339413_4ko2noiseAhead of the unveiling of an exhibition of unseen images featuring David Bowie shot by Markus Klinko for the 2002 album Heathen, I had a chance to talk to the fashion photographer for an up-coming preview piece in the Miami New Times’ Arts and Culture blog (it’s live now, read it here). I was given a preview of many of the images (some of which illustrate this post) at the Miami Design District art gallery Markowicz Fine Art by gallery owner Bernard Markowicz. He also put Klinko on the phone with me, and we spoke for quite some time. After submitting my article to the Miami New Times, there was plenty of material left over, including some details Klinko knew the fans would appreciate. This is what this article is about.

When Bowie’s death from cancer was announced in the early morning hours of January 11, Klinko admits he was not completely surprised by it. Because he often worked with Bowie’s wife, the supermodel Iman, Klinko was one of the few Bowie collaborators who knew of Bowie’s illness. “I can’t say that I didn’t expect it,” he says speaking via phone from New York City. “Even though I didn’t know and nobody called me to say that he was about to die, I had a feeling that this was happening. I knew he was very sick. It was mentioned to me, and I saw the video a few days before he died for ‘Blackstar.’ I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t expect it, but I wasn’t surprised.”

He found out about Bowie’s passing at 69 the same way many others did, via social media. “I woke up and saw so many Bowie mentions on Instagram,” he recalls. “I was tagged on some of them. $_57One of my images was used on the cover of ‘Le Monde.’ There were a bunch of emails from people asking to publish images. It was waking up to an avalanche of Instagram tags, missed calls. It was definitely a busy morning.”

The idea for the upcoming exhibition came when he and Markowicz, who has represented Klinko for the past 15 months, discussed revealing some outtakes from the Heathen photo session for a touring exhibit. Klinko added the cancer benefit component (proceeds will go to Gabrielle’s Angel Foundation for Cancer Research).

The photos were all taken after Bowie had recorded Heathen, during a day-long session at Klinko’s Soho studio in New York City. As with many of Klinko’s images, he collaborated with Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri who added effects in post-production, for instance erasing Bowie’s corneas for the album’s striking cover. Many of the images were never used and some later appeared on the pages of GQ. Still others never saw the light of day. “You can imagine how rich that session was,” says Klinko. “We got so much done in such a short time.”

Some of the images might bring to mind Bowie looks from past eras. Klinko points to things as subtle as a look in Bowie’s face to what he wears. 339413_2koala2sharp“There’s an image in the press release where he leans on a brick wall, I feel like there’s a bit of Ziggy Stardust in his expression there, different from all the other images from this set,” he notes. “Then there’s some of the Thin White Duke in the white shirt and the black vest … There are some reference points throughout his career, with all the transformations that he went through that still come back all the time.”

Though they would not work for a long time after, they stayed in touch because Klinko worked so often with Iman. He remembers when Bowie suffered a heart attack on stage in 2004 and needed emergency surgery. Bowie would then enter a decade-long phase away from the limelight. Like many others, Klinko thought Bowie had simply quietly retired after the health scare, though the photographer never stopped trying to get him involved with his shoots with Iman. “That’s exactly what I thought,” Klinko confirms, “that he’s not going to do anything, and I did ask Iman several times, ‘Hey, why don’t we do a shoot with you and David, and she said, ‘No, no.’”

But, one day, in the spring of 2013, Klinko was surprised to receive a call from Bowie to ask him to direct a music video for one of the songs off of his recently released album The Next Day. It was Bowie’s first album in 10 years,339413_10_ko1noisewhich had been recorded in secrecy, and it was an album that I declared in a Miami New Times review as Bowie’s great reboot. Indeed, says Klinko, when he spoke to Bowie after the album’s release, the pop star sounded rejuvenated and surprised by the album’s success. “It was obvious in his voice that he was absolutely shocked by the commercial success of that album,” says Klinko. “It made number one on a bunch of charts in the U.K. — not in the U.S. chart — but it did well in the U.S. chart, and he was very, very excited about that.”

