A Bowie Celebration”: Pianist Mike Garson Keeps His Friend’s Memory Alive With an All-Star Band

Pianist Mike Garson may have one of the most enviable (and impressive) resumes in all of rock history: he was a member of David Bowie’s band lineup longer than any other musician. He appeared with Bowie at both his first and final concerts in America. And he also played on some of Bowie’s most iconic albums, including Aladdin Sane (1973), Diamond Dogs (1974), and Young Americans (1975), among many others. Altogether, he worked with Bowie on various projects for almost 40 years.

Since Bowie’s 2016 death, Garson has kept his friend’s legacy alive by putting on an annual worldwide tour called “A Bowie Celebration,” where Garson and other Bowie collaborators, along with a rotating roster of guest singers, play a career-spanning selection of his most beloved songs. 

This year, the lineup features Garson, Gerry Leonard (who had served as Bowie’s musical director, and also played guitar on the albums Heathen, Reality, and Next Day), Kevin Armstrong (guitarist on “Absolute Beginners” and a member of Tin Machine, Bowie’s side project, as well as playing with Bowie at the 1985 Live Aid concert), bassist Carmine Rojas (who played on hits like “Let’s Dance,” “China Girl,” and “Modern Love”), and drummer Alan Childs (from The Glass Spider tour). Guest vocalists this year are Corey Glover (Living Colour), Sass Jordan, and Joe Sumner (Sting’s son).

They will play, in their entirety, the albums Diamond Dogs and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, plus a selection of “greatest hits.” The show will come to New York and New Jersey from March 31 through April 3

Calling from his home in Los Angeles a few weeks before the tour is set to start, Garson admits that he could never have predicted, when he first met Bowie, that it would be a career-defining moment for him. In fact, he says he didn’t even know who Bowie was when he went to the audition. 

 “Bowie came to America for his first American tour [in 1972], but he came without a piano player and he was trying to do [piano-driven] songs like “Changes” and “Life on Mars.” What was he thinking?” says Garson with a laugh. “That’s when he found me. But I didn’t know him any more than he knew me. I was in the jazz world, so I’d never heard of him.”

That audition also proved to be a premonition of another significant Bowie moment to come. “It’s very interesting because “Changes” was the song I auditioned with, and the last show he did live ever was with only me and him and Alicia Keys, and we did “Changes.” He asked her to play piano and she said, “No, Mike has to play it.” So that was the last thing I played with him live. So that’s a complete circle, right? It is a little eerie.”

In all, Garson played approximately 1,000 shows with Bowie. This meant that he sometimes saw how Bowie, who publicly exuded self-confident, could sometimes suffer from a bit of stage fright. “He would get nervous and look out into an audience, which he did in Glastonbury Festival in 2000, in England. There must have been a quarter of a million people and we were the main attraction. No pressure! He said, ‘Mike, go out there and warm up the audience.’ So think about that! They’re waiting for David and some guy comes out and plays jazz on the piano. Only he would do that. So he was a character, and I was the guinea pig sometimes!”

Bowie could be equally unpredictable when it came to his music. He often changed his style dramatically from album to album – which often led to frequent band lineup changes. Garson says he was able to maintain his position for so long through all this because he was extremely adaptable. “I could change styles with him, and anything he needed, piano-wise, I could do. When he wanted something to be rock or pop or country fusion or jazz or avant garde or classical or a mixture, I was able to meld with him. As artists, I think we had a similar viewpoint of not becoming complacent, and always changing and finding new things.” And, he adds, “Aside from that, we were friends. He was a wonderful guy.”

One of the most iconic things that Garson recorded for Bowie was the prominent and inimitable piano part on the iconic song “Aladdin Sane.” The song’s experimental, sometimes off-kilter sound was a huge departure from Bowie’s previous guitar-driven rock. Garson says he played the song in a couple of more conventional ways before Bowie requested that he try it with an avant garde style. Garson complied, creating what would become one of the most legendary piano solos in rock music. He did it off the cuff, and in one take.

Garson says he was proud of the music they were creating, but he couldn’t have predicted at the time that it would become quite so enduring. “It’s usually history that makes the judgment. I had no way of knowing. I was young. But I happened to know at the time that it was great, what went down, because it was a magic moment.” The continued popularity of these songs makes him feel “gratitude on a daily basis. It’s a nice validation after all this time. It humbles you and it’s flattering.”

Garson says Bowie’s leadership style encouraged innovation. “He did not micromanage. That was one of his great traits. I’ve worked with some very good artists but they micromanage, and they don’t get the best of me because they’re interfering with the music channeling through me, so they’re actually cutting the flow off. If someone trusts me, I’m going to give 110%. And if they don’t, I start to lose trust in myself and I might give minus 20%. It’s that drastic.

“One of David’s strongest suits was, he was the ultimate casting director, at every given part in his life. So every musician he ever had, or producer, was perfect for that period of time. He had that intuitive sense.” 

Now, more than 40 years after Bowie first hired him, Garson is determined to keep bringing “A Bowie Celebration” on the road, so that people will be able to continue to enjoy this music in a live setting, from many of the musicians who helped create it in the first place. “I’m committed to it because I want to see people hearing his songs. And when you look out and listen to the audience, most songs, they’re singing every word.” He adds that this is an attitude the rest of band lineup shares: “They all are there to give their hearts to whoever comes. We’re not just a tribute band. We’re people who loved playing with him and for him.”

Garson also views these shows as way to bring some much-needed positivity into the world. “Listen, you look around the planet and it’s pretty messed up. One of the few things that’s still staying fresh are artists who have a conviction. So I feel very lucky that I can play music and somehow it brings people together even from all sides. Somehow it’s a safe ground. There aren’t too many things left on the planet that are like that.”

This belief that music can help overcome any problems, is, Garson believes, in keeping with the way Bowie himself lived his life. “That’s why I call it “A Bowie Celebration”—trying to celebrate a person who, through thick and thin, was able to get all that music out. He had a family where there was a lot of mental illness and he had to push through all that. He fought through a lot of pain to get his music out and he was successful. He managed to put out a lot of music for five decades.”

Now, Garson is determined to honor Bowie’s legacy, and his own, by guarding against complacency. “Every time you play, it’s as if you’ve never played before. Otherwise, you’re going to become a caricature of yourself. You really have to stay in the moment and it’s very hard to do that when you’ve been acknowledged for what you did 40 years ago. But the secret is, you go out there and it’s a new moment. This is now. That was then. You have to be in the moment of now. And that’s not easy. Nobody can do that all the time. But it’s the goal.”

In keeping with this meticulousness, Garson says he must get back to his piano. “I’m actually, for the rest of the day, going to work on music for the tour because I’m not fully prepared! I really have to buckle down and rehearse my parts. There’s no substitute for doing the hard work.” 

Before he hangs up, Garson adds one final thought about the upcoming shows – and slips into talking about Bowie in the present tense, making his love for his departed friend even more clear. “He writes great songs, just like George Gershwin or Burt Bacharach, so they should be sung. Why not have the songs sung forever?”