William Shatner Looks Into The Void

2001: A Space Odyssey, Norman Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit In the Sky’, and Ray Bradbury’s tale of a rocket man collide with actor’s real life space experience

by Marshall Bowden

William Shatner comes back from his ten minute real, live space ride on Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space capade. Shatner emerges from the capsule and begins to emote to Bezos, who is there to greet his astronauts. So far, it’s all according to script, but then Shatner takes a wide swing and starts to talk about how the blackness of space is harsh and so very much like…death. Of course, he says, people need to do this to see their inherent fragility–not the Earth’s fragility, as some have said–their inherent fragility when separated from their source, Mother Earth. Then he comes back at it again, from another angle:

“That’s the thing. The covering of blue is this sheet, this blanket, this comforter of blue that we have around. We think, ‘Oh, that’s blue sky.’ And there’s something you shoot through, and all of a sudden, as though you whip a sheet off you when you’re asleep, and you’re looking into blackness, into black ugliness. And you look down. There’s the blue down there and the black up there. And there is mother and Earth and comfort. And there… Is there death? I don’t know. Was that death? Is that the way death is? Whoop and it’s gone. Jesus.”

It should be unsurprising that William Shatner, a man who, at ninety years of age, is looking at increasing odds of death with each passing day, should see things in this way. But what is surprising is the absolute lack of comfort in his observations. Right at that moment, at the conclusion of (probably) one of the most intensely meaningful experiences of his life, he is staring directly into the void and not blinking, not rationalizing. 

His description of floating up there is remarkably similar to the experiences of people who have been clinically dead for a brief period, looking down on their bodies and the people trying to revive them or bearing witness to their passing, with one exception. In near death people unfailingly report a bright light, sometimes emitting feelings of warmth and love, towards which they are drawn. Sometimes they seem disappointed to have been returned to their bodies and to resume their former lives, but the experience often changes them in a variety of ways. But William Shatner has no such comforting vision. He sees the comfort of life on our planet contrasted against nothingness, nonexistence. 

That’s a different vision than we have grown used to in the half century since we fiarst visited outer space and landed on the moon. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick saw it as a place where mankind’s future evolution would take place, even though the technology associated with that evolution would prove dangerous. Admittedly, the film shows the aging and death of astronaut Bowman but it ends on an optimistic note as Bowman is reborn as an omniscient Star Child. Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are clearly hoping that people will find a trip into space inspirational, but who can say?

Whenever I see a space ship blasting off or footage of astronauts walking toward the launch pad, I hear Norman Greenbaum’s hit single “Spirit In the Sky,” and I bet I’m not alone despite the fact that the song itself has nothing overtly to do with space exploration. It’s a spiritual song, a hymn of sorts, about one’s soul departing this life and becoming part of something bigger. The nature of his spirit in the sky is undetermined, but Greenbaum does include a shout out to Jesus as well, despite living his entire life as a practicing Jew. 

But the song was used in Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13, where it was played by the astronauts after their successful launch, and that certainly puts it in a lot of people’s ears, even today. According to several sources, the Apollo 13 astronauts actually played the theme from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But Howard was right to include the song in the film, because it had only been released three months before Apollo 13’s fateful April 1970 launch and was on the Billboard Hot 100.

Norman Greenbaum was inspired to write ‘Spirit In the Sky’ after watching Porter Wagoner, who sang a gospel song on his show each week. Greenbaum decided that he could write a gospel song, and tried to capture the tone and cadence of the gospel-tinged message. But Greenbaum couldn’t just leave it at that. He decided to record the track with a fuzzbox built into his Fender Telecaster, described by lead guitarist Russell DaShiell as an overdrive circuit built into the Telecaster pickguard. Meanwhile DaShiell played scorching lead riffs with an SG Les Paul, overdrive, and Marshall stack. So the record endures at least in part because of its intense fuzzbox guitar sound and the lead guitar as well. There’s no other song on the album that sounds like it.

The other element that has made “Spirit In The Sky” a song that never dies is its gospel underpinnings. The background vocals, by the Stovall Sisters, a gospel trio from Oakland, provide the right touch. The Sisters recorded their own version of “Spirit In The Sky” on their eponymous 1971 Reprise album, in fact they were signed to Reprise on the basis of their appearance on Greenbaum’s single. Handclaps were also employed, and it’s hard to resist a record with handclaps. 

“When I die and they lay me to rest/Gonna go to the place that’s the best.”  “Gotta have a friend in Jesus.”   It’s so comforting. It evokes both non-denominational spirituality and Christianity. It’s as rock solid and basic as any gospel song you’ve ever heard and that is why is works. Greenbaum says it took him fifteen minutes to write, and I take that as a sign, not of sloppy workmanship, but of divine inspiration or just plain getting down to business. I mean, a lot of serious pop, blues, and country songs have been written in record time. 

But the thing about it is–it’s so positive! So happy. It celebrates what’s going to happen to us when we die in a way that people find comforting. The fact that it has been around and is still a classic rock radio staple in these sorry times is testament to that. But it also fit perfectly into its own era. This was the time when hippies and young people of all stripes were rejecting traditional, organized religion but still wanted to express themselves spiritually. It was the era of Jesus Christ Superstar, guitar masses, and Vatican II. There were other pop songs of the era with a Christian religious bent: Gene McLellan’s “Put Your Hand In the Hand,” recorded by Ocean comes to mind immediately. But there was nothing quite like “Spirit In The Sky.” 

The message is so different from that of William Shatner, who spent the early seventies in a period of unemployment and obscurity, having been typecast by his Captain Kirk role. In 2011 he recorded an album called Seeking Major Tom, which featured a lot of well known rock musicians and Shatner doing versions of songs that were about space and space travel. And yes, he did a version of “Spirit In the Sky,” accompanied by Peter Frampton. Frampton performs his part ably (though without fuzztone), but the rest is predictable Shatner. He doesn’t really sound like he’s celebrating a foregone conclusion, but instead like a man slipping a maitre d’ some cash and demanding a good table: “Gonna go to the place that’s the best!”

Of course, Shatner also takes a run at Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and he’s a lot more successful at that one, maybe because its original inspiration is more down to Earth. According to Bernie Taupin, the lyrics were inspired by a story from Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man, about a future where being an astronaut is a regular job, like going to the office. Taupin took that idea and just ran with it, and Shatner sounds very much like a guy who’s over being in space. In the Bradbury story, the titular Rocket Man realizes that his job is destroying his regular domestic life, but he is unable to resist the call of the moon, stars, and space: “Every time I’m out there I think, if I ever get back to Earth I’ll stay there; I’ll never go out again. But I go out, and I guess I’ll always go out.” He has a son who misses his father, who is gone so much, but he also is drawn to the idea of being a Rocket Man. 

William Shatner couldn’t resist going into space, even for a few minutes,  but what he saw and what he found there will be with him until the day he actually does die. The poet Charles Bukowski said that we should enjoy the life we have, but that the fact that it comes to an end should provide us with a sense of relief, because one day we will simply walk away from all the messiness of our lives. I hope that as he processes his experience, William Shatner will be able to develop a sense of comfort at what lies ahead, but what may be more important is that he expressed his unvarnished vision on national broadcast television, leaving the world with something that’s worth contemplating as we hurtle through space towards we know not what.

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