It seems, according to Klinko, Bowie had doubts of his relevance in the world of popular music. “He would have never expected it because that was another conversation I also remember having,” Klinko continues. “Back in the time of the Heathen album shoot, I had asked him if he was going to do a video and he said, ‘Why should I? MTV won’t play it.’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about? You’re David Bowie.’ He said, ‘They’re not gonna play it. They’re not gonna play it. Maybe they’ll play it one time at 2 a.m. I’m not gonna do it.’ And, you know, I wasn’t at that time interested in directing videos, so I didn’t make much of it, but I remember him saying it in conversation, that MTV won’t play it, and so 12 years later, when he called, and he asked me to direct the video, I felt an almost child-like enthusiasm in his voice that ‘Oh, my God, it’s a huge success. I’m actually going to do this next video now,’ and he had already done [three] other ones.”

During the release of Heathen, music videos were not seeing routine release on YouTube and MTV became more obsessed with reality shows than playing music videos. But, in 2013, the music video world had become something else, easing into spaces on the Internet via artists, record labels and even fan produced works. On Bowie’s birthday, 339413_7ko1noisein 2013, he released a lyric video for “Where Are We Now” (David Bowie returns to music with new song on his 66th birthday). A month later, he released a second video, co-starring Tilda Swinton, for “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” (Finally, David Bowie and Tilda Swinton join forces: Watch DB’s new video). Then, after the album’s release in March, Bowie released a video for the title track where the singer played a Christ-like figure. Klinko worked with Bowie on the album’s final single, “Valentine’s Day.” By then, Bowie was on a roll, and Klinko cannot help but compare The Next Day Bowie to the Bowie he met during Heathen. “When he said, ‘MTV won’t play it,’ it was definitely with some kind of disappointment,” he says. “He was definitely feeling that the genre of music that he wanted to do did not get the support of this type of mainstream channels, and it was something that he was trying to deal with at the time.”

After not having heard from Bowie for a few years besides casual conversations with Iman, in the spring of 2013, Klinko received the phone call from Bowie’s manager that the singer wanted to do something him. “I was actually in L.A. at the gym, and his longtime manager Elaine called me and said, ‘David wants to speak to you right away. Can you talk to him?’ And I remember stepping out of the gym, running home to get his call, and he had this idea for this video.”

In the video for “Valentine’s Day” that we know, which was also co-directed by Indrani, Bowie inhabits an abandoned building, posing rather menacingly at times with a small guitar that he sometimes handles as if it were a rifle. But it would have been something quite different had Bowie had his way. “He wanted to reverse age, like in that Brad Pitt movie [The Curious Case of Benjamin Button]. He basically wanted to start out as an old man, like 80, and reverse in special effects and be like 19 at the end of the video.”

It wasn’t a concept entirely new for a later-period Bowie music video. The 1997 music video “Little Wonder” featured a young visage of Ziggy Stardust and Bowie had a young doppelgänger in the 1999 video for “Thursday’s Child.” It was also an idea Klinko, however, did not feel too keen about. Having already worked collaboratively with Bowie for the Heathen photo shoot, the photographer had no trouble disagreeing with Bowie, though it wasn’t necessarily an easy task to sway him away from the idea. “It was kind of tough to talk him out of it,” admits Klinko. “He really wanted it that way. We cast a young version of him, a lookalike, a model that was really talented that was used for some of the shots, like the scene from the back, when he’s looking through the window. That’s actually his younger body double. We decided not to do that with him. I felt it was a little cheesy to do it … It was the only time I ever really talked him out of something. Many of the other ideas for the record packaging and all that, a lot of it was his ideas.”

What finally changed Bowie’s mind, says Klinko, was the photographer’s stark concept for the music video. “He fell in love with the simplicity because the ‘Valentine’s Day’ was shot right after this very crazy  that he did withbabywlkbook being Jesus Christ, the priest … It was really a lot, very intense, very theatrical, so coming out with a video that was very simple, basically an animated portrait performance.”

But it was also more than that. The song is about a mass shooting and the video contains subtle references to guns. Klinko says of the song, “He did that about the time where the school shootings were very intense, around 2013. I mean, they still are, for the last few years in America. We thought about that, and so he made the song about that.”

