David Bowie is well-known for possessing the uncanny ability to create rock personas fit to rule the entire music world. Whether it was Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke or whatever moniker he happened to be throwing around at the time, Bowie is rightly revered as the chameleon of music, as able to transcend genres and styles as he was to incorporate them effortlessly into anything he did. One caveat of these personas, however, is that they rarely lasted.
Ziggy was killed off while the Thin White Duke thankfully put on some pounds, bringing both of Bowie’s creations to their natural ending. That said, there was one character which Bowie relied on throughout his time in the limelight—Major Tom. The fictional astronaut not only became a part of Bowie’s rich iconography but also happened to bookmark his time in the spotlight and on this earth, providing us with the theory that David Bowie, more so than any other of his characters, truly was Major Tom.
Of course, we needn’t remind you of Major Tom’s first appearance in a song. Bowie’s breakout hit, ‘Space Oddity’, centred on the fictional astronaut’s first brushes with space and his seemingly difficult time in accepting the minuteness of earth. After a successful launch, Major Tom finally sees the world and its troubles for what they’re worth and makes a decision to remain inactive as his spacecraft carries on into oblivion. “Here am I floating ’round my tin can, far above the moon,” sings Bowie as Tom, “Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.”
Major Tom’s role in the song is one of the lasting memories of Bowie’s career and will forever be emblazoned upon his worthy canon of work as a pivotal moment. In the original video for the song we see Bowie play Major Tom and act out, as is his talent for doing so, the themes of the track. Spirituality, humanity and acceptance reign as the overarching threads of the song and are expertly portrayed in the video. It cemented not only ‘Space Oddity’ as an award-winning song but Bowie as a future icon.
The 1969 song heralded a new age for Bowie and his time as a struggling artist was at an end. In the seventies, Bowie, above most of his contemporaries, found himself on a rollercoaster of fame. His time as Ziggy Stardust had set him apart as one of rock’s greatest and his continual need to evolve and push himself artistically helped to confirm Bowie as the decade’s dominator. After a brief period making “blue-eyed soul,” Bowie got clean from his heinous cocaine addiction and landed in Berlin with a bump. It was there that he once again pushed himself creatively to think outside of his personas — but it wouldn’t last.
Perhaps it was the fact he had exceeded a decade in the business or perhaps his career had provided him with the perfect time to reflect on where he had come from, but on Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), Bowie decided to revisit Major Tom. Billed as a sequel to ‘Space Oddity’, the song ‘Ashes to Ashes’ has been rightly revered as one of Bowie’s finest. Though it does make mention of the character the song does so in a succinct and short way.
The reference comes in the line “we know Major Tom’s a junkie” which is followed by “strung out in heaven’s high, hitting an all-time low.” Though it has never been confirmed in any official sense, it is hard not to see this as a reference to Bowie’s own struggles with drug addiction. Also, in the titling of the song, we see a reference perhaps for Bowie trying to bury his past. The song has also been interpreted as offering some more information on Major Tom’s life.
The track refers to an event after ‘Space Oddity’ as Ground Control receives a message from “Action Man”, a direct reference to Major Tom. “I’ve loved all I’ve needed to love. Sordid details following…” goes the message, later talking about the imposing nature of nothingness, his ageing and his inability to kick the habit despite how, obviously, it is killing him. Again, it becomes almost impossible to separate Bowie and Tom in this instance as the song continues to offer up some very real visions of Bowie’s life on cocaine. At the end of the song, Major Tom appears once more, not as a hero, but an allegory for mothers to teach their children, “…to get things done, you’d better not mess with Major Tom.”
As Bowie often did in his career, he then sat Major Tom down for an extended period, not referencing him or his journey again until 1995. The themes of outer space are a permanent feature in Bowie’s work and, on ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ from Outside, Bowie once again uses the ideas of vast emptiness as the perfect canvas for his expression. While the song doesn’t explicitly reference Major Tom, in the 1996 remix featuring the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant, the synth vocalist sings lines taken directly from the original ‘Space Oddity’, offering us a glimpse of Bowie’s inextricable connection to the character.
However, it was Major Tom’s final appearance that is perhaps the most harrowing. David Bowie’s Blackstar is an album that is bittersweet for his fans. The last record that the Starman himself would ever make, the album is both tragic and utterly captivating. Created with the knowledge of his own mortality, David Bowie confirmed himself as one of the 20th century’s greatest artists with his sensational swansong. The title track of the album also paid homage to the man who helped him become a star, Major Tom.
‘Blackstar’ didn’t feature any lyrical references to Major Tom, but 47 years after we were first introduced to Tom, and in all likeliness Bowie too, the singer once again paid tribute to the astronaut, this time in one of his most stark and striking ways. Featured in the video for ‘Blackstar’ is a dead astronaut with a jewel-encrusted crown, one which is quickly retrieved by an alien female who then takes it back to her cult to be rightly worshipped. Knowing Bowie’s affection for an artistic statement, it is clear that this is Major Tom and his death is aligned with Bowie’s own. Video director Johan Renck said of a BBC documentary “to me, it was 100% Major Tom.”
Through four songs, David Bowie chronicled the life and times of Major Tom, featuring his iconic image as part of his rich iconography up until the day he died. What’s perhaps the more curious question is whether it was Bowie who was creating a character or Major Tom was, finally, the real Bowie behind it all, the true mastermind of a career that orbited the earth before enveloping the entire universe.