Sensor Scan: Rocket Man


Elton John and Bernie Taupin's “Rocket Man” is usually read as a very poor imitation of David Bowie's “Space Oddity”. Both songs explore the mundane reality of space travel and both came out just as the wave of public interest in outer space and spaceflight had crested and was beginning to roll back (though “Space Oddity”, at least the original version, was far more timely in 1969, with “Rocket Man”'s 1972 release date already making it feel curiously dated, though do recall “Space Oddity” was re-released that year too) and, to top it off, both songs were even produced by the same guy: Gus Dudgeon. And of course, the critical consensus goes, no-one is going to call Bernie Taupin an especially poetic, captivating or moving songwriter, and David Bowie is, well, David Bowie.

But this misses, I feel, a big part of the nuance “Rocket Man” actually displays. Yes, I'll come right out and say it: This is pretty clunky song, and there are a fair few embarrassing verses and questionable lines. But I'll also freely admit this is one of my favourite pop songs, and while I'm well aware my taste in music can be described as “eclectic” at best and “suspect” at worst, just hear me out for a bit. First of all, that chorus has got to be one of the most achingly beautiful things ever recorded, and that's really all “Rocket Man” needs to become an instant classic, because in pop the hooks and chorus are unabashedly the most important parts of the song. Secondly though, “Rocket Man”'s origins are a bit more interesting than most people tend to give them credit for, as it was inspired both by a Ray Bradbury short story of the same name and Taupin witnessing a meteor or faraway airplane when looking up at the sky at night. Far from echoing David Bowie's indictment of (or at least very mixed feelings about) the Space Age on “Space Oddity”, what “Rocket Man” is actually about is a world where rocketry, at one time the most exciting and fashionable technology around, is so commonplace and mundane that astronauts become like truck drivers.

This is what takes “Rocket Man” from being curiously out of time to being very much of its time: In the mid-to-late 1970s pop culture in the United States had a particular fascination with truck drivers and trucker culture, brought upon by a number of movies from this period glamourizing the lifestyle and the widespread popularity of CB radio. With the 1970s fuel crisis in full swing, many people, but especially truckers, used CB radio to coordinate fuel runs to stations that had the best gas prices and to organise protests against new regulations. Truckers were seen as, in a sense, bringing back lost “American” values of rugged cowboy individualism (never mind the fact this assumption had zero historical precedent and is due more to the popularity of John Wayne movies: The fact is it existed) and, as a result, truck drivers, CB radio, and the distinctive language of slang they used, became very fashionable.

This peaked in 1975 with the release of the movie White Line Fever, about a Vietnam veteran who takes over his father's truck driving business and is forced to contend with corrupt executives who want him to haul illegal cargo, and the novelty song “Convoy”, which uses a bunch of CB radio slang to tell a story about a massive convoy that drives 24/7 across the United States in defiance of new federal truck driving regulations. So, in 1972, “Rocket Man” would have been an actually very savvy release, coming as it did right between Space Fever and the trucker fad and incorporating elements of both (Elton John even appears on the sleeve cover of the single in a spangly cowboy outfit).

But, of course, we're not looking at “Rocket Man” in 1972. We're looking at it in 1978-9, which is an altogether different cultural landscape. Actually, by the way I measure zeitgeists and timescapes, we're for all intents and purposes in the 1980s now, the changeover between the Long 1960s and Long 1980s happening about a year ago. And, while the trucker fad continued into the late 1970s, with other movies like Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and F.I.S.T. (1978), it never again quite matched the popularity it saw in the earlier part of the decade. But even so, “Rocket Man” remains relevant because there's a secondary thread to its invocation and likening of space travellers with truck drivers, and that's most clearly revealed in what remains, in my view, the song's definitive performance in January 1978.

