What’s Really Happening?

I never joined BowieNet (David’s branded internet service provider, launched in 1998) back in the day — I guess I was (as per usual) behind the curve, and maybe it was a bit pricy? If I had I might have entered the contest to provide lyrics for “What’s Really Happening?” (The title and chorus were already in place; the challenge was to fill in the verses.) Even without me, there were about 25,000 entries; the winner was one Alex Grant, a 20-year-old Chicagoan. As I look at them now, his lyrics are pretty minimal — two verses and a pre-chorus:

[Verse 1]
Grown inside a plastic box
Micro thoughts and safety locks
Hearts become outdated clocks
Ticking in your mind

Now it’s time to say goodbye
Now it’s time to face the lie
That we’d never cry

[Verse 2]
All the clouds are made of glass
And they’re slowly sinking
Falling like the shattered past
Were we built to last?

But good for him. He got a $15,000 publishing contract, the complete Bowie catalog on CD, a $500 gift card to online music site CDNow, and — coolest of all — the opportunity to be in the studio when Bowie recorded the song. Producer Mark Plati remembers the session, which was streamed live on BowieNet,1like this:

That was a fun session. Alex was great. He was there with a friend, and they seemed a bit numb just being in New York and in a recording studio, especially that particular session. There were lights, cameras, journalists, and catering…. But Alex was fine with David, and a good sport. He and his friend ended up singing background vocals on the track. Still, he seemed to be in a state of disbelief the entire session.

Well of course he was! There’s David Bowie in the studio with you, singing words you wrote. It would be a hard-to-replicate high point for anyone, and must have been for Grant, who seemingly has disappeared from the face of the Earth. (When writing about “What’s Really Happening?” Chris O’Leary tried to find him but couldn’t.) Hopefully he’s had a good life.

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Bring Out Your Dead, 2/19/2023

When Jerry Lee Lewis died last year, I wrote that “he was the last survivor of that first generation of rock stars.” But I was not aware at the time that Huey “Piano” Smith was still alive. Huey passed this week at the age of 89 — surprisingly young, considering that his big hits were in the mid-1950s. But he got started early, playing clubs and making records at the age of 15.

He was not quite as famous (or as infamous) as the Killer, and I’m not 100% sure that his music technically qualifies as rock’n’roll; it hews pretty close to New Orleans funk rhythms. But for that reason it is absolutely timeless and still sounds great today. I’m partial to “Rockin’ Pneumonia & The Boogie Woogie Flu,” but for our purposes here, let’s go with this lip-synced performance of “Don’t You Just Know It” from 1958. That’s Huey on the left.

Also on the Reaper’s list this week: Raquel Welch née Tejada. We don’t generally think of Raqual as Latina but she was; her father’s name Armando Carlos Tejada Urquizo. Most of us probably also think we saw her naked, but apparently she never appeared nude in any photographs or movies. Playboy pursued her for many years, and she did eventually appear in its pages — in a bikini bottom with one arm tastefully covering her breasts. “She declined to do complete nudity, and I yielded gracefully,” said Hugh Hefner, probably lying; I’ll bet Raquel left a lot of money on the table in that deal, and good for her.

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Bring Out Your Dead, 2/12/2023

Sunday seems like the best day for this feature, but is also the laziest day of the week. Today I am going to resolve this tension by the doing the minimum amount of work that allows me to post something, so I can feel better about myself while wasting four hours watching a stupid football game.

Burt Bacharach died this week and my initial reaction was, well, he’s a legend and all, but that’s not really my area. Then I was reminded that he (and his partner Hal David) had written “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” which is probably the first song I remember hearing as a wee, wee lad. I had no idea it was from Butch Cassidy then (or for many years), and even now I can’t put much of a context to this song, or even say definitively whether I really like it or not. It’s beyond that, among the deepest-seeded imprints that I could never shake off even if I wanted to.

Also reaching the end of the road2this month: the Boeing 747, which debuted in 1968, right around the same time as “Raindrops.” Back then traveling by airplane was something people actually enjoyed doing; in a eulogy of sorts for the 747, The New York Times says:

The four-engine airplane was much larger than any other and could fit hundreds of people in rows with up to 10 seats across. The upper deck, reachable by a spiral staircase, hosted a luxurious lounge. American Airlines had a piano bar installed in the main cabin.

Nowadays such luxuries are reserved for the private jets of billionaires; the rest of us are happy for a seat that reclines three inches. The 747 won’t go away for awhile, as there are many still in service, especially in Japan. But the last one left the factory at the end of January, so the end is in sight.

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The time scales in Bowie songs range from “Five Years” and “Seven Years in Tibet” all the way down to the one day we get to be “Heroes.” In the track from hours… just called “Seven,” when David sings:

I got seven days to live my life

You might think that he has only 168 hours till he dies. But another way to look at it is that we all only get seven days to live our lives: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. None of us has ever lived a day that wasn’t one of those, at least as our civilization reckons them. Curious how this came to be, I started poking around and came across an article in The Atlantic entitled “We Live By a Unit of Time That Doesn’t Make Sense.” It begins thusly:

Days, months, and years all make sense as units of time — they match up, at least roughly, with the revolutions of Earth, the moon, and the sun.

Weeks, however, are much weirder and clunkier. A duration of seven days doesn’t align with any natural cycles or fit cleanly into months or years. And though the week has been deeply significant to Jews, Christians, and Muslims for centuries, people in many parts of the world happily made do without it, or any other cycles of a similar length, until roughly 150 years ago.

