tall_joe_mooreI met the Dead Milkmen 21 years ago. They were the first band with MTV cred and international recognition I had the chance to interview. It was a job that came to me when a promo/advance cassette of their 1993 album Not Richard But Dick arrived to the offices of The Beacon, the student newspaper of Florida International University. It was an intimidating gig for a green music writer such as I, who mostly wrote CD reviews up until this opportunity. The Milkmen were a weirdo punk rock band with a sarcastic and sometimes cruel sense of humor made famous with songs like the “art fag” song “You’ll Dance To Anything” and the sinister “Let’s Get the Baby High.” To top it off, they hid behind fake names.

But what has really shown through over the band’s legacy years is the profound talent they harbor as musicians. Their sound cannot be pigeonholed as mere punk rock. They have an inventive songcraft that includes both catchy songs and a deconstructive knowledge of genre. Still, a wry, critical and sometimes subversive sense of humor shines through their lyrics. Pre-dating the guys behind “South Park,” the Milkmen’s lyrics spare no one, from conspiracy theorists (“Stuart”) to the devout (“I Dream of Jesus”) to hipsters (“You’ll Dance To Anything”).

I met the quartet of vocalist/keyboarist Rodney Linderman (fake name then Arr. Trad.), guitarist/vocalist Joe Genaro (a.k.a. Butterfly Fairweather), bassist Dave Schulthise (then 11070) and drummer Dean Sabatino (Dean Clean) during a break from sound check at the now long-gone Button South nightclub in Fort Lauderdale. They were as stand-offish as an alternative rock MTV band in the slacker years of the 1990s could be, but they were still funny and sociable. I warmed up to them quickly, and I had them all sign the back of my personal CD copy of Not Richard, But Dick. They left some interesting messages, too:

Dead Milkmen autographs. Photo by Hans Morgenstern

The resulting “Beacon” article was re-printed in 1994 by the Chicago ‘zine “Pure.” You can read the admittedly cheesy and amateurish article here: Vodka Keeps the Dead Milkmen SingingThe one Milkman I best got along with was Genaro, despite his creepy message that accompanied his autograph. After our chat, later that evening, he and I sat on some stools behind the pit to watch Possum Dixon* open the show. Genero and I spoke about a mutual appreciation for Stereolab and other then current up-and-coming artists.

Sometime last month, when the recent opportunity for a follow-up interview arose, Genero was the guy I felt most at ease doing a follow-up interview with, so I reached out to him when I heard he and his old mates were making a rare appearance in Miami at Grand Central on April 11. We ended up chatting over the phone for nearly an hour. He now admits to liking Radiohead, but not many truly current, contemporary alternative rock artists. He also graciously accepted my notion that the Milkmen’s sound is rooted in both The Velvet Underground and The Ramones. He also said that though The Dead Milkmen have often been considered a comedy band, it’s just how their music came out. They’ve never consciously been a comedy act.

Watch Genero front the band’s famed MTV hit “Punk Rock Girl:”

We eased into that serious talk about music, though. Our chat began silly enough with me asking the same stupid questions I first asked the band in 1993. It started the conversation with more than a few laughs. However, the interview turned really serious later. He explained the decision to break-up in 1994, the band’s relationship with the major label Hollywood Records, and most profoundly, the effect Schulthise’s suicide had on him and the band. You can read most of our Q&A in the music blog for The Miami New Times, Crossfade, by jumping through the blog’s logo below:

crossfade

A much shorter print piece ran in The Miami New Times yesterday. You can pick it up free at news stands for the next week, throughout Miami-Dade County. It can also be read here.

Most of the material resulting from this interview appears in that Crossfade link. However, as you might expect, there was still a lot left over. So here, at Indie Ethos, you can read about their post-reunion life with some stellar new material they have self-released that includes an album from 2011 (The King In Yellow) and several great 7-inches (see them here— one is already sold out). The new music reveals that the Dead Milkmen have remained incredibly true to its sound and humor, though they now have Dan Stevens on bass. Finally, they are nearly done with a new album. Here’s the end of our conversation:

Hans Morgenstern: So tell me about the new material.

Joe Genaro: We were just in the studio last weekend, and we’ll be in the studio this weekend to add to that, so we’re fleshing out… We started out recording a series of 7-inches, and I think the original idea is that we were gonna release everything on the 7-inches and then compile it on the album, but we changed our plans and decided, OK, we’re not going to release all of the songs on the 7-inches. We did four of them, good enough, and we recorded six more songs, and together, that will create an album, what we consider the next album, the 10th studio album.

Do you have a title for it?

No. We have lots of ideas for titles but no title. The working title that Rodney came up with was Servant Girl Annihilator.

Hmm. Interesting.

(Laughs). If that becomes the actual title, we shall see. There’s other titles we’ve been floating around, so who knows. It’s usually, oddly, the last thing that we do— is finalize the title and the artwork and such.

So how many songs is it gonna have?

17 or 18.

And you return to the studio for final mixes or what?

To do final mixes. I think recording is finished. We might polish some things. Sometimes when we’re mixing a song, oh, we can’t live with this little thing. We wished we had played this on a different thing, but otherwise I think we’re done.

What’s different about recording an album now as opposed to the early years of recording for you?

What’s a little bit different now is you take bits that you recorded in one measure and move them easily to another. Like, if you wanted an ending to all line up in the end you can shift. Before, in the tape days, you’d have to figure out how we’re all gonna have to see each other if we’re gonna have an ending where we all end at once. Now you can record it and have the engineer move it where it should be.

And you can sound like expert musicians.

Exactly (laughs), which we’re not.

dead_milkmen_2011_tea.widea

The years have passed since I seriously sat down and listened to your music, but I can’t say you’ve changed so much. What keeps your sound so fixed?

I think it’s three of us, our style, for one thing. No one plays guitar quite like me. They probably don’t want to. Dean is very unique in his approach, very good drummer, and obviously Rodney has a unique sound and has a voice that no one has matched ever. The danger is that we have a different bass player now, but Dan learned to play bass by listening to Dave. He’s a young’un. He came to our attention through being a fan of the Dead Milkmen back in the ’90s. Just after we’d broken up, he befriended me and Dean at the time. I recorded his first band. They’re still actually together. He had a band with two cousins called Farquar Muckenfuss, kind of like a surfy-punk instrumental band. And when my friend Chris [Seegal] put the band The Low Budgets together he also knew Dan. In fact, he and I met Dan together for the first time, in person, at a show. So the band The Low Budgets was the first that I created with Dan in. It just seemed natural that he sort of acquired a similar style to Dave, by learning to play bass like Dave. He has his own style, of course, but he was very good at mimicking. But now he’s becoming more comfortable with the new stuff and no longer trying to play like Dave would have played it.

