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.