'Shooting Star' from Roadmaster

What is life? Thoughts and feelings arise, with or without our will, and we employ words to express them. We are born, and our birth is unremembered, and our infancy remembered but in fragments; we live on, and in living we lose the apprehension of life. How vain is it to think that words can penetrate the mystery of our being! Rightly used they may make evident our ignorance to ourselves, and this is much. For what are we? Whence do we come? and whither do we go? Is birth the commencement, is death the conclusion of our being? What is birth and death?
Excerpt from "On Life." By Percy Bysshe Shelley. From the 1880 edition of The Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley in Verse and Prose, edited by H. Buxton Forman.
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
          The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
              Hath had elsewhere its setting,
                And cometh from afar:
              Not in entire forgetfulness,
              And not in utter nakedness,
          But trailing clouds of glory do we come
              From God, who is our home:
          Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
From Ode: Intimations of Immortality
by William Wordsworth

Shooting Star' from Roadmaster
written by Gene Clark

From a purely musical perspective, ‘Shooting Star’ sounds very much like standard-issue 1970’s singer-songwriter fare: from the tinkling of Spooner Oldham’s Fender Rhodes to Clarence White’s evocative plucking to Gene’s plaintive vocal, the opening moments of the song are redolent with soothing, laid-back California vibes. There is nothing immediately apparent in the music to indicate or reflect the grandiose scope of Clark’s underlying lyrical agenda.
But whether one considers the philosophical musings in ‘Shooting Star’ to be challengingly abstruse--or merely obtuse--is largely dependent on whether one feels Clark managed to convey anything of real value beyond navel-gazing. I must confess that a cursory glimpse of the lyrics, replete with phrases like “ancient mystic ship” and “cosmic dancer,” had my bullshit detector on high alert.

But it’s always dangerous to underestimate anyone.
Especially Gene Clark.

The notion of a pre-existing soul, forfeited at one’s birth, the memory of which becomes dimmer and dimmer as one grows into adulthood, is a fascinating concept, and one which captivated poets like Shelley and Wordsworth, as well our own ‘Hillbilly Shakespeare’ (as John York called him). But there seems to be a commingling of philosophical/religious spices in Clark ’s metaphysical stew. The aftermath of the Fall of Man is metaphorically described in terms of our having being born as passengers aboard ships cast adrift upon stormy seas. Clark acknowledges the resulting freedom of choice conferred upon each person to dictate their fate (including the ability to procreate) but also acknowledges the existence of forces beyond our control or comprehension which dictate our fate to us:

We were born into the storm
Cast adrift upon a wave
To be living and make life begin
Like the ancient mystic ship
Bounding seaward towards the sun
Becomes a cosmic dancer in the wind.

We may fancy ourselves as captains of our destiny, but the wind blowing through our sails also has a say in our ultimate destination. In this respect the cosmic dancer line seems less pretentious, and indeed, rather beautiful. So, as sailing ships bereft of divine guidance (“cast adrift”) upon the sea, yet simultaneously empowered by the idea of individual freedom, we see the vastness of space, sea and land as metaphors for the seeming boundlessness of our lives:

Stars that shine and rains that swirl
Sparkling sands of endless worlds
Driven by the thought that men are free
Love that makes and breaks a man
Memories fade and new ones stand
And another ship bounds through the sea.

It has been said that when all is said and done, the only thing we truly own is our memories. Clark, always aware life is fleeting (remember “Rhythms of rhyme, seasons shall sing to look at a longer life, now a longer yesterday” from ‘One in a Hundred’), acknowledges the passing of the torch from one generation to the next. As his ship runs its course, another heads out on its maiden voyage.

So far we haven’t really heard anything to substantiate my claims that this song references the pre-existence of souls before our birth. However, during the song’s bridge, Clark addresses this idea head on, the key word here being “change”:

Like in dreams, sometimes it’s so confusing to change
When you move from where you have been
to where you have come
Like in life when you look into a child’s eyes
And you see it’s all very clear,
It’s near and then gone.

The juxtaposition of dreams (“Like in dreams…") with the conscious self ("Like in life…") is a metaphor for the transition between the two planes of existence: the pre-existing soul and one’s physical birth from the womb. In the first plane, the pre-existing soul is bemused by the need for change and the evolution into a carnal form, just as the adult in the second plane is reminded of the oneness of pre-existence by looking into the eyes of a child. The memory is faint, but the implications of such "intimations of immortality" remain.
So what happened in the time before these ships set sail in rough waters? What happened before writers tried in vain to capture these abstruser musings?

Before the rising of the sun
Before the whirling winds were stirred
Before the simple rhymes of men were sung
Before the age of hate and pride
Before we laughed, before we cried
We were all contained
And then begun.

Clark’s use of repetition (“Before the …”) creates a dramatic buildup to the final conclusion: Our pre-existing souls dwelt within God, wherein we were “contained” in universal oneness; wherefrom were we riven upon earthly birth.

So why then was the song entitled ‘Shooting Star’? There is, after all, only the one passing reference to stars contained in the lyrics: “Stars that shine and rains that swirl”. My guess is Clark perceived one’s earthly birth as the final act in the show, just as a shooting star’s final triumph dovetails into its ultimate flameout.

The musical accompaniment, which began as rather uninvolved, pedestrian backing, by the end of the track has become wholly reflective of the thrust of the song: Michael Clarke’s usually clumsy drumming becomes more incisive (stick clicks notwithstanding) and propulsive; Oldham’s keyboards feel gutsy and committed, in contrast to the earlier impression of having been quintessentially laid back.

But it is the pedal steel work of stalwart Sneaky Pete Kleinow that aids most in getting across Clark’s message. His solo takes a while to become completely focused, yet when it explodes in the latter stages of the song it mirrors the image of the shooting star in Clark’s title. As Kleinow's solo hits its crescendo (ironically at the moment the song begins its final fade), the resultant onslaught of sound-as-imagery presages No Other by a full two years.

Let’s face it, the mystery of existence is a topic best avoided by songwriters---and, arguably, by anyone desirous of a shred of credibility. Doubtless this is the very reason most songwriters steer clear of such endeavours, preferring instead the safer waters of love and loss. As we all know, Clark was no stranger to those waters either, but the late 60s, early 70s, saw the emergence of his fascination with all things philosophical. It is certainly easy to deride the desire to explicate the inexplicable, but, to Gene's credit, ‘Shooting Star’ tackles these weighty subjects with a fearlessness that is to be celebrated, not derided.

Herewith, any doubts Gene was a poet of consequence are summarily dismissed.


Sam said…
Hi, I've just come across your blog. A thoroughly enjoyable read. Your post on Shooting Star was especially fascinating. Keep it up! Sam, Australia.
The Clarkophile said…
Thank you, Sam. I appreciate your taking the time to leave a message.
Anonymous said…
I really enjoyed reading your take on Shooting Star. Really makes me appreciate the song even more....