The value of change

I’m not sure I can explain why today I want to write about David Bowie, but I do. He was part of my youth, I guess, even if I was never that into music. I was focussed on other things but, now and then, music would pick me up and transport me somewhere and then I’d get it, feel it and love it.

It was just a place to visit, not to live.

I liked what Bowie did, but that was it: Changes, Life on Mars, Rebel Rebel, Starman, Jean Genie, Heroes, Space Oddity, they were all part of my formative years and, for many people, Bowie was the embodiment of the idea that we could be whatever we wanted to be, if we were brave enough to try. Just as I was inspired by an English teacher who one day told me that I could write, so a lot of my generation found inspiration in what Bowie did. We didn’t realise it then, because it was a subtle process, but Bowie was kicking down barriers and that made us dare to be different. When I told a careers advisor at school that I wanted to be a Formula 1 reporter, he laughed at me and suggested that I join the army instead… But, to hell with that, our horizons were bigger.

Bowie’s antics opened minds and I think it is fair to say that his influence was almost too extraordinary to quantify, not just in the world of music. Sure, he opened the minds of musicians, not just musically, but in terms of showmanship as well. He was fearless, creative, extravagant, eccentric, innovative and gender-bending. He pioneered one genre after another. He was a weird “out-there” figure, while most of us lived very conventional lives, and that was picked up by younger musicians who now all say that they were influenced by him. If one analyses the evolution of rock music, you would be hard-pressed to find any stars who were as innovative, diverse, outrageous and influential as Bowie. The impact he made transcended music, in the same way that Andy Warhol impacted the world beyond art in the 1960s, as Pablo Picasso had done many years earlier. These people changed the world. Bowie convinced my generation that being strange and different was not a bad thing and that doing it was not as difficult as we thought it would be. One can only imagine the kind of resistance that he must have met in his audaciously androgynous outfits, yet he was unafraid and laughed it off. He was what he was, whatever that was, and he kept on reinventing himself, looking for new things to do.

He realised early on that he was not going to break through by being conventional and so took the brave route and let his imagination run wild. The courage was there even in the name he chose: Bowie, after the Texan folk hero Jim Bowie, who died fighting against ridiculous odds at the Alamo.

He did not care about fame nor fortune, nor about what other people thought. He just kept on running, learning, innovating and changing. He wrote it himself in his song Changes: “Every time I thought I’d got it made, it seemed the taste was not so sweet, so I turned myself to face me, but I’ve never caught a glimpse of how the others must see the faker. I’m much too fast to take that test.” Often he hid behind characters he had created: Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom and so on. It was the same in real life. Bowie was still able to go out walking, without being hassled by fans, because he always took a Greek newspaper with him. If people recognised him, he would start reading the newspaper and they would decide they must have been mistaken.

Life wasn’t always easy: he went through confused sexuality, cocaine addiction and a failed marriage but he emerged, stronger, wiser and braver. He did much more than most people know. He produced other great records. He was the producer of Lou Reed’s Transformer and its hugely influential single “Walk on the Wild Side”. He wrote and produced Mott the Hoople’s hit “All The Young Dudes”. He was a great songwriter, an energetic performer, and good musician but also a talented actor, who enjoyed success acting on Broadway and starred in a number of films. He did much to develop the music video. He was a writer, an artist and even a publisher of art books, because he believed that art needed to remain important. He was once voted the most influential artist of all time, admittedly by NME. He was also a futurist. He was one of the first artists to launch his own Internet service, known as BowieNet, he was the first big star to authorise his music to be sold on the Web and he believed, as I do, that we are just at the start of the digital revolution and that there is so much more to come.

He was always looking for new ways to develop and improve and that is a creed that I believe is important. As they say in motor racing, standing still is falling behind.

Right now, I feel that the sport that I love and that I have dedicated my professional life to, is treading water, going nowhere and, I fear, that it will one day sink if it does not strike out and get things moving again. But, at the same time, I think that there are a sufficient number of extraordinary people involved to make that happen. They just have to be brave – like Bowie.