How do you balance a set list with the new material and the songs people want to hear?

Good question. It’s a tough thing to do. Rodney is our set list master. We all have somewhat of a say. We all have rights to refusal. We don’t try to put too many new songs in. We learned from other people’s experiences that that can be the death of the energy of the show. People come to a show of a band like us expecting certain songs, and we want to make them happy. From personal experience, we’re happy when the crowd’s happy. So we hit the songs that we think people want to hear, and we sprinkle in the songs that we want to play, and things that they wouldn’t mind hearing, knowing that they probably never heard them before.

*  *  *

Hans Morgenstern

The Dead Milkmen play Miami with Sandratz and Humbert, Friday, April 11, at Grand Central, 697 N. Miami Ave., Miami. The show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets cost $18 via ticketfly.com. Call 305-377-2277, or visit grandcentralmiami.com. The group continues to Tampa after that, but that show is sold out. Then, they fly back home to Philadelphia, so it’s a mere two-day tour.

Notes:

*I was impressed by Possum Dixon, a band from California that Genaro remembered as fun to party with after the shows this opening act. They then had yet to reach underground college rock fame on the MTV late-night video show “120 Minutes.” Genaro suggested I write about them, too. I would eventually give their self-titled debut a glowing review in The Beacon, comparing them to Wall of Voodoo. Possum Dixon’s vocalist Robert Zabrecky would later send me a postcard saying “We love Wall of Voodoo!”

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

I do feel it seems rather pointless to reissue music largely produced on computer via vinyl record. Vinyl is an analog medium, after all, and there is little nuance in digital work to merit a release in the format. However, one of the greatest works of the nineties electronic age had to be Aphex Twin’s “self-titled” album, Richard D. James. It was a thing of subtle, strange beauty, far beyond samples and electronic noises (see how well it was received).

Warp Records recently reissued the 1996 album by the one-man electronic music artist from the UK as a digital download (access previews and purchase them here). Nov. 26 will see a 180g vinyl reissue.

I still have the advance CD release Sire Records sent me to review ahead of the album’s original US release date. Below you will find what I turned in to either “Jam Entertainment News” or “Goldmine Magazine” (can’t remember who I even wrote this for!). I still stand by it (though, if I could, I’d tweak the language, but for the sake of posterity, I’ll allow my original text from 15 years ago stand). I’m glad to see this album has held up so well over the years…

APHEX TWIN
Richard D. James
Warp/Sire (2-62010-P)

Aphex Twin’s latest release, Richard D. James, offers more of a listening experience than most monotonous, beat-driven ambient albums ever have; yet it still stays true to ambient’s definitive elements.  Electronic beeps and whines, along with computerized jungle and break-beat rhythms are sill ubiquitous, but shifting melodies and animated instrumentation are at the forefront, adding new life to an ever evolving music genre.

Aphex Twin is actually a solo artist, whose real name happens to be Richard D. James.  James had always been interested in electronics since he was a youth.  A dropout from London’s Kingston Polytechnic, James turned his knowledge of circuitry into music in the mid-80s and has worked under such aliases as Polygon Window, Caustic Window, and GAK, among others.  But James is best known for his work as Aphex Twin, having achieved number one indie status in Britain with his last release, and US major label debut on Elektra, I Care Because You Do.

Richard D. James is a departure from the grandiose arrangements and high concepts of  I Care.  James goes for a more intimate feel by mixing homemade electronic gear with organic instruments and adding vocals, making for one of the most charismatic albums the new ambient scene has yet to offer.

The album opens with an ethereal, electronic wash of strings, propelled by a beat that’s light but furious, all the while a shivering melody weaves along between the contradicting sounds.  On two occasions the beat falters, and voices can be heard muttering in the background as if they’ve opened up the hood of a car to see what’s wrong, and the song kick starts again.  As an opening track, “4” sets the mood of this human electronic work nicely, showing us that computerized music needs to stop and catch its breath once in awhile.

Opening with an analog hiss that rips into an effervescent electronic pile of melodies, “Fingerbib” abandons the superhuman rhythms with a decidedly archaic yet bountiful ambient tune that could have come out of the ‘70s.  Speedy rhythms still prevail on most of the tracks, though, but other departures for Aphex Twin are in store.  On “Milkman” and “Beetles” James sings.  The lyrics don’t seem to say much (“I wish the milkman would deliver my milk/in the morning/I wish the milkman would deliver my milk/When I’m yawning”), but they actually carry some weight as minimalist concepts, conveying a deeper emotion, which might even impress followers of Brian Eno.

Maybe his claim that he hadn’t even begun listening to music until after he started creating his own seems far-fetched, but there is no denying the Richard D. James is an original.  The subtle power behind his self-titled album cannot be denied.  With it James can sway critics of soulless electronica, while still pleasing fans of ambient, trance and techno.

I make a brief reference to Aphex Twin’s prior album, 1995’s …I Care Because You Do. That will also see reissue by Warp (see here). Here are the mock-ups on vinyl:

I would also like to add a note on one of my favorite tracks off the album, which I only touched on in the original review, noting how it seems to harken back to the seventies. The reason I stated that “Finger Bib” could have come out of that era is not only due to its slower beat, but also that it specifically threw me back to a rare instrumental track by David Bowie, “A New Career In a New Town,” off his own masterpiece of an album, 1977’s Low. Both tunes have a bounding, hazy quality recalling the twilight of a new day. It’s a wonderful, mesmerizing moment that offers a nice downshift to the plethora of “breaking” beats that often appear on the album.

Richard D. James holds up better than ever in these days when computerized sound manipulation dominates much of the pop charts. I felt a bit ambivalent to a music termed IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) back in the early nineties, a genre defined by artists like Aphex Twin. Back then, I measured music against seventies art rock by people like Brian Eno, Cluster, David Bowie and King Crimson. Now, Aphex Twin is part of a music past of comparatively artistic proportions. These albums certainly merit a revisit on vinyl.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

It all began  at the start of this month with an exclusive interview with Mike Garson talking about his new solo album, the David Bowie Variations for Piano (Mike Garson talks about ‘David Bowie Variations’: an Indie Ethos exclusive). Bowie’s stalwart keyboardist since 1972, Garson is up there with some of the more creative collaborators Bowie has worked with. As I noted in earlier posts of this series, I had the privilege of talking with Garson back in 2004, backstage at what would have been Bowie’s tour stop in Miami for the Reality tour.

