Breaking down David Bowie’s elusive ‘Major Tom’

Jagged rocks jet up and pierce the night. The only light is provided by an eclipsed sun that sits in a starless sky as an alien walks along rocks and stands over a dead spaceman. This is the final resting place of Major Tom, a character created by the great David Bowie, who, despite only being named twice throughout his entire discography, is an undeniable figure who followed him like a shadow and is a pivotal part of the legacy Bowie left behind.

Bowie was no stranger to creating various characters, as many different albums saw him bring forward another person; however, Major Tom remains the most elusive. He hardly makes direct reference to him; however, the imagery surrounding the character and how he is mentioned means that many believe Major Tom is a reference towards Bowie himself.

The introduction of Major Tom marked one of the first hits that Bowie had, and as such, regardless of how little he was mentioned, the attachment was always there, not only for listeners but for Bowie, too. So, as the opening shot to one of his last music videos takes place and we see the deceased Major Tom scattered on some rocks, the imagery that seemed macabre at the time, knowing what we do now, it is a haunting portrayal of a man faced with his own mortality.

Everything we know about Major Tom is speculation, but there is no denying one cannot exist without the other. The bond that Bowie managed to form with this character throughout his career is a thing of beauty. Let’s look into it more.

‘Space Oddity’
Major Tom’s first appearance doubles up as his most prolific, on the song ‘Space Oddity’. In this track, which has been linked to the use of LSD, Bowie writes from the perspective of an astronaut who grows bored of mundane life on Earth and takes to the stars. In doing so, he experiences the vastness of the universe and has the scale of problems on Earth put into perspective. “Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do,” he says as his tin can twirls in tranquillity.

The importance of this track cannot be understated, not only in its introduction of the character but also because of what it did for Bowie’s career. Major Tom saw the singer have one of his first major hits, and parallel to the protagonist, Bowie skyrocketed to fame following its release.

As the singer played Major Tom in the video, he latched to the character. People would often draw comparisons between Bowie and the astronaut, as they saw Bowie as an alien, looking at the world from an outsider’s perspective rather than someone who was actively involved in it. Those comparisons continued throughout his career as Major Tom made his next experience on the track ‘Ashes to Ashes’.

‘Ashes to Ashes’
One of the things that set Bowie aside from other artists throughout the 1970s was his constant desire to push himself creatively and explore various characters. However, on the 1980 album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), Bowie decided to revisit his old friend Major Tom. He appeared in the form of news from ground control, and once again, the connections between Bowie and him were made, as following a heavy stint with drugs in the ‘70s, Bowie seems to speak of Major Tom in the same way other people had previously spoken of him.

“Do you remember a guy that’s been / In such an early song? / I’ve heard a rumour from Ground Control / Oh no, don’t say it’s true,” are the opening lines from Bowie in the track ‘Ashes to Ashes’, commonly dubbed as a sequel to ‘Space Oddity’. In the chorus, he makes direct reference to his old friend, “Ashes to ashes, funk to funky / We know Major Tom’s a junkie / Strung out in heaven’s high / Hitting an all-time low.”

‘Hallo Spaceboy’
Major Tom wasn’t mentioned again until 1995. On ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, Bowie turns to space themes and engages in an extended metaphor, using the backdrop of the cosmos to talk about nothingness. He continues to speak about the exposing nature of that nothingness and how he can’t escape it despite it killing him.

Bowie makes no direct reference to Major Tom; his inclusion is instead laced within the song’s science fiction theme and given life thanks to the feature of Pet Shop Boys Neil Tennant on the ’96 remix. Neil Tennant sings lines taken directly from the original ‘Space Oddity’. In doing so, he breathes more life into the idea that Bowie cannot be separated from the character.

Finally, we arrive at Blackstar, the titular track from one of the most harrowingly beautiful albums ever made. Bowie looks upon his mortality and, in doing so, reflects on the life and career he will leave behind, which is represented in the discarded body of Major Tom in the video.

The words in the song, with references made to ‘Blackstar’, almost seem as though the stars themselves are mourning the loss of the wayward spaceman. Though Bowie makes no direct reference to whether or not the body we see in ‘Blackstar’ is a reference to Major Tom, it has been more or less accepted to be him saying good to his career and one of the people who launched it. It is arguably the most beautiful and sad goodbye in all music, and all the stars in the sky will burn out before its impact is forgotten.

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