Before Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon, David Bowie sang a story about a different astronaut – Major Tom. An alienated spaceman, Tom loses his connection with ground control and floats off into the cosmos. But the lyrics hint that it wasn’t some terrible accident, on the contrary…Tom didn’t want to come back to earth.
Bowie explained: “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 anymore.” By creating Major Tom, Bowie showed us how our perspective can change in an instant and cause us to feel and behave in ways we would have never imagined.
So what’s the deal with Major Tom? And who was he exactly? Here’s the truth.
The ’60s were an era of psychedelic exploration, cosmic lyrics, and an overall space craze. Our fascination with the universe peaked in 1969 when Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon. And a few days before the launch, David Bowie released his song about Major Tom.
While many believed the song had to do with Apollo 11, Bowie confessed it was inspired by a film he saw a few months earlier- 2001: A Space Odyssey. He explained, “[the film] was amazing. I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it several times, and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing.”
Bowie never fully disclosed why he chose the name Tom for his fictional astronaut. But one theory holds that he saw a poster advertising a circus performer named Tom Major, and the name just clicked (although some people have completely refuted that idea).
But the origin of the name isn’t as important as the essence of the character. Major Tom played a huge role in Bowie’s career, and he mentioned him several times in later albums. Fans believe Tom is an alter ego, for Bowie himself, but we’ll let you be the judge.
Let’s get into the lyrics for a clearer picture.
The song begins with a faint strum of a guitar that gradually increases and is meant to create a sort of “take-off” sensation. We then hear the first words between Ground Control and Major Tom: “Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.”
This could be taken as literal instructions, but many believe the pills to be a symbol of getting high. Bowie never confirmed this, but the whole drug theme fits pretty well as the song progresses.
After a few more lift off instructions, Tom finally makes it into space.
“You’ve made the grade” is an English saying that basically means you did a good job. Major Tom is being congratulated by ground control for his successful launch into outer space. We’re not sure if he’s landed anywhere yet, but we know people on Earth are proud.
“Whose shirt you wear” is English slang for “what football\soccer team are you a fan of?” Asking someone that question is Bowie’s way of saying, hey, you made it to space, so your opinions on things matter.
These are Major Tom’s first words to ground control. In the literal sense, he’s letting them know that the loss of gravity is causing him to float. But the word “peculiar” is key here because floating in space is having a strange effect on his mind.
Now obviously, the stars look different when you’re in outer space. But this could signify the beginning of Tom’s transition. The stars around him seem a lot more enticing than planet Earth, and he’s thinking of staying out there in space.
Major Tom’s incredible rocket ship has been reduced to a small and insignificant tin can. After seeing how expansive the universe is, there’s no way he can treat his little aircraft as something more than a tiny piece of metal.
As for the second part, calling planet Earth “blue” might be a regular description of how we look from above. But it could also signify Tom’s feelings towards the planet. Blue is often used to describe sadness, and it makes sense that this astronaut no longer feels the same way about his home.
At this point in the song, Major Tom is letting destiny take over. He feels like he can count on his spaceship to float in the right direction, and he trusts the cosmos enough to let it steer his way.
He says goodbye to his wife, and even though he loves her very much, he’s moving on to grander things. It’s clear Major Tom has no intention of returning to earth, and his farewell to his wife are his last words.
Major Tom’s fate is ambiguous. Ground Control loses contact with him and we can only assume he is left floating in space. Does he land someplace else? Does he leave for a different galaxy? No one knows.
What we do know, is that Tom parted with his spaceship on purpose. His perspective changed in space, and there was no turning back. The song ends with sharp music to play us out as we try to accept Major Tom’s disappearance.
Basically, this is a story of transcendence from the banal. Major Tom can’t go back to worrying about things like whose shirt he’s wearing. His consciousness has expanded to the point of no return.
Space Oddity became the anthem of Apollo 11’s flight. Which is pretty absurd when you think about it because the lyrics are far from being a cheerful ode to human progress. On the contrary, the story Bowie told was a lot darker.
He laughed about how oblivious people were to the actual lyrics: “Obviously, some BBC official said, ‘Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great.’ ‘Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.’ Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that.”
Not everyone was ignorant of the song’s true meaning. BBC refused to play Space Oddity until the Apollo Crew were safe and sound on human ground. They thought it was inappropriate to play a song about a lost astronaut at a time when people were floating in space.
