Music interview: Mike Garson: ‘David Bowie was music’

Mike Garson. Picture: Fernando Aceves
Mike Garson. Picture: Fernando Aceves
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Over 40 years after working on a classic Bowie album, pianist Mike Garson is revisiting it, live. Duncan Seaman reports.

Recorded in 1973 when David Bowie and his band were at the peak of their glam rock powers, Aladdin Sane is noted not only for songs such as The Jean Genie or Panic in Detroit, or photographer Brian Duffy’s famous shot of the singer in ‘lightning bolt’ make-up, but also for the introduction of an up-and-coming piano player from New York.

Mike Garson was then 27 years old when he cut his dazzling contributions to the album’s title track and the Brecht-like ballad Time. Forty-four years later – and now aged 72 – he will be performing the album in its entirety live in homage to Bowie, his long-time friend who died of cancer in 2016.

Garson credits the promoter Tom Wilcox for having the idea for this tour which brings both the pianist and his involvement in the songs full circle. “It was genius because I never thought of it,” he laughs.

When Bowie first hired Garson to join a touring group which included Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey it appears he was looking to push his music far beyond the confines of rock ’n’ roll. “For sure, otherwise he wouldn’t have called someone as crazy as me,” Garson concurs.

Garson’s solo in the song Aladdin Sane (1913–1938–197?) is an avant-garde flight of fancy that critics quickly cited as the album’s ‘pivotal’ moment. More than four decades later it’s still the song he gets asked about most. “I think there’s an email about it every day which is really bizarre,” he says. “I’ve played on thousands of recordings but only that one do I hear about every day.”

Mike Garson. Picture: Jiro Schneider

Mike Garson. Picture: Jiro Schneider

Garson originally played the solo in latin and blues style but Bowie urged him to go further. “It was very liberating,” Garson says, recalling: “I had a good feeling going into the album, I didn’t know what the music would sound like but I was beyond excited and history proved it to be a very nice success. The album still stands strong. I’m just looking at the cover in my studio, I keep it on the wall as a memory of my friend.”

Before joining Bowie and the Spiders From Mars, Garson had gained notice for his work on an album by the experimental jazz and electronic artist Annette Peacock. Although he knew “nothing” about the English singer, he nonetheless went along for an audition. “I auditioned for Mick [Ronson] but David was in the studio, he was in the control room watching,” he remembers. “Mick was the musical director, so to speak, and he played the piano and he knew what he was looking for. The story goes I played about eight or ten seconds of the song Changes and he said ‘You have the gig’ and I knew this was going to be a fun ride.”

Over the next 30 years Garson became the musician that Bowie turned to most often. His playing can be heard on everything from Diamond Dogs and Young Americans to Black Tie, White Noise, Outside and Reality. “It was as simple as on the creative process line we both were always thinking out of the box, we were always willing to not stay in our wheelhouse, we were always searching, right or wrong,” Garson notes. “As a pianist and composer I was trained in so many styles, I forced that training because many jazz teachers wanted me to stay in jazz, many classical teachers wanted me to stay in classical and many avant garde composers wanted me to stay in the avant garde world. I loved it all from punk to pop to rock to classical to fusion and I think because I didn’t have those barriers David picked up on that.

“For example between’72 and ’74 David fired five bands and I was the only one that remained. It was always a mystery to me why. Yes, we were friends, but he had a lot of friends. It was really because I had the ability to change styles. Think about it: an English rock musician who’s only played rock might not have a clue to play jazz or gospel or pop or Motown; I had all those skills just because I trained very hard so I think on a mechanical basis it was because of that.

In the ’70s it was all part of the zeitgeist going on, all the coordinates fit, just like the Beatles, but his artistry never actually stopped. In some ways it might have got greater.

Mike Garson

“In terms of friendship that always remained but to be honest I was only hired for eight weeks and I ended up doing 1,000 concerts with him and I was probably the longest [serving band] member. Next in line would have been Carlos [Alomar] and then [Earl] Slick. Who would have known?

“Everyone I meet today tells me David was the soundtrack for their life and he affected their life and he gave them permission to be who they were. I didn’t know the guy [before 1972]. My influences were coming from Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum and Vladimir Horowitz and Chopin and Mozart and Beethoven so I didn’t go in there starry-eyed, in fact the story goes he was looking to me for help and support when I was actually trying to figure out what he wanted. That humility on both our parts I think helped towards a beautiful relationship because every time he called me I knew he wanted me to be me; the times he didn’t call me I knew he didn’t need my services. While that was painful it was very honest.”

Wider conversations between the pair about music tended to only occur over dinner. Garson says: “When I went in the studio these guys had a vision and Ken Scott was an amazing producer and engineer and David told me what he was looking for. All those great tracks – Lady Grinning Soul and Time and Aladdin Sane – were pretty much first takes.”

After several years apart the pair reunited in the 1990s. Garson believes Bowie’s records from that decade are among the most overlooked in his catalogue. “If you listen to Outside it might be his best work on an artsy level. If you listen to Disco King, if you listen to Earthling, if you listen to Battle For Britain and Dead Man Walking.

“It’s just that in the ’70s it was all part of the zeitgeist going on, all the coordinates fit, just like the Beatles or Dylan or the Rolling Stones, but his artistry never actually stopped. In some ways it might have got greater, it’s just that history hasn’t caught up with it yet.”

