Monday, August 17, 2015

Major Tom has been identified (and yes, he's alive)

You know that you're old when you read a question that starts like this:

Anyone into retro music knows the song Major Tom by Peter Schilling.

Considering that today's oldies stations play Nirvana, it's understandable that someone considered the song "Major Tom" to be retro. The person goes on to say:

Did you know there's a David Bowie song that also talks about Major Tom?

I can't be too harsh on the person that asked the question - I'll personally admit that I was listening to Wings before I was listening to the Beatles. I had heard of the Beatles, of course - they were just like the Monkees, only wackier!

For the benefit of those who are not as ancient as myself, Major Tom is a fascinating character who has popped up in music several times. The previously linked Straight Dope post recounts the good major's history, from Bowie's original 1969 song "Space Oddity," to a subsequent 1980 mention by Bowie in "Ashes to Ashes," to Schilling's 1983 continuation of the story. I haven't really written about this before (I mentioned "Space Oddity" in passing once), but Major Tom is a fascinating fictional character.

Or so I thought.

Those who are familiar with the Major Tom story know the details - composed in 1969 and rush-released to take advantage of the Apollo 11 moon launch in America, the first song's official title "Space Oddity" is an obvious play on the previous year's blockbuster film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Or is it?

The subsequent references to Major Tom in "Ashes to Ashes" indicate the Bowie considered Major Tom to be, to some extent, autobiographical.

Or did he?

I try to shy away from conspiracy theories, but there are several data points, scattered through the years, that are just too powerful to ignore. After extensive research, I have concluded that "Space Oddity" is not about the moon at all, but is about another "Oddity" that the culturally-attuned Bowie learned about.

Around the time that Bowie's song was being released, a young man was preparing to begin his second year of college. Although he was in Boston, he wasn't going to Harvard or MIT. He was attending a junior college - Grahm Junior College - planning to study radio and television. Now many people who study radio and television in junior college do so with the goal of becoming a star - say, a star on a hit TV sitcom. This student, however, was clearly marching to the beat of his own drummer. A few months after "Space Oddity" was released in Britain, the student mounted his first college play. The topic? God. His earnings? Five dollars...five dollars. (His wallet hurts a lot.)

Over the next few years, as Bowie himself went through ch-ch-ch-changes, the student continued his own oddity odyssey. After leaving junior college, he began performing routines the audience. People would cringe at the failures of his routines, and of his jokes, until he blew them away with a surprise ending.

Word got around, and eventually the "stand up comic" found material success as a star on a hit TV sitcom.

You know the rest of the story - how he hated the sitcom, how his alter ego Tony Clifton got fired from the sitcom, how he began to wrestle women, how he lost a vote to remain on one of the few shows ("Saturday Night Live") that could fully use his talents, and how he surprised everyone by dying. (Maybe.)

Let's observe a moment of silence.

Now listen to "Space Oddity" again, and consider this unescapable fact - Bowie wrote the song about a not-yet-to-emerge performing genius from America. Someone whom the industry tried to put into a mold, but who found a way to break out of the mold in so many ways. The "foreign man" who disappeared from the airwaves.

Now I'm sure that many can poke holes in my theory. Why would Peter Schilling take the trouble to say "he's alive" BEFORE Andy Kaufman's purported death? Why did the first recorded visit of Bowie to America take place in 1970, not 1969?

Yet I can see no other explanation for the song. And when you look at the people involved in the subsequent conspiracy - Bowie, Michael Stipe, Jim Carrey - it all makes sense.

If you believed they put a man on the moon
Man on the moon
If you believe there's nothing up his sleeve
Then nothing is cool

(Additional reading)
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