Mike Garson interview: Keys to the world
By Classic Pop | November 30, 2022
Mike Garson was David Bowie’s long-serving pianist. He tells Classic Pop about working with the iconic star during his 70s hot streak and beyond…
As David Bowie’s go-to piano player for (on and off) four decades, Mike Garson was up close and personal with the legendary star on some of his biggest albums and world tours.
Garson is widely regarded as an unofficial member of the Spiders From Mars joining David Bowie’s band before the American leg of the Ziggy Stardust Tour in 1972.
Piano players had previously come and gone in England but the native New Yorker would play a vital role alongside Bowie for many years to come, perhaps making his most valuable contribution on the following year’s Aladdin Sane.
Speaking to Classic Pop, the pianist casts his mind back to a Brooklyn apartment in September 1972 when that first call came in from David.
“I had just played a jazz gig” he explained. “We had about five people show up and until then I had been practicing for 10 years, eight hours a day. I came home to my wife and said, ‘something is wrong with this picture. I need to go out with a rock band’.
“The next day David Bowie called and asked me to come down to Manhattan from Brooklyn for an audition. I really didn’t know who David was and he got a big kick out of that. I had a good feeling about it, so I left my daughter with a piano student to go to the audition – the wife almost killed me!
- Read more: Making David Bowie’s Station To Station
“I arrived at this beautiful studio where David and Mick (Ronson) greeted me. Mick came over to the piano, put the chords in front of me and said ‘can you play this?’ I played for about 10 seconds and he said ‘you’ve got the gig’. I was hired for eight weeks but I ended up David’s longest serving musician.”
The prettiest star
Garson was given as much freedom as the Spiders to use his unique touch on setlist staples during the US tour as well as new material that would eventually feature on Aladdin Sane.
“David was influenced by my jazz and classical background and wanted to bring that to his music, which automatically shifted the vibe. It was an amazing experience. I played extended piano solos and new introductions to his songs.
“There was a big role for me on tracks like Changes, Life On Mars and the Jacques Brel song My Death. David was extremely open to his musicians when they had something to contribute.”
The pianist admits there’s rarely a day that passes without receiving an email, phone call or giving an interview about his work on Aladdin Sane.
- Read more: Making David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’
The album’s iconic cover shot by Brian Duffy sits in front of Garson as we talk, the red and blue lightning bolt across Bowie’s face, his bright orange hair and the addition of a tear droplet on his collarbone all helped to lay down a new visual template in the mainstream.
The photographer’s son Chris accurately described the artwork as “the Mona Lisa of Pop”. The otherworldly image complemented the music on which Garson had merged touches of avant-garde, jazz and classical piano with Spiders space rock, freshly exhilarated by America.
“My contribution to the record was more as a collaborator than a sideman or studio musician” confirms Garson. “Before recording the album, I travelled with David through all those American cities that he’s writing about on the record.
“He would want to know everything about the jazz and avant-garde scenes, other times he would sit listening to Aretha Franklin while travelling from state to state. He was absorbing everything and mixing that with things that were going on in England with his brother (Terry) who was mentally ill.
“He was also writing songs that would become universal hits like The Jean Genie. He was a real artist and so much more than a rock musician.”
Watch that man!
Both Bowie and Mick Ronson were keen to utilise Mike’s abilities to the full while recording Aladdin Sane. Garson suggests the pair were essential in unlocking his contribution to the record.
“Both David and Mick were tremendous producers and the reason for that is they did not micromanage me, they would give me a vision like on the title track where I tried a blues solo and then tried a Latin flavour. David then said, ‘you told me you played avant-garde, can you do that? I said, ‘that’s why I’m not working Saturday’. He said, ‘leave that problem to me’ and we nailed it in one take.
“You have to give a lot of credit to Ken Scott who engineered and produced the record with David. To get the piano sound the way he did on tracks like Lady Grinning Soul was just genius, he’s another unsung hero of that album.
“You could not play a wrong note on the piano that we used in Trident Studios. On that track we used a lot of romantic and classical elements, with Time there’s a 1920s stride style of piano, again David pulled that out of me.
