We All Go Through

January 9, 2014

99japan

We All Go Through.
We All Go Through (Omikron end credits).

“We All Go Through” and “What’s Really Happening?,” particularly when heard back-to-back, can seem like Bowie’s Pepsi challenge: which is the “real,” which is the “impostor” song? Each track could be the work of an outside lyricist writing in the voice of Bowie; each feels like a synthetic recreation of “the Sixties” as processed through the late Eighties.

“We All Go Through,” with its sturdy E major structure, its skip-rope verse melody and easy rhymes, is the happier-sounding of the pair. Even Reeves Gabrels, who plays the most restrained solo of his recorded life with Bowie, seems in gentle spirits (Gabrels later claimed he’d written much of its music as a potential instrumental track on his solo record). The grim “lunarscape” of the verses, cities of Mammon and noise, bows to the communal bliss of the choruses, with their confident strides up from C major to E major (“right in the noooooow”).

It worked as the payoff song for Omikron: the Nomad Soul, a victory lap for gamers who’d knocked off all the villains and got to return home to their world. Lifted out of the game narrative, the lyric became more troubling: the shuffle of words in the refrain turned the cliche rock lullaby of “we’ll be all right” into “we’ll ALL be right”: no compromise with or acceptance of another’s view needed—we pass into heaven as our righteous selves. “We are the morning song,” Bowie promises, a possible nod to Lucifer, “son of the morning,” which makes one wonder just exactly we’re all going through to become. (“‘Dog’ (a scrambled God) is in every word,” Bowie also offers.)

It’s one of the ‘Hours’-era tracks most hobbled by the relative cut-budget production (“Sowing the Seeds of Love“-era Tears for Fears did this stuff better): the synthesizers masked as a string section make the “faux psychedelic chantin’ drone” (Bowie’s description of the song) a bit watery. There are pleasures in the mix: the jabbing Bowie harmony vocals in the later verses (“hooouur by hoouuur” he tolls like some distorted bell), the little bass hook Mark Plati develops in the outro, the crisp acoustic work (by either Bowie or Gabrels). But “We All Go Through” comes off as being trapped in an interim state: there’s a grander song in here somewhere.

Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda; overdubs (Plati’s bass) at Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. Released 20 September 1999 on the “Thursday’s Child” CD single (Virgin 7243 8 96265 2 0) and later included on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours.’

Top: Toshichika Goto, “Tokyo, 1999.”


Something In the Air

December 16, 2013

99riotponcho

Something In the Air.
Something In the Air (Omikron sequence).
Something In the Air (Jools Holland, 1999).
Something In the Air (Nulle Part Ailleurs, 1999).
Something In the Air (Musique Plus, 1999).
Something In the Air (live, 1999).
Something In the Air (American Psycho remix, 2000).

I haven’t given that up, but it’s a dream; a dream that can come true. It came true once and it can come true again…And all the time I wander round this plot of land, and I still keep the dream…We all move on, all of us. You, you should have taken your chances, made the most of it—always make the most of it, never let go, it might be the only one, ever…I’m in another city. And it’s wonderful. It might be the last. It might be the only one. Any road, I’m not letting go. Make the most of it. I’m not letting go, not ever.

Ray Gosling, Sum Total, 1962.

I don’t think people take much time to look back these days. They don’t look back anywhere near as much as we used to, as I used to. History has receded into the distance, and so has the future.

Bowie, Uncut interview, 1999.

Ray Gosling died last month, a lifetime after he wrote an autobiography at age 22, Sum Total. As the title said, it was a short life tallied up, biography as a few jottings on a map. The moves and wanderings of the Me towards some point of definition, some lines of discipline. Gosling would spend his life chronicling movements, making films and radio documentaries, a life that he foreshadowed in the jittery staccato rhythms of his prose. The England I love is an England of constant change.

And in 1956 and 1957, in lorry driver caffs and in shabby pubs in shabby corners of towns, he felt a new change coming on. When he saw Rock Around the Clock in a Northampton cinema, when he heard the first Elvis singles at a “Yank pub” on its great German-made jukebox, it was the start of something. Everyone felt this—the start of the teenage thing. It was like the start of a revolution; coming in with the big noise right at the beginning of the whole thing.

It was a revolution that worked, he wrote. Pop, for lack of a better word, offered a new way of living that worked–primary passions, primary colours. The idea that the world could be new again, or at least that you could be; that the new was something actual, something real, something coming, unexpected. That tradition held no power over you anymore. That you weren’t fated to be your parents; you weren’t a serf. I don’t want to be ground down, Gosling wrote in 1962. Don’t drag me down. And when the bastards get their hands on you, you’ve got to fight them.

gos

Bowie was a student at Bromley Tech when Sum Total came out. Seven years later, when Bowie was running an Arts Lab in Beckenham whose aim was to “turn on” kids and convert their parents, a #1 hit of that summer was Thunderclap Newman’s “Something In the Air,” a fragile pop record that called for mass insurrection—block up the streets and houses, hand out the arms and ammo (“we’re going to blast our way through here!“)—with a Goon Show arrangement: its brass band and “Lonely Surfer” horns, its temporary cease-fire for a barrelhouse piano solo. (It was a Pete Townshend solo record in all but name: he assembled the band from his ex-chauffeur (John “Speedy” Keen); a post office engineer and Dixieland pianist whom Townshend had idolized since art school (Andy “Thunderclap” Newman) and a 15-year old guitarist, Jimmy McCulloch.)