The publication of the story in the pages of the record collector’s magazine “Goldmine” hinged on whether I could get some exclusive quotes from Bowie. As detailed in earlier posts in this series, it was not to be, and the story languished until Bowie quietly slipped away in an unannounced form for retirement.

Out of the blue, in May or so, I dropped Garson an email to see what we could do with this interview. He told me about the upcoming release of his solo record (Garson will sign a copy of the CD for anyone that orders directly from his website). We spoke again some more, and I resurrected my 2004 interview, which totaled about two hours of talking. Here are the last tidbits of our conversations, from 2004:

Hans Morgenstern: Is there some distinction for you personally between what’s jazz and what’s classical music?

Mike Garson: To be honest with you, I don’t actually have a personal line or barrier or distinction. That might be a plus, and it might be a minus. I never figured it out, but to me, it’s all music, which is probably why I have no problem crossing barriers. I’m very comfortable with fusion music and playing angular things on David’s music and this and that. It’s like whatever I hear is what I play, whether I’m playing solo piano or playing jazz or I’m playing with my trio or playing rock and roll with David. In other words, if I hear it, I play it. I don’t feel, 0h, I’m slipping out of rock. I’m playing jazz. If I hear it, and it seems appropriate for that music, I’ll play it. Once in a while, somebody will say that didn’t sound right, but usually because I’m not in the moment. If I’m in the moment, I’ll usually make the right calculation.

That’s what I was wondering. Is there a rock hat you put on? Do you have a creative pool that you reach for the classical notes and a separate one for the jazz?

It looks that way, but it’s really not for me. It can be, but I don’t opt for that.

How does Bowie’s music fit in with that?

There might be a few rock tunes that I’m required to play rock piano through the course of the night like “Suffragette City” or “White Light[/White Heat],” that Velvet Underground song. I’m just playing…

Listen to Garson playing those parts

… But there’s a lot of songs like … We were playing “Ashes to Ashes” one day, and I was playing a synth solo. He says, “Ah, that sounded too much like Herbie Hancock. Why don’t you switch to piano and play like a piano solo, more like ‘Aladdin Sane’ kind of stuff?” So now I do that at the end of the song. Now, that’s not on the original record, and that’s not recorded anywhere, so I’ll get to stretch out on that tonight, if we play that song, and that’s very unusual for me because it’s a three-bar phrase, and it’s a G-minor, an F-major and a C-minor chord, and it revolves in three bar phrases, and it’s not easy to improvise on. Especially since I’m improvising in an avant-garde way, so it’s a challenge for me every night. Whereas when I play an “Aladdin Sane” solo it’s just A and G. It’s easier to improvise on that than:

Listen to a Garson explore his “Ashes to Ashes” solo

So there I’m functioning like all the instruments coz I’m playing as a solo pianist. I won’t be doing so much left hand later, or I’ll play it differently. There I had to cover the fullness. There’s some jazz elements and classical elements there.

* * *

That was the point where my hour-long tape ran out, as I was only supposed to have a half-hour with him (yes, just as he was demonstrating his Bowie-related playing). I did call him up about a month later to round out the interview, as really we sort of “improvised” it on the day we first met. Most of this later interview I have already shared (From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie (Part 1), From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie, the later years (Part 2)). However, I still have some left over bits that do explore other facets of Garson’s life, creativity and technique:

Hans Morgenstern:  We did not talk about your institutional studies. When did you go to Julliard and what did you get out of it?

Mike Garson: I studied with a Julliard teacher. In fact, over the years, three Julliard teachers. The Julliard teacher, I never had to go to Julliard because she lived next door to my house, so I didn’t have to travel there. So I had a Julliard teacher for classical, but I didn’t have to study at the school. My college was Brooklyn College.

So it was informal?

It wasn’t informal. It was serious piano lessons. I just didn’t go to that school. My degree is from Brooklyn College for music and education.

Why do you play with Band-Aids around your fingers?

I used to put them on after they got sore, now I put them on before, so it’s preventive medicine. I probably hit the keys too hard, I guess. (He laughs). And every time I try to play without them, and, I start off playing soft, I still end up banging by the end of the show, so I keep them on. They really help. Occasionally, I’ll catch a wrong note because of the thickness of the Band-Aid but most of the time, I know how to compensate. I’ve been wearing Band-aids for 30 years.

So that started on a regular piano, but you still need them on a synthesizer?

Well, on stage I have a piano with a piano action, so I need it for that, and of course the synth is right above it, so I don’t take the Band-Aids off. I don’t need them for when I play synth, technically. I need it for the harder action.

So that piano is sensitive to how much pressure you put on the keys?

Yeah. I probably didn’t learn right from the beginning because I probably shouldn’t need Band-Aids because most people don’t wear them, but you know the old expression, “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”? So I don’t deal with it. But I’m probably not hitting all the proper parts of the fingers because the band-aids help the sides, and you really should be only hitting in the center part, so I’m probably not even hitting perfect. But, whatever it is, you sort of develop your own way of hitting and playing as the years go on, and if it works, you leave it alone. But it’s probably not a hundred percent standard. Nothing I’ve ever done is standard, connected with the piano.

You have composed 4,000 pieces, you said.

I have 2,000 in classical and 2,000 in miscellaneous, jazz and pop.

Do you ever fear that the vast amount of pieces you have written out there might diminish the value of each piece?

Well, the truth of the matter is that I feel that maybe one out of 10 is probably good. So I probably have, out of the 4,000 pieces I wrote, 400 that I’d be proud of, and the reason I write so much is to get that one out of the 10. It doesn’t diminish the value for me. Maybe for the commercial world that likes to put scarcity in abundance on things, I’d say, What was the only composition he ever did? or something like that, but I don’t think about those kind of things because I just write music. Hayden, the composer, wrote hundreds of pieces of music, but we play the ones we like. The same with Bach and Beethoven. You find that it’s kind of like the cream rises to the top. I mean of the 400 I would chose, maybe if I was dead, maybe [someone] would chose a different 400, but I would say I would have 400 that I would be proud of and then probably 400 that are OK and then probably 400 that are fair and then probably a thousand that were just bullshit, that were getting me to the other place. Both as a student and a teacher, I tell everybody that: if you want to be a good writer or composer, write a lot, so I wrote a lot. When I used to write pop songs, I couldn’t write good bridges, so I spent a year just practicing writing the bridges of songs, just as a discipline, you know?  But since I compose a lot of the music on the Yamaha Disklavier, they take less time to write because I’m actually improvising them on to disk. Then they get printed out, so I’m not having to write it by hand anymore, like I used to do in the sixties and seventies, so my composition has become almost the direct output from my fingers to the piano, so it’s sort of a gift that opened up when I turned 50. It’s kind of exciting in a way.

