“Shooting Star” – the meaning of the lyrics and the music

By Tony Attwood

Romance or religion, or the collision of the two?  Or a collision of two worlds, metaphorical or actual.

Let me make it clear that my interpretation of this song is very different from what I have seen and heard other people say.  And maybe I’m way out here – but as always this is what seems to make sense to me.  If this is the first review of mine you’ve read, please don’t judge me just on this one – they are not as left field as this.

The problem is that at one level this appears to be a very simple song, but we have that troublesome B section, with all the fire engines and sermon on the mount business, that tells us it is far from that.  And that is what gives us the problem.

The singer thinks of a girl who was trying to find a new way in life, and he wonders did indeed find it.  And here for once the traveller moving on is the woman, while the man does the “you wanted me to be someone I couldn’t be” thing and is seemingly left behind.

If it were just this it would be unusual but otherwise just a nice little song.  But of course there is a lot more.  For in this song there has been a real connection between the man and woman.  Maybe not for long, but a connection.

And then suddenly all hell breaks lose half way through the song,  but still he is almost wistful.  It is as if fate has just blown the two of them together and then apart.  For a moment they occupy the same space but they are on different journeys.  They look at each other and think they are connected but their separate worlds but then BANG, and they move on.

So with this interpretation we have the image of worlds colliding, there’s an almighty explosion, it’s like the end of the world, but then the worlds slip apart and move away from each other, and normality is restored and each world carries on as before.  But it doesn’t have to be a science fiction story – two realities that come together and hit each other in a new Big Bang and off they go again.   It can just be the blow up before “you go your way and I’ll go mine” but without all the blame games.

Have we ever seen such a thing elsewhere in Dylan?  Well, actually I think so although from a different angle.  Apart from the aforementioned time will tell just who fell. And who’s been left behind how about…

We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view

Tangled up in Blue, that great mix of different times and different realities where the story is in the wrong order, the past is at the end and the start, the end is where it begins…  There worlds of the woman the singer collide and part over and over again, such that when the couple are together, they can’t quite get it together, if you see what I mean.

But Tangled up in Blue doesn’t have the apocalypse – everything just keeps moving in and out, in and out.  So where have we seen this great crashing explosion before?

Musically, just one place.  The chorus of “Too music of nothing” uses the same musical trick as “Shooting Star” except that the lines in the version of Too Much (“Say hello to Valerie”) on the original Bootleg album grind upwards through the chromatic scale.  Here they slide downwards.

Now as I have written elsewhere I find that chorus on the first Bootleg version Too Much to be a horrible clash and a huge mistake on the part of Dylan (if I may venture such an opinion).   But here, many years later, Dylan puts the process in reverse.  Which is curious when you consider what the lyrics are doing.

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

What Dylan does musically is move down the chromatic scale note by note and as I say this is, to the best of my knowledge ,only the second time in his whole writing career that he has used this chromatic scale.  (You can hear it by playing each note, black or white, that are next to each other on the piano.  Dylan does it starting on C sharp, going down to C, B, B flat, A.

(C sharp minor) Listen to the engine, (C) listen to the bell 
(B) As the last fire truck (B flat) from hell
(A) Goes rolling by
(B) All good people are (E) praying

The musical sequence is then revisited

It’s the last temptation, the last account
The last time you might hear the sermon on the mount
The last radio is playing

I do appreciate of course that many people have seen this as an overtly Christian statement, and obviously there are many overtly religious connotations here.   Some have also seen it as a final farewell to Dylan’s Christian era.

“Did I ever miss the mark or overstep the line that only you could see” is also seen by some as a reference to the lines of the 19th century Biblical scholar Joseph Addison Alexander, “There is a line by us unseen/That crosses every path/The hidden boundary between/God’s patience and His wrath.”

Maybe, but as we know Dylan has often quoted sources – poems, novels, lines from the movies, without actually saying that the movie or poem is important. It is just that he likes the line.  And the fact is that not even Revelations has a fire truck in it.  Nor a radio.

