If you’ve listened to most of David Bowie songs, you might have noticed a recurring character: Major Tom. Major Tom is mentioned in the songs Space Oddity (1969) and Ashes to Ashes (1980). There have been several other songs that mention Major Tom (eg, Hallo Spacebar by the Pet Shop Boys, Mrs. Major Tom by K.I.A., and Major Tom I’m Coming Home by Peter Schilling). So who exactly is Major Tom?
Major Tom is a fictional character, a Zelig-like character who over a quarter century, reflects to some degree Bowie’s own life and other artists’ interpretations of who he was. Bowie was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s thought-provoking film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. According to biographers, Bowie wrote the song soon after watching the film. It is no coincidence that the movie and song titles sound alike.
In Space Oddity, we see Major Tom as a noble astronaut who loves his wife and feels a profound sense of isolation as he floats in his “tin can, far above the Moon.” In Ashes to Ashes, Major Tom contacts ground control with a message: “I’m happy, hope you’re happy, too. I’ve loved all I’ve needed to love.” But ground control concludes that Major Tom is a “junkie, strung out in heavens high, hitting an all-time low,” reflecting Bowie’s struggle with drug addiction. In the song he confesses: “Time and again I tell myself I’ll stay clean tonight.”
For further reading: Bowie: The Biography by Wendy Leigh (2014)
The Complete David Bowie by Nichola Pegg (2011)