So you’ve only been doing this since you’ve been about 50, for about eight years?

Yeah, I’ve been doing the Now Music for about eight years.  It started brewing a few years before that, but it really started to come about hot and heavy around ’96.

How do you get the music out there to the other players?

What happens is I first give the disc to this guy who works for me, who prints it out in Finale, and then he makes it look real good, and then I check it over. And then, you know, as I travel around the world I meet people, and I say, “Have a listen to this recording, and if they like one of the pieces, I’ll send you the music,” and guys play them.

Someone played one of my nocturnes in a recital last week, I got a communication last week. I did get asked, just yesterday to play with a symphony orchestra next year, and they want to do my concerto, which I told them, they have to do it by my rules because even though the concerto was written, I was going to play a different piano part with the orchestra playing the same part. It kind of threw the conductor off, but they said, “Why not?”

Garson recently offered an mp3 of his “classical side” that he said I could share here. Download “Humble Hubris.” “For now just following my heart,” Garson said.

So you never play the same thing twice, do you?

I try not to. Sometimes I have to on a gig. Like there are certain things that David Bowie wants to hear, I’ll give it to him all the time, but other times I have leeway.

Do you have any early albums available now?

The trouble with my thing is, all my records are out of print, so it’s very hard to find a Mike Garson CD. I have a couple of things floating around. You find them on eBay and this and that, but there’s really nothing, and I’ve done 11 albums.

What’s this Now Art that you are working with?

That’s a whole other part of me that developed in the last six years: computer-generated art that I kind of do like my Now Music; I kind of improvise it. Somebody had given me a program called Photoshop, but I didn’t know you were supposed to use it with photos, so I started drawing things from scratch, and I ended up creating thousands of pictures over the last six, seven years. I had my first art showing in Portland last month [On April 12, 2004, Portland’s Brian Marki Fine Art Gallery hosted a premiere reception of his artwork]. When we passed through Portland some gallery asked me to take some of these computer-generated works and have them put on canvas. There’s a process that you can get them put on canvas. So I had them put on canvas, and they look beautiful, so we sold them.  And anyone who bought a piece of artwork at the gallery, I had a piano there, I composed a piece on the spot for them that went with the artwork.

So you create these by just working in Photoshop?

Photoshop, Painter, Artist, (some others) a lot of programs, mostly Photoshop, but I create them from scratch by using the different tools that are in there, with plug-ins and whatever, and I just got a very good knack for colors and balance.

* * *

And these were all the components that would have made a lengthy feature profile on Garson. I probably gathered enough material to write a book, so inevitably lots would have had to have been cut back for a magazine. But thanks to the Internet, and unlimited space, here is a testament to my research. Because of the release of the Bowie Variations, I found a good time to publish it all. Who knows? Maybe one day a proper story in a publication might appear with some of Bowie’s quotes. If there is one thing I know for sure about David Bowie, it’s that nothing is ever final with him.

As Garson has said, he had been thinking about variations on Bowie’s music for a while, so I will leave you with a performance of his variation of “Space Oddity” in 2007:

This is continued from Part 4: From the Archives: Mike Garson on playing the piano (Part 4 of 5)

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

This post continues my conversation with Mike Garson, which took place May 4, 2004. I sat down with him backstage at the James L. Knight Center in Miami, in a small, isolated dressing room set up with just his Yamaha Motif. He told me he always liked to practice for a couple of hours before hitting the stage. In a few hours he was to join David Bowie and his band on stage, during the Reality Tour’s stop in Miami. But, as detailed, earlier (Mike Garson talks about ‘David Bowie Variations’: an Indie Ethos exclusive, From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie (Part 1 of 5), From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie, the later years (Part 2 of 5), From the Archives: Mike Garson goes from jazz to Bowie (Part 3 of 5)), that show would be cancelled.

Still, in my 20 years of interviewing musicians, my conversation with Mike was one of the more memorable I have had with an artist of such talent and experience. I was delighted to have encountered a musician whose roots not only went back to the heyday of the glam rock era of the seventies, but even further to the roots of the experimental New York free jazz scene, and none of it had seemed to have gone to his head. He spoke of his apprehension of playing with jazz men of such greatness as Bill Evans, and offered patient insight into his memories of working with Bowie, probably his most famous collaborator.

In this part of our conversation we go a little deeper into Garson’s own ideas of his approach to the piano. It’s an intimate conversation that reveals an interesting and humble mentality to man’s place in music. This continues directly from the last post…

Hans Morgenstern: You mention how the improvisation just comes out of you. It must really take an unself-conscious sort of mindset.

Mike Garson: There is no ego when it’s going right. I have an ego, but it’s not usually in the way when I’m playing best, like the Lennie Tristano thing. He did a record that nobody even knows about because it sold so few, but I happened to get it in the sixties. He’s playing bass line with his left hand and improvising with his right hand. It sounded like this…

Listen to Garson’s demonstration

and jazz musicians like to take simple songs and just do theme and variation on them. You’d expect it to do that in jazz, but in Classical you don’t expect that. You’d expect it to be written out, but when I write out music I would sound like maybe secondhand Rachmaninov or Liszt or Chopin or Stravinsky, but when I was improvising, it became apparent that’s how I create, so that became my form of music, so when I realized I had the ability to get it written out through the player piano because I recorded into the Yamaha Disklavier, which is a 9-foot grand I have in the house. I put the floppy disc in, push record and then give the guy the disk and then he prints it out. I’ll look it over to see that it’s right. Then I pass it on to be played by some concert pianist. I don’t play them but that one time, but they sound like a classical piece. Like what I just did for you, a few minutes ago, that we don’t have a recording of. It’s gone. I could have recorded them in here…

[I point to the recorder].

Oh, yeah, that there, but it wasn’t that good, the classical thing today. The jazz thing was actually better, but you never know what’s actually going to be what, when and where … But to answer your question, it’s a combination of a hundred thousand hours of playing the piano since I was 7, and I’m 58, so I’ve been playing 51 years, so, if you think about it, if you can’t be good after all that time (he laughs) you’re really just in the wrong profession. That’s just on a very physical level, but musically, spiritually and emotionally it’s kind of like … (He pauses). You’re somewhat channeling. It’s like the music’s passing through you or like the notes are there, and I’m grabbing them, or they’re grabbing me. I haven’t figured it out.

