Saturday, July 20, 2019, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s walk on the moon, I thought how very odd that NASA and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts paid tribute to the new “Space Oddity,” video premiering it at the Center in Washington DC and in Times Square (no sound in NYC because of the heatwave). After all, things did not go well for Major Tom.
But after watching hours of the American Experience’s “Chasing the Moon” and CNN footage movie, I’ve reconsidered, and in a most peculiar way, it is a bold and resonant choice.
Much of the effect of revisiting the summer I was 10 is a heightened realization of how many things could have gone so wrong so many times. Things certainly had before; the three Apollo 1 astronauts — Chaffee, Griffin, and White — burned to death in a fire right before launch, still on Earth.
Even as a little girl I was aware of the tension when the Apollo missions were on the dark side of the moon and during lift-off and re-entry when radio communication with Houston was impossible, and then the relief when it resumed.
“Space Oddity” captures that feeling, and that too was part of the emotional complexity of space exploration. The BBC did not allow broadcast of the song until the astronauts were safely home. This wasn’t an issue in the US, I suppose because “Space Oddity” had only been released earlier in July 1969. It never entered the Billboard Top 100 in the US.
What did? The number 1 song was bubblegum: The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar.” Yes, for 1969. Don’t know it? Don’t bother. Number 2 held more potential: “Aquarius.” But we never have made it to the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and I wonder if humanity will see it or Earth will still be a living planet.
Donovan’s “Atlantis” about the end of that island continent? At least there is a theme of exploration: “The antediluvian kings colonised the world.” But it was drowning, and so it “sent out ships to all corners of the Earth./On board were the Twelve: The poet, the physician/ The farmer, the scientist, the magician/ And the other so-called Gods of our legends.” Can’t see that. Or Zager and Evans’ dystopian “In the Year 2525?”
The UK chart of top 100 songs in 1969 is as unpromising — and doesn’t include “Space Oddity.”
But “Space Oddity” has aged well. It did briefly crack the top five in the UK in 1970 after Bowie won the 1970 Ivor Norvello Special Award for Originality. Bowie had just learned his father had died when he was scheduled to perform. Still, he went on, in his flowing hair, flowery shirt, and peachy bell bottoms.
“Space Oddity” worked seamlessly into the Ziggy days, a very brief few years in the early 1970s.
The 50th anniverary video mashes the 1990 Sound and Vision tour performances, featuring the visuals from the fantastic La La Steps, with Bowie’s 50th birthday celebration. It’s the last song he performs in this exhilarating concert (even Lou Reed smiles broadly as he and Bowie do a duet of “Waiting for the Man”). It’s a poignant encore. It’s as if he is saying, “I made it to 50, guys; no one thought I would, and here I am. And like Major Tom, I can finally say with conviction, ‘Tell my wife I love her very much./She knows.’”
He would perform it at least twice again: at the Tibet House 2002 benefit with other guests (video is shaky) and once in 2002 on The Heathen tour (no video).
Our last glimpse of Major Tom (arguably) is a jewel encrusted skeleton in astronaut garb fallen to rest in a not-quite-lunar landscape: Blackstar, released less than 2 months before his death.
There’s a neat symmetry to the 50-year anniversary of the song and walk. Still, if I had to choose the best Bowie song performance of a space related song, I would go with the Loreley 1996 concert opening ad lib to “Hallo Spaceboy”:
“Hallo Spaceboy: It’s good to have you back home.”