But when Apollo 11 landed safely back on earth, Space Oddity was blasted all over the radio. In the UK, it was number five on the charts, but in the U.S., it placed 124. The ban didn’t actually ruin things for Bowie, because Space Oddity was revisited and flew back on the charts for years to come.
In 1980, 11 years after Major Tom disappeared into space, Bowie finally mentioned him in his single Ashes to Ashes. But the reference is dark and twisted and gives even more reason to believe Space Oddity is about drugs.
The song goes: “We know Major Tom’s a junkie \ strung out in heaven’s high \ hitting an all-time low.” Instead of a hippie astronaut, Major Tom is now a hooked and miserable person surfing the highs and lows of drug abuse.
Before David Bowie went solo, he formed a duo called Feathers with guitarist John Hutchinson. Bowie’s original plan was for John to be ground control and for him to be spaced-out astronaut, Major Tom.
They recorded it together and created a strange, yet incredible demo. A few years later, Josh overheard someone singing thse song and was amazed that Bowie released it on his own. He was happy it became such a huge success.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield fulfilled one of Bowie’s lifelong dreams – to perform Space Oddity in outer space. In 2013, he recorded himself singing the track as he floated around the International Space Station.
Hadfield said it was a great honor and that the whole experience was mind blowing. “I’ve never covered a Bowie tune on earth…but I’ve covered one in space!” We wonder if Major Tom heard Chris call out his name.
Hadfield isn’t the only person who sang about Major Tom. The song has been covered by more than 20 artists. And even though others didn’t fly to space to sing the track, they still did an impressive job.
Famous covers include the ones by Passenger, Lady Heroine and even a Portuguese version by Seu Jorge. Singers worldwide have been affected by Bowie’s touching lyrics. And the ambiguity of the song is what makes it so personal and relatable.
Bowie’s single, Blackstar, appeared on his last album by the same name in 2015. The song’s music video is an emotional ride, and fans believe that it depicts the end of Major Tom’s story. It shows an extra-terrestrial woman with a tail who wanders around a star and discovers a dead astronaut.
She lifts his helmet and uncovers a jewel-studded skull. We can only assume it’s our buddy, Major Tom. The song itself is dark, occult-like and mysterious. But the video (and the album itself) was a great, great ending to Major Tom’s life. And shortly after, David Bowie’s life ended as well.
But Major Tom wasn’t the only fictional character in Bowie’s colorful career. From Ziggy to Duke, here are some of the many facets of David Bowie.
Bowie began as David Robert Jones, a little boy from a working-class London neighborhood named Brixton. He was born on January 8th, 1947 to an unconventional family that was struck by the crippling effects of mental illness.
Many of his relatives developed serious conditions like schizophrenia and were eventually taken to asylums. When David discussed his family’s history, he explained, “It isn’t madness…there’s just a lot of spiritual mutilation going on in my family.” Even so, Bowie lived in fear of developing a mental illness himself.
David idolized his half-brother, Terry Burns. Older than Bowie by ten years, Terry exposed him to the incredible world that lay outside the conforming boundaries of his English neighborhood. From jazz to Tibetan Buddhism, Bowie discovered a whole new world thanks to Terry.
Tragically, when Terry was 29 years old, he began developing symptoms of schizophrenia. And as time went by, it became clear to everyone that he needed to be institutionalized. After years in an asylum, and after many attempts, Terry took his own life. Bowie was devastated, and it took him many years to speak out about the incident.
Bowie loved all things America. And he was especially intrigued by the rebellious and loud music of rock and roll. He listened to Elvis Presley, Fats Domino and Charles Mingus. But the star who had the greatest effect on him was Little Richard.
Little Richard had an androgynous look and an outlandish appeal to him. He laid the foundation of rock and roll and inspired numerous artists that came after him. Bowie was taken over by the brave artist, and set a goal to become a musician himself.
From afar, Bowie looks like he has “heterochromia” – a condition where one has different colored eyes. But if you look closely, they’re the same shade of blue, except that one pupil is freakishly dilated. But he wasn’t born that way, and the story behind his eyes has to do with a messy love triangle.
He got into a brutal fight with his friend over a girl named Carol. Fists were thrown, and Bowie suffered an aggressive one straight to the eye. He was rushed to the hospital and had to undergo three surgeries. Doctors thought he would never see again. Thankfully, his eyesight healed, but his pupil remained weirdly huge for life.
