Just For One Day: Mike Garson Salutes His Friend David Bowie
“When I was touring on the Ziggy Stardust tour with him, I didn’t play on every song because I was the new guy in the band – so I would literally go and sneak out into the audience to watch the show when I wasn’t playing, because it was such an experience to witness and be a part of. And I was watching Bowie and remember saying to myself: holy shit, who is this guy?”
Mike Garson is widely recognized for his avant-garde style of piano playing. He toured with Bowie in 1972 and 1973, the years of his biggest success with ‘The Spider From Mars’ band. The pianist was also to tour with Bowie for the entirety of the Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dog albums in late 2020 however COVID-19 social distancing regulations have shut all of that down. Instead, to celebrate the icon and legend, David Bowie, he has composed a live-stream concert on Bowie’s birthday – on January 8th, David would have been 73.
A Bowie Celebration: Just For One Day! will be streamed globally for 24 hours beginning on January 8th at 6pm PT / 2am GMT. Mike Garson, Bowie’s longest standing band member – will be hosting the event. The stream will bring together a dazzling array of artists who worked with Bowie, or were deeply influenced by him and his work, for a celebration on what would have been his birthday and weekend of the fifth anniversary of his passing.
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Hey Mike, how are you?! How have you been coping with this new lifestyle of social distancing.
I’m sitting at the piano for the last four months, seven to 15 hours a day, I wouldn’t know what’s going on in the world with Trump, the vaccine or any of it – unless my wife tells me I’m completely clueless because I’ve been spending all of my time putting this show together (A Bowie Celebration: Just For One Day!) genuinely don’t know what’s going on with the outside world! But it’s nice to see a human being right now!
You’re surrounded by such a beautiful studio, I can only assume this has been your workspace and a place for many of your creations – you’re notoriously known being one of the best pianists of all time – in fact it was Bowie who made this statement and it has been adopted by the rest of the musical world.
This is true, however I wouldn’t call myself naturally talented – in fact I’m a really slow learner, I learnt everything I know from watching and listening to others. If you look at David Bowie, he was all self-learned, everything was self-taught – it is the passion that drives you to keep creating and learning every day, because practising is not easy work. Some people learn with books, I was never able to do that.
I’m known as one of the best pianists, yet I have to be shown very slowly how to learn a song on piano – once I’ve got it, that’s another story, but the process of getting a song right is very long winded for me. We’re all human, we all have our strengths and our weaknesses and it’s about how we utilise them – that’s how we create magic. It’s hard to do when you’re an artist because you’re normally looking for perfection. But all of our wires are wired differently and that’s what’s brilliant about different people creating art!
You were originally supposed to be touring entirety of the Diamond Dog and Ziggy Stardust albums in late 2020, but because of the current climate of the pandemic it was all cancelled. You’ve not let that stop you from creating an amazing performance - in fact you’ve somehow managed to get 40+ acts and alumni of David Bowie together for an incredible 24 hour long stream...
You would not BELIEVE, the people that are going to be on this stream – people from all walks of David’s life. Friends, band members, huge musicians heavily influenced by him like YungBlud, Duran Duran, Adam Lambert etc.
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Let’s talk about YungBlud! I thought this was a very interesting choice, as there are a lot of similarities between Bowie and YungBlud – they’re both artists that inspire hope and authenticity, was this purposeful?
I mean, me and YungBlud have become close friends. We were talking yesterday on the phone, he’s in England and I’m in LA and he’s just great. He gets it, and that’s why I asked him to be a part of this show, he just get’s it.
There may be people that can look like David or try to recreate what he has already done – but YungBlud is the real deal, he’s the Bowie of your generation. I also wanted to reach out to his fans, who were not even born when David Bowie was making history and I was touring Spiders from Mars in 1972 with him – I’d love for the younger generation to know where all of this influence comes from. Because I see so many elements of the youth today that emulate what Bowie started, androgyny, queer identity, exploring one’s self and using art as self-expression no matter how crazy it looks or sounds.
YungBlud is another ingredient to a perfect mixture for this show, because the artist’s we have are from all different walks of life and age groups. For example, I have Ian Hunter from Mott The Hoople who’s 81 years old! And I’ve got Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails who’s in his 50s and now I’ve also found another young lady who’s fabulous… I can’t remember her name, oh yes! Taylor Momsen from ‘The Pretty Reckless’. So you can see what I’m trying to do here, I want a virtual Woodstock or LiveAid.