When we talk about “Rocket Man” in the context of Star Trek, really only one thing comes to mind: William Shatner's legendarily insane interpretation of it at the 1977 Saturn Awards. Apart from Captain Kirk, this may actually be the one thing Shatner will forever be most remembered for: It has been mercilessly parodied any number of ways ever since, and is probably singlehandedly responsible for Shatner's reputation as a self-absorbed, self-indulgent, out-of-touch egotistical blowhard. You don't need me to tell you by now that I consider this to be a terribly unfair and undeserved reading, but let's take a moment to unpack this reaction as I concede “Rocket Man” is likely Shatner's most difficult and easily misread work. More so than even The Transformed Man, this is the thing that's going to cause people who are only familiar with Star Trek to think Shatner has absolutely lost his goddamned mind: Captain Kirk sits under a spotlight on stool in a velvet smoking jacket in the middle of a darkened stage, then begins monloguing a pop song from six years ago while other, smaller, CSO Shatners suddenly and inexplicably pop out of hammerspace and start having a conversation with each other.

At this point, if you only know Shatner from Star Trek, the immediate, and understandable, reaction is to stare at the screen blinking for a few moments before exclaiming “what the actual fuck” and then wondering which of the two of you has snapped and become unhinged from reality. But we of course know the kind of performer William Shatner really is, and we can see “Rocket Man” for what it truly is: The next step in Shatner's evolution as a performance artist and his first stab at a mixed media work that incorporates television and televisual logic. The first clue ought to be that Bernie Taupin himself is actually on hand to introduce Shatner's performance personally, claiming he's very proud to do so “due to the interest in the meaning of the song”, as if somehow Shatner was the only person who could actually explicitly spell out everything the song was about.

Which, actually, he does. There are two major things about this performance that make it really unique and effective. The first of these is the fact this was done for the televised broadcast of a live event: Already, this piece is playing with the interaction between different mediums. Given that this is William Shatner, we have spoken word poetry, theatre and pop music by default, but now we throw television into the mix as well. But this performance is meant as much for the actual audience at the Saturn Awards as it is for us: You can hear the live attendees reacting to the piece in progress which, given the fact it relies upon CSO to work, means there had to have been a viewscreen in the actual auditorium for people to watch. So we have Shatner performing the song for the cameras, which is performing his performance for the live audience, and we at home can watch the audience watching the live feed of Shatner's show on the monitor on site. This is incredibly medium aware, actually recursively so, which puts it firmly in the Long 1980s tradition of postmodern cinematography, which we'll talk about a great deal more as the era progresses. It not only ties into Shatner's own predilection for recursive artifice, it builds upon it and takes it to the next level.

(Another thing worth noting about the switch to television is this also provides Shatner with a kind of memorable “music video” to go with his performance: MTV isn't too far away, and the genre had been around for several years already. Combine this with the choice of covering an iconic single, and making sure to maintain the chorus and all its melancholy beauty, means “Rocket Man” is, paradoxically, William Shatner's most accessible and radio-friendly song yet. This awareness will help him relaunch his music career decades later.)

Tying into this is the use of CSO itself. CSO, or chroma key, or colour separation overlay, is what we commonly refer to day as bluescreening or greenscreening: That is, composting two images together by superimposing one over a flat, unnatural colour in the background. Here, Shatner and his editors use to it create the multiple Shatner effect that this video is so famous (and derided) for. But if we watch those scenes keeping in mind that we're watching a performance artist, they start to make a whole lot more sense. The purpose is to indicate different facets of the titular Rocket Man's personality: Watch how the performance opens with a solitary Shatner sitting alone in darkness smoking and reciting the song's opening verse, as if he's contemplating the meaning of it (the smoking actually shows off Shatner's incredibly formidable dedication to performing a role: In real life he's firmly straight edge and doesn't even drink alcohol, but he's playing a Space Trucker, and Space Truckers would probably smoke). We get the first chorus, and it's only *then* that the CSO performers come out.

