So here I am, on my first-ever trip to London, way back in 1973. Beatlemania baby that I was, I had come to see London as the center of my universe. All my ears and pores open, ready to drink in the Next Great Thing.
And so I went to get my hair cut in what I thought was a groovy hair salon. In fact it was in Harrod's department store -- the shop was called either the Way Out or the Way In, I'm not sure which -- so it couldn't have been that "groovy." But there I sat, a young American, leafing through the magazines, and I saw my first photo of David Bowie. Loaded up with eye make-up, hair gelled in magenta spikes, lithe long pale body draped in lame and satin . . . and for me, coming off the Woodstock era, it was quite a sight. I hadn’t yet heard the term “glam rock,” but I was staring in fascination at its prime exhibit.
And then, a few days later, “Space Oddity” came over the loudspeakers in a record shop in Chelsea. I must have heard it before (it was released in 1969, after the first moon landing, when everybody was space-crazed), but it got no airplay in the US and I’d never really heard it before. Now I could put song and singer together, and I was absolutely mesmerized by it.
Bowie imagines a future where being an astronaut – the A # 1 coolest career of the 1960s – has become a routine job. Major Tom goes off to work, takes his protein pill (nice sci-fi detail), and climbs into his “tin can” without a second thought, heading for the galaxies with complete trust in his handlers. Bowie sings a dialogue with himself, playing both Ground Control (the nasal, low-pitched monotone) and Major Tom (the plaintive, melodic high voice). The hollow, metallic sound of the recording, all those feedback echoes and synthesized strings, the ghostly voices doing the countdown – it’s so atmospheric . . . and so ominous.
As he steps out of the capsule into space, Ground Control fawns all over him (“And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear”). I'm thinking of the line in the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" ("And a man comes on and tells me / 'bout how white my shirts can be.") This team player still naively trusts in technology: “I think my spaceship knows which way to go.” But it’s not going to end well, you can just tell; all those minor keys and dissonance were there for some reason. There’s that haunting moment when the good major sings “Tell my wife I love her very much” and Ground Control snaps back, a little too quickly, “She knows”; next thing you know, the circuits stop working. Ground Control keeps urgently repeating, “Can you hear me, Major Tom?” while Major Tom drifts woozily off into the eternal loneliness of space, idly musing on how Earth looks from afar. Whatever was in that protein pill, anyway?
It’s chilling to realize that this song was written before Apollo 13, before space shuttles started blowing up in mid-air. But while the title obviously refers to Kubrick's psychedelic space epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bowie was probably also thinking about how becoming a rock star – or taking drugs ("we know Major Tom's a junkie," Bowie revealed years later in "Ashes to Ashes") – severs you irrevocably from your former life.
Major Tom is incredibly passive, when you think about it. He’s “floating in a most peculiar way,” not getting hysterical, not springing into action. That disorientation, that disconnect, is what got me most about this song that day in Chelsea. I felt I was standing on the brink of a brave new world, a world full of androgynous men in eye make-up and strange rock songs – and I was already sucked into it. There was no going back.