cover, which is all the more remarkable after Wilson revealed to Vulture in a recent interview that her rehearsal time barely exceeded an hour. But if you still need further confirmation, just wait until the camera zooms in on Plant’s progressively watery eyes. Either way, marvel at both the cover and Wilson’s memories of that beloved, award-worthy performance eight years later, in conversation with the rock god herself.
So, I’ll start by saying I’ve probably watched this cover about a hundred times, and each time I find myself getting emotional at the same moments over and over again. It’s like clockwork. Do you often revisit this particular performance in your life?
I haven’t seen it that many times. [Laughs.] But I’ve seen it a lot because it pops up on social media very often and I get sucked into watching it again and again. It’s surreal to me because my experience of those moments was from a whole different perspective. It was like I was up onstage and I was not even … I was taking care to not pay attention to anything but the exact moment. I wasn’t going, Wow, the Obamas are out there! The guys from Led Zeppelin are out there! I wasn’t doing that, because I wanted to keep my soul focused. It was a moment of high visibility in my life. I continue to watch it in awe, because I wasn’t aware of the effect it was having at the time.
Prior to being approached for this, where did Led Zeppelin fit within your pantheon of influences? And, being a singer, Robert Plant?
I credit Robert Plant for demonstrating to me that you could step outside the cultural norms of what a chick can sing and what a dude can sing. He never paid attention to that. When I came to be in a band, and the band wanted to do Led Zeppelin covers, none of the guys could sing that high. It fell to me to sing those songs. I was a young 20-something woman copying Robert Plant and that showed me my rock voice. I really give him all of the credit for helping me break through and being able to have that confidence.
How did the Kennedy Center present this idea to you? Did they offer “Stairway to Heaven” upfront, or did they give you a few songs to consider?
They mentioned songs when they approached us. They gave us an invitation through our management. Or rather, it was way more cryptic than that. It was like, “You’re being considered for this very important event.” We were thrilled to hear from them but figured they would ask for something more typical, like a “Rock and Roll” cover, which is kind of like “Johnny B. Goode” on steroids. Of course we accepted and said we’d be more than happy to play whatever they’d want. It was only, like, several days before the actual event when they said “Stairway to Heaven.” That moment was really something. I thought, Fuck. This is gonna be a big thing. That song is almost holy. You don’t want to do anything wrong; you want to do everything super right. I knew “Stairway to Heaven” would be the perfect hymn to fill that venue with, because it’s a very elite, beautiful, and classical venue. The band probably suspected someone would do it, but I doubt they realized it was going to be us. Jeff Beck was originally going to do the guitar for Shane Fontayne. As it was, Jeff was also there to honor Buddy Guy. He does his own thing; Jeff is his own element. It just didn’t work out with him.
How much rehearsal time did you have?
We went in for a rehearsal the day before and the day of. That’s all the rehearsal we really had. The choir [Joyce Garrett Youth Choir] and the smaller choral group were there a lot longer than we were. We were probably up there for 30 or 45 minutes, not even a full hour. It was quite exciting and very professionally done, of course. There were probably 80 people involved in total. The day of they also take you to the White House, where you go to a reception and meet the Obamas and shake their hands. It’s very thrilling and a dream. It’s the Christmas season, so the place was all dressed up. Nancy and I took our older sister with us, and when we were standing in the security line waiting to go into the White House, we looked at each other at us and said, “Yup, mom and dad would be smiling down at this one.”
Even as seasoned rock stars, did you or Nancy find yourselves nervous that evening?
Yeah, we both were. There was a possibility that both of us could’ve dissolved into nerves, so we turned and looked at each other right before we walked out and said, “We’re not going to think about this right now and we’re going to keep our eyes on the ball.” I had been learning and studying meditation at that point, and I told her to do the thing … you have a bowl of water and you’re holding it and you don’t want to spill any, so you just concentrate on the bowl of water. The bowl of water in this case was the song. [Laughs.] And then we’d freak out afterwards. And we did!
Before you were privy to the band’s reactions, what are your memories from those eight minutes on the stage? Did you feel confident that you achieved something spectacular?
I actually felt every second of it as a real, not to overstate it, but pretty damn close to orgasmic in terms of bliss. I felt wide awake and alive, and I felt the emotional content of the song all the way down to the ground. It was really authentic. The emotions involved in performing that were wide awake and in the moment.
What enhanced that authenticity?
The beauty of the song and the poetry of the lyrics. “Stairway to Heaven” represents a whole universe of Led Zeppelin and so many people love that song. Everyone thinks that they know what it means and have their own little idea about how to interpret it, but there’s something about the poetry of that song that’s really hopeful and upbeat. Something about unity. Hey, there’s a better day coming. That message is ancient and pure and universal. That’s what I felt performing it. That’s why I almost teared up singing it — it’s so beautiful.
What was your interaction with the band like afterwards? What did they say?
After the show there was a dinner for all of us, and all of the people who performed were there with the honorees. Robert, Jimmy, and John Paul were having dinner next to us and Robert said to me, “I usually hate it when people try to cover ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ But I like your version.” That meant so much to me, because it could’ve gone any way, you know? I’ve worked with John Paul before, and he’s such a gentleman. He was also friendly and open about it, as was Jimmy. Listen, Robert and Jimmy are the guardians of the Zeppelin gate. You really want approval from them.
The visual elements of the cover, of course, elevate it to legendary status — Robert weeps, while Jimmy and John Paul fluctuate between pride and introspection. Not to be an armchair psychologist, but what do you think was going through their minds? Their reactions spoke to more than just absorbing a song.
When you check out their reactions while the song is being performed, you can see how different they are. Jimmy is smiley and twinkly. Robert is emotional. John Paul is both. I think Robert looked down and saw Jason, who was just a child when Led Zeppelin was together … he was probably running around during their band rehearsals as a little tyke. For Robert to look down and see him on drums at the Kennedy Center, this big production of their most beautiful song, must have been very emotional. It probably brought back a lot of nice memories.
I like to think they’d been waiting years to understand and feel what it was like for others to listen to their music, and you finally gave that feeling to them.
Yeah, I’d agree with that. Our production of “Stairway to Heaven” was probably the biggest and most epic one I’ve ever seen, anywhere. That would be a very cool way for them to witness other people covering their song, and what the song means to others.
When you watch it back, is there a moment that still gives you goosebumps?
My special moment is when the song goes from the more gentle parts into the rock parts. It goes through this gate of introspective to being big, muscular, aggressive, and soulful. That was my favorite part. Feeling that energy coil up and then open.
Have your views of the performance changed over the past eight years? I ask because I’ve never encountered anyone who didn’t think this was either a perfect or definitive cover.
I have to admit that the scope of it surprised me. I knew it was going to be a beautiful performance, but I didn’t know it was going to hit so hard. It hit listeners not only with their ears, but in their hearts and souls. I wish you could’ve seen that audience. It was full of all kinds of luminaries — Yo Yo Ma, Dustin Hoffman, Buddy Guy, David Letterman, Bonnie Raitt, all of these incredibly important people were there. Everybody was misty. It didn’t matter what genre they were in. Everybody was all misty when that was going on. I’ll never forget that. It was the most beautiful thing.
I feel terrible for whoever had to follow you.
It was the guys from Foo Fighters doing “Rock and Roll” and a few other connected songs.
They didn’t stand a chance, did they, Ann?
I don’t want to diss anyone’s performance, but yeah, they couldn’t stand up next to us. [Laughs.]
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.