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The Singing Spaceman -- Yesterday's Future...Today

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In an episode of the 2005 BBC Radio "mockumentary" series featuring the New Zealand comic-musicians, Flight of the Conchords, (prior to their TV incarnation) there's a scene where the characters are discussing the importance of drawing upon your experiences when song writing. One of the characters blithely cites David Bowie's spaceman phase as an example.

The joke being the absurdity of believing a musician writing about space was drawing upon anything but his imagination.

Funny what a few short years brings, eh? Because just recently, with the co-operation of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield collaborated upon a song with Ed Robertson and the Barenaked Ladies -- through the wonder of the electronic age, performing a duet of "ISS: Is Somebody Singing" with Robertson in Toronto and Hadfield high overhead in space.

Hadfield's no stranger to being a part time troubadour. Singer-musician Emm Gryner has told, with self-deprecating amusement, of inviting her friend Hadfield on stage at one of her concerts where he proceeded to almost steal the show (according to her) with his own composition -- a novelty ditty about Canadian Tire.

Curiously, around this time I was thinking of the old Wade Hemsworth song, "The Wild Goose", a dramatic cover of which I'd recently heard on CBC Radio (unfortunately, I keep missing the name of the performer, though you can find an earlier rendition by Ryan's Fancy on YouTube, as well as a version by Hemsworth himself).

And I was trying to decide why that song -- a simple little tune about working in the woods and reflecting on the migration of geese -- struck me so viscerally, and seemed to resonate on a deeper level. Particularly given I'm a city boy! And I think it was because Hemsworth had been writing about what he knew -- and authenticity can strike an emphatic chord in the listener. A surveyor in his youth, Hemsworth's experiences fueled songs like "The Wild Goose" and his more amusing "The Black Fly Song."

I'm not a musicologist, so others can write more deeply and more wisely about these things, but I suspect Hemsworth's significance in English-Canadian music is kind of like the Group of Seven's importance to Canadian painting -- finding identity in Canadiana when the overriding expectation at the time was simply to mimic a British or an American reality. Songs like the above mentioned, Hemsworth didn't write hoping to make any pop charts, or because he figured it would play well in New York -- instead he wrote as a reflection of his Canadian life.

Which is what a lot of music is about -- or, at least, that's the romantic myth. Whether it be Robert Johnson or Bruce Springsteen, it's about a person with a guitar speaking from the heart with melody.

With that said, space songs have been done before, from "Space Oddity", David Bowie's hit about astronaut Major Tom, to Elton John-Bernie Taupin's "Rocket Man" and others. But always with the understanding the songs were fuelled by imagination, symbolism, and a heaping of metaphor. Even Bowie sang in a later tune: "We know Major Tom's a junkie".

The notion of a space faring troubadour was at the core of Robert E. Heinlein's classic short story, "The Green Hills of Earth.". I read it long ago, but in more recent years I associate it with a radio adaptation done for the 1950s American anthology series, X Minus One (which you can probably track down on assorted Old Time Radio websites -- actually, it's been adapted more than once for different SF radio anthology series).

The vision of intergalactic travel is now hopelessly anachronistic, imagining space ships needing the equivalent of stokers manning the engine rooms. But that can be the appeal of old science fiction. The very fact that our present has outstripped the society and the technologies they envisioned, even as they imagine wonders and advancements still beyond us, means old SF becomes as much "alternate reality" as futurism.

Imagining not a world that could be, but one that might have been. "The Green Hills of Earth" is unapologetically maudlin and transparently hokey, but I have turned out the lights when I'm feeling contemplative and re-listened to the radio adaptation more than once, and felt a little lump rise in my throat over the saga of the blind astronaut Rhysling.

So as I say, the singing space man resonates, whether as a character in short story, or as embodied by pop songs -- but it's always been fiction. Unavoidably so -- until now.

Now the fiction has become reality. It isn't that Hadfield (with Robertson) is necessarily singing anything that radical or surprising, or that a musician with his feet planted on terra firma couldn't have easily penned -- describing blast off, and how there are no national borders when earth is viewed from space. But the fact that Hadfield really has lived this stuff, and is drawing upon experience rather than imagination, just gives it that extra resonance, following in the footsteps of Wade Hemsworth out on the survey line and so many others.

It helps that it's a pretty good song, to boot -- catchy, up-lifting, with some nice phrasing. Bombastic in a folk-rock way. One could easily imagine it playing on the soundtrack of some sci-fi movie a few years down the line, giving an extra emotional punch to a cinematic drama. There's also something cleverly Canadian and yet universal about it, as Hadfield and Robertson sing about seeing "our nation" -- a line that could be sung by anyone anywhere applying to their own particular homeland...but we know the duo mean Canada.

And, obviously, I don't want to take away from any space man artists that came before Hadfield. Floating above planet earth is doubtless such a profound experience, I'm sure past astronauts may have reflected upon it in painting or prose. Perhaps there's a volume or two of cosmonaut poetry out there. But there's just an undeniably immediate resonance to a man orbiting high overhead literally with a guitar in hand.

Who would have thought the fiction and mythology of yesteryear would become our reality? And who would have thought there'd come a day when we could dismiss David Bowie as just a poser?