From there it goes into the history of how the seven-day week came to be, but the details are less interesting to me than the fact that it is completely arbitrary.2A week could just as easily be five or ten days or whatever we wanted it to be, and we would perceive time differently as a result. A longer week, for instance, might make time seem to pass more slowly, because two Mondays – or whatever we called them — would be farther apart.

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Life Is a Carnivore

A while back I was listening to the Band’s song “Life Is a Carnival”:

And, you know, sometimes Ls sound like Rs, and Levon’s drawl makes the vowels a little squirrelly, so for a moment I heard it as “life is a carnivore.” And I thought to myself: What a great title. I want to use that as the title for something.

So now I have. That’s it. That’s the post.

If I’m Dreaming My Life

“If I’m Dreaming My Life” has all the earmarks of an album closer: It’s long, it’s grandiose, it builds to a crescendo with an ambiguous sense of finality. But on the hours… CD it is the 4th of 10 tracks and gets a little lost. When the album was finally released on vinyl in 2015, “IIDML” was the last song on the A side, which makes a little more sense.

In fact, now that I think about it, the whole album makes more sense on vinyl. The CD always felt too long, even though at 47 minutes it was hardly one of the longer discs of the era. Two shorter chunks seem more manageable, and ending the A side with “If I’m Dreaming…” and the B side with “The Dreamers” is nicely symmetrical.

The estimable Chris O’Leary says that “If I’m Dreaming My Life” “seems half-finished at times,” and that’s true in more ways than one. It asks a question that it never answers: “If I’m dreaming my life away…” Well, then what, Dave? He never says; you have to decide for yourself. My answer would be “Well, so what if I am? So’s everybody.”

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Today is the seventh anniversary of David Bowie’s movement to the next bardo, and as fate would have it, the next song in the queue is “Survive.”

David survives, of course, in our hearts and minds and YouTube feeds and Spotify playlists. It’s rare that a day passes when I don’t think of him, partly because our shower curtain is a collage of Bowie images. I also have a coffee mug that shows all the studio album covers in order, as well as these pieces in the room off the kitchen:

When I listen to a song like “Survive” I wonder what it was like to create knowing that your legacy was already set, that nothing else you did — in one way of looking at it — was going to matter. (Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether anything any of us does matters. It’s Tuesday, for Chrissake.) By 1999 Bowie’s audience had pretty much shrunk to the diehards. If you’d lasted through Tin Machine and Black Tie White Noise and Earthling, not to mention the mortifying Eighties, you were a fan indeed and would probably buy whatever David put out.

But whether you’d actually listen to it was another matter; it was easy to put a new album on the shelf, but when your hand reached out it had a tendency to come back with Ziggy Stardust or Station to Station. As it happens I did actually listen to hours… a fair amount at the time, but I think that’s because I truly had nothing better to do. And if memory serves I rarely listened to the whole thing.

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Divine Symmetry

In honor of David Bowie’s 76th birthday, I sat down today to listen to the Divine Symmetry box set. It is a mountain of material — 72 tracks and almost 4 hours — but pretty light on actual “new” songs (and most of those have long been bootlegged anyway). Mostly it’s made up of demo, alternate, live, and radio versions of songs from Hunky Dory.

What strikes me most is how different this music (all from 1971) is from what immediately preceded it. There’s no trace of the metallic leanings of The Man Who Sold the World; it’s almost like, having split (for the first but not last time) with producer Tony Visconti, Bowie rewound to 1968 and went in a different direction from there.

It worked out. Hunky Dory was David’s first bona fide classic album, and its songs still beguile and befuddle more than a half-century on.

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Something in the Air

David Bowie’s “Something in the Air”

is not the same as Thunderclap Newman’s:

But apparently there is some kind of relationship between the two.2(There are no coincidences in Bowie World, just planned accidents.) The latter was written by Speedy Keen, Pete Townshend’s former flatmate. Keen had previously composed “Armenia City in the Sky,” which Wikipedia says “was the only song The Who ever performed that was specifically written for the group by a non-member.”

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Farewell Horizontal

In my 1999 mood I decided to finally listen to the deluxe reissue of Pavement’s last album, Terror Twilight, which is subtitled “Farewell Horizontal.” This is a task I’ve been putting off for months, as I suspected there wasn’t much of value left in the vault after the epic Brighten the Corners reissue. I wasn’t wrong, but I don’t regret having done it; time spent with Pavement is never entirely wasted.

TT was an outlier among Pavement albums, produced by a big name (Nigel Godrich of Radiohead and Beck fame) and really produced — big-sounding and loaded with detail, it thus lacks the shambolic charm of, say, Wowee Zowee. But you have to admire the craft that went into a song like “Spit on a Stranger”: every note and word precisely in place, not a note or word wasted, and — bonus points — just a smidge over three minutes exactly. In short, a perfect song.


“Spit on a Stranger” sounds like a hit, but it wasn’t, because the world is full of Philistines. Weirdly, at this point Pavement’s biggest “hit” — streamed 88 million times on Spotify, more than twice the total of the next contender — is “Harness Your Hopes,” which was not a single or an album track but an obscure song that appeared on the “Stranger” CD single. For some weird algorithmic reason “Harness” got pushed to a lot of people as a song they might like, and many of them liked it, and they were right to like it because it is also a perfect song.

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