From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie, the later years (Part 2 of 5)
July 21, 2011
Continuing in a series of posts that incorporate two separate conversations I had with David Bowie’s stalwart keyboardist, Mike Garson, this second part of the series focuses on Garson’s return to recording with Bowie in 1993 and comes from a phone interview in June of 2004. This series appears in tandem with Garson’s release of his new album, the Bowie Variations For Piano (pick up a signed copy of the CD by ordering direct from Garson’s website), where Garson interprets several Bowie tunes on solo piano. Read more here: Mike Garson talks about ‘David Bowie Variations’: an Indie Ethos exclusive.
First, some historical context, as the era covered here takes off from the time in 1974 where Garson was just finishing recording Young Americans (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). As Bowie went on to fuse the soul sound of Young Americans with Krautrock influences on Station To Station, he and Garson parted ways. Many biographers have noted Garson’s membership in the Church of Scientology as a divisive factor. In a 1997 article in “Q Magazine,” Bowie admitted, “it did cause us one or two problems. I was thinking about having him back in the band [in the nineties] and the thing that really clinched it was hearing that he was no longer a Scientologist.”
Garson told me he left Scientology way before even considering a return to working with Bowie, in 1982 (more on that further down). Also, one should not confuse these facts as factors in the collaboration of Bowie and Garson as musicians. Since Bowie left the soulful sound of Young Americans behind, where Garson admitted to playing pretty straight in comparison to the earlier Bowie albums (see part 1 of this interview), Bowie went on to do some of his most experimental (see Low) and, by contrast, popular (i.e. Let’s Dance) work of his career. It would not be until Bowie had already worked with Brian Eno and Iggy Pop in the late seventies, become a stadium-level artist with 1983’s Let’s Dance, fallen from grace with too many attempts at recreating the pop success of that album, re-invented himself as a member of a rock group called Tin Machine, and rebooted his solo career with a return to soul with 1992’s Black Tie White Noise, the sessions for which Garson would return to working with Bowie. Garson would henceforth appear as a regular on all of Bowie’s albums and tours until Bowie’s last public appearance on TV in 2006.
During my most recent conversation with Garson, I asked him how his playing with Bowie had changed over the years, going all the way back to Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs. “That’s a really good question,” he said, “and no one has really asked me that one, that way. Let’s start off by saying, those two albums, when I did them, one in ’73, I think, and early ‘74 for the second one, in that period of time, when I did them, I didn’t think much about them. I knew I did a good job, and everyone in the studio liked it, including David and the producers and [guitarist] Mick Ronson, but I didn’t hear those albums in 20, 25 years.”
It would be other band members, mostly younger than he and Bowie who would get him thinking about those early recording sessions, though he (and most likely Bowie, as well) just wanted to look forward. “When I started touring with David again in 1992/93, we had different bands. Different guys in the bands in that 10-year period where I was touring from, from ’93 to 2003, who would say, ‘Do you know, what you played on “Sweet Thing/Candidate,” on Diamond Dogs, was as good as what you did …’ and I said, ‘What song is that?'” Garson recalled with a laugh. “When I did ‘em, I played the best I could play, they were very honest. I didn’t think a lot about them. I went back into the jazz world for the next 20 years. I didn’t know if I would ever work with David again. I then came back in ’92 for a pretty solid 10 years, a lot of records and a lot of tours [followed], not that everybody saw them, and different bands and different things, and I started actually getting more interested in his music and liking him as an artist more. I was a bit of a late bloomer to the essence of David Bowie. I mean, obviously when I joined him I knew there was a true genius there, but in terms of really getting into it, I didn’t fully get all of him until I got through some of my fixed ideas and beliefs.”
I followed up by asking him if he hadn’t thought Bowie a little “aloof” back in the years of the early to mid seventies. Garson responded, “Well, that could have been part of it also. Who knows? I’m not sure. I know to answer that question a little more specifically is that I played great then. I don’t think that I could play with that same fire, as I played on Aladdin Sane at that moment in time, as someone who was 27 years old. I think my playing is a little more mature now. I think it’s a little deeper … It’s more refined, but in terms of fire. It was at its peak at that point in time. The other thing that under-rides that is that I’m the same person all that time.”
