Monday, September 21, 2009
I just saw U2's 360 tour at Gillette Stadium. The surreal, amphibian-shaped light machine that serves as the band's state-of-the-art stage is described by Bono as their "space station."
Fittingly David Bowie's 1969 single "Space Oddity" graced the speakers as the stadium went dark and the band arrived. Forty years after its release and the first moon landing this song still speaks to the future. Indeed, the protagonist in U2's "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)," clad in a leather jacket and red laser pointers, sounds like he is deep inside Bowie's universe. It's a love song from a lonely, moonstruck space traveler.
Seeing the darkened stage and hearing Bowie's incredible song and the backing countdown just got me thinking about the expansive imagination behind those lyrics and that lone character. The storyline so vivid, but not overblown. It's romantic space rock, without the gimmicky guitar duels and tazer sounds.
This is before Ziggy Stardust, before Alladin Sane. This is Bowie's first hit, but he's already fully in character. He's Major Tom, the loving husband in liftoff, and the everyday man that's quickly becoming a rising star just as his spacecraft aims for one.
"This is Ground Contol to Major Tom/
You've really made the grade/
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear/
It's time to leave the capsule if you dare."
Imagine the frozen Cold War world in 1969 before the first journey to the moon. It's a bipolar world- communism versus capitalism, freedoms evaporating in Vietnam and Czechoslovakia. The world is tugged between the forces of young and old, rich and poor, black and white, war and peace.
Walls are crumbling in rock n' roll just as they are reinforced in Berlin and the Deep South. Musicians are finding a creative home in the mind that is set apart from the past. It's time for some perspective, the kind that Major Tom finds as he sings his chorus.
"For here am I sitting in a tin can/
Far above the world/
Planet Earth is blue, and there's nothing I can do."
Bowie's chorus is beautiful like some Orbison choruses are beautiful. It's heartfelt. It comes from a sense of wonderment. Here the wide-eyed astronaut stares back at the place he calls home and discovers just how beautiful that blue-and-green planetary body is. There is no time or context for which to be jaded and self-involved.
Bowie's vision and imagination has taken his audience out of the atmosphere without space technology- it's just his voice and a great guitar line. Even the saxophone solo is as sublime and unassuming as a cloud obscuring the view of the moon.
He does this later in "Starman" and "Five Years." Bowie could take great song as a vertical jump into new frontiers as he sings Sintra-style reaching for the constellations.
Major Tom's story speaks of man's fragility and loneliness as he tries to find his way in the cosmos- strung out all alone between Polaris and Andromeda, away from his loved ones and the biosphere. As I understand it Bowie always felt like an outcast, someone who would feel for the solitary astronaut in awe of the universe he can never fully explore. And maybe he feels he will never find his part in it. How do you figure out your worth when you're surrounded by billions of stars?
And then there's the everlasting mystery of Major Tom. When his radio and circuits die and he is cut off from Ground Control is it because he wants to escape forever? Does NASA's technology fail and an incredible "step for mankind" claimed another life?
Regardless, it's ultimately the human imagination that fueled this rocket and its pioneering passenger into the sky. The imagination brought man to the moon at a time when ideas about what it means to be a citizen on Earth where dying and blossoming. And then we went to the moon; it puts so many other accomplishments to shame.
What else are we capable of despite the political and social gridlocks? What other eye-widening perspectives await if we just accept the beauty of the one home we all share and our privileged and fragile place upon it?
For up there with where Major Tom is it's the little things we are prone to take for granted that matter: the water, the land, the air, the relationships. You can't see pettiness from outer space.