The references are indeed quite subtle. In one instance, Bowie strikes a pose holding the guitar overhead in imitation of a famous photo of Charlton Heston holding a rifle similarly during an address to the NRA. In another, Klinko inserted a bullet that most viewers might miss. “There’s a close up of the vibrating guitar strings, very close, and out of the coiled guitar string you see a flying bullet. It’s almost subliminal because it’s so fast. Most people won’t realize it, but it’s there.” Cue the video above to the 2:28 mark to see it.

“With the tiny little hint of the gunshot,” continues Klinko, “I’m happy you picked up on that because it was a very subtle thing that was very important for me to have in there … I wanted to do more gun references and shadows of guns and things like that. There’s a little bit of that, like a machine gun shadow at some point.”

Klinko and I also spoke about how he met Bowie, his experience listening to a rough mix of Heathen and shooting and conceptualizing the artwork with Bowie. Jump through the logo below for the Miami New Times Arts and Culture blog to read all about that:

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The photos will be on display for the public at Markowicz Fine Art in Miami’s Design District from Feb. 26 though mid-March. It begins with a private Media & VIP Reveal Party on Thursday, Feb. 25, from 7-9 p.m.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

bowie_blackstar-H151026152736All of music has lost some of its luster today. David Bowie died at the age of 69. Suddenly, the album he released, just a few days earlier, on his birthday no less, makes a little more sense.

“★” (pronounced “Blackstar”). It’s tempting to listen to “‘Heroes'” or “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” now, but play that album in his memory instead. It was a brilliant example of his continued vitality in music. Today it just got more vital with this new layer of resonance. It’s a twist of fate that Bowie must have foreseen considering it turned out he was battling cancer for the past 18 months. Only Bowie could have pulled this off, so kudos to him on his way out of this mortal realm. His last great trick in rock ‘n’ roll.

To repeat his achievements would be redundant, so let’s leave that to the other obit writers. Just jump through our David Bowie tag to understand how important he was to this blog (as soon as I get the vinyl, expect a review for “★” with what is now a clearer perspective than most reviews out there).

No, today this writer will share something more personal. How and why I credit my love of David Bowie’s music for kicking off my writing career.

It began in ninth grade, at a school in the Kendall suburb of Miami called Arvida Middle School. It was 1987. My English teacher, Ms. Stinson, was a wide, round-faced black woman, who was the most intimidating instructor I had in that grade. I remember that classroom being very quiet, and if there were any bullies and smart alecks in that class, they must have stayed quiet too.

One day, we were assigned books to read and then present to the class. Ms. Stinson had a list of famous names on a sheet of paper she passed out to the class, and we were to pick from the list who we wanted our presentation to be about. I sat toward the back of the final row in class, having to pick from the leftovers. I got Janusz Korczak’s book Ghetto Diary. I never heard Korczak’s name until this assignment. Needless to say, I did not feel invested in this topic. I remember struggling to get into the book, which we had to check out from our school’s library. I don’t think I ever read the entire book, just skimmed through it looking for some distinctive bits to regurgitate in class.

Some days later, when it came time to head to the front of the class to stand by Ms. Stinson’s desk, I was rattled with nerves. I had barely a notion how to pronounce my subject’s name, much less any recollection of anything I gleaned in his book. It’s a closed off memory as to what exactly happened. Maybe students laughed at my stuttered, unsure pronunciation of Janusz Korczak, maybe all I could recall from the book was when Korczak spoke with God, as he headed off to a death camp. I might have failed to answer any questions that my teacher asked after that “presentation.” It was a haze and remains so to this day. I just remember how scary Ms. Stinson seemed.

Well, she frightened up until the end of class. Sometime soon after the botched presentation, she pulled me and a few other students aside who didn’t do too well on our presentations to offer us a do-over. This time we could pick the topic. She said to bring a book into the next class featuring a person we wanted to discuss. I had been reading Nicholas Shaffner’s The British Invasion: From the First Wave to the New Wave. I still own that book:

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I brought it to class the next day and showed her the section on David Bowie. “You want to do David Boowie?” she said, mispronouncing his name but with a smile. I didn’t correct her. She suggested I play some of his music to the class during my presentation. The ease I felt after playing the opening part of my cassette of Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture dissolved any stage fright. My curiosity of what Bowie did during that fateful 1973 concert where he appeared as an alter ego in bright orange hair, the brashness of his backing band, The Spiders From Mars, flowed out as I schooled my classmates on Bowie.

