The life and times of Major Tom

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Something fascinating about David Bowie’s career was his use of characters as a means of expression. A character would be used, almost spent, and then cast aside for the next character. In fact, sometimes Bowie was explicit in this change of characters. The album cover of Lodger (Bowie, 1979) shows the Thin White Duke from Station to Station (Bowie, 1976) badly beaten and being literally and violently cast aside. The Thin White Duke is shown midair and at an angle that is hard to imagine the Duke landing gracefully. It seems that the Thin White Duke had overstayed his welcome.

Note the particularly broken nose.

Another visual example of this is on the cover of hours… (Bowie, 1999), Earthling-era Bowie (1997) has died in the arms of the new unnamed character for hours…

Note the pseudo-UPC in the top right. Here, Bowie is attempting to embrace the new millennium: hours… was the first major album released on the Internet.

A character of particular interest is Major Tom. Major Tom is unique to the cannon of Bowie’s work because it is the one character that Bowie returned to for the duration of his career. In fact, his career began and ended with Major Tom. The first song that made the public aware of David Bowie (1969) was undoubtedly “Space Oddity.” His final album, Blackstar (Bowie, 2016), features the deification of Major Tom in the title track. There are two other concrete instances of Major Tom returning. The character is the protagonist of “Ashes to Ashes” (Bowie, 1980) and the object of question in “Hallo, Spaceboy” (Bowie, 1996, 1997). To fully understand Major Tom, it is necessary to explore each song individually, but also contextualized within the album and contemporary events. A complex narrative of Major Tom emerges that twists and distorts with each successive release. If permitted to do so, each subsequent release changes the interpretation of previous release(s). On the surface, narrative analysis may seem like a strange mode of research to use for pop music lyrics but as David Nichols (2007) points out “narrativity is theoretically a feature common to all activities involving representations of events in time” (p. 297). While not all pop music describes events in time, here the argument is made that the recurring character of Major Tom has his own story, spanning several songs, albums, and decades.

The origin of Major Tom in “Space Oddity”

“Space Oddity” (Bowie, 2010) began as a demo produced by Deram Records when they were trying to get rid of Bowie after his first album was a total flop. The demo version has the same lyrics, and much of the same melody of the first commercial release of the song. It is annoyingly chipper with a faster tempo, and a poppy-yet-conservative little groove. Of course, the version that is imminently familiar is the re-recorded dirge-like space rock masterpiece. More on this later. One lyric that requires specific attention is “Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows.” The performance and subsequent interpretation of this lyric vary greatly across different recordings of the song, and that line alone can cause radical reinterpretations of the meaning of the whole song.

The importance of “she knows”

The story of “Space Oddity” (Bowie, 1969) is one of loneliness, defeat, and retreat. Major Tom is a lone astronaut blasting off on a mission. The song ends with Major Tom drifting away from the Earth, powerless to effect his situation. However, how and why this happens seems to vary between versions of the song. It seems reasonable to assert that the climactic moment of the song occurs when Major Tom is out on a spacewalk, observing the stillness of space and extolling trust in his spacecraft to take him where he needs to go. “Tell my wife I love her very much,” insists Major Tom. This line is followed by a possibly ambiguous voice saying, “She knows.” However, depending on who is saying that, the understanding of the tragedy of Major Tom changes substantially.

Let’s go back to the Deram Records demo version of “Space Oddity” (Bowie, 2010).

As the climactic moment approaches, the vocal harmonies drop out and Major Tom gets more and more diminutive sounding, nearly whispering “Tell my wife I love her very much – she knows.” Following that line, the vocals are double tracked and the timbre of the performance shifts to a shouting, panicked Ground Control trying to reestablish communication with Major Tom. In this version of the song, the tragedy of Major Tom is self-made. Major Tom is cutting himself off from society, wishing instead to drift among the cosmos forever and leave his life – and wife – behind.

Obviously, this demo recording is largely unknown. Despite it predating the popular version of the song, it would be hard to assert that it is in any way definitive. When people think of “Space Oddity,” they are undoubtedly thinking of the recording released on David Bowie’s self-titled album (also sometimes titled Space Oddity; Bowie, 1969).

This version turns the twee lilting of the demo version into a sincere dirge with scraping Mellotron strings and Stylophones juxtaposed against lush live strings and Mick Ronson’s surprisingly clean (for Ronno, anyway) guitar tones. The tension of the narrative plays out in the production of the recording as the mechanical and electronic elements fight against the organic and human elements. As Major Tom reports on his space walk experience, he again gets diminutive and vocal harmonies drop away as he croons, “Tell my wife I love her very much.” A harsher, shouting voice responds with “She knows!” Is this Ground Control or Major Tom?

There are clues that suggest an open interpretation. In the structure of the narrative, characters typically hail each other before beginning to speak (“Ground Control to Major Tom…”). Obviously, this does not happen here. Yet the shift in vocal register, timbre, and affect suggests that Bowie is putting those words in the mouth of another character. When Ground Control hails Major Tom in the next line of dialogue, the vocal performance is more similar to “She knows!” than Major Tom’s crooning. If we entertain the idea that Ground Control, in a moment of candor and excitement, responds to Major Tom with “She knows!” before hailing properly, then the narrative is fundamentally changed.