I’ve heard Robert Fripp talk about that.

Has he talked about that? Any great artist will somehow or other get around to it, somehow, someway, and I know that it’s kind of like the expression: God helps those who help themselves. I mean, let’s face it, I’ve done a lot of homework, so I couldn’t do this on violin or French horn. I would sound terrible. So I have worked hard, but I know a lot of people who play the piano very well and have played as many hours, but they don’t have that freedom to just create and improvise. There is obviously some gift and some portion of me that is able to get out of my own way because I’ve never had composer’s block.

That goes back to when you were much younger, in your 20s and before Bowie invited you to play with him, you mentioned some of these jazz guys, and you were intimidated by that, basically.

I was.

So what happened to that guy? How did you break that barrier? How did he break through his fear of feeling inadequate to play with some jazz people?

I had to break through something that Vladimir Horowitz never broke through. People used to ask him, “How come you don’t compose?”

He said, “Well, my friend is Rachmaninov, who’s a genius.” I studied Chopin. You can’t beat that. I grew up with that mentality, and as long as you think that, that’s what you get, and it’s pretty logical thinking, so I had that for about half of my life. Then one day, I said, “fuck it.” I have to change my mindset, and I have to adopt a new paradigm: “Oh, I can be as good as any of my jazz heroes. I can be as good as any of my classical heroes. I can be as good as any composer but as Mike Garson.” What do I have to do to do that kind of a thing? And then I started to work toward this music that I call my Now Music, which is all this improvised classical stuff. But I do it in pop, I do it in rock. If you take the “Aladdin Sane” solo away from the rock track, it’s like the stuff that I’m playing. It would sound like …

Garson demonstrates

… So that’s where my joy lies these days, but the theory behind this way of playing, and that’s really what I do with David Bowie on those albums, and I’ve had it on my mind for 30 or 40 years, and I learned it from Lennie Tristano, the blind pianist that I was telling you about, which is he told me he felt that true jazz was really playing what you hear on the spot, in the moment. And a lot of guys play a lot of licks, and things they have memorized and worked out. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I certainly have done that, but I like the concept of trying to play what you feel in the present time, at the moment, and that’s what I’ve been developing for the last many years. It’s not much different than this conversation, in a way, you ask about this, and I start branching out, and it starts to become its own improvisation.

A lot of what I’m hearing here reminds me of what I saw on Michael Apted’s documentary, Inspirations, where he filmed you guys recording “A Small Plot of Land,” and he asked David Bowie about his creative process on the computer.

I never saw that.

You never saw that? Not even many Bowie fans know this film was released. It’s about these different artists, Lichtenstein, is another, and about the inspirations behind their art.

I’d love to see it. Was I in it?

Well, it was during the Outside sessions.

Those were great sessions.

You were on “A Small Plot of Land,” right?

I played piano.

But he was mainly focused on David.

I think conceptually,  [David is] in a similar place, philosophically, to me. Except that he’s working in pop music, in rock ‘n’ roll. He does have to go out and sing “Rebel Rebel” and some of these songs the same every night, and the band has to be tight, and the arrangements have to be tight. But, I think, when the music evolves and develops, he’s probably doing his version of what I was just doing in real-time for you. It’s not always the same thing.

That’s why I’m attracted to artists like him and you because it’s not always the same thing.

It’s not always the same thing … The thing is, Mozart and those people, Brahms, Beethoven, most of them didn’t live past 40, so I have this opportunity now, being 58 to still keep learning and absorbing things, so I’ll be around this other music that I’ve been talking about for the last 15 minutes, and I’ll be around David and this band, each person in this band is so creative and talented in their own way. The drummer, Sterling [Campbell], he’s the one who’s on “A Small Plot of Land” with me, and we improvised those sessions on Outside. David didn’t even let us tell each other what keys we were playing in. We basically played two weeks straight, four hours a day onto tape, the improvisations. They have tons of tape. Outside is just some songs that got made and put together by [co-producer Brian] Eno. Him and David would take these improvs that were all on these tapes, and then they’d hear a little hook here and a little hook there and cut it up. They would create a song like “Hearts Filthy Lesson,” which I wrote with him and the other guys. That ended up in the movie Seven. It must have been something that they heard, and then they formed it into a song. We were just improvising the way I was just doing it now.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if every artist stayed at what they do, they eventually come to similar realizations regarding the creative process, the inspirational aspects, the channeling, but I think what people sometimes do is they try to jump there, and they haven’t done any basics or fundamentals, and their art sometimes doesn’t have enough substance. I don’t object to it because of the fact if anyone is creating, all the more power to them, but, personally, if you want to have some more depth, I think you have to do some more work along the way. I probably do too much work coz I studied so much, but then I had to undo all the studying to find my own voice, which is what I did between maybe 20 and 45. It’s really starting to come out, the older I get. It probably always was there, but I guess I’m refining it, at this point in my life. But you do get some wisdom as you get older just because you see so much junk go down. I’ve lost so many friends for so many different reasons, a lot of it drugs and this and that. But you start to come to realizations about things, and it affects your music and your art.

One of the words I can’t help to use in my reviews of songs of David Bowie that I hear you on is “angular.”

Oh, OK.

I’m just wondering if it’s a good word.

It is a good word. It is a good word. I don’t know how that came about. I know that sometimes I’ve had the thought if David Bowie, when I’m playing a solo for him like on “Small Plot of Land” or “Battle For Britain” or “Aladdin Sane,” I’m almost being him. I’m trying to play the piano like he would play, if he had the technique, so it might be more him than me that I’m playing at that moment because, as an artist, I also have this sort of chameleon ability to almost turn into anything that I’m around. The big joke is the last thing I hear before I go on stage might end up in the show. I was sitting at a club last week, and the club owner in Austin, Texas starts talking to me about, “Oh, we used to have these barrel house boogie-woogie players,” and I went up and sat in with a guitar player who was playing a rock show, and then I stopped the band and played some crazy like boogie-woogie piano like on steroids, very fast and crazy. But, I’d just been talking about it, so it brought it back to me. So, there’s something where I’m trying to connect myself, my spirituality, my life, my experiences and the music, using that as sort of the vehicle for how I feel.

There’s wisdom in music.

