Interview with Mike Garson
Posted on 02/20/2019
Celebrate the music of David Bowie with alumni musicians of David Bowie's bands from across the decades in A Bowie Celebration on March 9. David Bowie's long-standing band member Mike Garson chats with us about how he works to have bands play Bowie's music as authentically as possible and what is was like working with the man himself.
READ THE TRANSCRIBED INTERVIEW BELOW
with Bert and Kelly from All Access and special guest Mike Garson
Bert: Hi again, and welcome to All Access with State Theatre New Jersey. This is the show that takes you backstage, behind the scenes, and behind the curtain at the legendary State Theatre in downtown New Brunswick. And there is so much excitement happening downtown. Joined as always by Kelly Blithe, The Director of Communications of State Theatre New Jersey. How are you, Kell?
Kelly: I’m good, Bert! How are you?
Bert: I’m doing well, and my name is Bert Baron, and coming up later on we’re going to talk about some upcoming events at State Theatre. He may have left us some time ago, Kell, but there’s no doubt that the music of the great David Bowie will live on, and live on forever. We’re going to be celebrating his music with a very special show that’s coming up on Saturday, March 9th. Do you want to talk about that?
Kelly: Yes! It’s called A Bowie Celebration and it features the David Bowie Alumni Tour, and we are so excited for the roster of musicians that are going to be performing on March 9th. And with us today is one of - is the longest standing member of the alumni band, Mike Garson. Welcome, Mike!
Mike: Thank you, nice to be here.
Kelly: Yeah, so, Mike, we are so looking forward to March 9th. Tell us what we can expect at this performance.
Mike: Well, you know, since David left I’ve had several bands touring around and continuously refining it to make the music sound as authentic as possible. And finding great singers who embrace, and make David’s music their own. And I think I have quite a good band now. I have Earl Slick on lead guitar, who joined about a year and a half – two years after me in 1974. And he’s wonderful to have on tour. I have Carmine Rojas who’s played base on Let’s Dance, and China Girl, and Modern Love, and he did the Glass Spider tour, and the Serious Moonlight tour. So, he’s spent several years with David. And I’m on Piano. And Earl Slick’s son is passing it down, he’s playing wonderful drums, and he sounds great. We have Bernard Fowler who’s been singing for 30 years with the Rolling Stones, and he’s one of our great front-men. We have Corey Glover from Living Color, and he sounds terrific. We have Charlie Sexton. Charlie Sexton who’s been with Dylan on and off for the last 20 years, and interestingly enough David Bowie at one point about 25 years ago asked Charlie to join the band. Well, it might’ve been – it might’ve been actually around 1999, just when Charlie joined Dylan, David had asked Charlie to join, but he couldn’t. So, he’s always wanted to play this music, he’s a very very good singer, and he is an excellent guitarist. So, he’s with us, and I’m very proud of the musicians and the singers. I’ve been playing piano, I mean, Jesus. It’s hard to believe, but I did over 1,000 shows with David starting in 1972. I did his first American Tour, I did his Ziggy Stardust Tour, I did his last show in America in 2006 with just him, and myself, and Alicia Keys for a benefit for AIDS. So, the long tradition and history with David, and I’m trying to be as respectful as I can to the music. We play a bunch of the hits, and we do some deeper catalogue stuff too. Like "Win," and "Sweet Thing," and "Candidate," and it’s just an enjoyable experience. And, you know, when you’re on the road by the time we get there we’ll have finished 50 concerts, so the machine starts to get well oiled.
Bert: Yeah, that’s going to be a great night, and what a line-up! I’ve been a fan of Charlie Sexton since Arc Angels, that band he had in Texas there, and I’ve been following his career ever since. And to have him as part of this – this music here is great. But take me back, if you would, a Bowie Tour was like bigger than a rock and roll show because there was a lot of excitement when David Bowie was in town. And you know, what’s the character? What’s the theme? What’s going to be happening this time? What am I going to see tonight that I’ve never seen at a rock concert before? And imagine going through that night after night after night, it had to be such an exciting time for what you were doing.
