David Bowie died exactly one year ago today, and Eric Matthews, formerly one-half of the influential chamber-pop duo Cardinal, has decided to commemorate the anniversary of his passing by sharing a new cover of “Space Oddity.” Listen to his lush, somber rendition of the classic track and read an essay Matthews wrote about his relationship to the song below.
“Space Oddity” is just one of those songs I have known for what seems like most of my life. My parents never had any David Bowie albums so he wasn’t part of my young childhood pattern. But there came a point where I was reaching out for new and different music, the late 70′ thru mid 80’s. A riot had already started that was pulling me away from classical/orchestral/chamber — and jazz music. I was a trumpet player
so that was my center. But I loved radio music, songs, pop, soul music, all of it. And I could sing. But changes were happening in the world of music and society in general, reflections. I was tuning into bootleg late night college and independent radio and older Bowie songs were creeping into my vocabulary. We had KBOO here in Portland and during the day I would tune in to hear Mahler or Miles Davis, but at night, they turned the thing over, at least twice per week to UK stuff, new wave and punk music, strange audio comedy bits, the cold war, white nervous people abandoning the eating of meat for the first time in human history. 1979 I heard the Police for the first time on that station. It was my lifeblood and they would play “Space Oddity” and contrast it with the playing of Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom.”
And Bowie’s big ’80s hits were right around the corner at that time. “Let’s Dance,” MTV, Duran Duran claiming that Bowie was their master. So, it was all coming together in my mind that David Bowie was very important and in every song I was hearing I understood easily why. I got “Let’s Dance” in 1983 at a little record shop I frequented called Jazzman. Weeks later I was at same shoppe and he had a used copy of “Changes One,” which I purchased. It had a solid list of his better early era songs. I got it and it blew my mind. I connected very strongly with most of those songs and it was official. Knowing nothing really, I was now a fan of David Bowie.
This is where I confess that I am almost positively vapid. I never hear/notice lyrics when I listen to songs. Certain word things do catch my mind, stories in songs, but it’s nearly all notes, chords, sounds, and that is what draws me into non-instrumental music. So, as I have said, I knew “Space Oddity” for much of my life, sang it, sang it a million times in my car, walking up the road, while slicing onions. It’s one of those songs for me where the melody and the entire approach of his singing did something deep to stain me. “It’s In There.” Well, I started work on this cover version you are now hearing a couple week ago. And sitting there, singing it on a real microphone in a real studio for a real reason the story hit me. This is a story of a man, an astronaut who is alone dying in space. And the heaviness of Bowie’s simple way of expressing this with his lyric really knocked me out. And this very much informed the way in which I ended up approaching the arrangement and production style. I think it’s a very sad and dark/tragic framework, mechanical and space exploration but in the hands and fate of a single man, solitude, isolation, desperation: “tell my wife I love her very much…she knows.” The brilliance of this simplistic lyric can be found if by no other example in the way he interjects these clues, a literary device where the listener gets cues. “Ground control to Major Tom” where the pilot is being called, alternately where he is calling down to them — “Major Tom to ground control”. I believe he sucks us into this world of his reliance upon a human lifeline as he describes little things, momentary observations…….”the earth is blue”. It’s a painting.
It’s a guy dying at the hands of a program that has failed, bad calculations. David Bowie was a heavy guy. Clearly.
And for years I have had harmonies and ideas for the song that I have explored in the privacy of my own mind, and rooms as a teen, as a young man, as a grown up, that I didn’t think people would ever get to hear, or rather, be punished by. Well, a year ago now David Bowie died. His death hit me in an uncommon fashion, for me. Prince’s death meant something to me for sure, a part of my FM radio youth going, a guy not so much older than me really, a generation ahead, a real contributor to this craft that I believe I am also neck deep in. But Bowie, a different level of something, touching yes, sad. but I didn’t cry. So far, the only celebrity music star to die that had me in actual tears (not sobbing) was when Miles Davis passed. That one got me pretty good. Part of the reason I got into playing the Trumpet was his Kind Of Blue.
Miles Davis is part of my DNA and David Bowie is part of my DNA. So though I very rarely think or are inspired to record a cover of a known song this seemed like I just had to do it. I wanted this to be somewhat a collaboration so I enlisted Fernando Perdomo to get the recording started. I asked him to do a close to faithful guitar rendering that could be the center of my arrangement design. I figured to keep it in the same key and general feel, that same early ’70s energy that Bowie delivered but then to take it vocally and in other aspects of the arrangement to another place, something more sullen, darker, but filled with instrumental sweeteners. Sweet and Low. I think Wynton Marsalis already took that sugar packette title for his own, but don’t ask me. I don’t pay attention to words. Not until I have to. Goodbye you imaginary man who fell to earth.
The “Space Oddity” cover will go on sale this Friday, and Matthews’ upcoming solo album Too Much World is out 2/24 on Lo-Fidelity Records.