And it comes from a lot of years. Probably it might come from other lifetimes. Who knows? You know what I mean? The biggest problem for an artist, I think, who gets very good at what they do, is to stay somewhat humble and recognize that their music is a gift, and it’s coming through them. They’re offering it as a contribution to people who are listening to it, but if they get too wrapped up in themselves, sometimes the music suffers, and then they end up suffering.

A lot of it sounds like psychology, too. If you’re gonna put up the mental block, then you’re not going to be happy.

Right, and that’s the question you brought up 25 minutes ago regarding the ego and the self being out of the way and all that. I mean, I’ve written tons of songs, like “Letting Go,” is the name of one song, and “Selflessness,” because you’re always trying to figure out how to get away from your humanness because all our humanness sometimes tends to hold us all back. The way you’re creating the art, you sort of want the art to be a little purer, so you’re trying to be a servant to the music, and it’s hard to be a servant to the music when people are clapping for you every night and signing autographs all day long and praising you. You need to acknowledge the compliment from the person who is saying that is sincere, so you want to give them time of their communication, but if you let it go to your head, which is what happens to most artists, it’s the beginning of the end. Consequently, all the guys who ruin themselves, blow themselves off or die or get nuts or get perverted or crazy, it’s just the whole story, so that’s the challenge. I don’t think the challenge is practicing or keeping up my chops. The challenge is how not to get destroyed by the fame.

I totally think of Kurt Cobain and what happened with him, you know?

Right, yeah. The funniest thing is I never worked with him, but the fact that I worked with Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins a few years. I toured with Nine Inch Nails and I recorded with them the Fragile album with Trent Reznor.

Brilliant album.

It’s a great album. But it’s always struck me that those kind of people gravitated to me. Obviously, they liked my music, but beyond that, there must have been something they wanted that was a part of me that they felt maybe could enhance their life. For example, I never used drugs, and I’ve been married for 36 years. I have two kids, two grandchildren. In other words, I’m not a normal musician in that way, and I’m probably proud of it in a lot ways because it feels more honest. I think people do all those other things just to keep themselves alive. They’re trying to keep their mind from haunting them and possessing them, so they’re trying to move it out of the way with drinking or with drugs.

The real thing is to embrace that. It’s like the shadow Carl Jung talks about.

It’s exactly that, and a lot of people are not willing to go through the pain of that, so they cover it up, and then it manifests itself in another form, and it just keeps getting them, until they confront it. Sooner or later they decide to get it together, or they just fade away or die or whatever. Certain artists have been lucky enough to sort of come through it.

Going back to your angular style: how do you choose the notes you play? Because they seem to be a bit off, but they work.

I think if there was a lot of music that had not been written I’d play more unangular (laughs). If things like this hadn’t been written…

A Garson demo of “unangular” playing

… If those things weren’t done, I might have been the one to choose to do that, but since so much has been done, I was probably looking to find a voice that had a new contribution, so you have all that classical and baroque and romantic music in the 1600s to the 1900s, so by the time I started creating in the sixties and the seventies and eighties, there was this thing of avant-garde music, and contemporary classical music and atonal music, so I heard a lot of that. I didn’t love it, but I found a way to use it in David’s music and some other people’s music that seemed to fit. I think because rebellious artists and people like us we’re always looking to sort of go against the grain a little bit, and I think people appreciate that type of originality. But it wasn’t really calculated, when it came about because I was doing it when I was 14, 15, 16 and 17. It’s just that nobody knew it. There were no records.

You mean you were playing like that?

There were parts of me that fooled around with that. If I look at some of my earlier classical pieces that I used to write by hand, they were out there … I think I’m also subject to the times that I’m in. As artists, we actually follow the waves of what’s going on in the world, so if bombs are going off and atom bombs and hydrogen bombs are going off, music isn’t always going to be very tonal. It’s going to start having some dissonance and angularity.  That’s part of what’s going on in life.

I’m thinking about the futurists, in the 1920s. The real creation of the avant-garde came about at the turn of the century, and they were all about: destruction will create the new art.

That fits into that. I’m not too much later than that. Forty years later. You know what I mean? And a lot of those people didn’t fully complete their missions or whatever.

I think after all these manifestos came out about how we must destroy the libraries and museums to create the new art, World War I came about and all their friends, famous poets and painters died, and the movement sort of lost its thrust. It came about in Russia and Italy (and some France).

Right. The history of art is fascinating. David really knows about all that stuff, an expert. I spent all my time practicing that I actually missed out on studying on a lot of things that I wished I knew, but I learned it through just being it, but I actually didn’t read it historically, which a lot of people are very well read about those things. I was just so obsessed with the piano. Like David’s such a natural voice and singer, and he just comes up and sings. You don’t hear him practicing. I was practicing eight hours a day and all that stuff, and then I’d do a gig for six hours, so the day would go by very fast, and that happened all through my teens and 20s.

* * *

This is continued from Part 3: From the Archives: Mike Garson goes from jazz to Bowie (Part 3 of 5)

This archival interview series continues here: From the Archives: Rounding up Mike Garson, his Now Music, visual art and a bit more Bowie (Part 5 of 5)

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

As already established in my earlier posts culled from several interviews with Mike Garson for an unpublished piece regarding his contribution to the music of David Bowie from 1972-2006 (Mike Garson talks about ‘David Bowie Variations’: an Indie Ethos exclusive, From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie (Part 1), From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie, the later years (Part 2)), Garson brought a colorful experience in jazz when Bowie called on him to join the Ziggy Stardust tour. Garson had no experience in rock and no idea who this David Bowie character– with his orange mullet and glitter makeup– was. So how did a classically trained jazz man like Garson wind up being Bowie’s most consistent side man of his career?

During my first interview with Garson, when I met him in 2004, I began our conversation with some questions about his jazz experience, which would eventually lead him to working with Bowie.

I met him backstage, in a small, isolated dressing room at the James L. Knight Center in Miami, just hours before Bowie and his band was supposed to take the stage on May 4, during the Reality Tour’s stop in Miami. He was sitting in front of a Yamaha Motif, preparing to warm up for the show, as was his regular routine while on tour with David Bowie.

Our conversation that day wound up mostly focusing on his experience in jazz, before going deeper into his approach to the piano. He would illustrate a lot of his points on the keyboard, some samples of which I have converted into mp3 files posted throughout the rest of this interview, which will continue in two more parts.