It is time for Changes…

62 thoughts on “The value of change

  1. Excellent article. Like many influential artists, we don’t realise until later just what they opened our eyes to – one needs time to appreciate the true impact of a person’s career. Like many great artists, their influence extends way beyond their art.

    We are of the same generation, Joe – I assume all British careers advisors in the 70s were simply army recruitment agents! Mine told me the army, insurance firms and a local investment firm would all require my skills. He also said it was not possible to earn a living in music, so when I pointed out that my musician father was paying my boarding fees this chap said “Oh well you probably know more about it than I do” – such excellent careers advice and a complete waste of half an hour!)

    1. First question one should always ask a careers adviser to assess their competence: when you were at school did you want to be a careers adviser?

  2. One thing that seems to be missed in all the eulogies I have read is that he had phenomenal charisma. I saw him twice on the Ziggy tour and that was my main memory. That and his very effective mime.

  3. I was lucky enough to see Bowie perform in 2000, and as with most things you do as an 18/19 year old, you don’t really appreciate what you saw until a long time after the event.

    The line about meeting resistance reminded me of something a friend of mine told me about the early days (before my time unfortunately). I sure he won’t mind me sharing it:

    ‘Its a rather boring and much told story but I shall repeat it once more…. I saw Bowie and Ronson at the Gaumont in Soton in the early 70s when they were dresssed in kimonos and simulating fornication with their guitars and maybe almost half of the audience called them queers and walked out…. at the bar he (Bowie) blagged a fag off me , a no.6 , and thanked me for being one of those who did not walk out on him’

    A simple, but powerful memory I imagine.

    God F1 needs a Bowie right now…

    1. Thank you for this story, I for one hadn’t heard it.

      And in a similar vein, (even if it’s a bit obvious) – I find it really hard to imagine the guts it took to walk away from the Ziggy Stardust persona.

      I like many others got into Bowie some time later. And it was easy with hindsight for me to imagine that he’d always had something else up his sleeve, that it was inevitable that he’d make the transition successfully.

      I bet it didn’t feel like that to him at the time. Huge courage.

  4. If you have time, listen to the ever-amiable Rick Wakeman on Simon Mayo’s Radio 2 show last night. The last 10 minutes should do it. While the rest of the UK media went into full ‘Diana mode’, his was a refreshing voice – and closing the show with him playing Life on Mars? unaccompanied on the piano was brilliant.

  5. thanks for that joe , that felt straight from the heart ; being a generation older than you I wasn’t a great fan of his music but I admired what he did

    nice to be reminded that you are not just a F1 journalist but a writer of real ability

  6. Well said, espcecially the part about the formative years. Bowie became a force in music during the time my ability to distinguish music was formed, therefore he was of great influence during my youth. Yesterday I felt a part of my youth has gone forever.
    The same (formative) goes for F1, I still relate to the early F1 years (to me at least), Lauda, Fittipaldi, Donohue, Pryce, and that in itself makes it sometimes difficult to accept the change needed. Luckily I’ve got you to keep me on track. 😉

  7. Thanks for this, Joe. It’s a very eloquent reminder that artists exist not only to create works to move us but also to show that there are alternative ways of thinking and living. Bowie was indeed a pathfinder but F1, despite its cutting edge technology, seems shackled by short-sightedness and venality. The bitterness provoked by a driver with a diamond earring makes me wonder if F1 prefers to be a cosy, boring backwater for the dinosaurs to end their days. I do hope I’m wrong and what we’re going through is the painful birth of a new era for the sport we love.

  8. Well said Joe. I was never a huge Bowie fan although I think he wrote some absolute classics (and some dross as well) but seeing the recent “David Bowie Is” exhibition at the V&A really opened my eyes to the many innovations he made in a wide range of fields, from music to art to fashion to theatre to computing. I emerged with a new found admiration for the man and his music. The world is a poorer place without him.