At that age I had a pretty clear grasp of who Bowie was and what he meant in rock ‘n’ roll history. I hardly had to cite my source. At about 15 years old, I learned I could be an authority on David Bowie, and I would later go on to review several of his releases for local music publications. Because Bowie’s music over the years was so diverse, featuring influences from Little Richard to Neu!, he opened my musical interests wide, as well.

Bowie’s image, especially in the early ‘70s, played a great part in converting fans. Many speak of seeing him on the BBC show Top of the Pops doing “Starman” in a jumpsuit with that orange mullet and cozying up to his guitarist Mick Ronson. But I got into Bowie via his clean-cut Let’s Dance era via MTV, around 1984. As a young teen, I had Space Oddityonly cassettes and no large-form, gatefold albums to be overwhelmed by the images of him as Ziggy, which was then also used to sell earlier albums like Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold the World. His image, which was so important to his career then, was reduced to surreal, small, square portraits on cassette covers, which had no inner art.

It was a strange way to get into Bowie: almost purely through his music and only his enigmatic cassette covers to guide the way (there was no YouTube back then, and I went to the library to look at music history books to find pictures of early Bowie). As I traced Bowie back through his back catalog via tapes bought at a local record shop with allowance money, I mostly latched on to the small, weird musical bits like the whooshing, oscillating intro of “Station To Station,” the strange little organ fills that gave “After All” a weird bounce, the muffled, layered, chugging guitar that hardly relented below “Joe the Lion.” I would have never sought out the music of Brian Eno, King Crimson or Faust were it not for David Bowie. I could have never appreciated the music of BauhausSwans or Deerhunter without having taken apart the music of Bowie all those years earlier. He did his duty, and I will miss him till the day I die, too.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Tin+Machine+1990TinMachineJoefullOf course real David Bowie fans know that the 67-year-old rock icon frequently called “the chameleon of rock ‘n’ roll” has been so much more than Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke. As a Bowie fan, I felt inclined to break him down to 13 other personas (including his “just a member of the band” phase with Tin Machine, as pictured above in 1990). All longtime Bowie followers know he has made inconsistency an art form. After all, isn’t David Bowie a facade for David Robert Jones? So I threw together a listicle for the Miami New Times’s art and culture blog “Cultist” ahead of the national, one-night-only screening for David Bowie Is. You can read it and see lots of videos, by jumping through the “Cultist” banner below. I open with a Bowie anecdote few have probably heard about from director John Landis:

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I’ve had a chance to preview David Bowie Is. Though I won’t review it, suffice to say Bowie fans who have not had the chance to see the exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, where it premiered last year will love it. The documentary, directed by Hamish Hamilton with Katy Mullan, does not directly focus on Bowie but on the bits of Bowie ephemera that make up the internationally acclaimed David Bowie retrospective exhibit. The directors provide some nice insight into the persona that is and was David Bowie. The film, shot during the exhibit’s last day at the V&A, connects the dots between his many reinventions through things like costumes and hand-written lyric sheets, reflective of the essence of the exhibit. It also features speeches by the curators, Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, and celebrities like Jarvis Cocker.

Focusing on particular periods of Bowie’s 50 years of recording and performance history, the film does not dwell on the popularly known Bowie such as Ziggy or his “Let’s Dance” era, which could tire the diehards, but really examines the minute details that actually reverberate across his career. For instance, a nice amount of time is spent on a rare short film called “The Mask,” which Bowie stared in as a mime. It’s premise, about a shoplifter who steals a mask that makes him popular when he wears it and the tragic karma that befalls him, may sound familiar to those who understand the strain Bowie felt to committing to his Ziggy persona for those two years of lengthy touring in the early ’70s.