On with the interview, which I had hoped to convert into a more feature-oriented piece that never came to be, as detailed in the earlier posts about Garson already posted on this blog. Please note that you will find I ask a lot of questions about his age and what time whatever happened. It would have been what feature writers call “color,” not necessarily direct quotes. But since the story never happened, here is part 1 of that full conversation:

Hans Morgenstern: One of the first things I saw in my research is that you once had a six-hour session with Bill Evans. Is that true?

Mike Garson: Well, yeah. When I grew up on the New York jazz scene in the sixties, I sort of wanted to take advantage of all the great jazz pianists around. I was a gigantic Bill Evans fan. I used to sit this close to him at the Village Vanguard, watching him play and watching his hands. I used to steal my father’s car out of the house, from Brooklyn— I was 16— and just drive down to the Village Vanguard in Manhattan and just watch him play all night. I would get this corner table, and I could see the piano perfectly, so, one day, I got the nerve, a year or two later, to say, “Can I have a piano lesson?”

He said, “Yeah,” and I went up to his place. He spent six hours with me. He didn’t charge me a penny, and we went over some tunes, jazz things, and he showed me how he harmonizes them and voices them, so he would show me different chord substitutions for tunes. He used to carry around a little notebook when he would be on the train, going to gigs, and if he heard a little idea in his head, he would sketch it out, so he kind of showed me a little bit how his creative process worked.

Plus, we shared something in common. He liked Lennie Tristano, and I don’t know if you know Lennie Tristano. Lennie Tristano was a blind pianist. He was phenomenal, actually. A real unsung hero. He’s not alive anymore. I studied with him for three years. Lennie Tristano played with Charlie Parker. He had his own school of music.

This was after your meeting with Bill Evans?

I was studying with him [Tristano] at the time. I had already had two years with Lennie Tristano, so I was just adding Bill in as an additional little supplement because I knew it was just going to be one lesson with him. With Lennie it was weekly. Lennie taught people like Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, they were sax players. Lee Konitz is still alive. Warne Marsh is not. He had a whole little school of people who played jazz in his style—very advanced harmonic concept and rhythmical concept. The Tristano School was almost like a cult in New York in the fifties and the sixties and the seventies, so I had the luck to study with him for three years. There’s a little playing of Bill Evans on an album that Bill did called New [Jazz] Conceptions in 1956 and there’s a couple of tunes on there where you could see that Bill Evans got influenced by Lennie Tristano, so we got talking about that.

You must have been really young.

You know …  I was studying classical primarily, but my jazz studies were all between 15 and 20 or something. I had three lessons with Herbie Hancock. I studied with a guy named Hall Overton (Check out a great radio piece by NPR about Overton as teacher and jazz man). He did the big band charts for the Thelonious Monk albums that have big band on them, if you heard any of those albums they’re hard to find, and those are his arrangements, so I got to study with him.

I remember reading Thelonious Monk did big band, but I never heard any of those records.

He had a big band for a little period of time, and this guy, Hall Overton, was my teacher for two years. He did those arrangements, and, right after my lesson, Tony Williams used to take a composition lesson with Hall Overton. I mean, what I’m trying to say from all this, since you brought up Bill Evans, is I was able to be a sponge and be right on that New York scene. I mean, I got to work with Elvin Jones, who was [John] Coltrane’s drummer.

Oh yeah, A friend of mind told me you played with Elvin Jones, and he wanted me to ask you about him.

Well, what happened was I went to this club to see Elvin Jones, but the piano player fell off the stand drunk [NOTE: must have been between 1971-73, when Steve Grossman was in the band, according to Allmusic.com]. They dragged him out into the street. It was on Spring and Hudson, in Manhattan, and Elvin says, “Does anyone know how to play piano in the house?” And the sax player was a guy named Steve Grossman, who I had been playing with on jam sessions. He was a very talented guy, very young, and he said, “This guy plays,” and I was like in a tuxedo. I had just come from a gig of some sort, you know, some sort of a wedding or party or something like that.

And how old were you?

How old was I then? Maybe, uh, 20, 19 or 20.  And, so he points to me and Elvin sees me, and he kind of says, “Come on up, Arthur Rubinstein” because Arthur Rubinstein was a great classical pianist at that time, and he could sense, just by looking at me, that I had a classical background. These guys are very intuitive. And I went up and played a few nights with him just based on the fact that this guy fell off the bandstand drunk, and it was a great experience because I was young, and there wasn’t a more favorite drummer I preferred, even though it was a very short stint, working with him. But I also worked with Pete La Roca at that time, who was also a jazz drummer. I worked with him with Dave Liebman, the sax player. You ever hear of him? Dave Liebman?

Yes.

We grew up together.

Didn’t you record something with him?

Yeah, we did some recording together, too. We haven’t released the last thing we did. We did a duet, which is really interesting.

Garson shared a piece from the still unreleased album called “Repetition” (not related to the Bowie tune, btw), which you can download exclusively here.

I haven’t released it yet, but we played in the Catskills Mountains together for like three or four years every summer (We went to the same high school. I was a year older than him), but we worked with this great drummer named Pete La Roca, who’s a great drummer and Bob Moses played drums with us in that band and then Randy Brecker … There was a loft that Dave [Liebman] lived in, in New York City. There was all these great musicians. We’d have sessions. One day Mike Brecker comes in and starts playing, next day it’s Lenny White, and this is all when I’m 18, 19, 20. It’s not like that anymore.

That was like during the end of the hard bop era, right?

It was sort of right after that a little bit, but we were playing that style. We were a little younger than those people who were the generation before us. So we played some free music, we played some Coltrane-type music. I was playing like McCoy Tynre at the time. It was crazy stuff. It was a great time for music, and I would practice eight hours a day. In fact, about six months before the Bowie gig, I got called to work with Freddie Hubbard. I turned it down coz I was scared I wasn’t ready. Joe Henderson called. I was scared to do that, and then three, four, five years later, I heard the people that played on those records, and I was actually playing that way, but I didn’t have enough self-confidence.

But then you did work with Hubbard.

It turned out I did work with Freddie Hubbard in 1988, many years later, and the night I got called for the Bowie gig was one night after I played a jazz club in Manhattan, on 69th Street and Broadway.

This was like in ’72?

’72, and there was like three people in the club. I was playing with Dave Liebman and Pete La Roca and Steve Swallow and making $5, and I said something’s wrong with this picture, and I said maybe I should go out with a rock band, and then the next night Bowie called. But interestingly enough, the same night Woody Herman called and Bill Chase. Bill Chase, they die in a plane accident [in 1974], so it was good I didn’t do that gig. He was a trumpet player with Woody Herman, and he had his own band. Woody Herman’s gig paid very little money, and I’d played a lot of big band music already, coz I was in the Army Band for three years, so I had played in a big band, so I wasn’t excited about that, but the David Bowie gig sounded interesting, but I have to admit, I didn’t know who he was.

