Dear Straight Dope:
Anyone into retro music knows the song Major Tom by Peter Schilling. A few of us were jokingly discussing what it was about, but now we're sincerely interested. Did you know there's a David Bowie song that also talks about Major Tom? Both songs are about space, but the rest is sketchy. Is Major Tom an actual event? Or a person? Or some sort of a factual story?
Ryan Murray, Milwaukee, WI
Poor Major Tom has been floating in space for quite some time now.
It was David Bowie who first launched Major Tom in his 1969 UK album “David Bowie” (which was re-released in 1972 with the title “Space Oddity”). Released to coincide with the first moon landing, “Space Oddity” tells the story of Major Tom whose space adventure ends in tragedy as he floats away from the spaceship (“Here am I floating round my tin can far above the moon …”), calling out, “Tell my wife I love her very much…”
In 1972, Elton John & Bernie Taupin’s “Rocketman” (on the “Honky Chateau” album) appears to allude to Major Tom, though he is not mentioned by name. The unnamed astronaut preparing to go out into space in “Rocketman” worries about missing his wife and about it being a “long, long time till touchdown brings him ’round …” In a live version of “Space Oddity” (on the “David Bowie BBC Sessions 1969-1972” album released in 1996), Bowie seems to make the connection for fans as he sings “Oh, Rocketman!”
Peter Schilling’s 1983 techno-beat revision, entitled “Major Tom (I’m Coming Home),” was a hit when released on his “Error in the System” album. Schilling’s version basically retells the tale of Major Tom, including the sentiments of love he sends to his wife, with the haunting chorus, “Earth below us, drifting, falling, floating weightless, calling, calling home.”
In 1980, Bowie revisited Major Tom’s plight with his follow-up “Ashes to Ashes” (on the “Scary Monsters” album). In this song, some time after the disappearance of Major Tom, ground control receives a message from the wayward astronaut: “I’m happy, hope you’re happy, too. I’ve loved all I’ve needed to love.” The opinion on earth is that Major Tom is a “junkie strung out in heaven’s high,” but hitting “an all-time low.”
Was there an actual Major Tom? Not that the history books show. Though there were two Apollo astronauts named Tom, neither were Majors and both returned home safely (Thomas P. Stafford was on Apollo 10 and Thomas K. Mattingly served aboard Apollo 16).
Bowie’s creation of Major Tom was certainly influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Bowie is said to have written his song shortly after seeing the movie. “Space Oddity” obviously is a pun on “Space Odyssey.”
The bottom line: given Bowie’s penchant for creating characters for and about himself (Ziggy Stardust among others) plus his well-known battle with drugs, most Bowie experts agree that Major Tom is an allegorically autobiographical character.
Always on the cutting edge, Bowie is preparing to start an online service called BowieNet which you can request a subscription to at: www.davidbowie.com.
Perhaps Major Tom is still floating out there somewhere …
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