And when they do, they deliver their lines an entirely different way to the seated Shatner's pensiveness: The performer on the right puts on a show of being a bold gruff, manly renegade hero (AllMusic describes this as Shatner's “Private Dick” performance), but this is clearly a facade, as he grows increasingly lonesome and neurotic as the song progresses. The performer on the left, meanwhile, acts like a fun loving, uninhibited stud who clearly wants to be the life of every party, but who also seems to be using this as a mask to disguise his inner loneliness. This is a perfect showcase for Shatner's recursive artifice, and he takes full advantage of the repetitiveness of Taupin's lyrics: Note the wildly different ways each performer delivers the lines to the chorus (such as in the wordplay joke of delivering “rocket” one time as “rock it”), and yet how each one seems to be using it to convey the Rocket Man's conflicted emotions. Take, for example, the line

I'm not the man they think I am at home

Oh no, no, no

Shatner runs the gamut here, delivering it every way it could possibly be delivered: The Rocket Man thus becomes someone who's both claiming to be a more suave and courageous person than people think he is, but who also worries about living up to other people's expectations of him. Much as he did in The Transformed Man, Shatner is showing us that this contradictory melange of emotions is something common to everyone and part of the human experience.

And this also brings us to the other important factor about this performance: That William Shatner did it for a science fiction awards show in 1978. Because “I'm not the man they think I am at home” is a sentence that describes William Shatner himself as much as it does the Rocket Man. The Transformed Man came out in 1968: At a time when Shatner was trying to carve out a new career for himself in the wake of Star Trek, and before he realised what a big deal that show was going to become and how much he was going to be burned because of it in the 1970s. That record, despite its reputation and packaging that misled people into thinking it was a celebrity cash-in, wasn't about Star Trek or science fiction overtly: It was about how central performance is to our lives. Furthermore though, The Transformed Man wasn't autobiographical, at least any more then we would expect given it was a project that was important to Shatner and was about something he felt united all humans. “Rocket Man”, meanwhile, came out a decade later and at the cusp of Star Trek being relaunched, when it was probably safe to say science fiction fans were the only people paying any sort of attention to William Shatner, and it *does* carry a whiff of self-reflection about it.

Thus, one of the many interpretive layers to “Rocket Man” becomes William Shatner working through the phenomenon that is Captain Kirk and Star Trek and what both have meant to him over the past ten years. William Shatner is not “the man they think [he is] at home”, because William Shatner is not Captain Kirk, and Star Trek fans have an irritating and unhealthy tendency to forget this. The real kicker comes when the Shatner on the right says

And all this science, I don't understand

It's just a job, five days a week

and the way its delivered, you can totally read Shatner's confusion and bewilderment at the way Trekkers obsess over a TV show from the 1960s in it (recall the Star Fleet Technical Manual was out by now too) and his awkward attempts to remind people that Captain Kirk was only someone he played on television for an acting gig years ago. Not that Shatner doesn't respect Trekkers' passion, of course (Star Trek: The New Voyages came out the previous year, and you can see Shatner working through many of these same themes in his introduction to “Mind Sifter”, yet he remains positive, gracious and encouraging throughout), it's just that...well, he doesn't quite understand yet.

But the coup de grace comes when all of this is taken together. The real power of “Rocket Man” comes from its expressly working class heart. It is, after all, a song about a world where astronauts became truck drivers, and it's even possible to use this to excuse some of Taupin's sketchy songwriting: One would not necessarily expect a truck driver to speak like a refined and educated Oxford Dean, for example. And the thing about truck drivers that the mid-70s fad didn't pick up on was their tendency towards introspection and crushing loneliness. But “Rocket Man”, both the original and William Shatner's re-conceptualization, do get this: You can't take a job like that and not be OK with having a considerable amount of time to yourself, and when you're driving down a highway in the middle of the night when everyone else is asleep, you tend to get lost in your own thoughts. It's why late night radio is so popular with truckers: It's the only thing on, and when you're in a state of mind like that your imagination drifts towards more esoteric and cosmic things anyway.

(While Coast to Coast AM, the archetypical example of this genre, wouldn't premier until 1984, truckers in previous decades would have been entertained by Long John Nebel's show out of New York, considered the pioneer of paranormal radio. Coincidentally, Nebel died in 1978.)

