Omikron: The Nomad Soul (& BowieBanc & BowieNet)

October 28, 2013

sketch by boz

Omikron: The Nomad Soul (play-through).*
Boz’s Speech (Bowie, from Omikron).
Jahangir.
Awakened 2.
Thrust.
“Demon Fight Music.”

He practiced statuesque positions and gave the impression of being a superhuman character by speaking very little and never eating in public.

Edward Burman, on Rashid ad-din Sinan.

Back in the Crusades, Sinan knew the game. As did Greta Garbo, who played it for high stakes. So did David Bowie in 1972. The point of the game, regardless the board on which it was played, was for the idol to escape from life, with its shrieky children, gas bills and installment plans. There should be a pane of thick, darkened glass between idol and audience. To be accessible was to lose. The man who sits in a cafe all day, mumbling as he reads the papers: he’s accessible. A taxi driver is accessible. A star shouldn’t even be seen eating. So Bowie, once a shy hippie hanging around Beckenham folk clubs, became Ziggy Stardust. He moved on, through various avatars of fame, each unknowable in its own way.

He’d chafe under his reputation sometimes, rubbish it, say that he was just an ordinary guy. Make a big deal of walking to a corner store and buying bread. And at the turn of the century, Bowie made himself more ordinary than ever before, as if he was following a weight-loss regimen for the mystique.

On his website he posted journal entries (once musing how, in another life, he could be walking his grandchildren around Bromley by now), and offered low-resolution files of his paintings. He took part in chat rooms, allegedly under the handle “sailor.” He submitted to Internet Q&A sessions with fans. Here are some questions from one from September 1998: Do you shop at Wal-Mart? Is it possible for you to market some of your better paintings in poster versions for like much cheeper (sic)? SqueakieTampaxTwin: Bowie when you were filming Exhuming Mr. Rice in Vancouver, did you ever stop by Subeez Cafe??

$T2eC16Z,!ygE9s7HJ-StBRZJ3K1)8!~~60_57

It was as if, while Mark Zuckerberg was still in high school, Bowie was bracing for the 21st Century, the demand for everyone to “share” accessible versions of themselves. The self as a business card, to be distributed to anyone who asked for it. He also saw opportunity: on 1 September 1998, he launched BowieNet.

Recall what the typical rock star’s webpage looked like in 1998, if it wasn’t just an empty cupboard of a site thrown up to claim “rodstewart.com” during the internet boom. Maybe a tinny-sounding track would blare via RealPlayer when you loaded the page, which might crash your computer. Maybe there was a link to a page of pixelated concert photos. The text seemed plagiarized from fan sites. It was updated once an equinox.

Bowie’s site was fresh, fluid, offered legitimate exclusives: downloadable material, in particular Earthling tour recordings; his journals; his recommendations for books and films. He seemed intent on hosting an actual community. In 1999, he held a fan songwriting contest (see the upcoming “What’s Really Happening?”); he had fans pick their favorite mixes for Bowie At the Beeb and choose the cover of his All Saints compilation. “I do think it’s fair to say that music sites like Pitchfork exist—or at least the cool music blog model exists—because of BowieNet,” Wired editor Nancy Miller told Marc Spitz. “The idea of a singular, serious, legit indie music site with great influence, where you can get music news, videos, downloads of genuinely cool music?…Bowie was coming up with ideas to save the music industry [in 1998].

And he actually seemed to make a little money, rather a novelty for websites. Unlike the New York Times or Sports Illustrated or countless newspapers now shuttered or decimated, Bowie charged his readers from the start: $20 a month ($6 for a no-frills subscription). After four months of operation, BowieNet was being valued at $500 million. (Bowie was more blunt about how much he really was earning: “I can’t even buy a packet of cigarettes on the proceeds from this fucking thing…There is no money in what we do. It’s like being in the silent movies.“)

Bowienet

Everybody has a voice

Greeting on BowieNet, late 1990s.

I think the potential of what the Internet is going to do to society—both good and bad—is unimaginable. I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.

Bowie, Newsnight interview, December 1999.

In one of his BowieNet chats, Bowie was reminded by a fan about “Saviour Machine,” his mainframe-turned-killer-god song from 1970. “This machine did such a good job that, to create something for it to do, it had to make things bad again,” he recalled to Time Out. “I think, without knowing it, the Internet was something I was always desperate to get involved with.”

He began to veer between evangelism for the Internet and a cold-eyed realization that it would eviscerate the pop music industry (he also took the Y2K scare seriously).** “Once everyone can sample what they want at home on a cheap computer, the medium suddenly becomes the message,” he said in 2000. “And the message seems to be ‘This is lifestyle music, not attitude music.’ I think we will probably buy our music in the same way as we buy our clothes now; it’s no longer the replacement to church.”

Was this over-egging it? The young Mod Bowie had considered his music to be on a par with his clothes, and he and Marc Bolan had been the ones who rubbished the idea of rock music as church, which was something for the redbrick academics and tiresome hippie older brothers. Glam itself had been fabulous lifestyle music. The Internet could be a sequel, even more transformative.

