“It’s trying to keep the music alive, it’s trying to respect it, and do the right thing. I don’t see it as much as a tribute as a homage to him or some sort of a paying it forward”…Mike Garson
There is no one who would argue the sparkling magic that David Bowie brought to the universe. A prophetic visionary in every aspect, Bowie illuminated the world with a continuous musical fantasy. He demolished apathy, reinvented culture, redefined chaos and caused it to become sane, gave sparkle and decadence to glamor, enhanced the human spirit for all eternity, and assigned opulence to MUSIC . Along for a massive portion of his journey was Mike Garson, Bowie’s longtime friend and pianist.
Remaining the most sought after sessions musician, and the longest member of David Bowie’s band, having done the first and last US Bowie tour, with a thousand concerts in between, Mike Garson is currently engaged in a titanic tour celebrating the music of David Bowie. Also set for the tour is King Crimson’s Adrian Belew , Gerry Leonard, Carmine Rojas, Fishbone lead singer, Angelo Moore, and Gaby Moreno, all collaborators of Bowie through the years.
Mike Garson has played for over 1000 singer’s including everyone from Mel Torme, to Milton Berle, to Bob Hope, to Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails. He’s been part of Smashing Pumpkins, No Doubt, Free Flight, and the list goes on. A true Chameleon in the keyboard world, Garson has the ability to change his style of playing from jazz, pop, fusion, rock, to avant-garde music, which he believes to be one of the reasons he remained with Bowie so long. Garson undeniably holds his work with Bowie in the highest esteem, way beyond all others.
Mike is a unique and vibrant story teller, infusing glorious antidotes, with funny and heart warming emotions, while capturing the facts as they happened. I caught Mike just moments before he was to appear on stage at Camden’s Underworld in London. A true professional he spoke about the extreme desire and need for Bowie fans to still hear his music live, until it was time for his performance….
Louder Than War: Who’s creation was this amazing tour?
Which one, now, or the one celebrating David Bowie?
Yes, let’s start with that one, the one you’re about to go on stage for.
There are three different bands that I’m working with. The one now is the “Aladdin Sane”, and that’s Iggy Pop’s rhythm section in there. They were amazing. We’re doing six concerts in a row including tonight. “Celebrating David Bowie” which will start in Paris on January 10th, that’s involving Adrian Belew and Gerry Leonard who were both guitar players who obviously played with David at different times. They are wonderful. Carmine Rojas played on “Let’s Dance”, “Serious Moonlight Tour”, then we will have some various guest artists. Whoever is in each city or town that resonates with the music can jump in, and we have our own internal band to jump in. So that’s the idea. We will be in Shepherds Bush on January 11.
How did it come about that you met David Bowie?
Well, it was 1972 and he came to the United States for his first tour, The Ziggy Stardust Tour, and didn’t have a pianist. He had known a singer named Annette Peacock, she was a jazz singer in the 60s and 70s. She’s still around actually. Very, very interesting, and he liked her. Mick Ronson his guitar player also liked her, and I had just played on her album. It was called, “I’m the One”. In fact that song, “I’m the One”, Mick Ronson covered on his own solo album. So he asked her if she knew a pianist, and I had just played on the album. She suggested that he call me. I didn’t know who he was because I was in the jazz world. So, I think he found that amusing and I was hired for 8 weeks, and I lasted till the very end. I did 1,000 concerts with him, 20 albums, or so. It’s hard to know because they keep putting out new ones. I heard songs that I hadn’t heard my whole life.
That’s so crazy. How did you manage to remain with him so long?
Yeah, that is crazy. Now it’s an interesting story. Between 1972 and 1974 he played with five different bands. American bands, English bands, different musicians, and they all got fired in that period, except me. I think the reason for that wasn’t personal as much as I could switch styles because I was trained in jazz, classical, pop, fusion, soul, avant-garde music, and he was the kind of guy that was always changing. I was able to change with him. So I think that’s why I stayed. But then I left for a period of years and went back to jazz, where I played with Stan Clarke, and people in that world. Then I did a lot of my own solo concerts, I did a lot of composing. Then we reunited in 1992 I think. Then I worked with him until the very last concert with Alicia Keys for an AIDS benefit in 2006. We had a long tour in 2003 and 2004. We played 112 concerts, and then he had a heart attack at one of the shows in Germany. They had to cancel the last 12 or 13 shows. That was very sad and we never toured after that unfortunately.
What was it like knowing him, were you friends?
We were friends for sure. I’d probably played in 13 bands with him over the years and I was the musical director for the American bands. We had an amazing band and in 74, we opened the show for him. We were the opening act and then we became the backup band. I mean I’ve played for over 1000 singer’s, but playing for him, he’s number one. Number two and three would be like 100 miles below, but still could be very good. It’s just that he was so unique.
You also played with Smashing Pumpkins, correct?
I played with Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, I did a recording with Gwen Stefani….I played with Perry Farrell from Jane’s Addiction, hundreds of people. Back in 1970 I played with Martha Reeves and the Vandellas in Madison Square Garden, Stan Getz…so I’ve been in the jazz world, the rock world, fusion…and then I started writing some classical music and symphonic music. I worked with a great surgeon. We tested a lot of my music on patients.