As the revolution that Gosling had seen in its cradle seemed about to push over—a dusty world swept away for a clean one—there was a fatal lack of nerve. Or perhaps those doing the pushing woke up in time. “Something In the Air” captures the feeling of imminence that suffused the late Sixties, as Dave Marsh once wrote, but it also knows that nothing will ever arrive. “You know it’s right,” Keen sang, sounding like he couldn’t convince himself anymore, that he was more desperate to believe again than he was in the rightness of the cause. Time was tight. Pretty soon you’d have to start rationing it. “We have got to get it together…now,” a line echoed by Mick Jagger on stage at Altamont that December: “let’s get it together, people. Who’s fighting, and what for?” A girl in the crowd yelled back: “Everybody!”

the-limey

Bowie said of his “Something In the Air,” recorded three decades after the year of the Arts Lab and Major Tom, of Thunderclap Newman and Altamont, that “there’s a terrible conflict there…it’s probably the most tragic song on the album.” The song autopsied a relationship. A man tells a woman that he wants to love her but he doesn’t know how to do it anymore. He’d worshiped his life with her; now he’s an unbeliever. Bowie summarized the man’s plight to Gil Kaufman: “‘I can’t believe I’m asking you to go, you, my entire life. I imbued you with so many future inspirations.’ It’s terrible.”

The lyric, while clunky in places, was cold and precise about life in a dead marriage: We smile too fast/then can’t think of a thing to say. Mark Plati’s bassline, twinned with a synthesizer, paces the couple through their last days as one, ticking away the cold seconds and minutes. In a 1999 interview, Bowie said the future now seemed far away to him, that the world had a “present sensibility now.” The couple in “Something In the Air” live in this airless present tense, with no hope of movement. The song’s chord progressions are sets of arguing couples: a C minor moves to a C minor ninth and back, a D minor to an F major and back, an F#, reduced to an F major, sharpens again. Scraps of melody from “The Motel,” another Bowie purgatory, turn up in the pre-chorus.

You could stay, if you’d like, with this faceless couple, with Bowie playing his hand at being a “faux novelist,” in his words. A Bowie take on John Updike: middle-aged people having middle-aged crises. But there’s all this other information in the song: what to do with it? How its title references a long-failed revolution (“Something In the Air” wound up used for an ad in the late 2000s, the “revolution” now a faster mobile service). How Reeves Gabrels’ guitar calls up another languid ghost of 1969, Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross.” How Bowie sings the opening line, “your coat and hat are gone,” so that it sounds like “you’re cold and had a gun.” How buried in the verses is the jabbing guitar riff of “Straight to Hell” (“we can’t avoid the Clash,” Bowie regrets in the second verse), a song by another band of failed would-be pop revolutionaries.

tn

Or how its coda references Annette Peacock’s “I’m the One.” Back in his Beckenham days, Bowie had loved Peacock’s music; he’d had her signed by MainMan, he’d wanted her to to support him on the “Aladdin Sane” tour. She spent two decades making brilliant, uncompromising records and supporting radical movements. But even she, by 1989, was done with any hope of societal change: I used to be extremely optimistic. Now I’m more realistic about man’s ability to transcend his basic nature, or his basic conditioning,” Peacock said. “Unless people start becoming active, in terms of doing what they can actually do in their own sphere of activity (within their family, socially, within their circle of friends, whatever), yeah, there is no hope.

A failed marriage, a failed revolution, a failed world: they nest within each other. Ray Gosling’s revolution, the shiny liberating promise of Mod and Pop, was supposed to be fun. When the promise reached Thunderclap Newman, when it was caught up with the barricades and letter bombs, it was already too far gone, too weighed down by the muck of history. It was already a beautiful failure. But what did Bowie have to mourn? He’d never been much of a hippie and the counterculture’s collapse had been the best thing for his career: his public image in the Seventies was of the man who came after everything went south.

Perhaps having invested so much in the future, having been the future’s champion, or at least its logo, for so long, he was tired of it. The future hadn’t been worth it, after all. Let me go. Let me go back into history, let someone else for once offer some alternatives. His “Something In the Air” is a goodbye to failure dressed as a goodbye to a dead marriage; it’s a goodbye to the future and all its oppressive what-could-bes. Danced with you too long, Bowie sings. Nothing left to save. Let’s take what we can.

Bowie sings the song, especially its latter half, in a scraping, brooding performance. He seems to be singing under the melody that he wrote; he distorts his voice on some lines via a ring modulator, making him sound like a radio signal cutting out. He sounds deflated, mopey, spent: he’s the sad Pierrot again. It’s a happily married man mourning a fictional lifeless marriage, it’s a reflection on a lost revolution by someone who kept far away from the barricades: fittingly it’s one of the songs his band of video-game rebels performs in Omikron. It’s a song carved out of old dreamers’ songs (recall how much Bowie uses “dreamers” as a motif on this record) but it has no dreams in it. Goodbye 20th Century.