I won’t spoil anything else beyond that. Below my signature and the film’s trailer are the only screenings in Miami. The O Cinema screening has sold out, however.

Hans Morgenstern

David Bowie Is plays one night only on Sept. 23, coinciding with the exhibit’s only U.S. visit in Chicago, at many U.S. theaters. In South Florida it will play at Miami’s Tower Theater, which has two screenings, one at 7 p.m. and another at 9:15 p.m. (get tickets). The O Cinema Wynwood screening at 9:15 p.m. has already sold out. For screenings in other parts of the country, visit this link and put in your zip code.

(Copyright 2014 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.)

Forget Brian Eno, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. One of David Bowie’s most consistent and important collaborators has been his stalwart keyboardist, Mike Garson. Ever since Bowie’s 1972 tour as Ziggy Stardust, down to his final live performance in 2006, baring a few key albums, Garson has been there, adding a distinct flavor to many of Bowie’s songs. With his abstract, angular improvisations, Garson has helped define the sound of such iconic Bowie tracks going as far back as 1973’s frantic, glitter avalanche that was “Aladdin Sane (1913- 1939- 197?)” to as recent as the spare, atmospheric jazz-inspired number “Bring Me the Disco King,” off Bowie’s last album, 2oo3’s Reality (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon).

Ever since he abruptly halted a world tour in support of Reality, in 2004, Bowie quietly sidestepped the spotlight. The catalyst of this slowdown happened on stage in Germany after he complained of pain in his arm while performing. He was soon rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery to clear a blocked artery (read the BBC article here). Bowie then gradually headed into a low-key kind of retirement following a smattering of appearances as a guest vocalist on other recording artists’ albums and a couple of one-off live performances. No full-length albums have followed nor any tours or full concerts. According to his wife, supermodel Iman, he is living the quiet life under his birth name as a family man in New York City. In a recent interview with the UK’s “Times Magazine,” she said,  “I am NOT married to David Bowie … I am married to David Jones. They are two totally different people.” With Bowie no longer recording or performing, who knows if the rock star known as “David Bowie” even exists any more, slipping away through the ether of awareness like the otherworldly life form he has  so often been described as.

Now comes Garson to step forward with a tribute album to Bowie, entitled The Bowie Variations For Piano (Garson will sign a copy of the CD for anyone that orders directly from his website). There is probably no other side musician more qualified to interpret Bowie’s music than the classically trained jazz musician who happens to be, as Bowie once put it, “the best rock pianist in the world because he does not play rock.”

I first met Garson in 2004 after proposing a “Goldmine” cover story that would encompass his years with Bowie. The cover would be granted should I have the chance to get some exclusive quotes from Bowie. However, Bowie’s representatives, who have always supported my coverage of their client since I was writing for a university paper in my undergrad years with advance listens to albums and free tickets for shows, would only allow me to speak with Garson. He had agreed to an interview backstage at the James L. Knight Center during the Reality Tour’s stop in Miami on May 4, 2004. We had 45 minutes, but wound up chatting for close to an hour and a half. Garson had even given me an after show pass and promised to introduce me to Bowie. But, right between the opening performance by Stereophonics and Bowie’s show, a local stagehand had climbed into the light rigging without a safety harness and plunged to his death onstage. Bowie cancelled the show and any festivities following it out of respect to the deceased.

With the release of The Bowie Variations, I got back in touch with Garson, and he spoke with me over the phone from his Los Angeles home, over the weekend. “I remember we had a very good conversation that night,” he said reflecting on our first meeting (NOTE: bookmark this blog post or subscribe to the right for the transcription of that entire interview  coming soon). “It was just so sad that that unfortunate thing happened that night. In all the years of touring, I’ve never seen that kind of a thing.”

But here we are in the future, with blog posts allowing for more diverse audiences, unconstrained by the limits of print space, so here is a good chunk of our most recent conversation on the Bowie Variations for Piano, with more to come shortly:

Hans Morgenstern: What label’s releasing it?

Mike Garson: It’s called Reference Recordings, and they’re an audiophile label, very high quality. They do mostly classical stuff. They’ve done a few albums for me over the years. I might have had the highest selling of all their albums, jazz and classical, in the last 25 years, an album called Serendipity that I did with Stanley Clarke on bass, Billy Mintz on drums (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). It was a great trio album.

