INTERVIEW

Celebrating "great songwriter" David Bowie's 75th birthday & introducing him to a new generation

Pianist Mike Garson spoke to Salon about the second Bowie musical event featuring Def Leppard, Duran Duran and more

By Annie Zaleski

Published January 8, 2022 11:00AM (EST)

David Bowie performing live onstage at Verizon Amphitheater (Christina Radish/Redferns/Getty Images)
David Bowie performing live onstage at Verizon Amphitheater (Christina Radish/Redferns/Getty Images)

Pianist Mike Garson will never forget his first concert ever with David Bowie. It was September 22, 1972, and Bowie and the Spiders from Mars were kicking off the U.S. leg of the Ziggy Stardust Tour in Cleveland, Ohio. Garson's background was in jazz, not rock 'n' roll — in fact, he didn't know who Bowie was before joining the band — and so he wasn't necessarily prepared for what he'd encounter.

"I'm coming from jazz clubs, right — 10 people making $5. Right now, I'm in front of thousands of people, and they're going nuts," Garson recalls today. "All fine — I had heard that would happen. And he's singing great and the Spiders from Mars are playing great." 

After the band finished the encore, things got interesting. Bowie and the rest of the band "[took] off through the back door at a speed you wouldn't believe. And I'm thinking, 'Why are they running?'" Garson says. "And then I see thousands of people storming the stage — and I'm collecting my music. I just joined the band — and all of a sudden, I'm under attack."

Today, on a Zoom call in mid-December 2021, the musician laughs heartily at the memory. After all, nearly 50 years later, Garson is still associated with Bowie. On Jan. 8, he's helming the second annual A Bowie Celebration, which brings together musicians who played with Bowie and musicians who are fans for a night celebrating the music. 

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Through the magic (and power) of technology, as well as old-fashioned hard work — Garson says it's "15-hour days, seven days a week, for at least usually a month or two" — the streaming tribute is a loving homage to Bowie's work. Guests this year include Def Leppard vocalist Joe Elliott, Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon and John Taylor, Living Colour, Noel Gallagher, Matchbox 20's Rob Thomas, Walk the Moon, Jake Wesley Rogers, and more.

Garson says he was asked to do tribute bands while Bowie was alive, but declined. "Why would I do that?" he says. "Of course not. I play only with him." However, in Bowie's absence, covering his songs is a way to elevate them so the music is considered on par with other greats. "He's a great songwriter," Garson says. "So why not have great singers sing his songs in the same spirit of people singing George Gershwin, Burt Bacharach, Marvin Hamlisch, or Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Michel Legrand?"

Garson credits his jazz background for this songbook-driven perspective. "We would take songs from Broadway shows, Miles Davis songs, ''Round midnight' by [Thelonious] Monk," he explains. "Hundreds of jazz musicians would record in their own way, these great jazz or Broadway standards. Why should that not be for Bowie's catalog? That's my mission, to bring it to new generations."

Although Garson says some pairings didn't end up working out for this year's tribute ("There were a few songs I couldn't find singers for this time that I wanted to do very badly — I'll do next year"), he can't say enough good things about the artists performing this year. 

And even though the technological aspect of putting the show together can be occasionally fraught, he knows all will turn out well. "It is a gift and we're celebrating David's music," Garson says. "So I feel his spiritual support from wherever he is, whatever dimension he's in. I can feel him sometimes — not all the time, but sometimes. And it keeps me on path that it is a celebration of his music."

Garson, who's also keeping busy doing Zoom masterclasses and finishing up a classical album, checked in with Salon about some Bowie memories and how the show will play out.

What were your takeaways from last year? What, if anything, did you want to do differently this year?

The final result last year was fantastic. I didn't appreciate it when it went on the air. Because of COVID, there were so many things that I would have changed that the listeners or fans wouldn't recognize, but I knew. Little things: The saxophone [or] the drums weren't there, the wrong drummer [was] on this song. All these factors that literally were driving me psychotic. I was having a breakdown when everyone was having a ball. I felt like Debbie Downer

[At other times] friends of mine and alumni who played on it, they weren't being acknowledged or in the right place. Things were missed because of COVID. I couldn't be there for the final mixes to say,  "Okay." This time, we're a little better. Things are still a little nutty, but we're fixing that. 

Musician Mike Garson, former member of David Bowie's touring bandMusician Mike Garson, former member of David Bowie's touring band, performs onstage during the second annual Above Ground concert on September 16, 2019 in Los Angeles (Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

It's one of those things where you want to honor David's memory and his music. And this event is commemorating his 75th birthday as well. Plus, you have this bar you set last year — and it's like, how do you top yourself? You always want to do better.

It's challenging. I've never been in that situation. People who were stars and singers who have number one hits, then they have to do another album. They're probably freaked out [that] they'll never top it. Many never do top it, historically. And then those who are trying to chase it usually are frustrated. 

This is the first time I've ever thought, I have to see if I could . . . not top it, but do something comparably as good and maybe more interesting, I can tell you for sure some of my piano playing and some of the recordings are better. That's a good sign. And 50% of the songs are new, and 50% of the songs we've done with different singers.

[The conversation turns to some of the returning performers joining the tribute this year, including Def Leppard's Joe Elliott — who performed "Goodnight Mr. Jones" in a remote fashion along with band members in 2021 — and Simon Le Bon and John Taylor of Duran Duran; the latter two and the rest of the band performed "Five Years" in 2021. Garson also appeared on Duran Duran's 2021 album "Future Past," on the song "Falling."]

Five years ago, I was touring with the Bowie alumni after David passed. [Simon] was one of the first to jump on stage in Brixton, in London, and he sang with us. I remember playing Royal Albert Hall in the '90s with Bowie. I walked backstage — there he was, I mean, these guys wouldn't miss the show. 