Recorded April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda, with overdubs at Looking Glass Studios and Chung King Studios, NY. A Mark Plati remix appeared on the American Psycho soundtrack. Performed live only twice, in 1999.

Top: “Go Jake,” “Riot Police with Ponchos,” Seattle (during the WTO protests), 30 November 1999; Gosling’s Sum Total; Terence Stamp, The Limey (Soderbergh, 1999).


No One Calls

November 20, 2013

99wallingerecce

Awakened 2.
No One Calls.

Of all the tracks issued under the general ‘Hours’ banner, “No One Calls,” stuffed away on the “Thursday’s Child” CD single, seems the most likely candidate to have emerged from one of Bowie and Brian Eno’s lost Outside sequel sessions. It was as though Bowie assembled the track with the intention of recapturing the dark murmurings of “Wishful Beginnings.”

This could well be true. What’s also true is that Bowie raided the Labyrinth soundtrack for the song: Nicholas Pegg’s argument that “No One Calls” is in part a rewrite of Trevor Jones’s “Thirteen O’Clock” is pretty undeniable (the melodic line of “no-body-calls” is essentially the first synthesizer melody in the Jones piece). And “No One Calls” also appears, in instrumental form, as a piece of incidental music in the Omikron video game, listed in the CD sequencing as “Awakened 2.”

Further, it’s as “plastic” a track as “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” only here the reference book isn’t the glam years or Tin Machine rawk but the tasteful “European” Bowie, the Bowie of Side 2 of Low and “Heroes,” the minimalist of Buddha of Suburbia, with Bowie using a vintage 1980s drum machine, the Roland TR-707, as the track’s chassis.

Not that this is a bad thing: Bowie in austere self-parody mode can still work small wonders. “No One Calls” (an odd title, as Bowie actually sings “nobody calls” throughout) is one of the subtlest and more intriguing pieces to emerge from the ‘Hours’ period. The fragmented lyric, which Bowie sings in his sad Pierrot voice via loose, four- and five-syllable lines (and echoed, per usual, by distorted ghost voices), can be read in a host of ways: as an isolated, depressed person’s internal monologue; as the thoughts of someone facing the repercussions of something horrific they’ve done (why does no one call anymore? why is the singer having to be photographed?). It could even be post-apocalyptic: counting the windows (left unshattered); nobody phones anyone at all (because there are no phones, or people, left).

Built over a twinned eerie repeating keyboard melody, one strain of which seems to have crept out of a Dario Argento horror film, and with a processed Reeves Gabrels guitar, sounding like an Indian esraj, that echoes, then pilfers the top melody (and which soon divides into two competing lines) “No One Calls” seems to be building to a climax but instead loses heart, with Bowie left to repeat his last doleful “not at alls” as the track slowly fades away into synthetic rainfall.

Recorded ca. January-February 1999, London; poss. May 1999, Seaview Studios, with overdubs at Chung King Studios and Looking Glass Studios. Released 20 September 1999 as a B-side of various “Thursday’s Child” CD singles (Virgin 7243 8 96268 2 7/VSCDT 1753) and offered as a freebie to fans who downloaded the album via Liquid Audio; later included on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours.

Top: Mark Wallinger, Ecce Homo, 1999 (displayed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square; another angle here).


The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell

November 18, 2013

99eminbed

The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell.
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (Omikron: The Nomad Soul (Stigmata mix)).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (TOTP, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (Late Show with David Letterman, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (live, NetAid, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (Musique Plus, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (Nulle Part Ailleurs, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (TVE 2, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (live, 1999).

Then there’s “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell.” That’s not a song, that’s a CV.

Ha ha! That was really dangling a carrot, wasn’t it?

Bowie, Q interview, October 1999.

Rock as put-down or stand-up, “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” began as a guitar riff that Reeves Gabrels cut in 20 minutes in February 1999, then earmarked the developing track for his solo album. In May, during the ‘Hours’ sessions in Bermuda, Bowie came up with a vocal; soon afterward in New York, Mark Plati added what he called a “boneheaded” bassline. Soon enough Bowie claimed the song, considering it a likely single, a good fit for a section of the Omikron video game “where they want[ed] something more rambunctious” and a potentially hot live piece.

He could have called it something like “The Dirty Things Are In Your Face” and let the track sink or swim by its own merits. Instead he impishly made it a reference/homage to (take your pick) the Stooges’ “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell,” the band the Pretty Things, the Bo Diddley song which named said band, the two Pretty Things songs that Bowie covered on Pin Ups, Tin Machine’s “Pretty Thing” and his own.

Upon the album’s release, Bowie kept throwing out scenarios: it was like he was playing a game of charades with his song. In interviews (and on stage at the Roseland in 2000) he called the song a take-off (or “put-down”) of the early glam era. And talking to Chris Roberts for an Uncut feature, Bowie said he’d been inspired by Evelyn Waugh’s “bright young things” from Vile Bodies, itself the impetus of “Aladdin Sane.” “I think their day is numbered,” Bowie said of Waugh’s lovelies. “So I thought, well, let’s close them off. They wore it well but they did wear themselves out, y’know, there’s not much room for that now. It’s a very serious little world.” So “Pretty Things” was a coda for the pre-millennial blues of Outside: a world, hardening and shrinking, that has no space left for the glamsters and assorted fops who’d made the 20th Century remotely tolerable.