They chose out of 30 of my pieces 12 favorites, and they were very honest with me about the ones that made them nervous rather than healed them. So I played that with a hundred piece Orchestra, and I played some classical jazz with a 50 piece children’s choir. So I’ve done a lot of different things and it keeps me going. When David was alive I never, ever played his music, but when he passed there seems to be a need. I loved his music so I’m doing various projects. When we hit the American tour on February 10 to March 11 I’ll have a whole different band with Earl Slick who was with us for many years, next to me.
Him and Carlos, well he came in 74, and Gerry Leonard who’s a great ambient guitar player, he’ll be with us in America, and Earl Slick’s son who’s a great drummer. So we will have some young guys with us. We’ll have some different singer’s including Gaby Moreno. She’s from Guatemala and she’s a fabulous singer, and doing a great job with David’s songs. Then there will be different guests from different cities. At the Wilton in Los Angeles we will have Evan Rachel Wood who’s an actress and singer, and Linda Perry…So it’s trying to keep the music alive and at the same time respect it, and do the right thing with it. I don’t see it as much as a tribute but a homage to him, sort of a paying forward. The fans I saw last night, we played at the Water Rats last night, for his severest fans. People that came to 190 concerts were there. Some flew in from Australia, Belgium Paris… they are coming to see me play because they want to hear his music and the connection. So I’m happy to do it, it’s not what I thought I’d be doing. I could be doing more of the jazz and classical, but I can do both… but this is occupying about 50% of my time.
It’s kind of a healing thing too. There really wasn’t anything like him in the world.
You’re right. There really wasn’t. My view point is that we knew George Gershwin, Cole Porter, we knew Burt Bacharach, and he’s one of those guys. He’s got 100’s of songs. Why shouldn’t they be interpreted just like Sinatra interpreted songs. He didn’t even write them and he made them his own. There is room for a lot of great singers to find their way. What annoys me is when somebody tries to copy him. That’s not right. But I like when somebody brings their own self-expression to them. I did one of his songs called “Disco King”, it was just piano and vocals, and a little drum. I did it with Seal at the Roxy in Los Angeles last year. That was magnificent. I did ” Lazarus” from the Blackstar album with Sting last year at the Wilton. So these people bring something that is great. It’s not David, but it’s great, and I’m enjoying it. It’s nice to play with all of these great musicians.
Well he influenced music in the most enormous way. So I’m thinking that given the fact that you were his keyboardist, you probably had a lot to do with it.
My collaborations with him on “Aladdin Sane”, “Pin Ups”, “Diamond Dogs”,…the many albums I did, they were very integral, and had I have had a good lawyer, I probably would be getting royalties right now, (laughter). Point is there is a lot of my mark on the music, the one album called, “Outside” that I wrote six songs on, we had six of us that composed songs on it, and it was fun to do. The way that publishing goes he wrote the song and I added chords and certain things. These days the way music is structured I’d probably be getting royalties, but I was honored just to play his music. I wouldn’t be doing this tour if his fans didn’t love the music and part of that music was my piano, so I’m honored. What can I say?
You have a great life!
I love it and it’s balanced with my wife, two daughters and seven grandkids. So it’s very balanced.
Did you have a favorite Bowie song?
I have a few. “Lady Grinning Soul”, “Life on Mars”, “Aladdin Sane”, “Conversation Piece”, “Its Gonna Be Me”, “Can You Hear Me”, and “Shadow Man”. That’s more than one. Tomorrow there will be another ten. I like “Time” also. I can’t begin to tell you the last thing I would’ve said is every artist I meet, and everyone that has hired me in the last 20 or 30 years was because of DAVID, and no one else, and because of my playing on the Aladdin Sane album. It’s Bizarre!
Well I heard you play….and you can really play!
Well I’ve practice the piano for over 150,000 hours. I used to do eight hours a day in New York City and then go play a jazz gig. So that’s all I did and I never thought that I would end up in this world. I still am connected to the other world but it’s different. People don’t connect that way to the other world. David’s effect on all of these people that I meet, everybody has a story. They loved his singing, they loved his producing, they loved his looks, they loved his artwork….He was an editor of an art magazine, and it’s just endless, the guys output . I’m so flattered to have been part of his life. It’s still a little hard you know, I’m doing this at age 72, and I’m not Justin Bieber.
I’m more excited about the music than ever. I have six concerts in a row. I never did six concerts in a row with David. We would do two or three and then take a day off. There’s no day off now, going, traveling from Glasgow back to Scheffield, now I’m in London. It’s just crazy but it keeps me young, and I’m doing what I love doing. I write tributes for him every night, I improvise pieces, so I’m not just sticking to the exact script. He wouldn’t want that. Yes, I’m paying tribute to those songs, but I’m still doing it my own way because he gave me 80% freedom to improvise on those thousand concerts that I did with him. He was so giving and freeing and allowing me to be me, even though he was the front man he would sit and smile when I would play a solo.
All words by Eileen Shapiro. More of Eileen’s writing can be found in her author’s archive.