Well, how did he hear about you?

I had just played on an album as a session player for a singer named Annette Peacock, who had been married to Gary Peacock, who was a bass player. She was also married to Paul Bley, who’s a jazz pianist, and she knew David [then labelmates on RCA], and I had just played on her album [called I’m the One (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon)], and he respected her, and he came to America for his first tour and he said he was looking for a pianist to be on the American tour with the Spiders From Mars, and she said, “I just heard this guy who has classical and jazz background, and he might be interesting on your music.” She didn’t really tell him I was a rock player, coz I really wasn’t.

Stream the two songs featuring Garson’s piano on I’m the One below:

From what I’ve read and heard, I sense that you’ve taken piano playing to another level. Does this kind of playing come from wisdom or just playing for many years?

The thing is, I’m obsessed … with the piano. Some people, they orchestrate, they conduct, they played four instruments, they play drums, they play guitar, they play bass, they sing, they write harmony parts. I don’t do any of that. My whole life has been dedicated to the piano, and it’s on-going. So, I’ve looked at so much music and listened to so much music and sight-read so much music, and, personally I’ve composed like 4,000 pieces, of which half are classical.

When I was in Brooklyn College, going to school, I used to bring home music from the New York Public Library. It was the Lincoln Center Library. I’d bring home stacks and put them in the trunk of my car, and they’d let you keep it for two weeks. Then I’d bring it back, return it, bring this much back again. I used to carry it like this, walking through the streets, and I would just sight-read them. I’d only play the pieces once, so I would sight-read composers like Messiaen and Legeti and Bartók and Hindemith and Noles, Liszt and Chopin and Bach and Mozart and Godowsky and Busoni, and I would just read them like people read books, and I’d only just play them once just to absorb it. I was practicing my sight-reading abilities, but of course I was also absorbing music.

What age were you then?

It was between 21 and 25, maybe started even younger. So what I’m saying is I’ve just submerged myself in music. I wasn’t just a jazz pianist or just a classical pianist or someone who played pop or rock or casual gigs or club dates. I just did it all. Whatever came my way. I liked Vladamir Horowitz. I like Arthur Rubenstein. I like Glenn Gould. But I loved Keith Jarrett. I loved Bill Evans. I loved Wynton Kelly. I loved Art Tatum. I loved Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell. So I was submerged in the jazz world, submerged in the classical world, submerged in what the composers wrote. I was writing my own music, and I even like commercial pianists like Roger Williams and Peter Nero and Ramsey Lewis. In other words, I had a specific love for the piano, both playing and composition. Like Chopin, for example, wrote mostly piano music. He only wrote like one concerto and a couple of orchestra pieces, but unlike Wagner or Beethoven, who wrote tons of pieces for orchestra, Chopin wrote for the piano. I’m very much like that. I have 2,000 classical pieces that I’ve written, sonatas and nocturnes and all kinds of pieces.

I’ve heard little bits of them on your website.

Yeah, there’s some things on there. I’ll give you a record. I stuffed one in my suitcase. It’s not out yet, it’s called Homage to my Heroes (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon).

Those are the clips that I heard

But there was some earlier versions. This is a new one. There’s two volumes.

So, if I’m understanding this right, this is basically some of the musicians you mentioned, and you’ve taken their style and done it your own particular way?

Not even that. It’s more like they inspired me at a certain point in my life, whether it was for one day or for a month or for a year. When I wrote the piece I might have just been thinking about them. They all really sound like me and very seldom someone would say that sounds like Messiaen or Bach or this and that. Once in a while it’s obvious. They’re me, but it’s more that they inspired the music, as opposed to copying, but the whole concept behind the album. See, I was trying to figure out what type of legacy could I leave in music that would be different from Leonard Bernstein or Gershwin or Beethoven or Bach or Chopin because they all wrote music this way, by hand, so they composed the pieces, but I had spent 30 or 40 years improvising, so I started writing classical pieces as improvs, but into my Yamaha Disklavier player piano, so it would record all the data and then I’d give the MIDI files to this guy who works with me, and he prints out the music. Something that might have taken me three weeks I’ve done in one shot. I would play on a regular grand piano, and it will record the data, and then they would put it in a program called Finale. It prints it out, then you have to finesse it a little bit. Then I give those pieces to concert pianists, and they play them. I never have played these 2,000 pieces. I just improvise them once, so they might sound like this…

Listen to Gason’s demonstration

… so my whole concept behind music is if you can capture how you feel at any given second, you are being totally true to yourself and the music but very seldom do I get a chance to create like that. When you’re in a band, you have to play parts. Now, with David, I get more improvisation time than any of the other members because I’m sort of sitting on top of the guitars and bass and drums, so I’m like the whip cream on the cake. So I can improvise a little more, but I still have to play some parts exact.

* * *

In part 4 of this ongoing interview series, I went a little deeper with Garson into what exactly he might be thinking when he plays the way he does.

I’ll leave you with a YouTube video Mike shared of one of his more recent jazz performances (no embed allowed so copy and paste):

This is continued from Part 2: From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie, the later years (Part 2 of 5)

This archival interview series continues here: From the Archives: Mike Garson on playing the piano (Part 4 of 5)

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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.”

First is a version shot by D.A. Pennebaker for his historic concert film Ziggy Startdust the Motion Picture, which captured the final Ziggy Stardust show in 1973:

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.

Beyond “Something In the Air” from the American Psycho soundtrack, isn’t there a remix of “Survive” that you also play on?

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 waysBowie Garson, 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.

I still sound like one. I never lost my accent, and I’m there several months a year because David lives in New York, so I rehearse in New York a lot.

“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.

Here’s to hoping the next tour comes down here because the last time I saw you was during the Earthling tour.

Right! Fort Lauderdale. I remember that.

Historic show.

Historic show.

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.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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?

No (laughs).

So…

(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.

Yeah, what was that album like? Because, after then the whole weight of being Ziggy was lifted off Bowie, wasn’t it?

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.

Oh, it’s tremendous. I hadn’t heard it for 20-some odd years, and then somebody turned me on to it a few years ago because I didn’t even remember playing it.

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 you went on and recorded that album and…

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.”

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)