  9. I’m not sure if a comment can be added by replying to the blog email so this might end up appearing twice but anyway…

    Nicely put Joe. I’m not Bowie’s greatest fan but appreciate that he played a big part in his industry and beyond. I also feel that F1 needs something or someone big to kick it off again and i’m sure that a revolution is on its way with some inevitable changes due in the next few years.

    Joe, with such a passion for the sport and the industry would you consider a role yourself, or will you always want to be a reporter?

      1. Didn’t stop the grocery salesman that was Frank Williams, nor the accountant known as Edmund Patrick Jordan..

      2. In some ways it might make you a much better proposition than the people who have the billions. The F1 financial fantasy bubble is part of the problem I think. If the big players had to work for the money they might care more for the promotional aspects. Not suggesting of course that there aren’t people putting in seriously long hours and a lot of hard graft. Just a thought.

  10. I had hoped that you would have something to write about this sad event, Joe, and my goodness you didn’t disappoint.

    A fabulous tribute, with insight about the man that contained information that, despite me being someone who IS very into music, I hadn’t picked up on before. Love the Greek newspaper story.

    Thank you so much.

  11. Extraordinarily well researched (where do you *get* all this stuff?), beautifully written. As usual, but sometimes I need to read your non-F1 stuff for a reminder of your skills as a journalist and writer.

  12. David Bowie was a portal into other ethereal dimensions of space, time and aliens. A terrific achievement during 1970’s Britain.

  13. As a regular reader and an F1 fan who rarely posts comments I have to say that this is an absolutely superb article. Admittedly not about F1 – but superb none the less.
    While I’m on I’d just like to say a great big Thank You to Joe for providing this brilliant blog site. It just seems to go on getting better and better.

  14. Superb Joe. Beautifully written. As ever you captured what so many of us were also thinking and feeling yesterday upon heating the sad news of David Bowie’s death.

  15. Lovely piece as always my dear friend.

    If you’ll allow me to add my tuppence…

    Change is important, and in many ways essential if anyone or anything is to remain relevant. Where Bowie succeeded however was in that he never changed for the sake of change. He didn’t do things to be different, he just was. Or at least seemed to be. Because he was on the edge, daring to push the boundaries. While being influenced from the world in which he immersed himself on the one hand, on the other he was himself that most influential of figures. An ever-evolving, organic creation both shaped by and shaper of the world we knew.

    It was his authenticity that kept him relevant, kept him vibrant, made him special.

    Change is good. But only when it comes from somewhere real and honest. Without that authenticity, one is left simply with lies, falsity and cynicism.

    Bowie was so real that he at times appeared unreal. Always ahead of the curve.

    But always true to himself.

    And that, I think is the biggest lesson.

  16. Well, the Andy Warhol ‘connection’ I’ll go with . . .
    Both were masters of marketing an average product.
    I respect Bowie’s achievements but his music was always rather bland and MOR –
    The ‘performance art’ packaging is what ultimately sold it in a crowded market.

    So where to, F1?
    I don’t think it needs better ‘packaging’ . . .
    Just a more equitable distribution of profits –
    As you’ve pointed out countless times already.

    1. Most of the purchasers of early Bowie had never seen him perform, they bought because of the music. I can’t believe you have any historical grasp on music if Bowie “was always rather bland”.

      1. Most of those purchasers would have had access to the photo-journalism, TV exposure and videos which followed the ‘package’. I’ve been following ‘pop’ music since the early ‘60’s so have a good historical grasp on its varied genres. Strip the ‘image’ from his music and you’re left with pleasantly anodyne stuff to hum along to.

        1. “TV exposure and videos”, I don’t know where you saw these in the late 60’s, early 70’s, but it wasn’t in North America. I owned 5 Bowie albums before he even performed in North America the first time and I assure you very few radio stations gave him airplay. Word of mouth filled the first venues he played here and it wasn’t to see his tights and makeup.