The interpretation Bowie offered that struck closest to home, though, was that “Pretty Things” was a comedy song: rock ‘n’ roll as a creaky burlesque. It was a dig at his current status and what had become of a once-“revolutionary” music at the end of the century. Picking through his career in a SPIN interview at the time, Bowie said “I wasn’t sure if I was doing songs or stand-up. Not that I minded. There’s a British thing where rock singers and comedians are envious of each other’s careers.” (True, that: how many rockers wished they were as cool as Peter Cook?).

Bowie complained to Addicted to Noise‘s Gil Kaufman that reviewers had bungled his favorite pun in the song, writing that he was moaning “life’s a bitch and then you die” when he actually was singing “life’s a bit and sometimes you die.” It’s stand-up! I wrote a song about stand-up! he snapped. You can go further on this line: what’s a stand-up routine but a man standing center-stage, trying to convert an indifferent, even hostile crowd of strangers to his side? It was a reminder that Bowie’s greatest achievement of the Nineties wasn’t the would-be concept albums or the hip collaborations. He had remade himself into a formidable live performer, and without using the crutch of nostalgia. “Pretty Things” may have been a spoof, but the few times he played it on stage in 1999 and 2000 it had a pushy, boisterous life in it.

pt

What would have furthered the sense of “Pretty Things” being a dark comic send-up is if Bowie hadn’t scrapped its Dom & Nic-helmed video, shot in September 1999. Bowie hired Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to design four puppets (allegedly for £28,000): the dress-wearing neo-Pre-Raphaelite of Man Who Sold the World, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke and the Scary Monsters Pierrot (the latter two just turned up in the “Love Is Lost” video). In the video, the “current” Bowie was stalked and battered by the puppets of his past lives. In an on-line chat in October 2000, Bowie said he killed the video because “the puppets wound up looking like puppets” and thus failed to achieve the intended “Eastern European” vibe that Dom and Nic rather tediously had wanted. Admitting that parts of the video were “downright funny,” Bowie said he expected the video to leak: so far, it hasn’t.

Then there’s the song itself, a rock ‘n’ roll dunce-show where everything’s kept at meathead level: the barely-there C major progression that nods out on an F major chord for the entire verse and pre-chorus (the only spice is an A-flat chord swapped in from the parallel minor in the chorus (“don’t know why,” “just can’t tell”)); Gabrels’ lead riff is essentially a bend and release of a single string, tarted up with various artificial harmonics, while his thudding verse power chords are panto heavy metal—it’s like a shiver of sharks traveling in formation. His two solos are confined to corners of the mix, scribbles in the margins. Plati described his bassline as being “low and ugly and simple—and perfect” (“it’s harder to do than you think—it’s always easier to play loads of things,” he told David Buckley.) Only Mike Leveseque, under the influence of a Keith Moon biography he’d read recently, isn’t playing in quotations. His drumming, agitated with tambourine in the choruses and by cowbell during Gabrels’ breaks, keeps the track honest, punishing each beat. When he sneaks in the occasional fill, it’s like getting a punch in the ribs.

As a studio track, “Pretty Things” goes on far too long (the single edit mercifully crops a bridge repeat) and its mix grows progressively cluttered and wearying on the ear, especially once Bowie starts double-tracking his lead vocal with zombified, distorted voices. There are some subtle puns and occasional wit in the lyric (the singer’s looking for a dance partner on a wild Sunday night) but there’s also some portentous hooey (“I am a dragon, I am the sky…what is eternal, what is damned“). Back in his glam years, Bowie had said he made “plastic” rock ‘n’ roll and soul music, but his bands had been too alive, too irreconcilable, to merit the label. Here, making a hard rock preset track for video games and horror movies, he made as good on the claim as he ever would.

Recorded February 1999, London; May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda, with overdubs at Looking Glass and Chung King Studios. A different “Pretty Things” (essentially the same track given a dreadful, murky mix, with an occasional sub-Nine Inch Nails loop for variety) was issued on 24 August 1999 on the Stigmata soundtrack, though perversely another mix (jacked up in tempo) was used in the actual film (both tracks are on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours’); the Omikron: Nomad Soul “performance” is the Stigmata soundtrack version. An edit of the “Hours” “Pretty Things” was issued as the album’s lead-off single in Japan and Australia, and as a promo-only CD single in the US. The live NYC version linked above (from the Kit Kat Club, 19 November 1999) was included on the “Seven” single. (Bless the Illustrated DB Discography for making sense of this one.)

Top: Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998-1999; “Pretty Things” US promo CD.


New Angels of Promise

November 7, 2013

99ricecake

New Angels of Promise.
New Angels of Promise (Omikron intro sequence).
New Angels of Promise (full Omikron version).

To the Angel of Approved Estimates,
to the Angels of Promise Across the Entire
Spectrum. To the Surplus Angels of Acquisition,
I cannot hear the new instructions,
let alone obey them.

Geoffrey Hill, The Triumph of Love, 1998.

