Sunday, January 22, 2017

Shooting Star: Bookend on Dylan's Monumental Oh Mercy

For the past two to three months it's been my intention to write a post about the song "Shooting Star" that closes out Bob Dylan's stellar 1989 comeback album* Oh Mercy. I purchased the vinyl of Oh Mercy almost as soon as it was released. With the exception of the two fast-tempo songs in the early tracks of side one ("Everything's Broken" and "Political World") the album is quite laid back, reflective and laconic.

Daniel Lanois, who would later produce Dylan's Grammy award-winning Time Out Of Mind, produced the album Oh Mercy.

The song "Shooting Star" is a fitting final track for the album. From 1990 to August 2013, he's performed it 126 times live in concert.

What intrigued me about the song, and why I keep returning to it in my mind, was this notion that the song seems to be about someone specific. For some reason I believed it was about his first wife Sara Lownds. It opens, "Saw a shooting star tonight and I thought of you // You were trying to break into another world // A world I never knew // I always kind of wondered // If you ever made it through // Seen a shooting star tonight // And I thought of you.

The song conveys such a gentle tenderness. From the first time I heard it there's a specificity about the word "you" here, and I desired to know, a song about someone special it seemed, a song about someone moving into a new realm, a different world from where his own life path was taking him.

It's funny how one can get an idea into one's head and never find a way to shake it. This idea of the song being about Sara came about because I thought someone, a friend, had said as much when the album first came out. It was the last song on the album, and so was another song for Sara who was also featured in a final track on another album, Desire.

I laid on a dune, I looked at the sky // When the children were babies and played on the beach...

Bob married Sara Lownds in late 1965 during one of the epic periods of his career. She was purportedly the inspiration for many songs including "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," and "Love Minus Zero/No Limit". Much of his Blood on the Tracks album circa 1974-75 has been cited as a response to the emotions stirred as his marriage was falling apart, ultimately leading to a divorce that finalized in 1977.

The thing is, my assumptions were wrong. (Not the first time, either.)

In recent years, as I've become involved with the Duluth Dylan Fest and people more likely in the know about these things, I had a chance to ask a few of them, "Is this song about Sara?" "No," I am told, "it is not about Sara."

Perhaps I got the notion into my head because the middle section of the song speaks of God and temptation and the sermon on the mount and I'd linked this to the coming life transition Dylan underwent ten years earlier that resulted in the trio of albums in his Gospel period, beginning with Slow Train Coming. There were fragments of memories rattling around in the cobwebs of my mind that associated these allusions to the Vineyard and Keith Green and other miscellany... all of it mistaken.

Here's the Wikipedia synopsis of the song:

The album closes with "Shooting Star", a wistful ballad of remembrance with possible allusions[citation needed] to the loss of Dylan's Christian faith. Dylan appears to address Christ: "Seen a shooting star tonight and I thought of me/If I was still the same/If I ever became what you wanted me to be". The next line, "Did I ever miss the mark or overstep the line that only you could see" makes an apparent reference to Joseph Addison Alexander's poem "There is a line by us unseen/That crosses every path/The hidden boundary between/God's patience and His wrath.". The words occasionally evoke some portentous imagery ("the last fire truck from hell goes rollin' by"), but it ends the album on a soft, romantic note.

Now for those familiar with this album in a more intimate way (like I, you have listened to it a hundred times) I think you might find the following an interesting exercise. When you play the song in your head and reach the bridge ("Listen to the engine, listen to the bell...) and you go through this and reach "The last radio is playing" -- do not proceed with the last verse. Rather, splice in a verse from "Ring Them Bells." Any verse will do. Look how synthesized these two songs are.

Ring them bells Saint Peter where the four winds blow 
Ring them bells with an iron hand 
So the people will know 
Oh it's rush hour now 
On the wheel and the plow 
And the sun is going down upon the sacred cow

Notice how well these two songs shuffle together. Has anyone else ever done this? You're playing a song in your head and suddenly you jump-cut to a different song. These two songs work that way.

* * * *
Dylan has a way of making everything so personal. Each of us who has experienced the painful loss of a loved one can relate to a song like this. The shooting star is a trigger. Upon seeing the shooting star flung across the night sky he impulsively "thought of you." Or rather, of her, whomever it might be.

But his thoughts turn inward next.

Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of me
If I was still the same
If I ever became what you wanted me to be
Did I miss the mark or overstep the line
That only you could see?
Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of me

It always felt like he was talking to a person here. There's been a lot of water under this bridge. But then, someone recently suggested he is talking to God. In the Judeo-Christian view, God is a person. We have been made in God's image as persons. So it is a possible interpretation. "If I ever became what you wanted me to be." It's a question that is searching, probing, vulnerable.

Listen to the engine, listen to the bell
As the last fire truck from hell
Goes rolling by
All good people are praying
It’s the last temptation, the last account
The last time you might hear the sermon on the mount
The last radio is playing

The images here speak about the end of something. This stanza makes one freeze, for he compares this ending with the end of all time, of life  and the world as we know it.

Seen a shooting star tonight
Slip away
Tomorrow will be
Another day
Guess it’s too late to say the things to you
That you needed to hear me say
Seen a shooting star tonight
Slip away

Copyright © 1989 by Special Rider Music

This verse, though, seems to bring it all back to earth. Someone near now seems to be gone.

The song is evocative and sentimental without being sappy, ambiguous without being abstract. It's pure Dylan, and a perfect close to what many feel to have been a perfect album, Oh Mercy. They don't get much better than this.

*The word "comeback" is something of a misnomer, since every time he produces a great album there are critics who make it seem he'd lost his way in the period before. The result is a whole career of comebacks.


Anonymous said...

Finally! I've been telling my wife this for years. Dylan has written many end-of-era songs, "Restless Farewell," "Like a Rolling Stone," "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." "Shooting Star" is a farewell to his Christian era, at the end of what I see is his last Christian album. Just as "Blood On The Tracks" was a fully grown up and very adult perspective on intimate relationships--not the push pull excitement and discouragement with lovers in the early '60s music of a man in his early '20s--so the "Oh, Mercy" album was his mature commentary on his Christian era and a religious view of the world in general. Good and evil, faith and doubt, hope and disappointment are the themes overviewed and summarized. Personal, soulful and instructive.

Garry said...

For some reason I always thought Shooting Star was about Dylan's father (Abe?) after his death. Lines like "Guess it’s too late to say the things to you
That you needed to hear me say" strike me as the sort of thing you might reflect upon as the years go by. Same applies to "If I ever became what you wanted me to be". I think from memory Abe died long before, but I know I still reflect on such things even forty years later.
Beautiful song, regardless.

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