I found some nice testaments to these two different periods in the Bowie/Garson relationship on YouTube. Both videos below feature “My Death,” a song written by Jacques Brel that Bowie was fond of covering while on tour. The spare, yet powerful song mostly only features Garson providing accompaniment on piano as Bowie belts out such vivid lines like: “My death waits there between your thighs/Your cool fingers will close my eyes.”
This second version was filmed during the GQ Awards in November 1997:
When I first met Garson in May of 2004, during his warm up for a performance with Bowie while on the Reality Tour, we mostly bonded over his jazz history but also what a musician’s relationship is to music, and that conversation will appear on this blog after this continued glance at Garson’s career with Bowie in the later years and in Garson’s own words. The following phone interview is continued from my last post (From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie [Part 1]) and was recorded in June of 2004. It was never printed until now…
Hans Morgenstern: So why the long departure? There were like 20 years between then and the next collaboration you guys had?
Mike Garson: It was probably 19, and, you have to understand I was hired for eight weeks in ’72. The fact that I stayed for the next two years was amazing. I think part of what I was meant to do was keep developing my jazz playing and my classical compositions and all that kind of stuff and find my own voice, and I’m able to express a certain part of myself with David on some of the tunes, the ones you know about, obviously, but there’s a lot of the tunes that don’t require much piano, you know, maybe a little synth, a little organ, so it was only pulling a little part of me, and I had more to say as an artist, so I played solo concerts, trio concerts. I worked with Stanley Clarke for a few years. I played with Freddie Hubbard. I had my own trio. I traveled to Israel. I went to Japan, and then I actually started to miss it, which showed me that there was a spiritual and musical connection, and he told me to come to Black Tie White Noise, which I played on a few tracks. Then I did the Buddha of Suburbia, which has a lot of piano. That was for a TV miniseries in London, and he composed the music, but he brought the tapes to L.A, where I was living, in 1993 or 4, whatever that was, and I spent a few hours in the studio and I played tons of piano and a lot of it ended up on Buddha of Suburbia and then he said, “We’re going to do this album next year called Outside,” and we did that, and that was a very improvised kind of album, then we did Earthling, and then, you know, I didn’t work on Hours… but I worked on some bonus tracks on it, and Heathen, I worked on some bonus tracks. There’s a gorgeous song called “Conversations” [“Conversation Piece”] which was just so beautiful. He wrote it in the late sixties, then we re-recorded it.
Oh, yeah! That was never released (actually the song would see release on a limited edition bonus disc for 2002’s Heathen).
Yeah, that was phenomenal.
So Bowie was going to release Toy [for which the song was originally recorded] right after he did Hours…, but the label wouldn’t back it. That goes back to the thousands of music pieces that you write* and how the music industry machine can’t really appreciate that kind of constant output by artists.
And Toy was a great album, and I played on tons of tracks, but they didn’t want to release it, so we ended up putting out lots of bonus singles over the next few years, and “Conversations” was a gorgeous piece, beautiful piano part, very simple, different Mike Garson, but the very, very sparse Mike Garson kind of thing, and then he did Hours…, and I didn’t play on that, although there was a song that got used for the American Psycho movie called “Something In the Air,” and he sent that to me in California, and I recorded a piano part on top of it for that movie. So I did get to play on [Hours…] in a bizarre sort of way. Then I played on these tracks, [including] “Never Grow Old” [“Never Get Old”] on the Reality album and of course “Disco King,” which is just me and him and a little drum loop and then “Loneliest Guy,” and that basically should bring you up to the present time.
With me playing on it? I’ll have to listen to let you know because I heard some guy do a remix of “Survive” a few years ago, and he was a big fan of mine, and he tried imitating my style, so it could be his version. I’ll have to get back to you on that. (he later got back to me and heard it, it’s not him. It is most likely remixer Marius de Vries).
I read an article once that said the reason you and David parted ways back in ’75 was that you got into Scientology.