But if we compare Dylan’s use of the chromatic in “Too Much of Nothing” and here the lyrics make an interesting comparison#

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


Say hello to Valerie
Say hello to Vivian
Send them all my salary
On the waters of oblivion

Valerie and Vivian are the wives of TS Eliot, one left in the wilderness of an atrociously awful north London lunatic asylum, the other kept waiting until the first ultimately dies before she is allowed to marry the poet.  Dylan has written a description of the chaos that Eliot caused the two women in his life and written of his distaste for Eliot

There is a total bleakness in the “Say hello” lines and of course oblivion.  The last radio playing is the same image – oblivion.  And that is what I think we have with

The last time you might hear the sermon on the mount
The last radio is playing

Oblivion.  Desolation, Destruction.   Not entering God’s grace, but just another glimpse on another world on the very edge.  The next thing you know the stars are beginning to hide.  There are no more sermons because the worlds have clashed and parted and moved on.

I like the notion of the clash of two worlds – his and hers.  They have met and colloquially one might say, “all hell has broken loose”.  It is not literally the end of the world any more than it is literally the last radio playing, because this clearly isn’t the end of the world as we have another verse still to come.

But then despite all that,

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

They have passed and gone and the past cannot be regained.  All we can know is that the past is always close behind.   But for now calmness is restored because actually there is not too much between the man and the woman.

We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue

And anyway, as Dylan said in that other attack on Eliot

The moon is almost hidden, the stars are beginning to hide .

And that is where I ended the first version of this review.  But reading it and thinking again there is another way of seeing this.   He thinks of her.  He thinks of himself.  He thinks of the almighty bust-up row that they had.   Life goes on.

Untold Dylan – the index to all the songs reviewed. 

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14 Responses to “Shooting Star” – the meaning of the lyrics and the music

  1. GuillemTM says:

    There had been something in this song I didn’t really get until I listened to it when my grandfather was dying. Then it got a full meaning for me and was what I would tell him. I am pretty sure since then that Bob wrote it in a similar situation, when he lost someone very close to him. I don’t know, maybe his father or so. Try to listen to it thinking of that.

  2. Drew says:

    I always take Dylan’s apocalyptic words and images as exactly that. There’s always a sense, and growing more and more, of the immanence of the end of times, or at least our times. It’s the end, soon. As he says in “Unbelievable” (a much overlooked testament): “It’s unbelievable it would get this far.”

  3. Stephen Pate says:

    The ascending or descending chromatic scale is a device Dylan uses over and over again – Like A Rolling Stone, Emotionally Yours, etc. – to the point it’s almost a signature along with the Am start to a song in the key of C.

    Go back and pay attention to the versus which describe a short term albeit intense relationship, a shooting star.

    The bridges are a diversion meant to create atmosphere like scenes from a David Lynch movie where an intense scene is juxtaposed between two plot driven scenes to create mystery and intensity with no direct bearing on the plot. Lynch used the technique to mimic life. You are going about your day concerned about your girlfriend or job and come across a car accident where a body lies under a blanket. It jars you but does not relate to the job or girl friend issues.

    In Blue Velvet (1986) the protagonist comes back into the town after and a fire truck goes slowly by with people waving. He is thinking about the girl and the severed hand he has found in the field. It means nothing other than Lynch’s technique for jarring the viewer. Dylan wrote Shooting Star 3 years later and no doubt used the allusion. He likes scenes from movies and painting them into music.

  4. sigrid says:

    Very nice and I am agree on may levels. Thanks for the insights.

  5. Lynne says:

    This song had a new meaning for me when my father passed away. I loved him dearly, but he never understood me. He was a great man, but on a different path with different values. I play this song when I am missing him. There are things I wished I had told him. It makes me cry.

  6. Dan says:

    I am sure others must have drawn this conclusion- The Shooting Star he is thinking about is Jimi Hendrix.

    “The last Fire truck/Dump truck from Hell goes rolling by and all good people are praying” is the line that confirms his subject matter to me. Listen to the ending of “Third Stone from the Sun” that is where that specific sound resides. And he is speaking of a very specific sound and he perfectly poetically sums up with just a few words.