It was 1962, and 15-year-old Bowie was in awe of bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones who were topping the charts. He wanted to become England’s next big thing and decided to form a music group of his own called The Konrads.
They covered famous pop songs and performed in different gatherings, but nothing major came out of the ambitious youngsters. Bowie then decided to form a new band named The King Bees. They weren’t commercially successful either, but nothing discouraged Bowie – he was determined to make it.
Bowie joined band number three: The Manish Boys. This group finally stood out, but not necessarily for their music, but more for their looks. They sported long hair to defend men who decided to grow out their locks.
When interviewed, David explained, “Anyone who has the courage to wear their hair down to his shoulders has to go through hell. It’s time we were united and stood up for our curls.” But the band did play music, and they released one single named I Pity the Fool (it didn’t do so well).
Bowie first went by the name Davy Jones. But there was another rising star in town with the same name and things got a little crowded. Davy Jones of the Monkees was gaining recognition so to avoid confusion, Bowie knew he had to set himself apart.
He found his answer in American history. He was inspired by Texan rebel, Jim Bowie, who played a huge part in the Texas revolution and is considered a folk hero of American culture. At the age of 18, in 1965, David Bowie was born.
Bowie released his first solo single Do Anything You Say in 1966. It failed to get on the charts, but it succeeded in getting him a manager. He joined forces with talent manager, Kenneth Pitt, who he worked with for five years.
Other than Space Oddity, Bowie didn’t release a lot of hits under Ken’s management. But the talent scout still had a huge effect on Bowie’s career. He encouraged him to experiment in other forms of art, like theatre, which proved to be a huge turning point for Bowie.
Hermione Farthingale is Bowie’s mythological ex, and the muse to many of his songs. A doe-eyed ballerina, Hermione enchanted young Bowie, who was left in pieces after she dumped him. She felt like the relationship was moving too fast, and that she needed some time on her own.
Apart from being “the girl with the mousy hair” who inspired Life on Mars, she also inspired Bowie’s song A Letter to Hermione. He sang, “I care for no one else but you, I tear my soul to cease the pain, I think maybe you feel the same, what can we do?”
From a delicate, English ballerina to a larger than life American. Bowie’s next lover was a bold, straightforward girl named Angie Barnet. An aspiring singer, Barnet bonded with Bowie over their love of music and they shared a youthful and curious spirit.
The couple rejected the traditional rules of romance and embraced an open relationship instead. They married in 1970, but that didn’t change a thing. The lovers were still free to experiment with others.
At first, it seemed like Bowie was making headlines for his looks, rather than his music. Who can forget the cover of his 1970 album, The Man Who Sold the World? A long-haired David, majestically posing in his silky gown as he innocently stares into the camera.
People ridiculed him for not looking like the typical rock and roll star. People questioned, was he a boy? A girl? No one knew. But it was clear to everyone that David Bowie was ahead of his time.
Before Ziggy, David appeared on stage as himself (albeit an androgynous, weird-looking self, yet it was still “him”). But in 1972, he brought to life an eclectic character who would launch his career into a whole new orbit.
He became Ziggy Stardust – a wild, bisexual rock star who was sent to earth to save humanity from a disastrous apocalypse. While conservatives hated him, the young and rebellious couldn’t get enough.
On September 1972, Ziggy Stardust descended on America. His tour was a wild, outrageous spectacle that cost him a lot more than what he made. But this wasn’t miscalculated. It was a strategic move on behalf of his manager, Tony Defries.
Defris knew that in order to convince people what a huge star David Bowie was, he needed to spend accordingly. So the crew spent months sleeping in the highest quality hotels, eating the finest gourmet meals and wearing haute couture outfits. But for Bowie, this meant he was basically broke.
Bowie got a huge wakeup call after he realized that number one: He had no money. And number two: Tony Defries pretty much owned him and his music. In truth, they co-owned it, but Bowie still had to buy his way out of the relationship (with money that he didn’t have).
The messy ordeal inspired him and John Lennon’s 1975 song Fame. The track was about “money-grabbing managers, mindless adulation, unwanted entourages and the hollow vacuity of the limousine lifestyle.”
Bowie’s alter ego, Ziggy, was not just an extra-terrestrial hero, but he was also an addict, a heavily hooked alien who abused stimulants. Bowie’s sixth album, Aladdin Sane, is a clear reflection of what he was going through at the time.
