As promised in my exclusive interview with keyboardist Mike Garson posted last week (Mike Garson talks about ‘David Bowie Variations’: an Indie Ethos exclusive), I now offer more insight into the man who is probably not only David Bowie’s longest-running and most consistent sideman but also brings a unique style of piano playing to the classical and jazz world.
To start with the obvious, here is a transcription of part of my never-before-published interview with Garson from June 2004. It was my second interview with him and covers his early years with Bowie, from his start in the Spiders From Mars and into the recording of Young Americans (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). He and Bowie would then part ways for close to 20 years, before Bowie invited him to the sessions that produced 1993′s Black Tie White Noise (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon).
This conversation happened after I first sat down with Garson face-to-face, backstage at the James L. Knight Center in Miami, just hours before Bowie and the band was supposed to take the stage on May 4, 2004, during the Reality Tour’s stop in Miami. As detailed in the earlier post, the show never happened as well as a meeting with Bowie due to the death of a local stage hand, right before Bowie was set to take the stage.
However, I had a great and in-depth conversation with Garson about his musical stylings and his jazz history. I had to catch up on his background with Bowie via phone, the following month. This is the first half of that second conversation, covering the years of 1972 – 1975.
As this post from the archives corresponds with Garson’s release of his new album, the Bowie Variations For Piano (Garson will sign a copy of the CD for anyone that orders directly from his website), it seems appropriate to kick it off with Garson remembering his work with Bowie. So let’s start from the beginning, in part 1 of this series…
Hans Morgenstern: How does David Bowie direct you in the studio, when you’re recording?
Mike Garson: He’s the best producer for me of anyone I’ve ever had. He seems to pull out what’s the best in me. I never fully have understood it, but he’s just great at that. He has a gift, kind of like Miles Davis in jazz. He knows who to choose to be in a band, and he knows how to pull from them in the studio. I do things for him in the studio that are very different than I would do for somebody else in the studio, so he’s got a very good gift for that and then my particular gift is to play the piano like I think he might play if he could play the piano really well, so I’m sort of in his head.
So, how does his method in working with you and other members in the band, how has it changed from the Ziggy days, like way back in ’72?
His actual creative process is the same.
So he hasn’t changed at all from back then? You were you just as impressed in ’72 as you are now?
Well, absolutely because in 1972, when I did the Aladdin Sane album, he pulled that piano solo out of me, he pulled “Loneliest Guy” on the new album [Reality] out of me and “Disco King,” he pulled “Battle for Britain” out of me on Earthling, and he pulled all the stuff out of me on Outside: “Small Plot of Land,” “I’m Deranged,” those kind of things, so I don’t think the essence of who a creative artist is really changes. I think people change maybe personality traits that they don’t like or maybe people get a little mellow as they get older and then maybe they expand as an artist from listening to a lot of music, studying music, but I think the essence of your creative thing is kind of always the same. I mean, the “Aladdin Sane” solo, if you were to listen to that without the band playing sounds like one of my Now classical pieces*, so, you know, it’s kind of like who you are is who you are.
I must say that the “Lady Grinning Soul” piano solo is also amazing.
I was just talking about that one yesterday. I went to visit Billy Corgan at the recording studio, he was making an album. I worked with his band Smashing Pumpkins on a couple of their tours and one of their albums, and I did the movie soundtrack for Stigmata with him. We’re good friends. So I went to see him the other day, and he said, “Oh, I love that last track on Aladdin Sane.” He thought it was called “The Prettiest Star,” and he sang it to me, and it was “Lady Grinning Soul.”
I just wrote a reissue review of that album for “Goldmine,” and I came to realize you’re piano playing was such an important part of that album.
To be honest with you, from all the albums that I’ve worked with him, which I think is 14, that’s without the bootlegs. The 14 real ones, the one that my contribution is the greatest in terms of the whole album would be Aladdin Sane. You have “Time” on there for which I play a really interesting piano part. You have “Let’s Spend the Night Together” in which I play a crazy piano part. You have “Aladdin Sane” itself, so there’s a lot. There’s a lot on Outside, but that album didn’t get too well known because it’s so out there, you know? Have you heard that one?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Again, I covered that as a reissue for “Goldmine,” and again it was very interesting for me because the first time I reviewed it I was so-so about it, but now it’s just grown on me immensely.
The album grows on you. I told a lot of people on interviews over the years that I didn’t think people would fully get that album until about 2010. I didn’t get it initially, either. I enjoyed playing on it, but I didn’t get it for a few months. Even the music has a way of building and getting under your skin.
And, also about the same time wasn’t there another album finished called Contamination?
Not that I’m aware of. Well, maybe what you’re talking about is we recorded a lot of improvised music over those weeks, and that’s probably what you’re talking about that hasn’t been released.