[There's also Def Leppard vocalist] Joe Elliott. [Last year] we did a song he wrote for David called "Goodnight Mr. Jones." His words are exquisite. The melody and the chords are exquisite. That's the only, so to speak, non-Bowie song, but it feels like a Bowie song. The words and his love for David come flying out when he sings. 

I was playing with the band [on the song], and right behind me there was Joe on the screen, bigger than life. It's a new way to create music. Would I have known any of this three years ago? No. And would have I known the internet or ways to communicate were available 20 or 30 years ago? You have to stay with the times stay current. If you want to feel any validity and feel any presence and be moving on. 

David called me [in the '90s] and started yakking away about this thing called the internet. And I [was like], "What are you talking about David?" I was thinking about a song I was performig. He said "Mike, stop everything, you've got to do this." And I kind of thought he was out of his mind. And look at his predictions and all of that. He was way ahead of the time, and I wasn't. So I'm in it now and I'm kind of grooving with it.


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You mentioned Bowie's '90s work. There's a new box set that recently came out with on Rhino covering this era, which one of my favorite Bowie eras. And I feel like it's getting a little bit more shine than maybe it received at the time. 

Finally!

What do you remember most about that time then about recording with him? 

That was that was some of my favorite stuff. Recording on the "Outside" album would have been my favorite album I ever played on in terms of creativity. 

Wow!

"Aladdin Sane" would be the only other one that would be comparable. But this whole album was improvised. We didn't even know what we were doing. We were just fooling around for two weeks in the studio with two tape machines, Sony machines connected together. We had 48 channels and there was a camera on every musician. Someday I would love them to release all that stuff, but it would probably take 1,000 hours to just put it together because each musician had a camera on [them]. I often wonder where that film is. 

Anyway, we'd be playing for six, eight hours a day improvising, and these cameras were filming it. So this material is infinite, and you get an hour album out of that. But God knows how much other material is floating around. I felt it was one of David's most creative periods. 

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He came to me in '93 or '94 and said, "Mike, I'm going to the musicians that influenced my life the most. I'm going to you, Brian Eno, Reeves Gabrels, Carlos Alomar. And we're going to Montreux, and we're going to make an improvised album. Because I need to revitalize myself, because I feel I sold out a little in the '80s. I was forced by the record companies to do commercial things and keep trying to get hits, and while some of the music was good, it's not what I'm most proud of. I need a restart, and we're going to do it." 

And from that moment on, we were in creative mode — to the last show we ever played, right when he had his heart attack

When you were playing live with Bowie, how much was it planned, and how much it be he'd call an audible and you had to be on your feet? What was that like as a musician playing live with him?

When we did the Reality tour, we did about 113 shows before he got sick. And we had about 63 or 70 songs ready to go. At any given show, we did maybe 23 to 28 songs. He would throw curves at us in the middle of the show when we started to feel confident because we're out on the road. It was a little frightening because the engineers and the sound people and everyone would have to switch gears. But we always pulled it off. Most of the time, we had a set and we stuck with the set. But like I said, when he felt comfortable, he started messing with it. It was fun. 

I was the loose cannon. I played in somewhere between nine and 13 bands with him over a 40-year span. And so I was a loose cannon in that everybody pretty much played parts, and they stuck to them, and it sounded like the record and the song. I was the one who was allowed to improvise and go left and go right and do this and do that. That is the only reason I was able to stay with them, because I'm an improvising pianist and musician. So whatever I'm hearing and feeling in the moment, I play. Every time I play a song, it's different. 

That's also a really good counterpoint to anything going on in the stage. There's an X factor —you don't know what it's going to be, and you're going to get something different every night. I would imagine as a creative person, that's also exciting, because that keeps it interesting for you

Very much so. And I remember sitting with David one day on the bus when we were going from town to town. He was reading some book or showed me something, and it was called "The X Factor." And it's this thing that you just alluded to — that's what makes creating and art magical. Otherwise, I couldn't be doing this at 76 years old, starting at 14 and never having stopped. If that X factor wasn't there, I would have been burned out. 

Most people can't keep a job for three months. You know, I'm doing the same thing for 62 years, non-stop, [and] loving it. [Laughs.] And David is the biggest part of my life. but I've done it for Stan Getz, Elvin Jones, [Smashing] Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Halsey recently. It's just never ending, because I love music and I like to create. And anyone could feel that from anyone else who does that. Many people can do that — but not all of them do it at the level of a Bowie or Duran Duran or Def Leppard.

Working with all these different musicians in the last few years, how have you yourself grown and evolved as a musician and as a creative? 

The older I get, the more I seem to know less. In my 20s, I remember saying to people, "I think I understand about 85% of music." In my 30s, it was like 70% and my 40s were like 60%. Now in my 70s It feels like 3%. So a certain forced humility comes about, because you realize no one doesn't know what they don't know. [Laughs.] When that door opens to you — "Oh, holy mackerel." Whatever arrogance was there starts to diminish. Humble is the first word that comes to me, and humility. 

As a musician, I'm always learning and practicing and writing, composing. Right before we got on the phone, I was finishing a piano part on [Bowie's] "Wild is the Wind"; before that, "Five Years." I'm still polishing my craft. Because as good as I am as a pianist, when you're dealing with creativity, it's infinite. So I might be good — but I can be better. The day that I lose that feeling is probably when I'm out of here. But I feel far from it now, because I'm starting to enjoy that portion of wisdom. That doesn't mean I don't still make mistakes — but it means that I've passed through some arrogant stupidity.

"A Bowie Celebration" is a livestream event on Jan. 8 at 9 p.m. ET/ 6 p.m. PT. Check out the full lineup and ticket information.

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Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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