The first time I truly linked the tarot to Led Zeppelin was nearly ten years ago when an older guy came up to me after spotting one of my Zeppelin custom t-shirts at a Pagan gathering. We talked for awhile and we got to a point where he looked at me and said "Dude, did you know that the song Gallow's Pole is a meditation on the Hanged Man tarot card?" I looked at him for a second, and said "uh, sure, yeah I knew that."
When I got home that evening I put "Gallow's Pole" into the CD player and sat down with the Hanged Man card. The lyrics started up and I held the card close to my face, concentrating on it, and I just didn't get it. There was nothing in that song that seemed like a meditation on the Hanged Man card.
Now there are as many interpretations of tarot cards as there are tarot decks, but it was always my understanding that the Hanged Man card represented something between the worlds. The Hanged Man is not simply a soon to be corpse blowing in the wind, but a spiritual seeker, attempting to see the next world while on this plane.
The Led Zeppelin song "Gallow's Pole" ends with the protagonist dead as a doornail, with all of his attempts to get free of the noose an utter failure. His brother brings gold and silver, his sister sleeps with the executioner, but he still winds up dead. If that's a meditation on the Hanged Man card, I don't want to draw it.
The origins of the song "Gallow's Pole" lie in Scandanavia where it was originally a children's folk song with a much happier ending. It eventually migrated to the British Isles, and from there to North America. In the late 1930's a version of it was recorded by blues singer Leadbelly, who dubbed the song "Gallis Pole." Led Zeppelin was inspired to do the tune after hearing a version of the Leadbelly song recorded by California folk-singer Fred Gerlach.
So "Gallow's Pole" as a song having to do with the tarot is probably not true, but there are a lot of tarot-like images in the art of Led Zeppelin. It appears on gatefold sleeves, album covers, and most recently, DVD packaging. Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin guitar player) has been interested in the occult since he was in his early teens, and the imagery of the tarot is probably second nature to him.
The most striking tarot related image in the Led Zeppelin catalog is on the gatefold sleeve of Zeppelin's untitled fourth album (which is sometimes called "Zoso" or "Runes") and features the hermit from the major arcana. Jimmy Page has been exceedingly blunt about the fact that it's the Hermit, �The inside cover was painted by a friend of mine. It's basically an illustration of a seeker aspiring to the light of truth." The Hermit card must have been pretty important to Page, because he dresses up in hermit garb for a silly sequence in the Led Zeppelin concert movie "The Song Remains the Same."
Of course the Hermit represents the search for truth and wisdom, precisely the kind of soul searching that seemed to go into the lyrics of "Stairway to Heaven." The Hermit on that particular album sleeve makes perfect sense when paired up with "Stairway," the ultimate song about soul searching.
More subtle than the giant image of the Hermit inside of Led Zeppelin IV, is the album's actual cover art. The image on the front of the record jacket is of an old man with a bundle of sticks on his back. According to Jimmy Page, he and Robert found the image strictly by chance: "I used to spend a lot of time going to junk shops looking for things that other people might have missed. Robert was on a search with me one time, and we went to this place in Reading where things were just piled up on one another. Robert found the picture of the old man with the sticks and suggested that we work it into our cover somehow. So we decided to contrast the modern skyscraper on the back with the old man with the sticks - you see the destruction of the old, and the new coming forward."
Of course all of that may or may not be true, as the image on the cover bears a striking resembelence to English cunningcrafter "Old George" Pickingill. Pickingill was allegedly the teacher of occult mage Aleister Crowley, and has taken on a sort of mythic significance in the occult world. It's hard to imagine anything happening by chance in the Zeppelin world, and my guess is that the picture on the album jacket was designed specifically for the record.
In the course of my journeys it's been pointed out to me that the old man on the cover of Led Zeppelin IV looks like the tarot's Ten of Wands. I even had someone show me a tarot card which looked almost exactly like the image on the record jacket. However, I'm not sure when the particular card I was shown was created.
Looking at the Rider-Waite tarot, the image on Led Zeppelin IV has very little in common with the tarot. Both images are of men carrying sticks, but in the Rider-Waite tarot the man carrying the sticks has them in front of him, not on his back. He's also significantly younger than the figure on Led Zeppelin's dust jacket.
Some interpretations of the Ten of Wands claim that the card is about responsibilities and pressure, about rising to meet a challenge. If this is true, then perhaps the image on Led Zeppelin IV does have something to do with the tarot after all. Led Zeppelin's fourth album was crucial, and after the commercial and critical dissapointment of their third record, it's possible that the band felt a lot of pressure to record a classic. Interpretations of the card also allude to the idea that the figure on the Ten of Wands is able to deal with any stresses and pressures, and Led Zeppelin certainly dealt with any during the recording process of their fourth album.
After the band's fourth album the tarot-card like images disappeared for awhile. Sure there were lots of hidden messages in the cover art, but nothing that harkened back to the cards. That all changed in 2003 when the band released a DVD full of live concert performances.
The cover of the DVD features a small mountain standing alone surrounded by desert. The mountain in the picture doesn't look entirely natural either, it might be something that was carved by human beings. It's old and crumbling, but still standing proudly, ravaged but remaining upright in the face of adversity. It implies a certain eternalness, "age may weather me but I will still remain," type of thing. This king of imagery is common on the tarot card known as "The Tower."
The ideas and imagery behind the tower coincide with the space Led Zeppelin occupied in 2003. At that point in the band's history they had been broken up for 23 years, yet still managed to sell three million albums annualy. Like the tower its self, they were older, weathered by time, yet still standing proudly. The music of Led Zeppelin is timeless, and while the band may have broken up the sounds live on.
All tarot images from the Rider-Waite deck.