What’s Really Happening?

January 14, 2014


What’s Really Happening? (demo with guide melody).
What’s Really Happening? (Internet Tonight, studio footage, 1999).
What’s Really Happening? (Bowie studio vocal takes).
What’s Really Happening?

Being a pop music fan is transactional. You buy the records (well, you used to), and if you like them, you join the fan club: pay your dues, subscribe to the newsletter, and maybe you get an autographed picture in the mail, or an exclusive Christmas record, or first dibs on concert seats. If you’re a member of the fan club in good standing, you could win a contest to go backstage or have lunch with the star, or maybe his drummer. The more time and money you devote, the further you can go into the circle (but only so far). It’s a one-sided relationship seemingly designed for abuse: fan clubs milked for cash by managers; female fans sexually propositioned by roadies, bodyguards and hangers-on for backstage access.

What was hopeful about the first generation of Internet pop music fandoms was that (sometimes) both parties, fan and star, seemed to want a less exploitative relationship. BowieNet was among the brightest of the new worlds: for a relatively cheap subscription, you got a number of actual exclusives and chances to “talk” to Bowie online. And the site was serious, for a time, about keeping up its participatory half of the deal. BowieNet members got to vote on single mixes and cover art; most of all, fans competed to write a lyric for a Bowie song.

This was a gimmick: “What’s Really Happening?,” the first “Cyber Song,” with Bowie singing the fan-written lyrics in the studio while being filmed via webcam and a Lucent 360 “BowieCam.”* The webcast provided “a ground breaking “insiders view” into the studio session,” as per the breathless PR copy.

The contest ran from 2 November to 15 December 1998. Bowie claimed he read through most of the reported 20,000-25,000 entries (“there were a lot of potty ones,” he told Chris Roberts: one wag rewrote “Laughing Gnome” to make it fit Bowie’s melody, another sent in “Wind Beneath My Wings” unaltered). He found many fans contributed work in the vein of the as-yet-released ‘Hours,’ “very soul searching and angst-ridden” stuff. There were some funny contributions too, “so flip they’re almost successful, because they were written with such a lack of responsibility attached. Often things work really well when you don’t feel the pressure of having to make them good. To play at something is often more productive than earnestly striving.”

He (and BowieNet voters) narrowed the entries down to 25, then he picked a 20-year-old Ohioan, Alex Grant, as the winner. “It was impertinent, it scanned well, and it was easy to sing,” he said of Grant’s lyric. Hoping to reduce the number of “Cygnet Committee”-style rants, Bowie had offered as a template to would-be lyricists a wordless top melody rough track: three sets of four lines, mainly seven syllables each (the end phrases shortened to five). Grant’s lyric tightly fit the metrical constraints and shifted from an AAAB rhyme scheme (box/locks/clocks/mind) to an AAAA one (eyes/bye/lie/cry) to an ABAA second verse (glass/sinking/past/last).

Grant wanted the lines to question the medium that created them. “When I first logged on three years ago, [the Web] was this beautiful magic thing but after a certain amount of time I was getting stuck inside of that, my whole life became the Internet,” he said in an interview at the session. So the opening verse is a look at “virtual” life, our personae now grown inside Dell desktops or iMacs, with the natural mechanics of our bodies reduced to “outdated clocks.” This idea went a bit astray in the last verse, with its sinking glass clouds “falling like the shattered past,” though this stanza was the most Bowie-esque, with a clunky mixed metaphor that seemed derived from a cut-up.

For his troubles Grant got a $15,000 publishing contract from Bug Music, the complete Bowie catalog on CD, a $500 gift card to the internet retailer CDNow (in its last year of independent existence), subscriptions to BowieNet and Rolling Stone magazine and the raw envy of other Bowie fans.


They’re amazing kinds of people…I’ve been through the fan sites of other artists and I’m really proud of my lot…Because it’s produced a kind of a community feel, that one doesn’t become the focus of everything all the time. It’s amazing how much you get into their lives and find out about what they’re doing and what’s interesting them other than just being part of the BowieNet site.

Bowie, 1999.

The “What’s Really Happening?” contest was reminiscent of Todd Rundgren’s No World Order, a 1993 Rundgren project in which fans were producers and engineers: you could alter the tempo of tracks, choose different mixes, make bars a capella or dub in guitar lines. You could make Rundgren’s record your own, veto his decisions. This was the Nineties’ idea of 21st Century pop: you, the fan, would help make the music; you would become an aesthetic minority shareholder of sorts.