Yet in the boom years of the century’s end, Bowie also recognized how much of a hustle one’s professional life would have to become. Constantly refreshing your site, constantly tending to your users, watching hit rates tick upward and downward. Users “are looking for things that represent their own interests, similar minds,” he told Uncut in 1999. “And so I became the first autonomous individual!”

LiveAndWell-US-CD

By early 2000, the Financial Times noticed that Bowie was branching into realms “unrelated to [what you] might call his core competencies.”

He had started the David Bowie Radio Network for Rolling Stone‘s website. And to run BowieNet, he had co-formed Ultrastar, an internet service provider that ran the websites of the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees (“we create little generic ISPs for different companies and universities and colleges,” he said. “It’s actually quite a major company now.“)

One of his business partners, Robert Goodale, not-quite-jokingly said that a Bowie Trading Desk could be in the future. Things didn’t go that far, but there was BowieBanc.

bowiebanc

When suggested the cobranding arrangement, Bowie immediately seized the marketing potential. “People don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Gosh, I’m really turned on by my bank,’” says Goodale, but he and Bowie didn’t see why something that is useful, like online banking, couldn’t also be sexy and fun.

J. Alex Tarquinio, “Banking on Bowie’s Brand,” Forbes, 4 March 2000.

When I was a kid, music was the fascinating alternative future. But now it’s just another career choice such as banking or being a travel rep.

Bowie, 1998.

One of the hooks of BowieNet was that subscribers had their own personal Bowie email address. You could impress your friends by sending Clinton/Lewinsky jokes via “jojo@bowie.net.” So BowieBanc was the next step of fan identification. Starting in January 2000, BowieBanc offered an Internet-only bank account whose holders would receive Bowie brand ATM cards. One of the promos for opening a BowieBanc account was a year’s subscription to BowieNet.

His financial advisor Bill Zysblat told the FT: What [Bowie] is doing is taking his fan base, which 20 years ago had an affinity for wearing a T-shirt of his, and maybe 10 years ago graduated to wearing a golf shirt of his, and in the last three or four years has developed to being part of his online service, and trying to create that same affinity with what he is doing with online banking.”

Running this venture was USABancShares.com. It’s worth briefly recounting the history of this company, as it’s such a ridiculous metaphor for modern America you’d expect to find it in a Tom Wolfe novel. In 1887, a group of Quakers started the Peoples’ Thrift Savings Bank, an institution that thriftily endured for over a century. Then in 1995 an investment banker named Kenneth Tepper bought it, renamed it BankPhiladelphia (mashed/multi-capitalized names were hip for banks), bought some other local banks, took it public, renamed it again to USABancShares, increased its valuation from $18 million to $350 million in four years. He launched an on-line bank division in 1999, of which BowieBanc was the first big venture.

Bowie had no exposure to USABancShares, put up no capital and got paid for the use of his name and image. He was possibly the only person who came out unscathed from the venture, which only had 1,500 depositors by mid-2000 and lost $9.7 million that year. The company spent $6 million in marketing and lost $4 million in a year. Tepper soon left; the bank was delisted by Nasdaq and traded for a dime a share. “The expectations on us and on technology in general were unrealistic,” Tepper said. A customer reportedly also had committed fraud, allegedly leaving the bank with a $3 million debt. By March 2001, an ailing USABancShares was under the heel of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Pennsylvania Department of Banking. It was sold to a company run by its former chief financial officer, who took it private and returned to community banking. The whole affair seemed like a quiet Philadelphia bank’s mid-life crisis.

Sure, BowieBanc is a footnote in Bowie’s life, but it’s a jarring one. What was he doing having his face put on ATM cards? Imagine Greta Garbo letting her face appear on a box of breakfast cereal. It seemed the mad culmination of all of these whirligig ambitions: the need to be seemingly everywhere for his fans, to be accessible and down-to-earth, yet also having to exploit one’s legend enough that some fan would actually open a bank account to get Bowie’s face emblazoned on a checkbook.

dbomikron

When you arrive in Qualisar go up the ramp in front of you. Look for a sign that says Harvey’s Bar and enter it. Inside, first find the bathroom there is 10 Seteks in the first stall. Now go to the stage and enjoy the show. If you’re wondering why that guy sounds like David Bowie it is because he is. When the band is done go to the next building which is the Sex Shop.

Cody Pitre, Omikron Walkthrough Strategy Guide.

You’re not the first video game player to get your soul trapped in this dimension.

“Boz” (Bowie).

There was another Bowie computer-based venture in the late Nineties that was a stranger, and subtler take on this confusion. Omikron: the Nomad Soul was a game designed and developed by Quantic Dream and Eidos Interactive. The premise mingled Tron (gamers sucked into a videogame, where they have to fight for their lives) and Blade Runner, the Final Fantasy franchise (gamers could go “off narrative,” walk around virtual cities and hang out in bars) and Buddhism. The latter was a hook for Bowie. One of the premises of Omikron was that your “nomad soul” could transfer from body to body in the course of the game, using reincarnation as a means of advancement.

