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Monday 22 July 2019

David Bowie's 1969 hit Space Oddity still throws up questions about the star and his death

 

David Bowie performing on stage in 1973
David Bowie performing on stage in 1973
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Fifty years ago, a 21-year-old David Bowie was watching 2001: A Space Odyssey for the third time. Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece appeared to speak directly to the star who fell to earth. "It was the sense of isolation I related to," Bowie would later admit. "I found the whole thing amazing. I was out of my gourd, very stoned, when I went to see it. It was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing." The song in question, of course, was Space Oddity. Released in 1969, it was space traveller Bowie's first Top 10 hit, with his lonely intergalactic isolation manifest with lyrics like: 'For here/ Am I sitting in a tin can/ Far above the world/ Planet Earth is blue/ And there's nothing I can do.'

Lost in space, Major Tom's melancholic voyage was linked to the break-up of Bowie's relationship with actress Hermione Farthingale. As to where the Major Tom character - who would return years later on Ashes To Ashes in 1980 - emerged from, the tale is that as a young teenager in Bromley Bowie saw posters for music hall performer Tom Major. (To mark the 50th anniversary of the release of Space Oddity, the BBC is producing a new documentary, the third in a trilogy chronicling Bowie's life, to be shown next year.)

Analysis of, and debate over, the song seems to go on forever. Some critics, like Mike Erricom, argued that Bowie "shows a slight sadistic side by never completing Tom's fate: instead of giving us a final, resolving chord, the song fades into the void, leaving Major Tom to spin for eternity. His departure lasts for a full minute, and having empathised with him  -  the fragile, married man who was nearly a hero - we have no choice but to recognise that, ultimately, his fate is ours".

Bowie said that when he originally wrote about Major Tom, he knew "all about the great American dream and where it started and where it should stop. Here was the great blast of American technological know-how shoving this guy up into space, but once he gets there he's not quite sure why he's there. And that's where I left him".

Only he didn't.

In 1980 when Major Tom suddenly breaks radio silence and makes contact with Earth again on the aforesaid Ashes To Ashes, the space commander is now addicted to drugs: "Ashes to ashes/ funk to funky/ We know Major Tom's a junkie/ Strung out in heaven's high/ Hitting an all-time low." So, was Space Oddity smackhead-in-space narrative really about Bowie's alleged heroin use and the countdown in the song referring to the gradual effects of the drug on him before he loses contact with Ground Control/ himself?

The idea of a spaceman with moral concerns about himself and the planet Bowie revisits again and again throughout his career: 1971's Life On Mars, 1972's Starman, 1995's Hallo Spaceboy; Dancing Out In Space and Born In A UFO, from The Next Day in 2013. The trope was used so hauntingly on Lazarus from the Blackstar album released two days after he died on January 11, 2016; as Bowie sang in death, 'Look up here, I'm in heaven'.

Intriguingly, at the start of Bowie's Blackstar film a woman finds a dead spaceman. Is the dead astronaut Major Tom? Johan Renck, who directed the video, answered the question: "Most things like this are for the eyes of the beholder, you know? You make of it whatever you want. What I can say, on one side of things there is no deliberate, underlying, firm quest to have any references to past times."

Francis Whately, who directed the Bowie: The Last Five Years documentary said of the dead astronaut Bowie commissioned for the Blackstar film: "Is that Major Tom? I have no way of knowing that, but he certainly wanted you to believe that it was. It's the character that made him successful, so the idea of one of his last videos having Major Tom absolutely made sense." Major Tom is dead; David Bowie lives.

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