Aladdin Sane topped the charts in the UK, but somehow, this saddened Bowie even more. He felt that Ziggy was being praised for all the wrong reasons, and that people had forgotten about the man behind the costume – his true self, David Bowie.
Following the release of his “plastic soul” album, Young Americans, Bowie headed to the capital of all thing’s plastic – Los Angeles. A city filled with stardust, L.A. seemed like the perfect place to move to.
But his excitement quickly died down as he spiraled deeper into his drug addiction. He lost himself in the city and once mentioned that, “The f*cking place should be wiped off the face of the Earth. To be anything to do with rock and roll and go and live in Los Angeles is, I think, just heading for disaster.”
Bowie adopted the persona in 1975 while on tour for his Young Americans album. He sported slick, blonde hair and a simple, cabaret style outfit. But while Duke seemed less flashy than his alien-like predecessors, he was no less controversial than they were.
His story was basically of a heartless zombie, cold as ice, who was, in Bowie’s words, “a very Aryan, fascist type.” That’s a hard description to stomach and Bowie got a lot of heat for his fascist character. But he immediately repented and explained, “What I’m doing is theatre and only theatre… What you see on stage isn’t sinister. It’s pure clown.”
Bowie is the creative genius behind some of the world’s greatest hits. He worked with Iggy Pop on his albums, The Idiot, Blah-Blah-Blah, and Lust for Life. Their work together was lifesaving for Iggy, and he went so far as to say that said David “resurrected him.”
Bowie also produced Lou Reed’s incredible album Transformer. He was very intimidated at first, because Lou had all this experience and Bowie was relatively new. But Bowie was pure genius, and he shaped the album into what is considered Lou’s most famous work.
Angie and David’s only son, Zowie, was born in 1971. And for the first few years of his life he lived with his mom in Switzerland. But as the years went by, his parents’ marriage crumbled until they finally divorced in 1980. But Angie was in no condition to take care of him.
She tried to commit suicide a little after the divorce, which made it clear to David that he had to watch over their little boy. He won sole custody of Zowie and went on to being a great single dad.
Even though Bowie was incredibly famous, he was never really considered mainstream. He described himself as “very stubborn, obscure, and confrontational in my own indulgent way.” Which is why he rarely gave in to popular demands.
Like the time he was invited to MTV’s Unplugged Sessions. They wanted him to play his original, well-known music. But the singer was sick of sounding like a broken record, and he wanted the audience to enjoy some of his new material. They never reached an agreement, so Bowie politely declined.
Bowie described his attraction to supermodel Iman as “immediate and all-encompassing.” The two met in 1990 at a dinner party, where a mutual friend introduced them. One quick look at Iman and Bowie knew he had found his new wife.
After two years of dating, Bowie finally proposed. It was a beautiful, loving gesture under the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris. They tied the knot later that year in Florence, Italy. And according to Iman, she married David Jones. Not Bowie, not Ziggy, and obviously not Duke. Simple, Englishman, David Jones.
At 53, David Bowie became the proud father of a little wonder named Alexandria (Lexi for short). A beautiful mixture of the supermodel and her rock star father, Lexi became everything to Bowie. He gladly embraced his new role as a stay-at-home dad.
He didn’t want to repeat the mistakes he had made with his son Zowie, who was born at the height of his career. So this time, David was fully committed. He rented a $5 million dollar loft for him, Iman, and Lexi in the artistic area of Soho, where the three did their best to live an anonymous and quiet life.
Many things troubled Bowie about life, earth, and existence in general. And apart from putting his thoughts into words, he unleashed his reflections onto canvases and created some impressive paintings along the years.
He painted self-portraits, distorted bodies, and sketches of demons. He also painted the cover for his 1995 album, Outside. Following his death, three auctions were held to sell most of his work. 1,750 bidders attended, and they were willing to spend a lot on his art. His highest-selling item sold for a whopping £7.09 million!
Bowie was diagnosed with liver cancer almost two years before his death, way back in 2014. He kept his illness a secret from many, including many close friends from the music industry. The few who knew were his family and those working with him at the time.
He underwent chemotherapy, but sadly, lost the battle. On January 10th, 2016, David Bowie left this earth. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered in Bali, Indonesia, during a Buddhist ritual.