    I know I am being very specific, but It is a reference to “Third Stone from the Sun” . I believe my interpretation is only reinforced by the change from a “Fire Truck” of the original studio recording to The “Dump Truck” that has been the norm in his live performance of the song. The sounds at the end of “Third Stone from the Sun” are definitely more the sounds of a Dump truck from Hell, than a Fire Truck. I think his original Lyric is prettier, and opens up the remark to refer to the wailing siren of Jimi’s guitar in general, without being as specific to “Third Stone”, But I think Dump Truck is the true and proper lyric.

    Hendrix certainly burnt out like a shooting star. Hendrix certainly “tried to break into another world (Musically), a world I ( Bob Dylan) Never knew.” He even did it with Bob’s songs. It is certainly ” Too late to say the things to you ( Jimi), that you needed to hear me (Bob) say” Because that shooting star has slipped away. There were only few people in the world who truly knew the dangers, traps, and pitfalls of modern music stardom in the late 1960s, almost no-one who knew it as acutely as Bob Dylan. And there was no one who Jimi would be more likely to listen to, than his Hero, Bob Dylan.

    When Bob turns his thoughts to himself ” I saw a shooting star tonight and I thought of me” He may be wondering what his audience takes away from his own work. He may be wondering what his fan Jimi would think Bob’s later work, everything after Jimi’s passing. I think he is thinking specifically – What would Jimi think of how Bob plays “All along the Watchtower” these days? Because Bob tries to play it true to Jimi’s spirit, as if Jimi had written it, he’s been doing it this way ever since Jimi got his hands on it. ” Does Bob Miss the Mark and overstep a line only Jimi could see” while trying to deliver AATW “Jimi style”? After all Jimi was trying to break through to another world, a world Bob admits he never knew. Would Jimi think Bob is doing it Justice? Ultimately this verse could become a reflection on all of these things, or something else entirely. Self reflection has a tendency to do that.

    I am not as attached to my suggested interpretation of the self reflective final verse, but I am certain that Dump truck from hell, will always be driving through the musical landscape at the end of “Third Stone from the Sun”. This much I know to be true…

  7. carl mosk says:

    I find your analyses of Dylan songs extremely insightful. One reason – perhaps the main reason – I believe your dissections of the songs occupy a plateau far above much Dylan criticism is the fact you integrate discussion of the music into your discussion of the lyrics. Often left out of the probing of Dylan’s achievements is the music itself, the chords, the melodic lines, the modulations. Congratulations on your writing.

  8. TonyAttwood says:

    Stephen Pate, I will of course give full consideration to what you have said, but just one immediate response, if I may. Like a Rolling Stone doesn’t use a chromatic scale ascending as I hear it – it is a straight major scale ascending. If played in C major one plays the bass part as C, D, E, F, G….


  9. The Watchman's Helper says:

    What a beautiful song this is…as in so many of Bob Dylan’s songs it can be interpreted in several ways or points of view.I love the analysis that one person who commented made about how this could be about Jimi Hendrix…it sounds very plausible the more I listen to the song and the more I think about it from that point of view.Thanks.

  10. Dan says:

    I wish the site would let you edit your remarks.

    I don’t read a lot of analysis on Dylan’s lyrics.. is the Jimi Hendrix interpretation really not out there, even as a Theory? Because it is about Jimi Hendrix.

    (Also, as an aside, before I proceed – I would never dream of taking it away from the folks who associate it with a lost loved one. Keep your interpretation. Art is in the eye of the beholder, use your own eyes. I myself associate “He was a Friend of mine” with a beloved dog, because ” He never had no money to pay his room and board but he was a friend of mine.” I doubt that to be Dylan’s original intent. I don’t care. I’m keeping that. It’s mine. You can assign The song to whatever Friend you want to. I know what it means to me, and that is enough. I’d ask that you do the same with Shooting Star. As Far as I’m concerned it is about your Dad or your Grandfather, If you say that is what it means to you. I’d never challenge that, please hold tight to it, and keep it.)

