But I did so with trepidation, because while as an adult I can recognize Bowie as one of the greatest rock songwriters of the 20th century, the child in me is still terrified of him, since he introduced me to real existential horror at an early age.
As long as I live, the song-combo of “Space Oddity” and “Ashes to Ashes” will be a one-two gut punch of music that sort of crushes me every time I hear them around each other.
While I can admire the artistry of it, “Space Oddity” is easily my least favorite Bowie song. Yes, there’s an oppressive melancholy to the song that’s tough to work through, but it goes deeper than that. When I was little, I had a strange nervous response to the sense of people floating away, particularly if it was accompanied by any kind of “Noooooooo” receding echo effect. The image of Major Tom, disappearing helplessly into oblivion, was absolutely petrifying to me as a child.
(So much so that, years later, when I heard a story of astronauts keeping cyanide pills in their helmets in the event of a hopeless situation, I breathed a heavy, satisfying, oxygen-rich sigh of relief.)
I think I was about 12 or so before I heard “Ashes to Ashes.” And while by that point I had come to grips with my fear of becoming sans gravity, David Bowie managed to creep me out all over again with a video that was psychedelic, unnervingly literal, and also sort of crappy in that BBC-production-value way. I couldn’t really understand much of the first verse, but the chorus cleared it up for me:
“Ashes to ash and funk to funky/we know Major Tom’s a junkie.”
“Now wait just a damn minute,” I responded. “Just how much shit are you willing to put this man through?!”
I didn’t know anything about Bowie using Major Tom as a lens through which to examine his own ambivalent feelings toward his 70’s excesses. All I heard was, that poor sad bastard who’d been allowed to hurtle into the unknown forever had finally been recovered – and he was found broken.
As I got further into (my very literal interpretation of) the song, I realized with horror the possibility that Tom wasn’t stoned to the gills with whatever drugs were left in the capsule to make his exile more comfortable – the people at ground control just assumed this, since he’s rambling on about the groovy-awesome new alien species he’s found.
So what’s a worse fate for Major Tom?
1) His dream of exploring the unknown has become a living nightmare of being trapped in a tiny can, feeding a mind-twisting addiction to keep from going utterly mad; or
2) Through a million-to-one fluke, he actually has managed to discover alien life, and they’re amazing, but the people he’s supposed to work for – who have already abandoned him to a fate worse than death – find it easier to write him off again, rationalizing that his brain is simply crippled by drugs.
I thought the end of “Space Oddity” was pretty bleak, but “Ashes to Ashes” showed me depths of despair I hadn’t even contemplated.
All this before I was even 13 years old.
The funniest thing (in the sense that any of this is ha-ha hilarious) is that I recall first hearing “Space Oddity” on the way to church. We always listened to the classic rock radio station on the way to Lower Providence Presbyterian. Strangely enough, Major Tom’s doomed journey was a bigger influence on my concept of mortality than the religious teachings I was being driven to.
Since I was raised Presbyterian, I didn’t get the kind of shock-and-awe God or the threats of Hell that Catholics were subjected to. It took David Fricking Bowie to make me fear the afterlife.
For most people my age, their first Bowie experience was his Goblin King role in Labyrinth. I wish I’d been so lucky.
On a more positive note, this may also be the reason I think “Heroes” is one of the most romantic songs ever written.