“New Angels of Promise,” used to score the opening credits of the Omikron: the Nomad Soul video game, has a reservoir of memory to give it depth: it’s a direct descendent of, and answer to, “Sons of the Silent Age” and “Look Back in Anger.” As with several ‘Hours’ tracks, Bowie seems to be presuming a familiar audience here. The drive to convert new listeners, or to aggravate old ones, is no longer a factor: this is Bowie making a “Bowie song” intended for the faithful. It’s a song so riddled through with the past that it’s barely coherent as its own piece.

“Sons” gave “New Angels” melodies—Bowie used some of the same phrasings (“I am a blind man, she is my eyes” is almost note-for-note “Sam Therapy and King Dice“)—and structure. Both songs have a snaky instrumental opening; an eight-line verse, where Bowie’s almost conversational voice alternates with a guitar/keyboard establishing the chords; a sudden modulation to a harmonized chorus. “New Angels” sits within the traces of “Sons”: it’s as if the 1999 song inhabits the same radio frequency at a different point in time.

And lyrically, “New Angels” is a sequel of “Look Back in Anger.” In the latter, Bowie had encountered a bored, bureaucratic angel who’d indifferently summoned him: the world could be ending, or at least the singer’s part in it, but hey, there’s no hurry. This was an “angel of promise,” a vague concept in Christian theology, essentially an angel who comes in advance of some covenant with God being enacted. Take, for instance, the angels who heralded, to their respective parents, the births of John the Baptist and Christ. As the centuries went on, and particularly once America got going, the angel of promise was often domesticated, reduced to something like a guardian angel, a soul’s personal advocate or a genial harbinger of prosperity.

But the angels of promise aren’t necessarily bringing good news: any memos from the top office should fill we temporary employees with foreboding. Their growing rarity also indicated a spiritually diminished time: as per a late 19th Century sermon by George Davis Herron, these angels are actually found all over time and space, just unseen: “the angels of promise are always on the wing. God is always speaking, but man does not hear.”

So Bowie sets his new angels (God having rebranded his angels like a box of cereal) as a pair of cold, despairing passersby, lost in a crowd: one’s blind, the other serves as his eyes. In the last verse he calls them, in a wonderful phrase, “tabular lovers.” An obvious play on his earlier “fabulous lovers,” it conveys an image of the angels being immovable objects, like two pillars (or the stone and wax Bewlay Brothers), as well as being two lines of data, rows of binary code. They haunt the song, but they’re motionless figures; if they’ve made a judgment, it’s happened already and they’re just sticking around to see how it plays out.

Given this dense interweaving of Bowie memory and favorite symbolism, the music seems almost secondary. Its arrangement and rhythms are uninspired, the repetition of an entire verse is overkill, the odd synthesizer squeaks (“hey, remember I made Earthling?”) are just clutter, its production is oddly murky and thin in places. Sterling Campbell sounds like he’s playing through a wall; Reeves Gabrels’ rhythm guitar in the chorus is parked so far back in the mix it’s as if it’s bleeding through from an earlier take. (To be fair, the Omikron mix is much livelier: it’s far and away the best version.) The verse chords are essentially those of “Survive”: a tonic and flatted VII chord gravitating off each other, while the chorus’ shift to F# minor is a dogged advance through the key, like someone climbing a hill only to fall back to the ground.*

Still there are some pleasures to be found: take the intricacies of Bowie’s backing vocals in the verses, like the descending “sooo-far” that collides with the start of a phrase, and it’s good for a game of spot-the-reference. Is the descending “oh-oh-oh-oh” hook in the verse from Elvis Costello’s “Blue Chair”? Is its Mellotron intro a tweak of Peter Gabriel’s “San Jacinto”? It’s as if the music is enacting the spiritually-barren, memory-clotted world of the lyric. Its parts are greater than its sum.

Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studios, Bermuda, with overdubs at Looking Glass Studios. Released on ‘Hours’; the Omikron version was later included on a 2004 reissue (Bowie flew in “suspicious minds” to replace “Omikron” to start the ‘Hours’ version’s chorus. It was apparently a last-minute call, as the lyric sheet still has “Omikron”). Never performed live.

* (F#m/G/G#/A/F#m, or i-IIb-II-III-i—though you could make the case the intro/chorus is still in the verse’s A major (it would be vi-VIIb-VII-I-vi in that case).

Top: “Corey,” “New Year Rice Cake, January 1999.”


Survive

November 1, 2013

Anloo wheat field

Survive.
Survive (Omikron sequence).
Survive (video).
Survive (instrumental).
Survive (Marius DeVries UK single mix).
Survive (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Survive (Top of the Pops 2, rehearsal, 1999). (& another rehearsal.)
Survive (Top of the Pops 2, 1999).
Survive (TFI Friday, 1999).
Survive (live, Net Aid, 1999).
Survive (Cosas Que Importan, 1999).
Survive (Nulle Parte Ailleurs, 1999.)
Survive (live, 1999, later on single).
Survive (Musique Plus, 1999).
Survive (Later With Jools Holland, 1999).
Survive (live, 1999).
Survive (Quelli Che Il Calcio,’ 1999).
Survive (Inte Bara Blix, 1999).
Survive (TVE Spain, 1999).
Survive (Bowie at the Beeb, 2000).
Survive (live, 2002).

