David Bowie Keyboardist Mike Garson: 'He Was a Chameleon'

Garson signed an eight-week contract with David Bowie in 1972, and then stuck around for three decades

David Bowie Keyboardist Mike Garson: 'He Was a Chameleon'

When Mike Garson was hired to play piano for David Bowie on the Ziggy Stardust tour in September of 1972, he had every reason to think the gig would be short-lived. Bowie only offered him an eight-week contract, and he was the fourth pianist brought onto the tour during just a few months. Against all odds, Garson not only endured throughout the entire tour, he stuck with the singer all the way through Young Americans in 1975, and then came back in the 1990s (after leaving the Church of Scientology) and was a key member of Bowie's live bands all the way through his final onstage appearance in 2006.

A couple of days after Bowie's shocking passing, we spoke with Garson about their long history together.

You must still be in shock.
Shock. This is my 40th interview, so I've been going straight for the last 30 hours. When I heard about it, I didn't sleep at all. But the talking about it helps because I'm thinking of the joyful moments we shared over all those years.

He usually tore through bands. Why do you think he kept coming back to you?
What's funny is that I was hired for eight weeks. What a lot of people don't know is that he fired five bands between 1972 and 1975. I was the only one that remained though all of them. What I think it was is that I listened to a lot of music when I was in New York through the 1960s. I was blessed to study with Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans and Juilliard teachers. He was always looking for different things, and I had access to so much music.

I could deliver any kind of piano playing he wanted. When we did Young Americans and he wanted more soul and gospel, I could deliver it. When he wanted more classical, I had that. When he wanted more bebop, I had that. When he initially wanted all that avant-garde stuff, I had that. I've always loved a lot of music and been very eclectic. He loved my palette and wideness. He was a chameleon that loved all sorts of things. We would talk about Vaughan Williams or Stan Kenton, Charles Mingus, Stravinsky ...

On the Earthling album, he said to me, "Why don't you play a solo that sounds like Stravinsky's Octet? I last heard that in college, so I went down to Tower Records and bought the album. I listened to it and made an improvisized-jazz-classics kind of avant-garde solo on the tune "Battle for Britain (The Letter)."

If I had been in New York over the past few years, I probably would have been on the last few albums. He really wanted me living out there, but my whole family is in L.A. I just couldn't take them all and move. I've heard many things on the last two albums where I could have contributed.

I loved the shows I saw you guys do on the Reality tour.
We were at our peak. Everyone in the band knew we were an unbelievably tight band. We had about 67 pieces in our repertoire. We shifted them around and we put this one in and this one out, change this and that. We stayed fresh and practiced at every soundcheck. We were on the road for 13 months, so we kept it very fresh.

Most tours before that had pretty similar set lists from night to night.
Totally. Then some humorous things would come in. At soundchecks, he'd start singing like Johnny Cash or Elvis. It was hilarious, a perfect duplication of those guys.

Do you think he enjoyed that tour?
I think he loved the tour. I think the mistake was that after we finished the majority of it, maybe nine months, we started doing the secondary cities in America, which we'd never done before. We should have just taken a month off and then picked it up for those gigantic shows in Europe. What happened is they put us on the secondary tour and it weakened us. We got tired. Then in Hamburg he had the heart attack. He managed to finish the show and we got him over to the hospital. Thank God they saved him, but we missed the last 10 gigantic shows. I think we could have pulled them off had we not done all those small cities in America. The thinking probably was they wanted to keep the band working, but we should have gone on hiatus.

The tour did go on and on. Then that stagehand died. ...
A total tragedy. It was in Miami. A guy was up there high hooking things up. He was a 300-pound guy, and he didn't put his belt on and he crashed down. We heard the sound. I'll never forget it. We cancelled the show. But, again, secondary cities. We shouldn't have been doing them. I don't know if it was greed or just keeping the guys working. I don't know what the motives were, whether it came from management or agents. It's not fair for me to say, but I personally needed a break, so I can't imagine what it was like for him.

Before the last show, did he tell you he was in pain?
I have a very specific memory because two days before the last show we played in Czechoslovakia. As a pianist playing with maybe a thousand singers, I've learned to develop a kinetic, telepathic connection to the singer. At least that's how it was with me and David. And I felt like he was in pain. I'm looking up during the show and he's sort of rubbing his neck and his chest. We stopped the show in the middle and he didn't seem right. We took a break and then went back and finished it. I was very concerned.

He went to see the doctor in Czechoslovakia, the president's doctor. The guy told him he had a pinched nerve. When we're getting ready to go onstage in Hamburg, he said to me, "They gave me muscle relaxers because I have a pinched nerve." It did not make sense to me at all. When we were onstage in Hamburg, he was rubbing his heart and looking uncomfortable, but like a total trouper, he finished the show. They zoomed him to the hospital and they put these stents in.

I suppose he's lucky he didn't die.
He could have. That was a wrong diagnosis by the doctor in Czechoslovakia. There were days where he's taking a muscle relaxer for a pinched nerve when he's having a heart attack.

