For most of the 1970s, David Bowie’s life revolved around when he’d be getting his next hit of drugs. After he managed to shake off his sordid habits, Bowie reflected on his dark struggle through his preferred communication medium.
Bowie’s grapple with substances had significantly amplified throughout the making of his seminal album Station To Station, and he had slowly morphed into a paranoid shadow of his former self. Partly, this was down to moving to Los Angeles and the prevalence of narcotics in the City of Angels, which made that whole period in his life an unrecognisable blur. Bowie once reflected: “I started on the drugs at the end of 1973 and then with force in 1974. As soon as I got to America, pow! It was so freely available in those days. Coke was everywhere… Because I have a very addictive personality, I was a sucker for it.”
In another interview, he said: “It was a dangerous period for me. I was at the end of my tether physically and emotionally and had serious doubts about my sanity.” He needed a clean break and moved to Berlin with Iggy Pop to break himself from his dangerous cycle of addiction, unbeknownst to them moving to the then-heroin capital f the world. However, following the release of Low and a world tour, enough time had passed for Bowie to look back upon his struggle on ‘Ashes To Ashes’.
While the track wasn’t penned from a first-person perspective, and instead, Bowie revived Major Tom from ‘Space Oddity’. Through this character, he was able to examine his battle by assembling Tom into a “junkie” who had let fame change him for the worse.
Speaking to NME in 1980, Bowie explained the story behind his creation: “Now we’ve found out that he’s under some kind of realisation that the whole process that got him up there had decayed, was born out of decay; it has decayed him and he’s in the process of decaying. But he wishes to return to the nice, round womb, the earth, from whence he started.”
He added: “I guess it’s that simple. I really don’t think there’s anything more insidiously perverse about the thing at all. It really is an ode to childhood, if you like, a popular nursery rhyme. It’s about space men becoming junkies.”
Junkie is a word that Bowie also squeezes into the chorus. He sings, “Ashes to ashes, funk to funky, We know Major Tom’s a junkie, Strung out in heaven’s high, Hitting an all-time low.” Meanwhile, in the next verse, he adds: “Time and again I tell myself, I’ll stay clean tonight, But the little green wheels are following me.”
Although Bowie never admitted that he was using Major Tom to explore his demons, it was so blatant that he never needed to spell it out in black and white.
On a professional note, ‘Ashes To Ashes’ sparked the start of the most commercially successful chapter of Bowie’s career. Furthermore, it incorporated elements from the burgeoning New Wave scene, which proved that he had a supernatural ability to stay in touch with the zeitgeist.