I actually got into Scientology, I’m thinking it would have been around 1970, so I was in Scientology all during that time. It caused some dissension among the band and him with the Spiders in that first year or two, but I don’t think… I left Scientology in 1982… but I don’t think that’s really why it ended. It used to perplex me why it sort of ended, and people probably drew a lot of conclusions, including myself. At one time in 1978 I had this epiphany: What had happened is when I was hired for eight weeks, at the end of the eighth week I made a decision I’d like to stay with David for two years cause I was enjoying it, and after two years it was over, so which came first? There might have been some mechanical reasons because of Scientology and whatever, but I think the real truth was my desire was to do two years and that’s exactly what I did, and then I went back to my world, and now I’ve been with him for the last 12 years. It’s kind of interesting how the whole thing went down.
Last we spoke you said you left Scientology in 1982 and “people may wonder why.” Can you give a reason why you left?
You know, Scientology has a lot of good basic tenants. I have no problem about a lot of the things it talks about. Organizationally, I was just feeling I needed a little more freedom. And organizations and their religions, something happens to them and some of the purity gets lost, and it just doesn’t feel like it’s still working, so I didn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Whatever I know from the subject I can still think with, and it works. It’s like if someone showed me a C chord and an F chord, and I can use it to compose with, and then someone plays a bad C and F chord, I might not hang with that person who plays a bad C and F chord, but I would still use C and F chords, so it’s kind of like that. I just was feeling that I couldn’t be the full me that I wanted to be. Maybe they [the Church of Scientology] would feel differently, but I had to go by own integrity.
I needed to follow up because people are going to be curious.
Personally, I would rather not have it in there at all, but if you feel it’s part of the picture as a journalist, I can’t insist you don’t do it. I just try not to bring it up because sometimes I’ll actually get calls from them or you can get attacked or sued for saying something, and I have no time for that kind of a thing. It gets a little ugly.
It’s good to get you on the record with that.
I myself thought [Scientology] was the reason, but, when it hit me five years later… What’s really the truth here? Because, in some ways, we really control our own destinies. It’s like you decided you wanted to do an interview with me, so you created that. Then you didn’t finish, and you called me, and then I said I couldn’t hear you, so I called you. These are things that we manifest by our own doings by communicating and creating, and that’s essentially what happened there. I made a decision I wanted to be there two years because eight weeks didn’t seem like enough, and I was.
Now, you mean eight weeks from 1972?
I was initially supposed to do that American, short tour, that Spiders tour, and then it extended to a European thing, and then we did another album and this thing led to another tour and then the Diamond Dogs tour and then the Young Americans tour, but I wasn’t supposed to do any of that because I was hired for eight weeks. You’ve got to understand, the night before I auditioned I had come from a jazz gig, and I was fed up playing these clubs with great jazz musicians with five people in the audience and making five dollars a night, so I said, ‘Jesus, what would it be like to play with a rock artist?’ And I made that decision to see what that would be like, and the next day I got a call from David Bowie, but I didn’t know who he was (laughs). So, what I’m trying to say is, while we don’t always get what we wish for, some of the things that we want we do get.
You don’t live in New York?
I moved to L.A. in ’78. I still feel like a New Yorker, that’s the funny part.
You still sound like one.
“Bring Me The Disco King” originally came about in 1992, right?
I recorded it with him on Black Tie White Noise as a disco tune. It was great, and I played a different kind of piano solo. I was with a whole band, and then, something that a lot of people don’t know, we recorded it again on Earthling—a whole new arrangement with a different band, and that was good too, but he didn’t use that either. Then, when he did Reality, he recorded it once or twice before I got to the studio with the guys, and it still didn’t do anything for him, so when I came into the studio to record my parts for “the Loneliest Guy” he said, “Let’s strip ‘Disco King’ down to just a little drum loop and you and me,” and then I improvised that eight-minute thing, and then I had it printed out in Finale, and then I play it on stage with him when we do it. We don’t do it that much anymore, but we were doing it during the beginning part of the tour.
I had heard he tried to record it over and over again after Black Tie White Noise. It was like his Moby Dick, his great white whale that always seemed to elude him.
[Watch a rare promo clip for the track below. Do note that the sound fades in very gradually, so there’s no need to adjust your volume]:
He knew it was a good song, but he just couldn’t get it, and then I hit this piano part, and it was little jazzy, believe it or not, which he doesn’t usually like from me. He likes when I play a little more abstract classical or abstract jazz. It had a feeling of Shearing or Brubeck or Bill Evans. It had that fifties sort of jazz vibe, but I kind of did it my own way because the time feel was not like a jazz feel. It was coming more from a sort of rock world. I played it a little bit different, but it has a little jazz feel. I played a chord solo rather than a single line solo that jazz pianists play at. I play a chordal solo at the end, which is the last two minutes. It’s kind of interesting, and it is notated.
