Friday, 3 April 2009
To Major Tom – The Bowie Letters by Dave Thompson
In 1972, a 12 year old boy in Bournemouth, one Gary Weightman, wrote a fan letter to David Bowie. And despite not receiving any form of reply, he wrote again. And again. And has continued to regularly write to his idol throughout his life. To Major Tom is a collection of his epistles to the Thin White Duke written over the next 30 years…
Of course Gary Weightman doesn’t really exist; he’s the creation of author Dave Thompson. But if you’ve ever faithfully followed an artist or a band, you’ll know Gary. Deep inside every music fan’s heart, there’s a Gary Weightman – after all, at some point or other during the impressionable years of youth we’ve all thought of dropping our idols a line. And this book is not so much about Bowie but about the experience of being a life-long fan.
Of course if you are a Bowie believer, you’ll find much to enjoy in this off beat novel. You could say that this book is a kind of fans-eye view biography. However, somewhat cannily, Thompson has Gary write about a good deal more than just fan commentary on the various ch-ch-ch-changes in Bowie’s career. So rather than 12 page dissections of the lyrics of ‘Cygnet Committee’, we get a wider view of the musical world with Gary updating Major Tom on what else he’s listening to and observations on what’s going on in the world of rock. We see the rise and fall of glam, the birth of punk and evolutions of ‘80s stadium rock.
Plus along the way, we get the unfolding story of Gary’s life. In some respects, the book becomes a coming-of-age story as we follow his progress through the teenage years into adulthood. And we also see how his relationship with music evolves and changes over the years. Perhaps inevitably as the decades roll by, Gary’s letters start to become less frequent as the demands of work and raising a family squeeze music into a smaller role in his life.
On one hand, this means that the letters from 1985 onwards don’t have the fizz and sparkle of the earlier ones, and some readers may feel that the novel sort of peters out towards the end. However in terms of character verisimilitude, I think it’s probably only right and proper that the letters of the last few years are increasingly sparse and become more reflective in tone.
Now the obvious end for a book of letters to Bowie would have been for Gary to finally receive a reply. This book’s strength is that Thompson has created an archive of correspondence that you have to remind yourself isn’t real. And so while this would make for a heart-warming big finish, I think Thompson has wisely resisted this; including a final transmission from Major Tom himself could potentially wreck the entire conceit’s realism. To finally receive a letter back at the end would be just too much of a fairytale ending.
However debates over the ending aside, this is a great little book. It's not just Bowie's story but also the story of how music has changed. To Major Tom gets to the heart of what it’s like to be a music fan and will ring a lot of bells for anyone who has ever obsessively hunted down a back catalogue or plastered their room with posters and music press clippings. It's honest, personal and fun just like the music it celebrates.