    First I’d like to offer a proper interpretation of the introspective verse . I didn’t do it justice this morning, very under-cooked – First off I didn’t listen to it, I over confidently went from memory , it’s the second verse. Jimi died young, all potential, a burst of shocking creative energy, what would he have went on to do? The potential was Limitless. Bob did the Burst of Shocking creative energy part too… but he didn’t die young ( too late for that now), Ultimately Jimi was a Fan and a Peer, to Bob, historically speaking. ” and I Thought of me, was I still the same, had I ever became what you wanted me to be, did I miss the mark and overstep the line that only you could see? I saw a shooting star tonight and I thought of me”. He was hypothetically asking the younger man, a fan, Peer, who wasn’t alive to answer, if he had stayed the course? Had he gotten wiser and better? or just old and tired?

    I never thought that much about the meaning of the song before. I never thought it was an unresolved lyric in terms of interpretation. I always thought it to be about Jimi. I see where the religious apocalyptic symbolism threw people off. But for anyone unfamiliar with “Third Stone From the Sun” it is an exotic, beautiful, comical, and strange instrumental that concludes in the apocalypse for the inhabitants of Earth. There are a few spoken words that clarify this trajectory.

    Listen to it. and once the apocalypse is upon you, after the “Superior Cackling hen”, and think about these words –

    “Listen to the engine, listen to the bell
    As the last Dump truck from hell
    Goes rolling by All good people are praying
    It’s the last temptation, ( But what I really want to know is Are You Experiences?_)
    the last account (seems pretty final)
    The last time you might hear the sermon on the mount (Stands to reason)
    The last radio is playing ( You will never Hear Surf Music again)
    Case closed.

  11. TonyAttwood says:

    Dan, I can’t fix it so that one can go back and edit comments because the site uses the standard Word Press program, and that isn’t in the package. Maybe if the audience continues to grows (and hence the advertising on the side brings in enough) I might buy something more effective, but for now, by and large this software works ok.

  12. dan says:

    Hi Tony,
    I never expected such a reply. I don’t associate websites with people. My wish to edit my remarks was purely about wishing I could edit my remarks. My two posts on this subject, combined, and properly edited, could almost make one well written piece, on this subject. The editing being the part I desired. The desired editing born of the fact that I misspoke. I wished I had that chance at self correction.
    I don’t run a website. I received an education in that reply paragraph you wrote. I don’t associate websites with people, prior to you, today, Tony.
    If I was to clean up my remarks succinctly, can I Guest Host a Post about What Shooting Star is about?
    Apparently, I have a new interpretation, who knew? I knew what the song was about when “Oh Mercy” was new. By Pure Fluke – due to an acid induced experience that involved Hendrix’s “3rd Stone from the Sun” a year earlier, So when Bob perfectly described the sounds, I just heard him right the first time.

    I laughed out loud the other night, the first time I was defending this odd Idea of mine, that I just always knew to be true, when for the first time I was critically, analytically, listening to the 2 songs back to back to confirm the connection that I’d always known on faith to be true and I wrote –
    “The last radio is playing -( You will never Hear Surf Music again)”
    and I just wrote “case closed” thinking it poignantly funny.
    I wish I could take that back too, like I wish I could take back my first pass at ” The introspective final verse” ( and not just because it wasn’t the final verse, of a 3 verse song)
    These two men share a song, the final verse of the song they share is the only verse that matters in interpreting the song- it is the first verse or you don’t understand the song proper. But if you take the bridge of Bob’s “Song To Jimi”- Shooting Star and invert it, just like All Along the Watchtower- Here’s what you get –
    The last temptation (listen to the main theme of the song- It’s a sexy feminine strip tease of a piece of music)
    The Last account (your mysterious mountains , Your superior Cackling hen)
    The last time you might hear the sermon on the mount ( you are a people I do not understand, so to you I will put an end)
    The Last Radio is Playing ( You will Never hear Surf Music again)
    Listen to the engine, Listen to the bell
    As the last dump trunk from hell
    goes rolling by, all god people are praying

    I saw a shooting star tonight slip away ( because as vivid as that apocalyptic soundscape was)
    Tomorrow will be another day ( the song ended, not the world)
    I guess it’s too late to say to you (Jimi) The things you needed to hear me (Bob Dylan, your hero) say
    I saw a shooting star tonight slip away.

  13. TonyAttwood says:

    Dan – email just sent to you.

  14. Steven Ross says:

    Bob is a genius but “last fire truck from Hell” sounds stupid.

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