28 Apr 2019

Mike Garson: my life as David Bowie's piano man

From Sunday Morning, 10:04 am on 28 April 2019

Of all the great musicians David Bowie worked with over the years, few were as central to his career as pianist Mike Garson, who played with Bowie for four decades on 20 albums and in 1000 concerts.

When Garson first got the call to audition for Bowie's band, he'd never even heard of him: “I didn't have a clue who he was. It was 1972, so that's 47 years ago, and I was a jazz musician."

David Bowie 1978

David Bowie 1978 Photo: AFP / FILE

“Funnily enough I was giving a piano lesson in Brooklyn when the phonecall came. I had my daughter with me, she was two years old.”

Garson headed into Manhattan to audition, leaving his first-time student to baby-sit. “Who knows, he could have been a crazy person!"

“I went down on down to Manhattan to RCA studios and there's these wild Spiders from Mars characters all dressed in the wildest colours and costumes.

"I sit down at the piano and Mick Ronson [Bowie's guitarist] shows me the music for ‘Changes’. I play for seven seconds, and he says, ‘You have the gig.’ And I ended up doing 1000 concerts with David, or more, and 20 albums.”

It was quite a change from his days playing small jazz clubs.

“I appeared at this big place [with Bowie] and I'm looking right next to me and it looks like there's a whole sound system facing me.

“I'm used to playing in a jazz club with no amplification and now there's this complete system facing me and I said, ‘Excuse me, David, the whole PA is facing me.’ He says, ‘No, that's just your monitor system, there's the PA,’ and he points up in the air to something going up like 50 feet.

“So I knew OK, here we go, this is rock and roll I’ll have to get used to this very quickly - and I did. And the rest is history.”

Bowie was a famously restless artist. He liked to work with different musicians and explore fresh musical directions. Garson was one of the few constants in his career.

“In the first two years, probably not too many people know this, but he fired five bands and I was the only one he kept. The reason for that wasn't just because we were friends. It was really because of my prior history with the piano; I had studied jazz, classical, fusion, pop, gospel - you name it - because I was just a sponge and I loved the piano.

“That was my blessing and gift and he, being the ultimate casting director, was going to use every ability I had and every style that I ever had studied, including my own voice obviously, and he found me a place for over the 40 some odd years.”

One of Garson’s first and most famous pieces of piano soloing is on 'Aladdin Sane' released in 1973. He says he still gets an email or message from around the world every day about that solo.

“You listen to 'Aladdin Sane' maybe because it's so absurd and out-there for 1973 and rock n roll. Two chords disguised some crazy piano playing that was bringing elements from Stockhausen, Stromberg, Stravinsky, Franz Liszt and David couldn’t have been happier.”

Bowie was happy for Garson to do his own thing, he says. Adding his avant-garde styling to a rock n roll bedrock; “Like whipped cream on a cake.”

“He never micro-managed me, he let me play whatever I heard in my inner ear, and whatever I wanted to play, and he was kind enough to just let me do that.”

Garson considers Bowie a genuine genius.

“He would be our De Vinci and Michelangelo of our century, he’s probably the greatest artist we had last century.

“His acting was unbelievable, he just wanted to play more music so he stayed out of Hollywood, he was terrific at sculpture, wonderful at painting.

“One of the things I took from the house before the fire [Garson’s house was destroyed in the recent Californian wild fires] was a painting he did of me, which I'm so glad I kept.”

Garson is touring the world with the David Bowie alumni tour, which is playing in Auckland and Christchurch this coming week.

Whittling down Bowie’s back catalogue to an evening’s entertainment was a formidable task.

“These are great songs. Gershwin songs still go on and he's been dead since, like 1939, Cole Porter songs go on, Burt Bacharach songs Richard Rodgers … Jerome Kern, Marvin Hamlisch. These were the great songwriters of the 20th century and David is one of them.”

Garson says at first it was emotional to be on the road playing these songs without Bowie.

“That was very difficult, but now several years have passed and I feel him many nights and I feel the audience. It's cathartic for everybody. “

Bowie wanted to tour New Zealand and Australia before he quit live performing, but it never happened, Garson says.

“He actually said to me he would like to tour for three months just in New Zealand and Australia, nowhere else in the world. He said it to me in 2003 I was walking [with Bowie] on a beach somewhere and he said, ‘Would you like to do that with me?' And I said, ‘I’m in,’ but it never happened because then things went downhill health-wise.”

Mike Garson played piano for David Bowie on over 20 albums and 1000 live shows.

Mike Garson played piano for David Bowie on over 20 albums and 1000 live shows. Photo: Supplied

Offstage Bowie was warm and funny, Garson says.

“Very warm, very funny, very intellectual, very smart, always reading books, and he had just an incredible sense of humour and loved to know about others.

“He was a different person offstage, he was David Jones. Then onstage, he'd walk out there, something would click. It was almost like he's channelling and he's just on another level.”

Out of the spotlight, Bowie was shy and unassuming: “One of the most interesting things he ever said to me, in 2000 in a recording studio in New York was; ‘Mike, you wouldn't want my fame.’”

Of all Bowie’s classic albums Garson’s favourite, modestly, is one on which he didn’t play.  

“Yeah, Hunky Dory, and I'm not even on it. Yeah, I think the song-writing was phenomenal on there; 'Quicksand', 'Life on Mars' - it doesn't get better than that as melodies and beautiful structures and chords and lyrics.”

  • Dylan Jones on David Bowie
  • A Tribute to David Bowie - Part One
  • A Tribute to David Bowie - Part Two