The release will be on the high quality HDCD format, but do they plan to release a vinyl version?

They plan on it, they’re looking for the right people who can do vinyl. It’s become a dead art, but they do release higher [quality mp3] versions on the Internet. There’s a way to do it, but iTunes can’t provide it, but they do offer a CD-quality one and then there’s the normal mp3.

Where did the idea to make such an album come from?

I had been thinking about the Bowie album for a very long time, and I was thinking of doing it as a jazz treatment with a band and guitar and sax, but that didn’t feel good. I was thinking of doing covers with a lot of great singers I worked with, and that didn’t fly for me. So each time I’d let it go for months and months. I even talked, 10 years ago, to Tony Visconti [a longtime producer of Bowie’s albums] about a concept, and he was into it, but some record company at the time, I don’t know who they were, they didn’t have the budget I was looking for, and I was not going to do it with a small budget. It had to be done right. Then, a good friend of mine who’s a journalist in France and also a singer/songwriter and has written a book on David Bowie, his name is Jérôme Soligny, he said, ‘Mike, the obvious thing is playing solo piano. Just play the music how you feel,’ and I said, ‘Jesus, why didn’t I think of something so simple?’” (laughs).

Was the album recorded live?

Well, the whole album is an improvised album. There’s three or four tracks that has piano overdubs, as you probably heard on “Let’s Dance’ and “‘Heroes'” and on the “Tribute to David,” there’s a delay where the same track plays about a quarter to a half second later than the first track … very subtle, and “‘Heroes'” has three pianos and “Let’s Dance” has three pianos and there’s a crazy medley that, at the very end, I add an extra hand, like a third hand … but everything was improvised, even the overdubs, so I would record them when I felt them, and it was a very interesting process.

Your take on “‘Heroes'” sounds particularly layered, is there any influence there from the Philip Glass interpretation?

It’s funny you would say that. There’s that one piano part that goes on and on, like minimalist … and it’s never the way I actually play. Although, I’ve written a few minimalist pieces, but nothing the way Philip draws it out slowly and builds and builds and builds. But in this particular case I was able to just keep playing it and improvising around it. I varied it. If you listen very closely they change in and out. But a lot  of repetition, and I just fell in love with it. I guess if I’ve ever been influenced by Philip it would have been just in that moment in time because I know his works a little bit but nothing very deeply. I just think that growing up in that same era it would have influenced me a little.

How do you think Bowie fans unfamiliar with your solo albums will react to this music?

You realize that even Mark [aka Total Blam Blam] who runs the Bowie site didn’t recognize most of the songs (laughs), and I’ve been experiencing this, case after case, so I knew that many people who are just my fans who have nothing to do with Bowie, I knew that they would hear it as Mike again improvising. There’s some jazz, there’s some classical, there’s some pop elements, some avant-garde, and then I knew the hardcore Bowie fans wouldn’t cease to stop listening to it till they heard it. For, example, if you go back and listen to “Ashes to Ashes,” all I’m playing is the three-bar hook on that song that was sort of done on a piano … I never played the song. That’s why it’s called “variations.” … There are certain songs that I paid much more respect to his melody and many that I turned inside and out. On “Changes,” I did a combination of both. “Let’s Dance,” I built most of it off the bass line. I did a lot of crazy improvising and ended up with a crazy stride piano at the end, which is reminiscent of “Time,” from Aladdin Sane, but much quicker. With the same bass line going. It has its own wildness:

Download Garson’s variation on Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” MP3 provided courtesy of Mike Garson

And here’s the original video from 1983:

One of the most interesting pieces on the album has to be your medley of some the later period Bowie songs.