The End

We did record an awful lot of stuff, and there really was every intention of going through it and putting out Part II and Part III. The second title was Contamination, and boy was that accurate. And it would have been nice to have somehow done it as a theatrical trilogy. I just don’t have the patience. I think Brian would have the patience.

Bowie, interview by Ken Scrudato, SOMA, July 2003.

For two years after the release of 1. Outside, Bowie kept promising its sequel albums would appear by the end of the millennium, in conjunction with a theatrical production commissioned by the Salzburg Festival, to be staged in Vienna in 1999 or 2000. There also would be a CD-ROM piece of the Outside puzzle, optimistically scheduled for 1996.

Interviewed by Ray Gun at the end of that year, Bowie said 2. Contamination (“hopefully that should be out by spring ’97“) would have “some bearing on the first one, but it’s completely different. It goes backwards and forwards between Indonesian pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries and today…it’s really becoming a peculiar piece of work.” There were at least 25 characters in the piece now: whether these included the likes of Nathan Adler and Ramona Stone was unclear, possibly even to its composer.

Life intervened. Brian Eno sold his house in Britain and relocated his family to St. Petersburg1, while Bowie spent much of 1997 touring Earthling. The more unfeasible the Outside project seemed, the grander Bowie’s plans for it became.

In an April 1997 interview on the Mr. Showbiz website, Bowie said he and Eno had “formulated the storyline and decided to do it ourselves with no other musicians and to not meet while we’re making it…we’ll send the tracks back and forth between St. Petersburg and wherever I am.” Contamination’s Internet arm was carrying much of the dramatic weight by now (“we’d like to bump up all kinds of stuff on the Internet, so you get lots of photographic references…it’s kind of a Ripley’s Believe It or Not premise.”) While the 17th Century pirates were still in the mix, the “narrative” now also included diseases (“Ebola, AIDS, that new tuberculosis“), hence the title. Trent Reznor and Goldie were rumored to have been roped into it.

And even when the century was done and nothing had come about, Bowie wouldn’t let Outside go. In a web-chat in late 1999, he said he and Eno had recorded “over 24 hours of material. Problem is finding the time to sift through.” In February 2000, he told BowieNet users that, yes, finally, this would be the year he “pieced together” Contamination. Instead he re-recorded some of his old Sixties songs.

thegrad

So in the end there was nothing: no CD-ROMs, no websites, no Robert Wilson-produced operas, no new Nathan Adler diaries, no new albums. Instead Bowie had spent the last years of the 20th Century trying his hand at seemingly everything else but Outside sequels: acting in films, hosting The Hunger, launching BowieNet, agreeing to BowieBanc, planning a Ziggy Stardust film/website/play, scoring the videogame Omikron: the Nomad Soul (see the past month’s entries).

No more Outside chapters may have been a blessing. 2. Contamination and 3. Afrikaans (a rumored but never confirmed title, likely a fan’s doing) could’ve been Bowie’s version of the Matrix sequels: more clues! more characters! more time-hopping! And smothering Outside‘s atmosphere in sub-Neal Stephenson exposition and garrulous mythology. When some fans distributed hoax sequences of 2. Contamination (“Ebola Jazz,” “Segue: The Mad Ramblings of Long Beard”) and even fake Nathan Adler diaries it was as inspired an end to the project as any Bowie could have offered.

Still, the slow collapse of the Outside trilogy left a hole in his ambitions. It’s arguable his frenetic activity in 1998-1999 was in part him looking for something, anything to replace his grand millennial folly. But the album he released in the waning months of the 20th Century was something far different from his and Eno’s projects. Its title could have been Inside.

hrs

Reeves Gabrels and I have written a lot in during the last few months and we might just record all these songs to see what will come out of it…We compose for the pleasure and our spectrum is wide, between purely electronic music and acoustic songs.

Bowie, Rock & Folk interview, 1998.

If ‘Hours’2 has a counterpart in the Bowie canon, it’s Diamond Dogs: both albums are salvage jobs, their tracks refugees from a set of other, mainly stillborn projects, assembled higgledy-piggledy yet somehow managing to have a unified tone.

‘Hours’ had a few tributaries. One was the aforementioned Outside sequels. If Bowie really had recorded a day’s worth of music with Eno for 2. Contamination, it’s possible that something from it—a chord sequence, a stray lyric or a top melody—wound up on ‘Hours.’3 David Buckley, who interviewed Reeves Gabrels and Mike Garson in 1998-1999 for his biography, recalled in 2011 that both had told him there was still a lot of material recorded that had never been used (whether this was the Leon suites from 1994 or newer Contamination tracks is unclear).

Then there was Reeves Gabrels’ upcoming solo album. Gabrels had taken one for the team in 1995 by promoting Outside instead of his own debut solo LP, The Sacred Squall of Now. The plan was for Gabrels to finally have a big-ticket release, with an LP of songs co-composed with Bowie. He and Bowie, working in Bowie’s house in Bermuda in late 1998, wrote what Bowie estimated variously as anywhere from 30 or 100 songs, some of which were intended for Gabrels, including “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” “We All Go Through” and “Survive.”