Did you talk to him in the months following that?
No. He kept quiet. I sent him a couple of emails asking how he was doing. Then he called me to do some charity show.

The first thing you guys did was "Life on Mars" at Fashion Rocks. He came out with a black eye and his arm in a cast. Do you know what the deal was with that?
He created that. I'm trying to remember. ... He also had something wrapped around his head. He almost looked like a pirate or something. I don't know what he was up to. I was so focused on "Life on Mars" because he changed the key again on me a day before. It was the worst key for the piano. It was E or B, anything you would hate. I think it started in B and then ended in E, or vice versa. It was just sharps and had all kinds of chords we don't like to play on the piano.

You also played with him at the Alicia Keys event in New York, which was the last time he ever played in public.
He didn't allow them to film that. It was a charity show and he wanted to remain anonymous. He's humble that way and he liked to give his time and money to charity. It was an amazing show. We did "Changes" and Alicia asked me to play piano. Some of it was just piano and voice, which was beautiful. He thanked me and said if he didn't do that, he might not have started singing again, or even write. He was sort of gun-shy.

He announced big comeback show at the Highline Festival, but then pulled out. Do you know what happened there?
I think he just changed his mind. My only guess would be that maybe he wasn't feeling well, but that would be a pure guess.

He wasn't really seen again until 2013. Do you know why he walked away for so many years?
The only thing I know is that when we were three quarters of the way through the Reality tour, he said to me one day, "Mike, after this tour, I'm going to be a father and live a normal life. I'm going to be there for Lexi when she grows up. I missed it the first time."

So even before the heart surgery, he was thinking about walking away?
He told me this. Everyone thinks, "Why isn't he doing this? Why isn't he doing that? Is he too old? Is he afraid?" He told me this and it's totally simple: "I want to be a present father." That's what he did.

He followed through.
He did. He called me in 2006 and said, "Mike, do you think we should go out again? I'm getting a lot of pressure." I said, "David, only if you're feeling it." Now I screwed myself up because I wanted to play, but I knew he wasn't feeling it. He told [drummer] Sterling [Campbell] a year later, "You know, I'm just not feeling it." Knowing him so well, if he went out there and didn't feel it, it could be a nightmare. I'd been on some tours where he didn't want to be there, or he didn't like the promoter. We were in Moscow at the Kremlin [in 1996] and he hated it because the first few rows was all Russian mafia. I did all the interviews and he just stayed in his room. He hated it, and he's not fun to be with when he's pissed. But most of the time, it was joyful.

I remember one time back in the 1990s, he said to me, "Mike, I have all this fame and money, but it doesn't mean shit to me. I could live out of a suitcase and have a small apartment and be just fine." I don't think he was bullshitting me. He had this simplicity, which I think came from Buddhism. One time he said to me, "Mike, you wouldn't want the fame that I have. You don't really have your own space."

Did you talk to him much in the past few years?
I didn't talk to him much about things like that. A few months ago, we were talking about Nina Simone. I wrote to him and asked if he'd seen the new documentary [What Happened, Miss Simone?]. We both love Nina Simone and were talking about that. A little while ago, a biographer writing a book about me had me listen to more than 50 songs I'd recorded with David, some really obscure. I listened to them all and was blown away. I'd never heard them all at once, and many of them I hadn't heard since we made them. I wrote to David and told him about it. He immediately wrote back, "We did some amazing, wonderful work. What a great body of work we did, Mike." But I got the creepiest feeling, like it was the final thing he'd ever say to me. This was nine months ago. 

Did you have any idea he was sick?
No. He never told me. Tony Visconti might have been the only person to know outside of his family.

Do you think all the drugs he did in the 1970s contributed at all to his health issues later on?
There's no question about it. Also, he moved on to drinking a lot after that. When we were rehearsing in the 1990s, he'd smoke three packs a day. That was probably the worst of all. And even when I came back in the 1990s, there was some heavy drinking. That takes a toll.

We were on the bus once, I think in 2003, and he said to me, "Jesus, Mike, I'm so disgusted. We have a trainer here. I'm in the gym. I'm eating well and I have a chef and I'm doing everything right. And the fucking doctor has put me on cholesterol medicine. I hate it." Then three months later he had the heart attack.

Still, you must have been stunned when you heard he died.
When I heard at 11 p.m. on Sunday, I was absolutely shocked. However as the shock took over my body, I recalled one conversation I never shared because I was too afraid to share it. But it always struck me with deep fear and power. We were on the bus touring in 1996 and he said, "Mike, I went to this powerful psychic somewhere at the end of the 1970s or in the early 1980s. He said I was going to live to around 69, 70, 71." I said, "Oh, my God." He said, "It wasn't like this guy was a wacko. I believe him and I know its true." So it was always in my mind as we were getting close to that. When I got the call, that thought clicked in at the same time the shock took over.