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Hearts become outdated clocks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.



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.


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.”



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.


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.


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.”