Yet by encouraging fan participation at a lyric-writing or mixing-stage level, was the artist consigning her work to communal mediocrity, making it a slush of good intentions? Would you want to hear Something/Anything, the work of one weirdo locked in a studio playing nearly every instrument, or No World Order? Was the artist giving away too many magic tricks? The night Bowie and Grant recorded “What’s Really Happening?” BowieNet fans had a real-time comment thread as they watched the session: “Bowie’s drinking a Zima!” “What a boring song!” “Reeves is a Teletubbie” “Whoever wrote Shinin’ Star wasn’t an experienced songwriter either :)” “Coco [Schwab]: how did you get the nickname Coco?” “you haven’t missed anything except David wailing the same line incessantly“). (It’s archived here.) Imagine a live thread while Bowie and Eno cut “Warszawa” (“wtf is this in Portuguese?” “I MISS RONNO”) (cf. the Sermon on the Mount scene in Life of Brian).

It’s telling that “What’s Really Happening?” was a dead end: never again would Bowie offer this degree of fan participation. As I wrote in the BowieNet piece, Bowie now uses the Internet as a one-way distribution hub: putting out product, letting fans respond to it and hype it as they will. Where the creative fan impulse went, where the sense of community went, are the Bowie fansites on Tumblr. Occasionally something from my site gets reblogged 100 times, sending the quote or photo off into this seemingly endless run of Bowie fans, who make GIFs of his various incarnations, who write poems and limericks about him, who annotate and snark at and love him. This, as it turned out, is 21st Century fandom: not artists ham-handedly trying to make their fans Official Contributors, but fandom on its own branching off into thousands of bottle universes, forming and breaking off like atoms. It’s about as happy an ending as one could hope for.


“What’s Really Happening” as a composition and recording gets lost in these sort of discussions. So a brief consideration: it’s a basic G Dorian song whose verse melody is a Sixties mingle (2 cups “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” 1 cup “Pictures of Matchstick Men”) and whose main guitar riff comes off as a tribute to late Britpop (see Space’s “Female of the Species” or Suede’s “She’s in Fashion“). The hectoring chorus, with its glum accumulation of major chords (D-C-B-A), was among the dreariest he’d written in a decade, with Bowie reduced to recycling a line from Tin Machine’s “One Shot.” (It’s ironic that while Bowie likely kept control over the chorus to ensure his “Cyber song” at least had a hook, one wonders if Grant could’ve improved it).

Some backing tracks had been cut in Bermuda, while during the “Cyber” session in New York Reeves Gabrels cut some lead lines and Mark Plati, producing the session, did some bass overdubs (Grant and a friend, Larry Tressler, sang some backing vocals). Comparing the demo version to the final cut shows a decision somewhere along the line to clutter up the mix, perhaps in the hope of distracting from the fact that the song’s basically over at the two minute mark, with Bowie having to repeat half of the first verse and the intro (there’s a brutal cut at 2:36, suggesting they just looped the original intro) before we get to Gabrels’ outro shreddings.

Initially Bowie said “What’s Really Happening?” was going to be a Web exclusive (the contest rules didn’t specify that the track would appear on the album), but he later chose to include it on ‘Hours,‘ and fairly prominently (it was the lead-off track of Side 2 for the dwindling number of cassette buyers). Its tempo and guitars served as a good dividing point between the somber “Side 1” songs and the “Side 2” rockers. A time-stamped curio, “What’s Really Happening?,” more than any other Bowie track, is also the product of noble intentions.

Recorded (backing tracks) Seaview Studio, Bermuda, April-May 1999 and Looking Glass Studios, New York; (guitar and bass overdubs, lead and backing vocals) 24 May 1999, Looking Glass.

* Everything under the moon in 1997-1999 apparently had a “Bowie” prefix; you wonder if Looking Glass Studios had a “BowieLoo.”

** Bowie cracked to Roberts that “I can now nick 25,000 songs over the next few years. It’s all done for me, no prob. It’s all fitted out, I got it in a big store room. Change the odd word, nobody’ll ever know, who cares?” When Roberts joked that the songs would all have the same chorus, Bowie replied: “So what—all this shit is up in the air. Intellectual property? Don’t make me larf!

Note: I tried to track down Alex Grant for this entry, as he’s never been interviewed for any Bowie bio or magazine piece, and I thought he’d provide some fresh perspective. Given his relatively common name and a lack of Internet footprints (BMI lists him only as the co-composer of “What’s Really Happening?”) I had no luck. Mr. Grant, if you by chance read this, please contact me and I’ll put up any response/recollections you’d like to make (even if it’s “wow, your site sucks”).

Top: “Doctors With Patient,” Seattle Municipal Archives, 1999; “What’s Really Happening” BowieNet page, 1999 (captured via Wayback Machine).

Omikron: The Nomad Soul (& BowieBanc & BowieNet)

October 28, 2013

sketch by boz

Omikron: The Nomad Soul (play-through).*
Boz’s Speech (Bowie, from Omikron).
Awakened 2.
“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??


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.“)


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!”


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.


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.


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).


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.]


<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
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.


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.