Because, originally, wasn’t Outside supposed to be part of a trilogy of albums?
It was supposed to be a trilogy, and all that other stuff hasn’t been released, but there’s at least 25, 30 hours sitting in the vaults. Somebody put out some bootleg of it that they somehow got a copy from the studio, so they’re actually good quality, and there are some of the things we played. They’re kind of improvised. They’re not complete songs, but the quality is good. Somebody has sent me a bootleg of that, and it’s actually tremendous.
So, going back to the history… When you first met David Bowie after you were playing with jazz artists for the most part, then you meet this wacky sort of glitter rock star, what were your early impressions of him?
I went into shock when I went into RCA Recording Studios to audition because I see this one guy with red hair, one guy with this blonde hair, one guy with the silver-black hair with this kind of weird beard. You know, each member of the Spiders From Mars had a look, and they were in full apparel that day, for some reason, and David had his look and Mick Ronson had his look and Trevor [Bolder] had his look and Woody [Woodmansey] had his look, and I come in wearing Dungarees and a T-shirt from giving a piano lesson in Brooklyn. I actually left the piano student to babysit my 1-year-old daughter because my wife wasn’t home, and I had to go right then and there to audition. I went in there and I thought, “What the hell is this?” But I liked them. Mick Ronson was the guy who conducted the audition and David was listening in the studio. I only played about eight seconds on the song called “Changes” and Mick said, “You got it.” I hadn’t even started. He obviously was a good enough musician to figure out that I could play from whatever I played in those first eight bars or eight seconds.
So, did you talk for a while before that?
(He laughs again). I said: “Mr. David Bowie, I’m sorry that I don’t know who you are, but I certainly will play my best,” and I played and then, a week later I’m in Cleveland, Ohio for the first show of the Spiders from Mars– the first David Bowie tour of America.
So you rehearsed with him for like a week before you started that tour?
Less! I think I had one day of rehearsal.
So, when you first met them there. didn’t you have some reservations like: “Um, do I really want to do this and work with these people?”
Well, you’ve got to understand, I had already played for Mel Torme, Nancy Wilson, Martha Reeves—Martha Reeves from Martha and the Vandellas. I had played for Gregory Hines. I had played for Elvin Jones, who just recently passed away—the jazz drummer for John Coltrane. I had played with all those people, so I was looking for something different and they seemed plenty different (chuckles).
So that was your first work with him: the Ziggy Stardust Tour in the US?
The Ziggy Stardust tour and the first album was the Aladdin Sane album. The album after that was Pin Ups.
Right. Well Pin Ups was a great album because we picked songs by English artists. We did some very nice arrangements like “Sorrow” and “Can’t Explain.” It’s a great album, very, very unpretentious. It’s a lot of fun. And what did we do after that? Diamond Dogs I think, right?
Yeah. Now, didn’t he play most of the instruments on that album?
Yeah. Except for the piano stuff that I played.**
Now, did you play with him on every song there?
Probably not. He probably even played some piano because he always plays a little piano on everything, you know? But anything that sounded like me was me. Especially “Sweet Thing,” which is one of my big contributions to him.
And I think it’s one of the highlights of that album.
And then next came Young Americans.
Well, there was David Live.
Oh, yeah, so you went on tour with him again.
Went on tour with him again.
Tell me about that tour because it seems to go down in history.
Well, it’s a very famous tour because it went from the East Coast to the West Coast as one band and came back from the West Coast to the East Coast as another band. I was in both of those bands and most of the people got fired in the Diamond Dogs band, which is the one we did David Live with, and then we came back with the Young Americans band, and I was made musical director, and I had Luther Vandross singing with me and David Sanborn playing and six back-up singers and two drummers.*** But the Diamond Dogs tour had the most elaborate set he’s ever had, and it was gorgeous. But then the problem that happened, I don’t remember what went down, but something changed for him, and we changed bands in California and came back with a whole different thing with the sort of soul vibe and the Young Americans vibe.
Then I recorded that album and then David went on to do The Man Who Fell To Earth movie and I went off back to the jazz world.
And on the Young Americans album, do you play on every song there?
Not every song but that piano part on “Young Americans” is me and “Can You Hear Me” is me, so I’m on quite a few things but not everything.
Because, it seems, when I hear that album, the piano parts seem much more straightforward than on any other Bowie album.
I was playing straighter because his music was not as weird as it was in the Aladdin Sane period, so I went with the flow, you know?
* * *
I’ll leave you with a performance of Bowie and the Young Americans band playing on the Dick Cavett show in 1974 (Garson appears for a second or two):
The interview continues in Part 2 with Garson’s departure from the Bowie world and return in 1992: From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie, the later years (Part 2)
*More details on Garson’s Now Music to come as this series continues.