Finally there was Omikron. Bowie and Gabrels also were writing pieces that had to serve two masters: the songs had to work as incidental music for a game sequence as well as on a Bowie or Gabrels album. The songs needed less abrasive guitar, more “ambient” synthesizer and steady basslines; they needed to be structurally loose, so that pieces (a bridge or a chorus, say) could repeat over and over again if a player got stuck on a particular screen.

surv

By now, Gabrels was becoming creatively frustrated. He felt there should have been a follow-up to Earthling, cut in early 1998, to be the Aladdin Sane to Earthling‘s Ziggy Stardust: an elaboration and expansion of a sound, honed by months on stage. “The music had evolved, the band was playing great, the window of opportunity was there,” he told Buckley. So all the time that he, Mark Plati and Bowie had spent sifting through live recordings for a rejected live album was wasted: why couldn’t they have gotten Gail Ann Dorsey and Zachary Alford into the studio and cut a trio record?

So when he went to Bermuda in autumn 1998, Gabrels hoped for another start, that this could be finally the album he and Bowie had thought of making a decade ago, before Tin Machine had come along. An open collaboration, ranging from electronic music to hard, avant-garde rock, with no record label interests considered. After all, Bowie had a website now: he could just distribute the tracks to his fans should Virgin get cold feet.

Yet Bowie had different aims. Beyond taking the needs of Omikron into consideration, he was in a more traditionalist frame of mind. He’d enjoyed a carnival phase in the mid-Nineties; now he was in a Lenten mood. “There was very little experimentation in the studio,” Bowie said. “A lot of it was just straightforward songwriting. I enjoy that; I still like writing that way.”

This new album would be his severance from his Nineties obscurantist period: to make it obvious, he had the cover of “Hours” play on Michelangelo’s Pietà, with his new, somber curator persona cradling the dying “rave uncle” of Earthling. Both videos for the album would set Bowie in surreal domestic situations, with muted colors and lighting; the actor looking his age for once.

Gabrels conceded. As the album, as it took shape, was becoming somber and introspective, he needed to dampen down the guitars, to be sure that he wasn’t undermining the songs. It’s a small irony that the one album for which Gabrels received full co-composition credit is the one on which he’s essentially muted on guitar. And Bowie in turn wanted his vocals not to sound mannered. “I wanted to approach them just like a bloke. To give them a feeling of: anybody could sing these songs. They’re not difficult.”

hurr

Once he’d assembled enough songs for his own album (and so claiming the lion’s share of them—sorry, Reeves), Bowie began working on a narrative voice. He described this as being a distillation of some of his friends who, at age 50, were regretting their lives. “I’ve watched them flounder a little over the last 10 years, when they’re reaching that stage where it’s very, very hard to start a new life,” he told Gil Kaufman. “Some of them are affected with resignation and some of them, a certain bitterness maybe…they found themselves in relationships that aren’t what they had expected to be in when they were younger.”

You could call this a bluff, the equivalent of the man who asks a doctor about an embarrassing rash “a friend” has contracted. Sure Bowie was, by all accounts, happily married and would soon be a father again. He was rich, established, world-famous. Not that these conditions will prevent depression and regret from striking. But he was also creatively exhausted. He had fought and fought, for years, to make his music new again, to risk making a fool of himself on stage. Now his latest spectacle had failed due, in part, to his own lack of commitment; perhaps he was left wondering what he even had left to say anymore.

That said, the voice that Bowie used on much of ‘Hours,’ a melancholy sad sack, does seem crafted, even affected. The vocals are restrained, the lyrics are more quotidian, with dull rhymes and shopworn images. Was this in character, or was Bowie papering over, in his interviews, a sharp decline in his own songwriting? Was he charging his generation with his own creative depletion?

I’ll argue that ‘Hours’ is a flawed experiment, a secret parody: it’s Bowie attempting to do a record “proper” for a man of his age and stature. It’s his aging Baby Boomer lament album, his “September Songs” for a generation (the title played on unforgiving time and a common bond: hours/ours). He’d listened to nothing but his old songs before he wrote this album, he claimed, but he’d also obviously listened to his aging peers. Because ‘Hours’ is riddled with ghosts of old songs, with strains of lost singers: he’s mocking them, answering them, humbled by them. It’s one of his hardest albums to grasp, because it can be dull and ordinary and can feel strained: it’s like watching a once-great track runner struggling to run a 5k race. The question, left to each listener, is whether this mood is intentional: if the diminished figure in these songs is a subtle mask or if it’s simply the only voice Bowie could muster.

singl

“Survive” was the first track to be released from the ‘Hours’ sessions. Its title wasn’t promising.

As I wrote in the “Heroes” entry, Greil Marcus around 1975 had noticed the growing popularity of the word “survivor,” in films, on TV chat shows, and especially rock music: “Soul Survivor,” Street Survivors, “Survival,” “I Will Survive.” It seemed to me to speak for everything empty, tawdry, and stupid about the seventies, to stand for every cheat, for every failure of nerve. “Survivor” had once meant someone who had endured an unspeakable horror; it became an aging person’s self-deprecating boast. “I will get by…I will survive,” Jerry Garcia had tootled in 1987 (he didn’t, but again, neither will any of us in the long run).

