David Bowie: Guardian of the gal­axy

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - ART & MUSIC -

David Bowie’s first hit, 1969’s ‘Space Odd­ity’ still throws up many ques­tions about the su­per­star and his death, writes Barry Egan

FIFTY years ago, a 21-yearold 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.

‘Was Space Odd­ity about Bowie’s al­leged heroin use?’

David Bowie per­form­ing on stage in 1973

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