  17. Thanks Joe, as usual, your summary of a complex subject is an object lesson of how it should be done.
    Thank goodness that you and Bowie were not submerged in the Army

  18. Joe, I have to say that Bowie almost always returns me to your old stomping ground of F1 News magazine.
    For me as a child of the ’70s and ’80s his music was just always there, like air and water. I only began to appreciate Bowie more while learning to play guitar, when ‘All the Young Dudes’ was recorded by Iron Maiden vocalist Bruce Dickinson. I’d seen him in concert in 1987 in Sunderland (where he famously opened the evening by saying “Hello Newcastle”, which didn’t go down to well…..) but never really clicked till much later. To a ‘Metalhead’ like myself Bowie was never really on the musical horizon.
    When Bowie comes up I always think back to post Hungary 1994 in the ‘Eff One’ column in F1 News. It was claimed at the time that George Harrison was performing a version of ‘Space Oddity’ re-written as ‘Race Oddity’ relating to the Benetton launch control drama, I wonder if you are able to verify this??!!
    I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing the lyrics, they still make me chuckle irrespective of what the truth was!

    Launch Control to Major Tom
    Launch Control to Major Tom
    Check that Schumacher
    Has turned the right switch on

    Race control to Major Tom
    Race control to Major Tom
    Check your rule book
    You’ll find out you got it wrong

    For here I am sitting in a tin can
    Leading again
    Sponsorship is thin
    We’ll do anything to win

    This is Major Tom to Launch Control
    To Michael on the pole
    You know Flavio expects
    You to win as he directs…again

    Yeah this is Major Tom to Launch Control
    Now Charlie’s got the codes
    And he’s in the car again
    Driving Ross Brawn around the bend…again

    1. That is… just wonderful. Thanks ever so much for sharing. As I was an avid reader of F1 News (it’s where I first encounted Joe’s writing), I’m amazed I don’t remember that myself.

      1. There’s a blast from the past, I remember this at the time. Great magazine, and perhaps slight echoes of its worldview in GP+ ?

  19. Thank you very much for that post Joe. As a young musician Bowie opened my ears and eyes to breaking convention, amongst other things. He taught me to make music, not to worry whether if it sounded like anyone else. The guitarists that featured on his albums, particularly the likes of Fripp, Belew, Gabrels taught me the value of sound for sound sake. Other great players such as Carlos Alomar, Mick Ronson, Earl Slick and Stevie Ray taught me how to rock, funk out, dance the blues.

    Overall though, the resounding message is as you have captured it above, you can be, can do, what you want. You don’t have to repeat the past, you don’t have to stagnate the present, you can invent the future, now. Those messages, and many other illuminations I found in his lyrics, have resonated beyond music and accompanied me through life.

    It’s really cool to see your post. Last night, my wife and I watch “Melancholia” starring, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and I remembered another post where you had mentioned driving along to the music of Serg, and I wondered if David Bowie had impacted enough on you that we would get to hear your thoughts on his passing and/or the amazing legacy he left behind.

    I saw a comment today that said something along the lines of considering oneself lucky to have lived at the same time as Bowie. There might be something in that, who knows what the future holds, for F1, for anyone.

    1. To be fair, I think the answer to ‘who is the Bowie(s) of [insert industry here]’, will always be ‘there isn’t one’. 😉

  20. Joe, just a note to say I loved the analogy as music being a place you visit. That eloquent example made me realise I live there virtually all the time! We are a very hospitable lot though so please come visit…!

  21. Very well written, as you say music of our generation and an impact that rippled into every facet of our lives. I watched a man who fell to earth and to be honest did not understand it, but the simpler messages he sent and the breaking of stereotypes and his message of be who you want to be gave us all courage to overcome and break the boundaries of the social restrictions we lived in. I hope he is at peace. A job well done.