He’s particularly fond of The Buddha of Suburbia, from 1993. “I did that whole album in three hours in California,” he says. “He brought the tapes out and I went in, I had no music and I just played.”

The final Bowie album he worked on was Reality, in 2003. “Again David realised I worked very fast in the studio and the best way for him to get the most music out of me was to bring me in at the end,” Garson remembers. “He called me into New York, from California, for three days and I did all my parts in two [takes] or one and I went home.

“I don’t know all that went down, I just knew it was going to be Disco King, a new kind of a vibe. It was the third time we recorded it, we recorded it on Black Tie, White Noise, but he never released it, and we recorded it on Earthling but he never released it. Those versions were amazing, however he wanted the one of just piano and voice and that’s what ended up on the Reality album and that was fun.”

Garson accompanied Bowie on the fateful Reality world tour, which abruptly halted in Germany in 2004 when the singer suffered a heart attack. In terms of precision Garson feels that the group on that tour “was the best of 13 bands I worked in” with Bowie. “A lot of bands there was more freedom and creativity, like the Outside band with Zac Alford, Gail Ann Dorsey, Reeves Gabrels and myself, we had more freedom. This one was like we were playing faithful to all those recordings and David’s voice was a little lower so it was actually very rich and lovely to listen to. He was just a natural singer. People don’t realise how great he is. So many singers take lessons and all that; he never did any of that. He was music, what can I tell you, you know?”

The pianist rejects the idea that a punishing touring schedule contributed to Bowie’s ill-health – “That’s a whole other subject,” he says – but he accepts the tour was “a little long”. “It could have been trimmed a little bit. Some of the secondary cities in the United States we didn’t need to do then we ended up missing the biggest festivals in Europe. We had played 113 shows and we had another 23 to do those would have been really joyful and that was sad. I don’t think it was what contributed to it, it was just bad planning. The band was so good and I think the management felt we should just keep playing and keep us out on the road, but I think with his body it was predestined. It’s not there wasn’t problems that could slowly attribute to that but it’s above my pay grade to discuss that.”

Bowie did recover sufficiently to make one last live appearance – with Alisha Keys at the Fashion Rocks show in New York in 2005 – and Garson was again at his side. The pianist remembers it being a “magnificent show” and he wishes there was a proper recording of it. “He didn’t want to be recorded. He was a very humble man and it was a benefit and he was very quiet about it but whoever saw it caught a great show. We did Changes, he had asked Alisha to play piano and she turned it over to me and said ‘You should play that one’ then David and I did a duet together with piano and voice on either Life On Mars or Wild Is The Wind, I can’t remember, but it was a great experience.”

When Bowie fell silent for the next eight years Garson was not surprised. “From my understanding of David he was always that way,” he says. “You’d be in it with him and then he would go silent. He did call me a year after the tour and said ‘Mike, I’ve been thinking about it, do you think we should go back on the road?’ and maybe I said the stupidest remark of my life because I would have liked to go back on the road with him but my integrity rose above my desire to [do it] and I said ‘Only if you feel you’re hearing the music in your head’ and he wasn’t so we didn’t.”

After he made Blackstar in 2015 it seems Bowie was keen to continue working. “He talked to Brian Eno about wanting to do more of the Outside stuff and that I would have been involved in,” Garson says. “That was very exciting to know that could have happened but then he died so that was not to be.”

Garson also reveals there were other projects discussed over the years. “We talked about big band albums and jazz albums and a Broadway show. He did versions of that with different people. I think because I was living 3,000 miles from him it made it a little harder, and I had my own career and my family out here so it was harder than to use people in New York but I connected him to the young, amazing big band writer Maria Schneider, I told him about her and he ended up using her then she ended up recommending Donny McCaslin so again I was the trouble-maker by sending avant garde, great bands and musicians to him.

“I think because of his cancer he maybe didn’t want me to see him in that condition, because we did have a very tight bond, and that’s how it went down.”

Garson admits he was “a little jealous” not to have played on Blackstar but says he was “beyond thrilled” to see old friend return. He has, he says, performed his own versions of Lazarus and Blackstar live. “I did them with Sting last year.”

Bowie’s death on January 10, 2016 left Garson “in total shock”. “Like everyone else, we were a club, a group of fans, if you want to think about it, and we all loved and respected him. I got to understand him through the years but I’m still learning about his music because I didn’t grow up with his music like others so I’m still studying about him and it’s more fascinating than I even thought.”

Yet doing the Brit Awards tribute with Lorde was “very difficult”, he says. “Harder even for Lorde,” he says, “but we got through it by singing it and playing it for David. She was the perfect choice for it. We could hardly play, everyone was crying before the lights went up. Gary Oldman was talking about David, and so was Annie Lennox, and we were on a stage in the dark ready to play and we’re hearing these communications about him and we could have screwed up because it was live but somehow through the grace of God we all got through it. It was a magnificent performance and I absolutely thought that was maybe the most special thing we’d done since he passed.

“I’m always searching to do something respectful and new and fresh with his music. I’ll probably commit to do that at least 50 per cent for the rest of my life because there are so many gems.

“I’ll probably be doing a solo album in the next year with all my favourite singers, just piano and voice doing David’s songs. I have a whole long-range plan for what I can do with his music and just keep it alive and paying respect.”

Mike Garson plays Aladdin Sane at O2 Academy Sheffield on November 29. www.aladdinsanetour.com