INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Vogue FEBRUARY 10, 2018 - by Corey Seymour
DAVID BOWIE'S MUSICAL DIRECTOR, MIKE GARSON, ON KEEPING THE FLAME ALIVE...
...AND THE UNRELEASED TRILOGY THAT ALMOST WAS
A year to the day after David Bowie died, I took my wife to see a concert called Celebrating David Bowie at New York's Terminal 5. Doing so was more a matter of faith than any inside line I had on how good the concert might actually be - I knew only that the house band for the evening was comprised of various members of Bowie's various bands over the years, from long-time piano player and musical director Mike Garson to guitarists Earl Slick (who essentially replaced Mick Ronson) and Adrian Belew and bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, along with a rotating cast of guest vocalists.
The concert was mind-blowing, almost a religious experience - a thirty-four-song tour de force that delivered, yes, a trove of Bowie hits, but also a few mind-blowing renditions of lesser-known tracks (including a scorching version of I'm Afraid of Americans off Earthling, which had, ahem, a kind of shocking new relevance a month or two after the election). Since then, Garson has traveled with various iterations of the band both across the country and around the world. This year's tour kicks off tomorrow night (and comes to Manhattan's Irving Plaza on Monday).
We rang up Garson, who was in the midst of rehearsing with his band in Los Angeles, to ask him about the band - and about working with Bowie for four decades.
How did this come about - how did you decide to "get the band back together," as it were, and tour the world playing Bowie's songs?
That's a good question. I think this whole thing is bigger than us - it was just meant to be. What happened was a kind of spontaneous unfolding. In the same way that I was hired by David for eight weeks in 1972 and ended up doing a thousand concerts and twenty albums with him, this all began as an idea I had to play some of David's songs on piano by myself and tell some stories about working together. And then, more and more people reached out to me and wanted to get involved.
Do you ever get Bowie fatigue?
No, I'm getting the opposite - when David was alive, I was asked to do thirty different tribute bands. Well, why would I do that when I could work with the real guy? Carmine played bass on Let's Dance; Gerry Leonard was the musical director for the Reality tour. Mark Plati produced the Earthling album with David and was his musical director in the '90s. I was the musical director with Luther Vandross and David Sanborn in 1974 on the Young Americans tour and did "Bring Me the Disco King" on Reality plus the Outside album, and Pin Ups, Diamond Dogs; David and I collaborated on Aladdin Sane and Lady Grinning Soul and Time.
But to see the audience smiling, laughing, crying every night - that's very, very humbling. David's legacy and his songbook deserves to be played. It's like the Gershwin or Cole Porter or Richard Rodgers songbook. People need to know who this guy was - and not just the music, either. They need to know about his Renaissance man abilities: his painting, his acting, his fashion; he was the editor of an art magazine; and he knew how to produce artists, how to perform onstage, how to write songs - he's probably the greatest artist in a century.
Bowie was constantly evolving his sound and moving onward from one thing to the next quite quickly. What's your secret that led you to work with him for so long?
In the first two years, from '72 to '74, David fired five entire bands - except for myself. But my thing with him wasn't a friendship thing. It's that I could change styles - I could do soul music on Young Americans, or play jazzy on Aladdin Sane, or play gospel. David was the ultimate casting director: He hired great people throughout his career, and he let them pursue their vision. I brought the history of classical and jazz piano as best I could to him, and he was smart enough to use everything that I did in a way that was braver than what you would expect from any mere rock musician. He had the ability to let me play as wild as I could, and that separated him from the crowd. I was the whipped cream on the cake, and he pulled it out of me. I mean, at the same time, I was just a session musician - I made a hundred and fifty bucks for recording an album.
Is it true that when Bowie called you for the first time to ask you to play with him, you didn't know who he was?
Absolutely true. I was a year and a half older than him, and when you're young, that can be a big difference. My life was changed by Bach and Chopin and Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans and Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein. I would hear rock music on the radio, but I was practicing piano eight hours a day. I wasn't interested in pop culture. And David knew that, liked it, and was smart enough to know how to utilize it.
It's so bizarre. You helped him redefine the parameters of rock 'n' roll - but did you actually like it?
It took me a while. But when I was on the first tour in '72, I only played on half the songs, and then I'd sneak out into the audience and watch them play from the first row. And the first time I did that, I said to my wife, "This guy is a genius." He was, to me, the Miles Davis of the pop and rock world. Always changing, always moving, never staying in the comfort zone, didn't care what people thought.
Is there anything to the rumors about unreleased material from Bowie? I've heard specifically that he wanted to make his Outside record into some kind of trilogy in the months before he died.
Outside came about from forty-five hours of improvisation by all of David's favorite musicians. He specifically told me he was choosing the musicians for that album - Reeves Gabrels, myself, a few other people - because he was feeling stagnant and had compromised his integrity in the '80s and he wanted to snap out of it. We did the 45 hours, and then David and Brian Eno turned that work into songs. And there was a lot of leftover material - enough for two more albums then - but then some asshole stole the tapes and put out all these bootlegs of incomplete improvisations, and it took the life out of the material before he died. The bootlegs themselves were just improvs, not shaped pieces - but it took the life out of the material. Then, a few months before David passed, he said to Brian, "Let's do it." He wanted to record more stuff live, and then between all of it, we'd have the true trilogy. I was so excited. But of course, then he passed.
Outside is one of those records that made no sense whatsoever to me when it came out, but it's amazing how relevant it sounds now.
It was my favorite album to do aside from Aladdin Sane. And I told David at the time we were doing it that nobody would understand it for twenty years. Now, everybody's starting to get it. It's more applicable now than then. Maybe me and Brian will get together someday and finish it ourselves.
How's the set list coming along for the new shows?
I'm rehearsing the hell out of the band. And we sound so tight. Honestly, I'm still trying to figure out what we're going to play - there are just so many songs to choose from. I mean, we'll be playing David's landmark songs, for sure - Space Oddity, Life On Mars?, Changes, Suffragette City, Ziggy Stardust - but we're going to play a few obscure ones, too: Conversation Piece [a B side originally recorded in 1969], Can You Hear Me from Young Americans, Quicksand from Hunky Dory - people need to hear these songs, too. Playing New York is tricky, though. It's always been funny, whether it's when I was with David or more on my own, you go places around the world, from London or Paris to Slovakia or something, and people just freak out. In New York, it's more like, "Show me what you've got." [Laughs] Well, okay. We've got a lot.