As already established in my earlier posts culled from several interviews with Mike Garson for an unpublished piece regarding his contribution to the music of David Bowie from 1972-2006 (Mike Garson talks about ‘David Bowie Variations’: an Indie Ethos exclusive, From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.)