From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie (Part 1 of 5)
July 19, 2011
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.”