You’ve had an incredible career, not only were you David Bowie’s longest standing band member but you’ve toured and worked alongside some of the music industry’s biggest legends.
I’ve been very fortunate with who my path has crossed with. It’s crazy... I remember back it was back in 1973 on a Sunday and I was living in England, Sussex... because I was with David and we were always travelling through the country with the Spiders. I was young, married – to Susan - and we picked up the newspaper one Sunday morning. You’ve got to understand, I’d just come from the jazz clubs and bars, playing for five dollars a night to five people and now I’m with David Bowie. So, at the top of the newspaper it reads ‘David Bowie: Mike Garson is the best rock pianist in the world, because he doesn’t play rock.’.
Within a week I was considered one of the third best pianists in the world, just because of what Bowie so articulately but simply said about me! All because of his influence – which is the same way he’s influenced so many other forms of life, fashion, composing arts, production, performance, acting, he was even a great sculptor, he made these wonderful paintings. There’s one hanging on the wall right here, that he painted of me, for me (Mike points to the picture). He painted that whilst we were recording in the studio. That’s why I had to do this show, he’s done so much for me – and for so many other people wanting to find their own way.
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I think it is important for people to know the history of his legacy, he paved the way for so many artists.
Yes, exactly – that’s why it is so important for the people that are on this roster to have genuinely been impacted by David, I want people who are authentic and have a deep love for the man that gave so much of himself to all of us. Gary Oldman, is an actor by trade, however he was one of David’s close friends, so he’ll be performing a song – it’s little performances like these that will make this night so special – I want to feel David in the room and I want him to know that he still so loved and appreciated.
The influence that he’s had on this world is greater than his voice, greater than his look, greater than his talent – he’s a renaissance person that goes through time, so in 300 years, you’ll KNOW his name, but you might not know other very famous names now. That’s how much of a historical impact he has had on music, society and in general the philosophy of life.
I knew this from beginning when I was touring on the Ziggy Stardust tour with him, I didn’t play on every song because I was the new guy in the band – so I would literally go and sneak out into the audience to watch the show when I wasn’t playing, because it was such an experience to witness and be a part of. And I remember saying to myself ‘holy shit, who is this guy?’.
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Your piano solo for the famous title track of David Bowie’s album ‘Aladdin Sane’, was recorded in one take – is that true?
It was David who made that happen, I would have never played that solo but he didn’t want any of the standard piano solos, he hired me for my avant-garde style. So, he said to me ‘can’t you play some of that avant-garde stuff’, I said, are you sure? And he said ‘yes’. So, I did, and we recorded it in one take – and now here we are, 46 years later still talking about it and that’s just how things went with David, we created history in one take.
It all almost feels supernatural with him, I didn’t belong in this world of mainstream media and fame – I was an underground jazz artist. I’d have to call him the ultimate casting director, no matter who he hired – they were the perfect fit.
In your opinion, what was one of yours and Bowie’s highest, and lowest points during your time with the legend?
I’d say the highest point were Hammersmith Apollo show in London in 1973, I opened the show for him – he asked me too. And then Glastonbury in 2000, in front of a quarter of a million people, he sent me out to warm up the audience – I’d say those were two of my highest points, an incredible feeling. There were no lows, because every time I was with David, it was a pure thrill. He lived in the moment and he only reached out when he needed my skills, we had that beautiful creative relationship of living in the moment together, lettings things spontaneously unfold and trusting that sooner or later it might get better.
I’m hoping that after all of this crap is over, that there is renaissance, because so many artists now are creating in their homes, making music, writing screenplays, they’re painting and they’re almost forced to do it which is sort of a good discipline in a way – and we’re in the middle of a reboot. I feel like we’re rebooting the whole planet. So, you either clean yourself up, and make yourself better or you just succumb to this earth beating you down – we have a choice. I’m just warming up; I spent my whole life accompanying all of these amazing artists and now I am finally doing something as Mike Garson, in honour of my friend and inspiration, David Bowie.
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A Bowie Celebration: Just For One Day! streams on January 8th at 6pm PT / 2am GMT, and is available 24 hours thereafter.
Words: Julia Hope
Photography: Steve Ross + Fernando Aceves
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