This is what “Rocket Man” is really about to me. And while this theme is present in the original song to some extent, it's William Shatner who seizes and doubles down on it. “Rocket Man” sounds like nothing here so much as it does the ruminations of a trucker driving down a cosmic highway contemplating his place in the universe. Shatner wears these mixed feelings as a mask in a grand performance that makes a theatre out of the mundane and of himself. And, in doing so, he not only highlights the original motif of rocket men as truck drivers, he also, given the positionality and perspective he injects into this performance, equates Captain Kirk with these sorts of people as well. Once and for all then, the soul of Kirk and Star Trek forever becomes that of the working class spaceman, just like D.C. Fontana always knew it was and that we long suspected it to be.

And furthermore, it's really funny: Not because of the reasons most people give (that Shatner is comically bombing due to his complete lack of self-awareness, which he's not) but because it's supposed to be funny: You can hear the live audience laughing at a number of points: They clearly get the joke, and so does Shatner, who gives us one of his trademark twinkling smiles at the end of the show, which is met with a thunderous applause. Perhaps people from the Long 1960s and Long 1980s weren't more naive then we are today. Maybe they just saw and understood some things we don't know to look for anymore.

Of the almost innumerable things William Shatner has done over the years, I think this may well be his truest masterpiece. All of the themes that are the most important to him as a performer and an observer of human nature are on display here, and they're all wrapped up in a package that's as provocative as it is memorable and charmingly funny. It's an art house piece about, and done as, a pop single, which puts William Shatner squarely in good company with the blossoming counterculture of the Long 1980s. In a different universe where this Star Trek thing never worked out, maybe he'd be seen as a contemporary of William S. Burroughs or Laurie Anderson. As it stands though, for a few glorious moments in January, 1978 that continue to this day, William Shatner captured something of the human experience.

And the human adventure is just beginning.

Comments 6 years, 10 months ago

I had never actually made the connection between "Rocket Man" and space trucking, but then again I haven't actually thought about Elton John at all in years. Great work as always, I'm loving all the Shatner love.

Speaking of out-there William Shatner works, have you seen Incubus, the pre-Star-Trek-by-the-guy-who-made-The-Outer-Limits-Ingmar-Bergman-looking-all-dialogue-in-Esperanto-western-mythology-art-horror-film? Certainly doesn't fit into the project timeline, but if you ever need a guest written essay... :P

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Josh Marsfelder 6 years, 10 months ago

Glad you liked the post! I think "Rocket Man", both the original and Shatner's version, is something that can be tougher to get a hold on outside of its cultural context. But I still love it.

I am indeed familiar with Incubus: James Rolfe talks about it in the video I linked to in the "William Shatner in the 1970s" post. A weird and fascinating little film. Thought about addressing it, but couldn't find a way to fit it in.

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Daru 6 years, 10 months ago

Man where do I begin? I LOVE that you have done this post. Way back as a design student I had one friend with whom I shared music, and included in that things like Shatner's Transformed Man. I get the impression now that my friend kind of took it as a joke, but it was with that album of Shatner's and people like William S. Burroughs, that I found the influences that got me into spoken word performance. It is great to hear WSB name checked in this blog, as I feel he has had a major effect on current culture and what toy term Pop Soda Art.

His knowing performance blows me away in this. The first moments when he is smoking, alone as the solitary space trucker are truly astonishing in their level of focus to me.

"And all this science, I don't understand
It's just a job, five days a week"

That moment really hit me, his delivery there is so spot on and I heard the serious jobbing actor talking in Shatner. I remember reading Shatner talking about his time of being pretty much homeless and living out of a truck or van whilst he took work on the stage after TOS ended. I can so hear the voice of that man revealed there. What a beautiful and aware piece of work.

I find it such a shame that Shatner has been derided and utterly misunderstood in regards to his spoken word work.

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Josh Marsfelder 6 years, 10 months ago

"His knowing performance blows me away in this. The first moments when he is smoking, alone as the solitary space trucker are truly astonishing in their level of focus to me."

I totally agree. Before you even get at how good the rest of the performance is, those first moments alone immediately elevate it to classic status.

"Rocket Man" really is perfect. It's definitive William Shatner, and I mean that in the best possible way. I wish more people recognised it as such.

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Daru 6 years, 10 months ago

Man yeah. Love it! It is pretty wonderful isn't it? Big shame that her gets derided by so many for this work.

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