This may feel pedantic to ruminate on a single line, but it is not. If Major Tom’s last transmission is “Tell my wife I love her very much – she knows,” then he made a choice. If Major Tom’s last transmission is “Tell my wife I love her very much,” then he had a chance to express his love one last time before some sort of accident occurred on the mission, rendering him adrift in space with no way to contact Earth. In fact, the following monologue includes the lines “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.” This helplessness could suggest Major Tom is not willingly adrift in space. Taken another way, he is reflecting on the permanence of his choice. There is no going back, now.

If a tally was made of the different known recordings of “Space Oddity” over Bowie’s career using the same heuristic applied above, there would be several entries in the “willful” and “accident” categories. There is no clear pattern that may suggest that Bowie made a choice at on a preferred reading. One final version that necessitates discussion is the 1979 re-recording of “Space Oddity” (Bowie, 1980).

This version is jarringly stark with its stripped down arrangement of acoustic guitar, bass, piano, and a single vocal take. There are a few electric guitar notes wafting through the arrangement at poignant moments as well. The long fade in intro is replaced by a mechanical and aggressive strumming guitar. Bowie’s vocals come in immediately strident and forceful. Ground Control is much more commanding here. The wonder and excitement are gone from their voices. (Could this be a reflection of Bowie tiring of performing this song?)

As the intro concludes with Ground Control offering a perfunctory “And may God’s love be with you,” the music falls entirely silent. No cacophony of rising action as the rocket launches, just… nothingness. It is shocking enough to make the listener wonder if something went wrong with their equipment. Suddenly, the drums and piano explode in as Ground Control hails Major Tom.

Again, the performances are mechanistic: the drums play a square and simple pattern. The piano largely just plays whole note chords on the downbeat of the measure. An overwhelming sense of loneliness permeates this recording with the sparse arrangement. And with the climactic moment, when Major Tom announces “Tell my wife I love her very much – she knows,” there is no sadness in his voice. Instead it is matter-of-fact, with a rising and falling inflection on “she knows.” The performance here is more obviously emotive than any other moment in the song. It almost sounds triumphant, as if Major Tom is announcing that his wife knows he is miserable in the face of such a cold and cruel world, and he is finally breaking free.

Given that Bowie divorced his first wife, Angie, prior to or during the recording of this version of “Space Oddity,” it gives credence to the idea that Major Tom has become somewhat of an avatar for Bowie himself and his struggles with his marriage ending. Furthermore, this recording coincides with the recording sessions for Bowie’s 1980 album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). Bowie’s recent divorce is a major topic of the album, as well as the first return of Major Tom in Bowie’s canon of work.

Major Tom an Bowie’s avatar in “Ashes to Ashes”

“Ashes to Ashes” (Bowie, 1980) represents a pointed shift in the Major Tom narrative. He’s now adrift in space, wishing he could come back home. The previously largely literal story of an astronaut forever adrift in space now becomes a metaphor for drug abuse. Bowie starts off asking if anyone even remembers Major Tom and even goes so far as to acknowledge that Major Tom is a character in a song. Bowie is no stranger to self reference, but specifically pointing out this character “in such an early song,” is unique because it breaks the fourth wall. Bowie then goes on to say that Ground Control received a new transmission from Major Tom. He’s broken his radio silence after all these years to explain where he’s been and what he’s been doing. By and large, the explanation is self-loathing and drugs. His loneliness is profound at this point (“the shrieking of nothing is killing [me]”). Droning voices that are mostly imperceptible chant in the background, casting judgements on Tom, as he explains his current state in excruciating detail: he’s broke, he’s pulled out his hair, he’s obsessing over and fetishizing women, and he wishes he had the courage to kill himself. “I’m hoping to kick but the planet is glowing,” he muses. Perhaps the glow of the distant Earth is just enough to keep him attached to reality.

The chorus then enters with of a small group of voices, sounding more plain and detached. This is likely Ground Control commenting:

“Ashes to ashes, funk to funky

We know Major Tom’s a junkie

Strung out in Heaven’s high,

Hitting an all-time low”

They have been following his condition and they are coldly joking about it by mocking him by paraphrasing an Anglican burial prayer. In the musical interlude, Major Tom wails in psychotic agony as the detuned piano melody line wavers around him, taunting him. Fortunately the agony subsides or is pushed down and Major Tom regains control.

Tom becomes more candid with his condition: “Time and again, I tell myself I’ll stay clean tonight” but he’s “stuck with a valuable friend” – whatever expensive drugs he’s been taking. But he insists he’s happy! It’s ok, he will be better soon. And in light of that blatantly false statement, he tears apart at the seams and pleads with anyone who will listen “I want an axe to break the ice! I wanna come down right now!” The metaphor of that statement sits barefaced: Major Tom wants to come back to Earth, and Bowie wants to sober up. Who is talking in this song? Is Bowie portraying Major Tom, or is Major Tom now Bowie?