Further, Bowie had himself appear in the game, as “Boz,” leader of The Awakened (there was a futurist-Gnosticism going on in Omikron, similar to The Matrix, released the same year). “I saw Boz as being a kind of digital patchwork quilt, made up of all sorts of shifting patterns, fleeting thoughts, and fractured memories—someone who would slip in and out of focus, one moment drifting and world-weary, the next absolutely concise and direct,” Bowie said in an interview.

While back in reality he was listing his favorite coffees on his website, running baseball team ISPs and conferencing with bankers, in the game he was 25 again, hiding in catacombs and playing in dive bars, running a musical resistance unit. Sometimes he envisioned his ISP business to be the same. In interviews, he compared BowieNet and Ultrastar to “smaller cartels,” a sort of Rebel Alliance against the Empire (he liked to mentioned Bill Gates as an example of the latter).

tracklisting

Composing much of the Omikron soundtrack (Xavier Despas wrote about half of the instrumentals, Gabrels and Bowie the remainder) would be one impetus for “hours,” as we’ll see. There are in-game performances of “New Angels of Promise,” “Survive” and “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” while mixes of many other “hours” tracks and outtakes can be heard over laser gunfights and demonic wrestling matches.

Four Bowie/Gabrels instrumentals were allegedly made specifically for the game, listed (on a French bootleg) as “Awaken 2,” “Thrust,” “Jangir” (though the region in the game was called “Jahangir”) and “Qualisar.” However, as some commenters on the Illustrated DB board noted, most of these instrumentals were actually early/different versions of “hours” B-sides. “Awakened 2,” for instance, is an instrumental version of “No One Calls,” while “Thrust,” heard during a rooftop battle with a demon, would become “1917.” There may be a few lost Bowie/Gabrels instrumentals buried in Omikron. A piece that I cleverly labeled “Demon Fight Music,” a grunting loop of what sounds like Bowie’s voice and Gabrels’ guitar heard during a battle scene, could be one [nope: turns out it’s a Gabrels-only composition, see comments.]

omi

<David\bBowie> But I will be back sooner than I was
last time. I’m not sure that makes any sense.
What have you done to me?!
<David\bBowie> Good night Earthlings!
<hj>Beautiful! That’s it kids
<RaMOANa>WE love ya – bye bye luv
<hj>Bowie has left the building!
<Electric\bWarrior> nite all!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
*** Electric\bWarrior (ronroy@DPA) has left
#ChatGuest
End of #ChatGuest buffer Tue Apr 27 23:30:20 1999

Reeves Gabrels, interviewed by David Buckley for a Bowie biography, was blunt about what he thought of internet branding ventures. “Your legacy, your story is what gets remembered.” Recalling his reputation as Tin Machine’s “art snob,” he happily owned it. “It did point out an aspect of my respect for what I do. I personally don’t believe that using your music to sell products is cool. It devalues the art…it devalues its meaning and emotional content.” He and Bowie soon parted company.

Around 2004, coinciding with Bowie’s sudden retirement, BowieNet slowly began to stagnate. There would be fewer updates; the exclusives dried up. Generations of internet cycles passed it by: it slumbered through the rise of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr. In 2006, Bowie’s ISP business quietly shut down. Finally in March 2012, the Bowie Facebook page confirmed what had been obvious for five years: BowieNet was dead.

dbcom

On his birthday this year, without warning, Bowie offered a new song. He put it up on YouTube and let people buy it on iTunes.

So he was back in the game, working the Internet hype cycle like a pro, but he wasn’t the glad-handing figure of the dot-com years. He gave no interviews. He wasn’t chatting, he wasn’t taking part in Q&As. His revived website is clean, functional, and updated regularly, and makes no pretense that it’s any sort of interactive realm between Bowie and his fans. Now he just makes videos and songs and puts them up on the Web with little notice or explanation. He’s back behind the glass: happy to be there, hope you’re happy too.

Many of the Omikron instrumentals were recorded ca. January 1999, in various studios in London and Paris (some may have been cut in Bermuda in late 1998). Omikron was released on 1 November 1999. Its soundtrack was never released as a stand-alone recording apart from a French “official” bootleg.

* This is part 1 (labeled as 2) of a multi-part walk-through of the entire game. Usually the next part will appear in the top-right corner of the screen should you like to keep going. There’s also a sped-up walkthrough on YT. Or you could make a rational choice and just not watch any of it.

** Interviewed by Yahoo! Internet Life in 1999, Bowie predicted MP3s would replace albums and music would be “on tap” through computers like water. But touchingly, he imagined that record stores would somehow remain central. He thought you would go to a record store in 2013 to have a clerk download tracks for you from some licensed database. “You go in and you’d ask the assistant for the menu and you choose exactly what tracks you want. And then they’ll be burned into a CD—if you’re that old-fashioned—or put onto a player.