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…