So a song in which a 52-year old man sings about surviving seems emblematic of this rot: a reduction of life to its greyest elements. It could have been a song about his failing digestion. What saves “Survive” is the sour, occasionally defiant sense of regret in it: the singer’s not regretting a path he didn’t take, but simply noting that there are no more paths left for him anymore. In one interview, Bowie said that “there was a time in my life where I was desperately in love with a girl—and I met her, as it happens, quite a number of years later. And boy, was the flame dead! ” So it’s tempting to speculate that the woman in “Survive” came from a retrieved memory of Hermione Farthingale, Bowie’s lost love, who he’d used to symbolize everything he’d left behind in the Sixties. But the woman in “Survive” is still abstract to the singer, a place-filler he uses to stand for something else he can’t quite explain: a loss of his own potential.

surv

There are a few Sixties shadows in the track: Mark Plati’s Mellotron, the Beatles playing clubs, “Time Is On My Side,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (the guitar hook heard at the fade, of course referencing Bowie’s nicking of it for “Starman” too). But the song “Survive” answers, very obliquely, is Nick Drake’s “One of These Things First.

In Drake’s song, a young man sits and thumbs through possible lives: he’s like a boy watching soap bubbles floating in the air. “Could’ve been a sailor, could’ve been a cook.” He could have been reliable, steady; he chose not to be. He’s callous in how much he could hurt the person he’s speaking to. Could’ve been a real live lover, not the half-one that you got. “Could have been your friend,” he sings, attaching as much weight to that word as to his musings about being clocks and books. “A whole long lifetime/could have been the end.” Committing to someone would mean the end of his freedom, closing off all the other avenues that snake out beyond him. Drake wants to remain in the conditional perfect, in a happy state of possibility. He sings with graceful lightness, supported by Paul Harris’ piano, itself eager to break off into yet another line of thought, while Ed Carter’s bass is a squirrelly movement underground.

“Survive” turns up that singer again, finds him at the ebb of his life. No more mornings left for him. But he’s still committed to the what-could-have been, still bluntly denying reality, still wanting his space. “I should’ve kept you,” he mumbles. “I should’ve tried.” The verses seem to run out of breath, slouching into dull rhymes (“I should’ve been a wiser kind of guy“) and weary expiration phrases: “Iiii love you.” The choruses, feinting at a move to A major but winding up stuck back in the verse’s D major, struggle to voice the man’s few hopes. A descending bassline tugs him down to earth.

(Gabrels, who’d written much of the song’s music for his solo album, gets the best part in the play: the lead guitar, representing the noblest piece of the man who’s singing. Gabrels is the only bright color in the song: the little dancing phrase after “I miss you,” the counter-melody in the second chorus, the eight-bar solo that’s like a puff of hope uncorked from a bottle, the descending arpeggios that shadow the man’s growing ambivalence.)

He sees a woman across the floor somewhere, maybe at some class reunion. They could’ve been something once: they both know it, they both may not regret it. You’re the mistake I never made, he sings. She sees through him, as an old fraud, as someone who never settled for life in the hopes of finding something better. And he knows how she sees him, and that she’s right. But I’ll survive your naked eyes, as the song ends. There’s nothing but delusion, never was anything else but it (the song itself is a loop: opening and ending on the same Dadd9 chord, the two choruses bracketed by the two verses)4. The song ends with an older man’s sad defiance, which loses strength each time he says it, until he gives up and lets the song expire in his place.

Recorded April-early May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda, with overdubs at Looking Glass Studios and Chung King Studios, NYC. It was the first release from ‘Hours,’ issued on a promo giveaway with the 8-14 September 1999 issue of Les Inrockuptibles. Subsequently on ‘Hours’ and as a 2-CD single (Virgin 7243 8 96486 0 7, 7243 8 96487 0 6) released on 17 January 2000, which included Marius de Vries’ mix, the Walter Stern-directed video clip and a live performance of the song from the Elysée Montmartre, 14 October 1999. Performed on a host of TV and radio shows and played live in 1999, 2000 and 2002.

1: Eno told Mojo in May 1997 that he moved to Russia because “since London is now the hippest city in the world, I thought I’d get out for a bit…If you live in England and you finally scale the thorny path to celebrity, finally the critics decide, ‘Fuck me, he’s been around so long I guess we should leave him alone.’ You then find you get invited to do every stupid, pathetic thing going—you know, judge this competition, award this, and so on—and I just saw my life turning into a series of small events. I thought I’d go somewhere else where there aren’t any small events.”

2: Yeah, the official title of the album is ‘hours…’ I’ll refer to it simply as ‘Hours’ in all further references because the lower-case affectation irritates me and having to put in three ellipses every bloody time I mention the album would be a bother.

3: That said, the most obvious candidate for a Contamination leftover, the instrumental “Brilliant Adventure,” is confirmed by Bowie to have been written in Bermuda and was intended as part of the Omikron soundtrack.

4: Both verse and chorus open shuttling between tonic and flatted VII chords (so D to C in the verse, A to G in the chorus), darken midway through with a run of minor chords and each closes by setting up the opposing key (so the verse ends with a G that the A major opening of the chorus resolves; the chorus just sinks back to D).

Top: Thierry Gregorius, “Anloo wheat field, Holland, 1999”; Bowie receiving honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music, May 1999; ‘Hours’ cover photos (Tim Bret Day); still from “Survive” video (Walter Stern); “Survive” CD sleeve.


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.