The Stars Look Different

By Eileen Tomarchio


            I was twelve when I first heard Space Oddity.

            This was the early 1970s, when even the popular kids were sad and disconnected. I just knew them as mean, so I spent a lot of time in my own company.

            My favorite escapes were The 4:30 Movie and AM station 77 WABC, and my most indispensible possession was a portable Sony compact cassette tape recorder in a leatherette sleeve. By the time the re-issue of Space Oddity was a top 20 hit, I was an expert at making passable recordings of radio songs and TV audio using the Sony’s hidden mic. I filled tapes with singles like “Baby, I’m a Want You” and “Last Song” and “Nights in White Satin”, with Alfred Newman choirs and Richard Burton monologues, with snippets of George Pal sci-fi flicks and the entirety of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, with commercials for Papillon and Geritol. If it was lugubrious or treacly or epic, I recorded it. Of course, bits were missing or adulterated by the noises of manual operation or of real life—the release of the creaky record button, my open-mouthed breathing near the mic, Mom yelling for me to come upstairs for dinner. But I didn’t care about quality, really. I was just glad to have these things preserved, to go back to. I’d revisit them under the covers of the bed I shared with my sister, the cool mesh speaker pressed to my ear and jaw, and imagine a massive echo-chamber right there on the other side, an uncharted cosmos of sound and feeling.

            By 1973, my recordings were becoming more earthbound than they’d been since my parents bought me the Sony for my eleventh birthday. My fascination with the “romance” of outer space, which had begun when my mom took me to see 2001: A Space Odyssey during one of its re-releases, was dwindling. I have a faint memory of taping over the theme to Silent Running—Joan Baez’s sweetly major chord-y “Rejoice in the Sun”—with the sweetly minor-chord-y “Blue Balloon”, from the movie Jeremy. I must have told myself that I was short on available cassette space, but the truth was I was possessed by Jeremy, by its lonely teen lovers who reminded me of myself, and in particular by a bare-shoulders sex scene between Robbie Benson and Glynnis O’Connor that played out with what seemed to me excruciating verisimilitude, all muddy window light and wrinkled clothes and backlit hair. In truth, I wasn’t quite ready for such frankness, for sex more explicit than Charlton Heston’s sweaty chest, for desire more blunt than Yul Brynner’s hand on Deborah Kerr’s waist. Still, I was ready to be done with my nighttime pretend-movies, the marooned-in-space scenarios and pillow-fort capsules and oak tag-drawn control panels, the scratchy Ligeti on my mom’s 2001 LP that my brother would screech along to until I couldn’t stop laughing. It was getting lonely out in space.

            Into this perfect vacuum came Space Oddity. Its effect was an amplification of the one Jeremy had had on me. It seemed to reflect me. It seemed to be made for me. It seemed to have come from me. But it also frightened me. Here was a song about outer space and solitude, a story as vivid as my 4:30 Movies and 70mm matinees, a melody and arrangement more ominous and heartbreaking than any I’d ever heard. It was music AND movie. And it deserved better than a crappy cassette recording marred by obnoxious song cues from deejays Dan Ingram and Ron Lundy. So I saved my pennies and bought the RCA single.

            I stared for hours at the sleeve photo of an auroral, hollow-cheeked David Bowie and imagined him staring back at me. He reminded me a little of Keir Dullea in 2001. Of the Starchild. His neck looked so thin it could break with a touch. His vibrato sounded to me like crying. His Space Oddity made the solitude more beautiful. The pull of desire became conflated with the oblivion of deep space. And hope for rescue came in the idea—an original one, I thought—of belonging to one other soul, even a soul vast light years away. I imagined floating bodies slowly coming together by their own weak gravity. Limbs reaching and straining. Longing, the fabric of the uncharted cosmos. I interpreted the lyrics in my own crude fashion, giving the song a happy ending. A way of falling back to earth.

Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.

“But you can hear me, Major Tom. I can save you.”

Eileen works as a librarian in a small NJ suburb. She holds an MFA from NYU Film School
and is currently revising her first novel, based on an original screenplay. You can find her
at Twitter at @eileentomarchio.