**Other credits on Diamond Dogs include: Herbie Flowers (bass), Aynsley Dunbar (drums), Alan Parker (guitar on “1984″).
***Up-date: Someone wrote for clarification whether Bowie had two drummers on stage at the same time. Here is Garson’s response via email: “From east to west on the Diamond Dogs tour there was Tony Newman on drums and a percussionist, Pablo I think. From west to east it became the Young American tour, from La to NY, with Dennis Davis on drums and the same percussionist, Pablo Rosario. Michael Kamen, an excellent musician, was the MD on the Diamond Dogs. He was a very good keyboard player and played synths, and I played piano.”
After nearly a year’s worth of anticipation, the reissue of David Bowie’s vital 1976 album, Station to Station, has been scheduled for release (Sept. 20). David Bowie’s official website revealed the details yesterday of the two versions of this reissue, which include a 3-CD special edition and a 5-CD/DVD/3-LP deluxe edition, which will probably cost more than $150.
Will it be worth dropping the money on a fancy version of what was a mere 6-track album when Station to Station first dropped in January of 1976? There are many reasons it will.
First, consider the historical context of album. Bowie, seen pictured above in a mug shot of that area due to his trouble with drugs at the time, was on the cusp of revolutionizing pop rock, setting the ground work for countless of new romantic/post-punk/new wave artists to come. The influences of Kraut Rock artists like Kraftwerk and Neu! had begun informing his music, which was mutating from his prior fascination with blue-eyed soul into something much more interesting.
This was also the height of Bowie’s cocaine-fueled days of oddball behavior. Taking on the persona of the Thin White Duke– as eluded to by the title track of this album– he would wear his hair slicked back and dress in minimal black and white suits while on tour for the album. He also made the unfortunate decision to exploit the fascist imagery and sometimes mentality, of Germany’s Nazi past, including the Hitler salute. But that was the punk rock thing to do at the time (let us not forget Sid Vicious would wear T-shirts with the swastika painted on them and Joy Division and later New Order took their names from the Nazi lexicon).
But Station to Station transcended all that. What has really endured is the strength of the music, even as experimental as it was at the time. It was the literal precursor to his much more popularly influential, if not stranger 1977 Bowie album Low. Musically, Station to Station does not contain the rambling instrumental ambient pieces that made Low’s B-side so famous nor does it have the shorter, quirkier pop/anti-pop songs of Low‘s A-side. Station to Station does however feature Bowie shedding the plastic soul of 1975′s Young Americans and exploring more progressive elements, like the long epic majesty of the title track and the layers of melody and din in “TVC-15,” a song that explores virtual sex through technology that long pre-dated its actualization. There are also truly soulful bits that still connect Bowie to Young Americans, like “Golden Years,” a single he performed on “Soul Train.”
As for the quality of extras tacked on to this reissue, this by far seems to outshine any previous Bowie reissue in the history of his catalog, including his more famous the Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars album, a mere 2-CD set reissued in 2002, marking its 30th anniversary. Though this reissue of Station to Station does not feature any studio outtakes, demos or B-sides (there were none for this album), there are two major aural aspects of this reissue to herald: the use of the original analog master tapes for the album (which will probably sound awesome on the vinyl version) and the first official release of Bowie’s much bootlegged Nassau Coliseum show from March 23, 1976.
There are a ton of paper extra goodies, too, as seen in the image on Bowie’s site, and which I have borrowed to illustrate here:
Again a shout-out to Bowie’s official website, where you can read the full details of these extras. What’s most important beyond these extras is the significance of the masters that will supposedly be used on this reissue.
Bowie’s catalog has suffered many so-called remasters since the early 90s, which, for the most part, were the albums with louder volume and this high treble quality that sometimes irritated the ears of the close listener. Only the original and short-lived RCA CD editions of 1985 came from the original stereo analogue master source and remain quite collectible for audiophiles to this day. I once owned the RCA CD of Station to Station but succumbed to the high collector’s prices it was garnering at the time, content to stick with my vinyl version. Here is that original CD, scanned for auction on eBay (I think it sold for about $60 or more):
As seen in the image for the Deluxe box, EMI has restored the original black and white cover art longtime Bowie fans have grown up with. Later reissues by Rykodisc and EMI had changed the cover to full color art, which, if I recall correctly, had been the original intended presentation for the cover art. But the original actual first release, in 1976 was the stark black and white image, a still of Bowie as the alien in the 1975 Nicholas Roeg film, the Man Who Fell to Earth. Maybe I am biased, but to me, its stark quality best suited the music inside. Here is the revised full color cover art:
But back to the music, the deluxe edition will feature the album on heavyweight vinyl (most likely 180 gram) and presented from the same analog masters, which will probably sound even better than the CD, as vinyl, many audiophiles will argue, is the only way to fully appreciate the warmth and depth of analog recordings. Unlike EMI’s earlier mistake to reissue Space Oddity on its 40th anniversary earlier this year on vinyl from the same digital masters Ryko used for its vinyl 1990 reissue, EMI has taken the proper steps to present the Station to Station vinyl as it should sound. Still, it remains to be heard by these ears, as the official release remains a couple of months away, but that’s for another post…
Yes, there is also a DVD audio version of the album, which should be neat to hear in its various forms. It includes a total of four different mixes: a new 5.1 surround mix and stereo mix by Harry Maslin, and the original analogue mix in LPCM stereo and 96kHz/24bit LPCM stereo. But I still see myself going to the vinyl over these mixes, personally.