Mike: You know, there’s only one David Bowie, and you will not see that. But what you will see is 1,000 fans singing every word to every song, and screaming, and coming to the front of the stage, and remembering their experiences all of these people who saw me play with David in 1973. Then they’ll have their children, and then their grandchildren. So, we’re hitting like three generations. And we’re just being very respectful to the music. If David never sang and just only wrote these songs, they’re worth sharing for time memorial because he’s just a great song writer. And people love the songs, and he was people’s soundtrack for their lives, and he was an artist that was bigger than life. He was more than a rock star. He was an actor, he was a producer, you know, his fashion was unbelievable. So, you have all of these factors. Well, we can’t deliver that, but we can make the music sound great. And because I have these alumni guys, when I’m hearing the music I recall it sounding like that when I was with David. I mean, I was blessed to play with 13 different bands with David over the years, but there was one band that wasn’t great. And whoever seems to join me on these tours loves David so much that they’re - they make the music sound great, and their hearts are in it. You know, so, that’s what I can promise you. That we’re not phoning it in. It’s a real band that loves playing it, and the enthusiasm generates, and the fans pick up on that. And watching them sing the songs, that’s sort of my joy because it warms my heart, you know. What effect he had as an artist! I took it a little bit for granted, you know, the pianist in the band all those years, and he’s a friend, and you fool around and all that stuff. And now that he’s gone and I compare him to so many other artists that I’ve worked with my whole life. I mean, there’s only one David Bowie. So, the best I could do is make the music sound great, and let people tune into their own memories, and joy. And then of course I’m running into a lot of people who never saw a Bowie show, or even heard him. But, they’re learning the music now, and that’s a newer generation, and that’s another thrill for me.
Kelly: Yeah, and you know, being with David Bowie for so many years since 1973, you obviously got the, you know, from one tour to the next there was such change, right? It’s still David Bowie, but there’s like, so many different things going on. What would you say was your favorite tour of all the Bowie tours? Now, I know that this is going to be hard, but maybe you could give one or two of your favorite kind of tour moments with David Bowie.
Mike: Wow, that’s so hard. The Ziggy Stardust Tour was absolutely amazing because I was a jazz musician in New York, and I have never gone out with a rock band of the nature. And all of the sudden, you’re playing in these big arenas, and you know, in the jazz world they’re not like fans. They come to the show, and it’s very intellectual, and they listen, and they love it, but they never ask for autographs, or run up to you, or sign, or become fans. The rock world is a whole different thing, and with David’s stature I went into kind of culture shock, but in a great way. So, that first tour that he did of America was amazing. There was an Outside album tour that we did in the mid 90’s where we were playing more esoteric stuff, and that required a lot of improvisation, and that’s a lot where my training was. So, that was a lot of fun. And then usually they released a DVD or CDs from our performances. In the year 2000 in Glastonbury in England, and there was over 250,000 people at that show. They thought there was 100,000 people, but because it was in a field and was open people just kept coming in. And we were the closing act after three days of music, and that was a very meaningful show to me. And David looked out into the audience and he actually got nervous, and he said “Mike, go out there, and warm up the audience, and play "Greensleeves" on the piano for them, and we’ll join you in five minutes.” And I almost died.
Mike: So, I went out and I warmed up the audience, and then they came out. So, that was a great experience, but I don’t remember one bad band or one bad tour because David was always changing and he never wanted to keep himself or us in a comfort zone, so he was always moving forward and I was loving the challenge, you know?
Bert: Yeah, and I’m sure –
Mike: And the first – yeah?
Bert: I’m sure that translated into the studio too, because I can imagine being in a studio with someone like David who said “You know what, forget about rules” and “Let’s push boundaries,” “Lets push the envelope,” “Let’s try some things that haven’t been done before.” It was such an exciting time with experimentation, and studio techniques. It was like, you know what, every day is a blank page. Let’s write something, and do something that’s never been done before. And this had to be every time you guys were in the studio?