On the medley, I actually use part of my solo from Earthling, on “Battle for Britain,” and I altered it and changed it. Then I did “Loneliest Guy,” which I played the accompaniment part on the Reality CD, but here I played a little melody and improvised very slow, and then on “Disco King,” I used some of the original recording material. I had some of my original MIDI files that I had of my playing mixed with some improvisations … That was the hardest work to put together cause it was the longest. It’s about seven minutes. And “Life on Mars,” the first two minutes of that, I make up my own piece, totally my own piece inspired by David’s song and then I go into the song. That one you can hear the melody pretty straight. “Space Oddity” has two versions, and they’re pretty self-evident, although the second one gets a little more adventurous. But because I’m an instrumentalist, and I’ve never focused a whole lot on lyrics, it’s very easy for me to hear it and see it that way, but a lot of people who are used to those words and his phrasing, I’m telling ‘ya, they probably wouldn’t recognize seven or eight out of the 11 songs. They just wouldn’t know it. Like “Heroes,” it was just some approximation of the bass line, and I hardly play the melody, and when I did, it was kind of tongue-in-cheek, and then I had that Philip Glass line going, and then I had all my improvisation above that. So it’s a very honest album, Hans … because that’s all I do. I’m an improvising musician.

Then there is one piece that doesn’t seem to derive from any previous Bowie track, “Tribute to David.” What was your starting point for that one?

Purely homage. A tribute to David. It was just my way of writing a piece for him that just came from my world, and that’s what came out.

What were your thoughts when you played it?

It was more the intention to write a beautiful piece that seemed to feel like him, from my viewpoint. Nothing else. The reason I know that is because it came out in one shot, in just three minutes or whatever the song is.

How did you choose the songs?

Well, I didn’t want to do any of the ones I was known for. If there is a Volume 2 of the Bowie variations, I would do “Aladdin Sane” and “Time” and “Lady Grinning Soul” in my own way because I’m known for those. I didn’t think that was fair on the first one.

But you are interested to see what it would be like to revisit those early Aladdin Sane songs?

Yeah… but … I was really being respectful to him as a songwriter. Even though they were done in my bizarre kinda way, I still respected his song. If the album is successfully received and people would like a second volume, I would do the ones I’m known for, but since it would be solo piano, I have to find a way to make them sound good without a bass and drums and guitar. That would be very challenging.

What was the last thing you did with Bowie?

The two last appearances that he’s done in the last six or seven years [including one with] just piano and voice, one was with Alicia Keys for an AIDS benefit, and we all did “Changes” together. She asked me to play the piano, and him and her sang it, and we used her band. That was never televised. And then we did one on television where we did “Life on Mars.” It was just me and him, and it was the first time he did anything after the tour, and that was his first performance he did after his problem with his heart. So, I was very fortunate to be part of those two extremely magical performances because they were both great in different ways, and nothing since then.”

Some shaky video exists of the performance of “Changes” with Keys:

For good measure, here is the Fashion Rocks show where Garson and Bowie performed “Life on Mars.” It aired on CBS in 2006:

Any plans to work together again?

We haven’t talked about anything like that. I know that when he feels ready, he’ll call, and if he feels ready. But the thing I’ve always liked about him is, if he’s not feeling something, he’s not going to do it. So, if and when he feels it, he’ll do it, and if and when he thinks I can contribute to something, he’ll call me. If he hears something else, he’ll call somebody else or not have piano. I don’t know any more than anybody else does on that. I haven’t been lead to believe anything either way … When you’re forcing doing music, when you don’t hear it in your head and feel it, which obviously he hasn’t in this last period of time, it would be dishonest, and that’s the last thing he would do because, one thing about him, whether you like his music or not, no one can say that he’s not honest because he does what he feels like, when he feels like it, how feels like it, and his body of work shows it … I think that’s what we do have in common. We’re both pretty honest to our music.”

* * *

It was a nice conversation that, again, lasted longer than I expected and offered much insight into this original recording that seems to deconstruct music and build it back again as something altogether different. David Bowie Variations seems to compliment the découpage style of writing Bowie often employed in his lyric writing to nearly surreal effect.

For even more insight into Garson’s style and how it has grown and changed alongside Bowie’s own unique songcraft, as well as Garson’s history before and beyond Bowie, follow this link for the start of an early, extensive unpublished interview I had with Garson from 2004:

From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie (Part 1 of 5). All parts are linked together.

Hans Morgenstern

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