By Robert E. Martin
Michael David Garson is an American pianist at the cutting edge of his artistry whose accomplishments far exceed his well-deserved recognition within the public mindset. While pianists such as Elton John and Billy Joel are solidly stamped upon the mass cortex of popularity, Garson’s notoriety has been more elusive, despite the fact he has worked with artists ranging from Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, and most importantly as the keyboard-man and pivotal musical zeitgeist behind the lush, lavish, and immaculate arrangements of none other than David Bowie.
After graduating from Brooklyn College with a music degree in 1970, Garson was David Bowie’s longest and most frequent band member. As an original member of The Spiders from Mars, Garson translated some of Bowie’s most seminal works such as Life On Mars, Space Oddity, Lady Grinning Soul, Diamond Dogs, and perhaps one of the most stunning and ground-breaking piano solos ever recorded on the title track of Aladdin Sane. He performed with Bowie in both his first and last concerts in the United States, as well as 1,000 concerts together over the expanse of Bowie’s career.
Parallel to this work with Bowie, Garson engaged in his own solo career as a jazz pianist. He is regarded in the industry as one of the very few 'rock' pianists capable of performing extended piano solos. He remains one of the most highly sought-after session musicians with a unique sound of his own.
Over the past year, Garson has assembled a 27-date North American tour titled Celebrating David Bowie, which will be rolling into Royal Oak Music Theatre on Monday, February 19th. Featuring members of Bowie’s various bands over the decades, including such musical luminaries as Earl Slick, Gerry Leonard, Carmine Roja, Bernard Fowler (who has also worked with The Rolling Stones), and 2017 Grammy nominee Gaby Moreno, plus special guests and other former Bowie band members making surprise appearances along the way.
More than a mere salute, Celebrating David Bowie breathes fresh life into one of popular music’s most important pioneers, with musicians who worked closely with him and previous guest artists that thus far have ranged from Sting, Seal, the B-52’s Kate Pierson, Simon LeBon, and Perry Farrell, to name but a few. This rotating ensemble with world class multi-instrumentalists changing song-to-song present a career-spanning show that highlights elements that influenced Bowie throughout all of his musical incarnations, and in turn Bowie influenced: pop culture experimentation, art, fashion, science and futurism.
Last week I had the honor of speaking with Mike Garson in a lengthy phone interview from Los Angeles, in advance of his February 19th appearance at Royal Oak. His candid and thoughtful insights about the enigmatic creative forces that Bowie served as a catalyst for are sprinkled with humor, irony, revelation, and a fundamental tone of bedrock respect for an artist whose work will endure and surely influence many generations to come.
Review: First, let me say what an honor it is to be interviewing you today. I’m a pianist myself and have been a huge fan of your work since high school when you broke out with David and the Spiders from Mars during the Ziggy Startdust period, all the way up through Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs. In fact, the work you do on ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ and your solo on ‘Aladdin Sane’ are two of the most beautiful and astounding tracks ever recorded. Given that you worked with Bowie from the beginning of his career through some truly amazing musical periods, how did you first meet him and what were your first impressions about David Bowie?
Garson: Thanks for all that and I’m happy that you’re also a piano player because it’s good to speak with someone that shares a mutual understanding of the instrument. It’s funny you mention Lady Grinning Soul, because David never performed it live. I knew it was a miracle song when we did it and God knows why David never sang it, but we are doing it now on this current tour. I’ve played on thousands of recordings for David and since the Internet came out I can honestly say there’s not a day that goes by without someone asking or commenting upon Aladdin Sane, with Lady Grinning Soul coming in second, and after that Time, and after that Let’s Spend the Night Together.
Review: So how did you first meet David?
Garson: He came to America to do his first tour here in 1972 and the Spiders from Mars did not have a piano player. David asked around and I got recommended and was hired to do eight weeks and ended up doing a thousand shows and twenty albums with him and I didn’t even know who the guy was at the time.
Review: Tell me how the creative process worked with Bowie from gestation to completion; did David have the basic song structure down and then would the two of you collaborate?
Garson: I think David recognized I was bringing the history of Classical and Jazz music to him through the piano and that became the whipped cream on the cake. It also differentiated him from all the other rock people, thanks to his courage and intelligence and intuition. Really, these qualities about him changed the whole game and transformed Bowie into the ‘real deal’, on a level with Bob Dylan and The Beatles because now you had this crazy guy playing all this crazy piano shit on top of his music. Who would do that? Nobody would.