Mike: I think you got it right. And there was, I must’ve played with him 20 albums, and you never knew what was coming, you know? I remember doing the Young Americans album, and listening to the sound in Philadelphia in ’74, and all of the sudden in the middle of the recording David gets and inspiration, and hears a song in his head, and he stopped the whole session, and he just sits with his acoustic guitar for two hours writing the song, you know? He stopped the whole session, isn’t that kind of a thing, you know?
Kelly: Nice. And you know, an artist of David Bowie’s caliber, obviously he was kind of an artist’s artist. And I know that he had his own fans. Like, you know, there were musicians and celebrities that loved David Bowie, and you know, you would see them, you know, at his concerts. Do you have a moment, or a time in which a celebrity came to a concert and was just a big fan, and it just kind of blew you guys away?
Mike: You know, through the years it was unbelievable who would show up because somehow everybody had a deep respect for him, and he affected a lot of people. So, it was just endless. You know, from Brad Pitt, to you know, to Tom Cruise. I mean, just everybody would show up. Some of them are sitting in with us from different towns, like Evan Rachel Wood, the actress from Westworld, she sat in with us in Los Angeles. Two years ago Sting sang with us. Perry Farrell from Jane’s Addiction sat in. In different cities, someone just calls and says “Hey, you know, can we sing a tune or two?” you know? So, in New York City, Lisa Fischer was out with the Rolling Stones for many years on background vocals, she has her own career, she’s going to drop in for a tune when we hit New York. I don’t know who’s coming yet in New Brunswick, but people the last second, you know, just call and say “Can I sing this song? This was my favorite song when I grew up.” You know? So, it keeps you on your feet, let’s put it that way, but the internal band and singers, it’s a solid show without guest artists, but it’s always fun when we have someone jumping on stage you know?
Bert: Yeah –
Mike: Sometimes you don’t know until the last second, you know?
Bert: Wow, that is a sign of a true artist whose influence is far and wide when that many people, generational people, have a favorite moment, or a favorite song, or a favorite story. Another reason why there will never be another David Bowie. No matter how many years we have to wait. He was an original. There will never be another one. So, I think it’s time to unretire the David Bowie concert shirt, and come on out and join us at State Theatre on Saturday, March 9th 8pm for A Bowie Celebration: The David Bowie Alumni Tour. It is going to be just an absolutely unforgettable evening. Get tickets while they’re still available at stnj.org, and this is going to be a history making night that’s for sure. Do I break out the Tin Machine t-shirt one last time, Mike? What do you think about that?
Mike: Well, there were - somehow - there were a few songs that survived that area like "I Can’t Read" and "Crashing in the Same Car" - Always "Crashing in the Same Car." But, you’ll be hearing more Ziggy stuff, you’ll hear stuff from the Reality album, you’ll hear stuff from Young Americans. I’m not sure we’re hitting Tin Machine.
Bert: That’s alright!
Mike: But, you know, everyone has their phase where they’re experimenting, and the experiment doesn’t quite work!
Bert: Right, right! Well, we could dedicate hours and hours of talking to you, Mike. But, really, you’re a true historian, and a living history lesson you are. And keep telling those stories, and keep those memories alive, and it was a real honor to speak with you today, so thank you again for everything.
Mike: Well, thank you so much! You know, when I’m in the middle of the shows between songs, I will remember stories, and I share them with the audience which makes it a warmer thing because sometimes you almost feel like David is there, you know? We do this duet with Corey Glover and Bernard Fowler, we do "Under Pressure." Which of course is that song that’s in the Bohemian Rhapsody and the Queen movie, and David and Freddie wrote that song, and when Bernard and Corey sing it on stage with us it’s like you get shivers. You can feel them channeling that energy, you know? So, it’s just not a normal show. It’s not a normal tribute band because its alumni, and it’s well polished. You know, in the last year I’ve done 100 shows, so we better sound good otherwise I’m going to have to fire everybody.
Bert: I’m sure it’s going to be awesome! But again, thank you so much for the time, Mike. We’ll see you then, ok?
Mike: Thanks so much for having me on the show!