David Bowie’s Pianist Mike Garson Talks About “A Bowie Celebration” at the Agora Theater

Sun 2/24 @ 7:30PM

David Bowie’s 2016 death left a void in the music world that the Thin White Duke’s former bandmates are attempting to fill. Led by his longtime pianist Mike Garson, “A Bowie Celebration: The David Bowie Alumni Tour” celebrates the influential artist’s catalog with a February 24 show at the Agora Theatre.

The lineup includes Bowie alumni musicians Garson, Carmine Rojas and Earl Slick, as well as Bernard Fowler, Corey Glover, Lee John, Naia Kete, Imani Elijah, Gaby Moreno and Stevie Salas.

CoolCleveland talked to Garson during a recent phone call to Seattle about everything from the early days with Bowie to his last conversation with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee.

CC: Clevelanders are very proud of the fact that David Bowie’s first concert stateside took place September 22, 1972 when the Ziggy Stardust Tour debuted at Public Hall.

MG: That was my first show with him. I was used to playing small jazz clubs and all of a sudden what I thought was the PA system for the house turned out to be just my monitor system. I was in shock. I was thinking, this is the big time now. Everything changed when we got on stage. I saw the audience’s reaction, and when we finished the final song, “Spiders From Mars,” David took off running downstairs to the basement to get out of there before thousands of fans started storming the stage. I was just gathering my music at the piano, and all of a sudden I see a stampede coming out at me. So I was sort of brought into this new world, kind of in a shock.

CC: Was there a certain moment at the Cleveland show where you realized Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona and music was something special?

MG: Since I was the new man on the block and some songs didn’t require piano, I would sneak out to the audience and sit in the front row. So I watched the show and was just amazed. I said, “Oh, boy, this guy is the real thing.” That was my indoctrination. Remember, David at that point was big in Europe while in the states he was slowly creating a mystique.

CC: Looking back, how did your esoteric background meld perfectly with Bowie’s performance art presentation?

MG: At the time, you’re young and you really don’t know. I always considered David the ultimate casting director. He knew things I didn’t know. When I look at it 45 years ago, he basically brought up the best of my ability to add jazz and classical into his music. I was like the whipped cream on the cake. And to put these things on top of rock ’n’ roll, it’s what separates him from the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan. He now had this other thing connected with him — avant-garde or jazz or classical or gospel or pop. And whatever I wanted to play — no matter if it wasn’t on the original album — he just enjoyed it. He was a very open and giving bandleader.

CC: You had the luxury of playing his first show in 1972 and his last show in 2006. Over those three decades was Bowie at heart the same person?

MG: The second half of his life he had obviously settled down and all of the wild stuff was over. He had a beautiful wife Iman and a beautiful daughter. He was a very balanced person, but he was the same essential person. He always had a good sense of humor and his creativity was nonstop. I was blessed to play on 20 albums and do a 1,000 concerts with him. I think I just took a little for granted. I loved accompanying him and collaborating with him, working with him and performing with him. Of course, I miss him deeply. That’s one of the reasons I have this well-designed band.

CC: What do you think Bowie would have said about “A Bowie Celebration: The David Bowie Alumni Tour?”

MG: When I listen to the band, we sound like what I remember hearing when I toured with him because it’s some of the same guys. So it’s not like a cover band or a tribute band, it’s the real deal. I really think that David would be very proud of it. When we initially started, I would say I had work to do to really make it a well-oiled machine. Now years later, I feel it’s pretty darn close to that.

CC: Finally, were you able to speak to Bowie before he died?

MG: Three months before he passed, a biographer was writing a book on my life called Bowie’s Piano Man. He requested that I listened to about 60 songs I played piano on with David. So here it is 35 to 40 years later, I’m listening to song after song — “Aladdin Sane,” “Lady Grinning Soul,” “Time,” “The Motel,” “A Small Plot of Land,” “Young Americans,” “Can You Hear Me?” — where the piano had a very big contribution. I actually was shocked how we blended and how the piano supported him and how he supported me. I immediately sent him an email saying, “David, I can’t believe this stuff.” Within three seconds, he wrote back, “Mike, we did an amazing body of work together.” I said to my wife it seemed so final. I didn’t know he was sick then. I told her, “I don’t think I’m going to hear from him again.” And then he passed.

Tickets to “A Bowie Celebration” are $29.99-$57.50


[Written by John Benson]

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