I used to get laughed at when I played Classical or Jazz in Rock ‘n Roll bands because they wanted straight Rock ‘n Roll piano like Jerry Lee Lewis or Nicky Hopkins or Dr. John, and of course I could do all that; but Bowie encouraged me to be experimental because he knew better. Did I know it at the time? I didn’t have a clue. Did I hear the playback of the solo on Aladdin Sane? I did 20 years later and didn’t even listen to it at the time because to me it was just another day in the studio. I made $150.00 on that whole album if I recall correctly.
I remember we recorded at London’s Trident Studios and you couldn’t play a wrong note there. The Beatles recorded there, Queen recorded there, and the piano there was magical – it’s like the notes found me and I didn’t need a map to find them. Aladdin Sane was the easiest recording I ever did. And as we progressed together, David gave me total freedom.
Who would have known at the time how all this would turn out? I didn’t know who this guy was let alone his music, unlike people where his music has become the soundtrack of their lives. This wasn’t the case with me in 1972. In fact, I was only playing half of the songs when I was onstage with the Spiders back then; and when I wasn’t onstage I’d run out into the audience and watch mesmerized while Mick Ronson was playing a solo and David was engaging the band and say to myself, ‘This guy’s a genius.’
Review: Bowie was multi-talented on so many levels, yet his work was always very theatrical to me, whether he was projecting futuristic imagery thematically as he did on Diamond Dogs or up through Station to Station. Would he have the entire album sketched out and written before he walked into the studio?
Garson: Well, for example, on Diamond Dogs I remember Visconti at the recording desk and David was playing most of the guitar. Most of the time David would play a song for me and I’d start banging something out on the piano. I’ve been an improvising pianist since the age of 14. In fact, my first group was called The Impromptu Quartet; and even today I write what is called ‘Now Music’ because it’s all written in the moment and Improvised. Everything I ever did with Bowie was improvised, but to his credit, he had a great infrastructure with the band laying down songs exactly as he wanted them, so with that type of discipline on top of the freedom I had to play on top of that is what created the magic.
Review: Tell me about this Celebrating David Bowie tour. What inspired you to take on such an ambitious project?
Garson: I didn’t ask for it and initially wanted to do something quiet in concert that involved me telling stories and performing songs, but the fans pulled it out and demanded more. So, I connected with this great alumni of musicians and pulled together five of them that played with David over different phases in his life, and it’s been a true gift whereby we’ve been able to celebrate the music and pay homage to the man.
We run through the hits as well as some obscure songs and I play different every night. We do an expanded version of Aladdin Sane and roll through material from Young Americans, plus you can hear stuff from Hunky Dory and Space Oddity and Life On Mars, and I can tell you when we hit Detroit we’ll definitely be performing Panic In Detroit. And the fans do much of the singing – I can tell you from city to city they sing every song loudly, while knowing every word.
We just returned from a sold-out European tour and are now doing 27 cities in the United States and its remarkable that it came together. I’m always nervous before each show and wish David was with us. Trust me, it takes a village to do his work justice and we’re fortunate to have five or six singers each night to help convey the depths of David’s music, because no one singer can do that.
Review: When you look back at the catalog of David’s work and knowing him as you do, what qualities resonate in your mind that you feel truly distinguish him in the broad and long history of popular music?
Garson: That’s quite a question, so let me do my best. Number one is the fact David was an older soul. He was more than a rock and pop icon because he was spiritual, philosophical, a painter, an actor, the editor of an art magazine, a fashion expert – a true Renaissance man. He was on top of everything going on in every phase he changed his music. His music had layers upon layers and depth upon depth and was able to say something to many millions of people who were broken – who didn’t know what to do in life – and made it safe to be yourself and who you are – and that’s magic.
Did I know this at the time? No. I just knew he was great. Sometimes when somebody dies you really look at what they did, and I’m mesmerized day-by-day as I dig through David’s songs and have talked to 150 different artists and celebrities that all have something to say of this nature about his impact upon their lives.
One fan in Berlin the other night hugged me for 5 minutes after the show sobbing and shaking because David meant so much to her, so I realize now that I have to do this project until people don’t want it anymore.
Right now. they want it.
Is it as great as if David were here? Of course not; but the songs are great and enduring, similar to George Gershwin and Cole Porter and Richard Rogers and Burt Bacharach; only David didn’t just write these songs, he also sang and performed them, so his repertoire is as good as any other composer and now I’m playing them as good as I can with the people that worked with him.
Celebrating David Bowie happens on Monday, February 19th at Royal Oak Music Theatre. Tickets are $35 - $65 and available by clicking this link:
16th November, 2023