I must have been five or six. The airy acoustic guitar faded in, barely audible over the hum and whir of the straight six-cylinder engine, the whine of the transmission, the rumble of the all-terrain tires. I was sitting in the front seat, and WNEW was on the stereo of my mother’s Jeep Grand Cherokee. The radio dial might have been frozen in that position for all I knew.
Suddenly, a haunting voice trickled in above the faint strumming of the guitar.
“Ground control to Major Tom. Ground control to Major Tom. Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.”
I took off with Major Tom – clapped my helmet onto my head, rocketed through the space of wild imagination. In my childhood mind, I couldn’t wrap my head around the horror that befell him.
The dead circuit. The dead astronaut adrift in the tin can. The poor wife.
It might have been my first awareness of mortality. I was terrified. The allure of the song and the story were so strong, so beautiful, and so terrible. My circuits weren’t dead, but at five years old, they were overloaded. I cried, but I wanted to hear the song again.
Except I didn’t know the name, or the artist. I refused to ask my mother. I had to find drifting Major Tom myself. So I searched for years.
The search led me down strange musical trails. The lengthiest was probably REM. For some reason, I believed what I’d heard was an REM song, but every album proved to be a dead end. No astronaut lost in space.
Every now and then I would catch a glimpse of Major Tom spiraling out through the galaxy as I surfed the radio dial, the final notes of his funeral dirge stretching along the neck of an electric guitar. They spun and wound out until they were sucked into a sonic black hole.
Then, I found him. Thankfully, some similarly ignorant Napster user, didn’t know the name of the song was “Space Oddity.” A search for “Major Tom” and a two-hour wait for the download yielded a tinny, overly compressed rendition. But I had found him. And I had found David Bowie.
It doesn’t feel that long ago, and that makes it that much harder to say goodbye to the Starman, Ziggy, The Thin White Duke and all of the other people David Bowie was. He had his finger planted firmly on the pulse of the weird blood that runs through all of our veins, fueling our wildest visions of the future and our strangest dreams. For this reason, and many others, I’m grateful to the man who sent me to space.