“He managed to bring all these ideas together and it gave the record incredible depth. He was the ultimate casting director because he got the best out of everybody.”
Aside from the piano-led tracks, it is arguably Bowie’s most full throttle rock’n’roll record where Ziggy’s English eccentricities merge with America’s dark underbelly.
It was left to Ronson to channel the often raw, underground energy Bowie had absorbed on tracks such as Cracked Actor and Panic In Detroit through his infectious riffs and tones.
“It was very inspiring to have these guitar tracks by Mick and he was some of the reason why the album is so great; he was the secret source for David.
“Mick was a fantastic string writer for violins, he played piano very well and was also a very good producer, there’s nothing to say about his guitar playing aside from the fact that it was amazing!
“Also, if you listen to the way his voice blended with David’s you don’t even know who is singing at times. The Spiders were already a band by the time I joined but you could say I was the whipped cream on the cake because I brought my thing to the band.
“It was a magical experience to play with them; we would blow the speakers every night. Mick was also a total gentleman – he was very warm, helpful and appreciative. He recognised my abilities and I recognised his.”
Aladdin Sane would be the last album of original material that would feature the Spiders and Bowie’s co-producer Ken Scott, ending the incredible run of now classic albums they had made since 1971.
Call them the Diamond Dogs
With Mick Ronson’s departure, Mike Garson’s role as a musical advisor would become even more essential.
Galvanised and looking ahead as always, Bowie had planned to play all the instruments on Diamond Dogs but gradually relented, bringing in other musicians.
Despite that, he delivered most of the album’s spiky guitars with additional work by Alan Parker. Garson observed as Bowie hammered out the Keith Richards-influenced riff of Rebel Rebel.
“It was like being in the presence of someone with their hand on the pulse of commercial music but yet it was still original – it was David searching for his own vibe.
“When we were recording Diamond Dogs it was often just the two of us. He did some great guitar work on that record.
“All the players who eventually came to perform Rebel Rebel live would ask me if it really was David who came up with the riff. Whatever he touched he had a feel.”
Bowie hung on to Garson for the heavily stage-managed Diamond Dogs Tour in the United States. His use of German expressionism and Broadway populism saw Bowie successfully straddle cultural boundaries again.
David Live and Cracked Actor (the latter released earlier this year captured the subsequent Philly Dogs Tour) are audible documents of the period.
“I didn’t realise how much we were on the cutting edge of things,” admits Mike. “I wish I had the knowledge about it then that I have now, it wasn’t like the Stones or Dylan or even Bowie’s earlier work. It was a whole new thing.”
By Young Americans, Bowie was fully absorbed in Philadelphia soul, The record captured his own authentic slice of the genre with the help of Luther Vandross (backing vocals), Willie Weeks (bass) and Carlos Alomar (guitar) who would become a Bowie regular for years to come.
“I recorded a lot of music for those sessions”, says Garson. “Some of it was in a more gospel and pop direction than previous records. I heard a few tracks from the sessions recently that I didn’t even remember recording but I know it’s me.”
Another cut recorded at Sigma was Bruce Springsteen’s It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City. After an invite to the studio, The Boss travelled to Philadelphia.
“David recognised Bruce’s talent, I remember clearly him coming to hang out at the studio but David never played him our version of the song. Bruce and I went out for dinner that evening.”
Years later, Bowie suggested that particular meeting didn’t go well due to his spiralling cocaine use which was at its peak during the recording of Young Americans.
“Interestingly, I think he protected me from that because I never used any drugs. Whenever we played he sang great and I honestly don’t know how he did it because you look at his face in some of those images and he looks so gaunt and sick.
- Read more: Making David Bowie’s Low
“Somehow God allowed him to push through with that great music whatever condition he was in. He was given a free pass.”
Significantly Young Americans was to be Garson’s last studio recording with Bowie for 18 years. “He fired five bands between 1972 and ’74 and I was the only one who stayed through all of them.
“I used to tease him and say ‘when is my time coming?’ It turned out it was when he went to film The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) but we came around again in the 90s and 00s.
“He was as straight as could be during that whole period and sounded great; his voice was lower but warm and rich.”
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- Photos by Jiro Schneider