  22. For some of us who are a certain age, and who discovered motor racing and rock music at the same time–roughly 1967 to 1973–our universe was populated by fascinating, glamorous people who seemed to live in a different universe. David Bowie, Robert Plant, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon were as important to us as Jackie Stewart, François Cevert, Peter Revson, Jacky Ickx, and Mario Andretti. Am I simply over-romanticizing the obsessions of my early adolescence, or was there really something going on then that has not (yet) returned? I fear it might be the latter. We need men and women who are not only great at what they do, but who can fire imaginations and inspire, especially the young. Not only are they missing in F1, they seem to be scarce everywhere else.

  23. I’m not sure if I would agree that Warhol had a big impact outside art and film. Yes he probably introduced the concept of the self-contained ‘superstar’ (which might have contributed to Hesketh and co ‘creating’ James Hunt!) but I don’t think he did much else outside art apart from a limited association with the Velvet Underground. I have always seem Warhol mostly as a true artist. Picasso I see as more important perhaps as some of his work had a political dimension.

    I accept that Bowie was an icon but not being a fan I thought he was a chancer that got lucky – literally as that was how his manager launched his career in the USA where they ‘pretended’ that Bowie was a big star in the UK and hired hotel suites and big limos that they could not really afford. The Americans bought into the story and they when he got back home he really was a big star in the USA and the rest is history. I think that is getting lucky!

    Am going to see the Warhol exhibition in Oxford at the Ashmolean February!

  24. Although I grew up in the ’70s, I have to confess to NOT being a Bowie fan as such. OK, I like Heroes, Let’s Dance etc and a few of the songs however, his music and influence seems to have largely passed me by. I absolutely ‘get’ the fact that he was a massive influence on other artists however, I also acknowledge that music has been blessed with other big ‘influencers’ over the years; Prince; Michael Jackson & the Bee Gees – to name but three. (OK, I can hear the sniggers, but it’s true). Having said all that, I have an open mind and your wonderful piece Joe will prompt me to explore his music further. As another blogger has rightly pointed out, sometimes we don’t appreciate someone’s true value until they’re no longer with us. I’m prepared to accept that this might, for me at least, apply in David Bowie’s case.

  25. Thank you for sharing this with us Joe !
    Talking about change: WHY is F1 afraid of abandoning the diffuser part of the underbody for an absolutely flat bottom car with NO body part hanging past the axis of the rear axle ?

  26. It didn’t hurt that he had one of the best voices in modern day music. David and Bing a Christmas favorite and a wonderful bridge between generations, pure class. Here he is with the ‘poor relation’ from America.

  27. Thanks for writing about David Bowie, Joe. I had a feeling that you would. It took me a while to “get” Bowie in the 70s, but, after a co-worker told me to just listen to his music and forget the appearance after which I would realize that he really made some terrific recordings, which I did, remaining a fan of his forever. He has a great catalog of music. As Bowie pointed out in an interview on American radio recorded in 2002, his “glam rock” period only lasted two years out of a then 40-year career. He also pointed out sometime in the 1980s that he was actually a “closet heterosexual”, may be a reference to his “gender-bending period” a few years earlier. As well as BowieNet, he raised about $55m in the 1990s by selling 10-year Bowie Bonds in his music in exchange for the royalties for that period, after which his music and royalties reverted to him. I saw him in concert on his 1990 Sound and Vision Tour. Also, check out his appearance in a 2006 episode of Ricky Gervais’ “Extras”. It’s a good laugh.

    So sad that he has passed, but we have the memories and his music. What a legend!

  28. Mr. Bowie was a role model in his time, but times have changed. We need new role models, new innovators who touch a nerve with the current young generation. Good examples are Steve Jobs and Elon Musk.

  29. Excellent posting.

    Even if in my mind Walk on the wild side was not Lou Reed’s most influential work and Lou Reed (with John Cale in the Velvet Underground era) had a greater impact then Bowie and even may have influenced Bowie himself.

  30. Thank you Joe, such a well written piece and your writing echoes what a huge number of that era felt – the only thing you haven’t mentioned is that it somehow makes us all feel a bit older and closer to death.
    Yes, F1 is in a depression and desperately requires the next revolution which I ultimately think will be driven a single media entrepreneur, and the sooner the better. Thanks again.

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