When David Bowie died on Jan. 10, 2016 (two days after his 69th birthday), his longtime pianist, Calabasas resident Mike Garson, was heartbroken like the rest of the world. He knew he needed to pay homage, not just once but for the rest of his life.
“Basically I just made this commitment to myself that 50 percent of my musical output moving forward would be his music,” Garson tells me by phone. He's currently traveling with Celebrating Bowie, the 27-city tour with the departed icon’s former bandmates playing his works (at the Wiltern on Feb. 28). “I love this guy’s music; it’s as great as George Gershwin or Cole Porter or Burt Bacharach.”
Garson should know. He’s considered one of the most gifted pianists in music, with a background that includes not just rock but jazz, classical and avant-garde sounds, too. He wasn’t versed in rock, much less glam rock, when he was hired to play on the Ziggy Stardust tour in the fall of 1972, but he learned quickly. It was an eight-week contract and he had no reason to think it’d be a long-term gig, but it lasted the entirety of the historic tour and then moved into the studio, where his experience and knowledge of both classic and experimental songcraft informed Bowie's recordings all the way through to the Young Americans era. There was a long period apart after that, but the musicians reunited in the 1990s and continued to work together until Bowie’s last stage appearance in 2014.
Celebrating David Bowie was born last year as a one-off series of shows after the Starman died, but Garson said so many people reached out to him afterward that he had to keep it going. He also did an Aladdin Sane tour in the U.K. a couple of months ago, featuring the classic album played track by track.
Garson’s reverence for his former boss and collaborator is palpable even over the phone, and his joyful recollections and reflections are Bowie-fan-bliss to listen to. A book about his time with Bowie a few years ago is currently being updated for rerelease next year. Though some media outlets chose to focus on a new story he shares in it, about a psychic telling Bowie when he would die, Garson says he only felt it relevant to share considering Blackstar’s auguring undertones about the star’s impending death.
Since he died, David Bowie has become an almost mystical creature, a true rock god. Fans can’t get enough of anything and everything Bowie-related, so Garson's book surely will do better the second time around. Hopefully there will be an audiobook version too, because hearing Garson talk about his experiences, in his gruff Brooklyn accent, is particularly riveting, especially since he started as a true fish out of water, unfamiliar with the wild ways of 1970s rock & roll.
“I drive from my house in Brooklyn to the studio in New York City, and I walk in and see these three guys dressed like, oh my God,” Garson recalls of his first audition, before he had even heard of Bowie. “There’s these three guys, one red hair, one silver and one black, boots up to their knees, stockings ... I’m in jeans. Then this handsome guy calls me over to the piano — his name is Mick Ronson. He shows me the music for 'Changes' and says, ‘Play this!’ I play for seven seconds and he says, 'Ya got the gig!'”
“When I first met David, I thought, this guy looks weird,” he admits. “But I soon realized that he was a fuckin’ genius. I realized he was a Renaissance man. And right away I thought, he’s the Miles Davis of the rock world. That’s when I knew I could do this.”
Though they were opposites in style and upbringing, Garson said it was his jazz background that bonded him with Bowie, who played saxophone and studied jazz as a kid. The Aladdin Sane album, with its red and blue bolt makeup headshot, has become part of mainstream iconography, a strange yet beautiful pop culture symbol that even non-fans know and appreciate. The record itself conveyed an otherworldly mood as well, largely due to Garson’s influence, incorporating classical, jazz and avant-garde elements.
“Everything that I did in my past history is in there. I played 'Lady Grinning Soul' with the influence of Chopin and Rachmaninoff. I played 'Time' in the style of barrelhouse piano from the 1920s, which we called swing piano. I played the title song in the most dissonant, bizarre way, inspired by people like Cecil Taylor and Stravinsky.”
As musical director, Garson will surely play Sane songs at the Wiltern. He notes that the piano solo in the title track is so complex, he’s never played it the same way twice. It’s a meaningful number for the pianist and sure to be a high point of the show. The hits are, of course, a big part of "Celebrating Bowie," too, but for Garson honoring the depth of his connection with the icon means digging a little deeper into lesser-known compositions and latter-era stuff.
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Sadly, we never got to see Bowie do Blackstar material onstage. During last year’s Celebrating David Bowie show, Sting made a surprise appearance and sang a stunning version of the title track and "Lazarus." This year, Garson says more surprise guests are in store, and he has announced some of the show’s players, including Joe Sumner (Sting’s son), actress Evan Rachel Wood, Rolling Stones backup singer Bernard Fowler and Guatemalan singer Gaby Moreno. Though Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti did his own Bowie show, called Holy Holy, also at the Wiltern, Garson says there was no competition between the events and he hopes to have Visconti be part of Celebrating Bowie one day as well.
“My goal is to have guests forever, whoever wants to be there, but I have to find great singers,” says the pianist, who plans to bring together everyone who’s ever played with Bowie or been influenced by him for years to come, making the show an annual event. He also reveals that he’s planning to record a tribute album down the road, with superstars including Duran Duran’s Simon LeBon and The Cure’s Robert Smith already expressing interest.
“David had a lot of inner strength and courage to go out of his comfort zone and break the rules. He was the ultimate casting director,” Garson marvels, his plans to manifest this spirit clearly consuming and sparking his creativity just as it did decades ago. “He wouldn’t want me to do it the way we used to do it; he’d want me to be respectful to the music, but he’d want me to stretch the envelope, because that’s what he stood for.“
Celebrating David Bowie takes place at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 28, at the Wiltern.