David Bowie: “Space Oddity”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

In 1969, Davy Jones – who had recently renamed himself David Bowie – released what would become his breakthrough hit: “Space Oddity.” The song tells the story of an astronaut, Major Tom, who blasts out into space and loses contact with Ground Control.

As Bowie’s decades-long career evolved, he would take on other characters – Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, and at the end of his life, Lazarus – but he would always be most associated with Major Tom. Indeed, when he died earlier this month at the age of 69, social media, online news outlets, and television and radio broadcasts were filled with references to Major Tom and “Space Oddity.”

“Space Oddity” is, without a doubt, classic David Bowie. It was his first single for Philips/Mercury, his first Top 10 hit, the lead-off and title track for the LP; and the lead-off track for every greatest hits compilation (starting with ChangesOneBowie).

There are many theories about the meaning of “Space Oddity.”

Because the song was released the same year the U.S. put the first man on the moon, many have assumed Bowie was prompted by that historic event. One Bowie historian says that, rather than commemorating the moon landing, the “disaster that befalls Major Tom . . . reflects the general, if unspoken, fear at the time that the Apollo missions could go terribly wrong, with gruesome death or exile shown on live global television.”

But Bowie said that the song was actually inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. “It was really a revelation to me,” Bowie said. “It got the song flowing.” Says one source, “Bowie saw the film (stoned ‘off my gourd’ he recalled) several times that summer and was especially struck by the final images of a ‘child’ floating in space over the Earth.” And of course, once you know the film connection, the play on words in the title becomes obvious.

There’s also an ongoing, somewhat underground theory that the song is actually about a heroin overdose. As one source says, “The lyrics describe the fictional Major Tom who blasts off into space, but then loses connection with ground control, and gets lost. Bowie was a known drug user at the time, so many have speculated that the song could be a metaphor for a drug overdose.” The source adds, “During 1968 Bowie also had ‘a flirtation with smack,’ he admitted years later, and some have argued the icy majesty of ‘Space Oddity’ suggests it’s really a heroin song, the ‘liftoff’ section marking when the needle hits the vein.”

Another theory is that the song is about “withdrawal and resignation,” as Nicholas Pegg argues in his excellent book The Complete David Bowie. The day before Bowie recorded his first studio version of the song, his relationship with Hermione Farthingale abruptly ended. David Bowie once said that “Space Oddity” was about “alienation.” According to Chris O’Leary, publisher of an extensive and excellent website on David Bowie and his music, “biographers . . . speculate that Bowie’s state of mind at the time reflected Major Tom’s blissful sense of isolation, a desire to free himself entirely from human entanglements and just drift off into the void.”

Speaking of the song’s many meanings, O’Leary adds:

“Space Oddity” has come to define Bowie, perhaps because it’s as protean as its creator has tried to be. It’s a breakup song, an existential lullaby, consumer tie-in, product test, an alternate space program history, calculated career move, and a symbolic end to the counterculture dream – the “psychedelic astronaut” drifting off impotently into space; it’s a kid’s song, drug song, death song, and it marks the birth of the first successful Bowie mythic character, one whose motives and fate are still unknown to us.

More theories about the song’s meaning as well as extensive background on its composition and various recordings can also be found on O’Leary’s website (titled “Pushing the Dame”).

Of all the tributes to Bowie over the years, perhaps most compelling is Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s 2013 video recording of “Space Oddity” from aboard the International Space Station, a performance Bowie himself called “possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created.” Hadfield was the first Canadian to walk in space – and he was also the first astronaut to record music in space. After learning of Bowie’s death, Hadfield wrote that Bowie’s passing

leaves me and, I suspect, millions around the world, with an instant feeling of loss and emptiness – and yet also a wistful joy, a sense of how creative and inspirational just one of us can be. His art defined an image of outer space, inner self, and a rapidly changing world for a generation finding themselves at the confluence. Ashes to ashes, dust to stardust. Your brilliance inspired us all. Goodbye Starman.

Thanks to my sister, Julia Burrows, for her assistance in doing the research for this edition of StoryWeb. A devoted Bowie fan, Julia recommends the following books if you want to know more about this powerful artist’s life and work: Paul Trynka’s David Bowie: Starman, Marc Spitz’s Bowie: A Biography, David Buckley’s Strange Fascination: David Bowie: The Definitive Story, and Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh’s David Bowie Is (the companion guide for the 2013 Bowie exhibit at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum). If you’ve got a chunk of change to spend, check out Moonage Daydream: The Life & Times of Ziggy Stardust, written by David Bowie with photographs by Mick Rock. And of course, you absolutely can’t go wrong with Bowie’s own website and the other resources highlighted above (Pegg’s biography and O’Leary’s website, in particular).

If you’re looking to add to your music collection, consider the album Space Oddity or Best of Bowie. ChangesOneBowie, released in 1976, was an album I listened to repeatedly in my youth, but it is now hard to find. Other recordings Julia recommends are Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane, Young Americans, Lodger, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), and Earthling. Blackstar, of course, was released on January 8, 2016, Bowie’s 69th birthday, just two days before his death. Many believe it was his swan song, his parting gift to his fans.

Bowie’s genius went beyond music – and you might want to watch his films: The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Hunger, Labyrinth, and Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture. David Bowie: In His Own Words was released in early 2016. He also starred as The Elephant Man on Broadway, and you can see a clip of his performance here.

With equal measures of sadness, admiration, and gratitude, Julia and I say farewell to David Bowie – and to Major Tom.

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Watch:Watch David Bowie’s original, 1969 video for “Space Oddity.” Watch a live, 1973 recording, in which you can hear how Bowie has slowed the song’s tempo considerably. And finally, you’ll want to be sure to watch Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s revised version of “Space Oddity,” filmed aboard the International Space Station. Be forewarned: Hadfield’s version will make you cry.

Image Credit: David Bowie in 2002, photo by Adam Bielawski, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:David-Bowie_Chicago_2002-08-08_photoby_Adam-Bielawski-cropped.jpg.