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Divine Symmetry I 16 I “Space Cowboy” v. “Space Oddity”

The absolute pinnacle of space, as a matter of public consciousness, was probably 1969, the year I was born and the year of the first moon landing. It was also the year David Bowie released what would become his first hit, “Space Oddity,” and the Steve Miller Band would release “Space Cowboy.” The two songs are not a reaction to one another, but the commonalities speak to what was happening at the time, both on and off the Earth.

Before getting into thematic and lyrical similarities, it’s worth noting that the two songs share something else in common— both artists would reference their songs in other songs. Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” (1980) is explicitly a sequel to “Space Oddity.” “Space Cowboy” is part of weirdly interlocking sequence of self-referential songs by Miller including “Living in the USA” (directly referenced in “Space Cowboy,” “Enter Maurice” (1972) and, perhaps Miller’s best-known song, “The Joker” (1973), which references all three earlier songs.

In this respect Miller, like Bowie, created an alter-ego ) “some people call me the Space Cowboy”) who provides context for the other songs. Although Bowie did not intend for Major Tom to be a stand-in for himself, at least not at first as far as I can tell, in part because of his later association with his own characters, Major Tom would go on to serve a similar function.

In both cases, the characters are presented as “spaced out” (as Elton John might put it, as he did in “Bennie and the Jets”). The metaphor of being in space and being on drugs is easy to see in “Space Oddity” and even harder to miss in “Space Cowboy” (and just in case you did miss it there, Miller comes back with his “I’m a midnight toker” line in “The Joker”). Underscoring this point is the dreamy quality of the musical aspect of both songs, though the one does not sound like the other.

I have never read that Steve Miller influenced Bowie, but beyond thematic similarities, “Space Cowboy” contains some noticeably Bowie-esque formulations:

And I’m tired of all this talk about love
And the same old story with a new set of words
About the good and the bad and the poor
And the time’s keep on changin’

So, just sticking with these lines, the overall rejection of the 60s peace and love sensibility is similar to the sentiments expressed by Bowie in “Memory of a Free Festival,” also released in 1969. Again, coincidently, both artists were recognizing the same thing: the end of the 60s, not just as a decade but as a cultural era.

Miller’s “same old story” is resonant of Bowie’s later, “same old thing, in brand new drag,” line from “Teenage Wildlife” (1980), and both express a disdain for failed attempts to keep past trends alive.

Then there’s the Dylan call-out. Bowie was obviously influenced by Dylan. Some of the songs on the album that has since come to be known as Space Oddity are noticeably Dylanesque (especially, “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed”). Bowie payed homage to Dylan in, “Song for Bob Dylan” on Hunky Dory (1971), and he covered three Dylan songs — he performed “Maggie’s Farm” with Tin Machine in 1989, recorded “Like a Rolling Stone” for Mick Ronson’s final album, Heaven and Hull in 1994, and a studio recording of his version of, “Tryn’ to Get to Heaven” was posthumously released in 2021. Bowie obviously thought highly of Dylan.

Miller seems to be dismissing Dylan, or at least Dylan’s style of protest song. “Space Cowboy” overall is a rejection of pretense and hypocrisy, but does not limit itself to condemning hypocrisy on the right. At least within this one song, Miller seems to be rejecting all political pretense. It’s almost like he’s calling out the hippie guys who showed up at protests to score drugs and get girls. Today, it’s hard to imagine Bob Dylan’s sincerity as being in question, but in 1969 Steve Miller thought he was on solid enough footing to dismiss Dylan as yesterday’s news.

Although their attitudes about Dylan appear to be different, Bowie’s “Song for Bob Dylan” at least seemed to raise the question of what had become of the future-Nobel Laureate. Bowie’s narrator pleads with “Robert Zimmerman” (Dylan’s real name), as if “Bob Dylan” was a character like Ziggy Stardust, “Tell him we’ve lost his poems…” Its a “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio” line. Bowie wasn’t rejecting Dylan, but identifying a void left, ironically, by Dylan’s own stylistic evolution.

Miller doesn’t want a return to the Dylan of “old” (an exceedingly relative term), but is essentially saying of Dylan what Bowie himself would later say of the Beatles and Rolling Stones in his 1972 song, “All the Young Dudes,” “My brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones; We never got it off on that revolution stuff.” This is Miller’s point. Where Bowie would, a few years later, reject his proverbial older brother’s “revolution stuff,” Miller is dismissing professed concerns about social justice as meaningless fashion that had run its course. “Space Cowboy” is another way of saying, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” perhaps without the “tune in” part.

The intent of calling out inauthenticity presented as the opposite was shared by both Miller and Bowie. In this respect, both songs serve as an introduction to the 70s, a more cynical and self-centered decade than its immediate predecessor. Both songs embrace a kind of self indulgence for its own sake, or at least detachment from the social compact. As Major Tom drifted off into oblivion, the Space Cowboy kept “travelin’ through space.” Perhaps the two will someday meet…

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The Divine Symmetry series compares Bowie songs to other songs with some sort of similarity, intentional or otherwise. The term is borrowed from Bowie’s song, “Quicksand.”

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