“My mother said, ‘To get things done, you’d better not mess with Major Tom.”

This is the line that closes the song, repeated over and over as the vocals fade out. There’s a neat musical trick here, too. The vocal melody phrase is shorter than the chord progression phrase, so they are out of sync with each other. This is a bit funky, but also a bit unsettling. The motherly advice rings true, too: don’t do drugs.

The eulogy for Major Tom: “Hallo Spaceboy”

“Hallo Spaceboy” (Bowie, 1996, 1997) is featured on the album 1. Outside, but the then-popular Petshop Boys remixed it and added in a verse. This is the version that Bowie decided to make into a single and the above music video. Adding this version is somewhat contentious because the original version does (probably) allude to Major Tom, but the remixed version with the added lyrics by the Petshop Boys specifically mentions Major Tom. These are not Bowie’s lyrics, but given that he endorsed it so strongly and through official releases, it seems ultimately reasonable to add to this essay.

Again, Major Tom acts as an avatar for Bowie himself. Major Tom is drifting through the heavens still, getting sleepy as his life support finally begins fail and reflects on his sexuality. “Do you like girls or boys? It’s confusing these days.” None of it matters, though, as the inevitability of death looms ever closer. He ironically croons, “This chaos is killing me.”

Major Tom yearns for freedom, but freedom from what? The struggle to determine his sexual identity? The sweet release of death? It’s hard to say. The song is particularly vague, even by Bowie’s standards. This might be because of the context of the time that it was released: 1995 was not the most sexually accepting atmosphere to openly discuss sexual confusion.

Given that Bowie is harkening back to Major Tom, it seems reasonable to suggest that Bowie himself was harking back to his younger years. And doubly reasonable given that “Ashes to Ashes” (Bowie, 1980) establishes Major Tom as representative of Bowie himself. Bowie has famously stated that for many years, he was a closeted heterosexual. “Yeah, bye bye love,” decries Bowie. In letting Major Tom drift away, he is letting his sexual confusion drift away too.

The deification of Major Tom as Blackstar

Major Tom is the subject of one last song in David Bowie’s career: “Blackstar” (Bowie, 2016). A black star is a theoretical object arising from classical physics that is an alternative to a black hole (Visser, Barceló, Liberati, & Sonego, 2009). A black star is somewhere between a collapsing star and a singularity. Instead of the endless and inescapable hunger of a black hole, a black star instead fundamentally transforms anything passing near it despite being virtually impossible to see (Visser et al., 2009).

The music video for “Blackstar” (Bowie, 2016) opens with shots of a ragged space suit resting on some distant moon and covered in dust(!). The suit has been mended time and again, and even has goofy smiley face iron-on patches. An alien approaches the suit to reveal that the person inside has decomposed into a blackened skeleton, but it is covered in ornate jewelry that suggests that the skeleton may be an object of worship.

The lyrics of this song never mention Major Tom by name, but the allusions to him are hard to interpret differently. As the second section of the song breaks, Bowie (as the Blind Prophet / Lazarus) declares, “Something happened on the day he died, [His] spirit rose a metre and stepped aside.” Given the use of past tense and the visuals of the dead and jewel-adorned Major Tom, the Blind Prophet is recounting that which had already happened: in death, Major Tom became something more than he was in life.

The story of Major Tom came to a fitting close. In death, Bowie himself becomes a blackstar. Major Tom began as a character in an innocently sad song, but he grew into meaning so much more. Bowie began to twist and contort Major Tom, or perhaps the other way around, as time passed and more layers were added to the character. All stories must end, and both Bowie and Major Tom took a pointed bow before the curtain closed.

 

 

References

Bowie, David. (1969). Space Oddity. On David Bowie [LP]. USA: Mercury Records.

Bowie, David. (1976). Station to Station [LP]. New York, New York: RCA Records.

Bowie, David. (1979). Lodger [LP]. New York, New York: RCA Records.

Bowie, David. (1980a). Ashes to Ashes. On Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) [LP]. New York, New York: RCA Records.

Bowie, David. (1980b). Space Oddity. On Alabama Song [45rpm]. New York, New York: RCA Records.

Bowie, David. (1996). Hallo Spaceboy (Petshop Boys Remix). On Hallo Spaceboy [CD]. New York, New York: BMG.

Bowie, David. (1997). Hallo Spaceboy. On Earthling [CD]. Hollywood, California: Virgin Records America.

Bowie, David. (1999). Hours… [CD]. London, England: Virgin Records.

Bowie, David. (2010). Space Oddity (Original Version). On David Bowie [CD]. Santa Monica, California: Universal Music Group. (Recorded in 1967).

Bowie, David. (2016). Blackstar. On Blackstar [CD]. New York, New York: ISO Records.

Nicholls, D. (2007). Narrative theory as an analytical tool in the study of popular music texts. Music and Letters, 88(2), 297-315.

Visser, M., Barceló, C., Liberati, S., & Sonego, S. (2009). Small, dark, and heavy: But is it a black hole? arXiv preprint arXiv:0902.0346.

 

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