The other audio aspect worth highlighting is the inclusion of the Nassau Coliseum show, which will also be featured in the more affordable, though not as comprehensive, 3-CD set, as pictured here (again, image from Bowienet):
The only thing that seems exclusive in the special edition are the three period photocards. There will also be an exclusive digital download of the special edition featuring the full length version of “Panic in Detroit” from the live show. Anyone who has heard the many bootlegs of this show will know that means the extended drum solo in the middle is left fully intact only on this digital version, where as the CDs will have it edited back.
The show has been widely regarded by Bowie bootleg collectors as one of Bowie’s greatest live shows, but the quality of these illegal pressings never did the audio justice. The only hint we had of the potential audio quality of this show appeared on the Ryko CD reissue of the 1990s, which featured the two live bonus tracks of “Word on a Wing” and “Stay” from that show. Now, finally, after those two quality live tracks were revealed in 1991, collectors can have the full concert in officially-sanctioned, high quality audio and, as can be seen in the image of the deluxe edition, on vinyl to boot.
Beyond the inclusion of the Nassau Coliseum show and the analogue masters as source material for the album, everything else is icing (oh, the final CD included as an extra in the deluxe edition is an EP of single mixes of five Station to Station tracks, which should prove an interesting curiosity).
January 23, 2010
My representative at EMI has informed me that for the second time, the David Bowie LP reissues of Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, and Young Americans for its “From the Capitol Vaults” series, have had their release dates pushed back once again to an as yet unknown date.
The 180-gram vinyl reissues, which were supposed to replicate the original packaging of the early to mid-70s releases, were first announced to come out as part of the Nov. 3 series of Vinyl Vaults reissues. Then I was told they would be out on Jan. 26. The reason for this first postponement was never made officially clear, except for the explanation that logistics had delayed their release.
Now, as Jan. 26 approaches, this second delay is even more vague, as I was told I will be informed of any new information when it is available. So, for now, the reissues have been postponed to an unknown date. Let me note: I was not told they were cancelled, just postponed once again.
So, we are left to hope that maybe, just possibly, the label will go out of its way to find something other than the digital sources that were first supposed to provide the music on the wax. This series is not known for going back to the master tapes for its reissues, but we can hope. You can read about the planned original sources for these Bowie reissues here.
I leave you with the stark image of the Aladdin Sane album cover: Bowie looking spent and sad, with the iconic “Ziggy bolt” splitting his face in half and a single tear laying in the nook of his clavicle, a metaphor for the difficulties he suffered while maintaining his alter ego of Ziggy Stardust to wide acclaim during the early 70s. Don’t be misled by the likes of Lady Gaga and Ke$ha, glam rock is never all glitter and good times, kiddies, especially when you are as sincere an artist as David Bowie putting on an act.
January 18, 2010
So it’s been like five years, but I’m back into getting published in music magazines, beginning with my review for the Capitol Vinyl Vaults reissue of Faust IV. “Goldmine” has reintroduced me to the world of writing for music magazines, and– dare I say– I enjoy the challenge of having to write these shorter reviews due to the precious space provided by printed paper. Read the final product here.
You can also purchase the latest issue of the bi-monthly record collector’s magazine at newsstands, record shops and larger bookstores, and now you can order subscriptions through Amazon.
The final product came out pretty good, I think. The editor barely touched it, and maybe I come across too harsh on CDs, but I still stand by the sound of the vinyl over the CD reissue of the album from a few years earlier. The separation of the instruments is much more pronounced on the vinyl to the tremendous benefit of the complex sound. It’s quite an amazing job.
If I can find time, I might expand my writing beyond “Goldmine.” But for now future assigned jobs for “Goldmine” include:
More Capitol Vinyl Vaults reissues (last I heard these were due out some time this month):
David Bowie – Aladdin Sane
David Bowie – Diamond Dogs (it will be interesting to see if the album has the Bowie/dog penis airbrushed away or not).
David Bowie – Young Americans
Of course, watch this blog for expanded reviews of these releases.
(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)