What keeps you coming back to work with David, album after album?
Good question. I’ll tell you, we’re very different when you look at both of us, and when you hear his music, and when you hear my music separate, but on a spiritual level I think we’re very similar. I don’t know what all those points are, but I know there’s something—for me to be the longest person playing with him and still be doing it, and you’re living totally different lives and lifestyles. There must be some sort of spiritual and aesthetic connection, and I think we both like living on the edge with our art. I always view my music as the whip cream on the cake, in terms of his music. Because the guitars and drums and bass, those are the foundation, and I sort of sit on top playing my stuff.
That’s why I was attracted to the idea of your story as a collaborator with David Bowie. You can hear that on the Aladdin Sane album and how much of the character of the record comes from your playing.
You know, sometimes music and life is bigger than us, and we think we’re running the show, but we’re not (laughs), and we were brought together for some reason that’s bigger than what I even know, to this day. My training was classical, then I went into jazz, and his training was rock ‘n’ roll and guitar and Chuck Berry and Velvet Underground and mine was Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner and Art Tatum. The specifics seem very different, our lifestyles seem different, but I think on a creative and aesthetic and a spiritual level there’s something that’s matching. It’s still unfolding, so I don’t know fully.
No word on the next album?
It’s quiet. It’s quiet. I’m sure there will be one, but there is no word. We’re really into this tour. We’re on the tenth month now. The longest tour I ever did in my life.
And you’re not coming down to Miami again after that terrible accident?
It’s a shame. I was hoping we could get back there, but it just seemed like there was no space.
It’s not an easy place to tour because you have to go all the way down there [to Miami].
Well, there was just no time because we’re going right straight to Europe, and then the tour ends in Europe. I was hoping we were doing a make-up because we’re doing a make-up in Atlantic City and some other places where he got sick six months ago. We made those up, but he couldn’t seem to find a space for that. I was disappointed cuz I have family there, relatives, and I wanted you to hear it that night. It was a terrible thing.
Right! Fort Lauderdale. I remember that.
It goes down in legend. It was the longest he has played in his history. He played every song rehearsed for that tour (Read my review/recollection of that show on the Bowie fansite Teenage Wildlife).
I know (laughs). He keeps talking about doing one show before we end this tour that’s even longer than that. It hasn’t happened yet.
* * *
Then Garson and I spoke one more time in June ’04, a few days after Bowie was hospitalized. Here’s what Garson recalled happening on the tour after Bowie had to be rushed to the hospital in the middle of a set, June 25, 2004, in Germany. It would later be revealed Bowie had a heart attack (read that BBC article here). “The funny part of it is, as close as I was to this whole thing when this all went down, I’m no closer than you,” Garson said on the phone. “It was probably really one of these life calls you have to reevaluate everything.”
Asked if he knew how Bowie was doing now, Garson told me, “He’s just repairing himself. It’s just not what he’s doing. He’s probably really scared. I just think he’s in another world or part of his life … the tour ended in the plane, and we didn’t get to say good-bye to anybody.” Though, as covered earlier, Garson would go on to work with Bowie for some random, brief live appearances.
* * *
Before Bowie’s health issue, he had certainly been on a roll creatively with his last two albums: Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003). I personally believe they feature some the most creative work of his career. Here’s a Reality Tour performance of the epic closer to Heathen, “Heathen (the Rays),” which was professionally shot in November of 2003 in Berlin (and also released as a digital-only audio single on Napster). It’s an ominous song that is not your typical verse-chorus-verse pop ditty— a creative diversion I feel Bowie has always excelled in, despite his celebration as a pop artist. It features a few simple, yet divergent guitar lines too epic to move off into noodling solos and synths that only seem to throb and exhale over the music, juxtaposed with perky hand claps. I seem to recall Bowie stating it was inspired by the fall of the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, or at least that its genesis corresponded with those events:
This archival interview series continues here: From the Archives: Mike Garson goes from jazz to Bowie (Part 3 of 5)
*More on this to come as this interview series with Garson continues.