UPDATE: Read Mike Garson’s interview with the Independent, and a survey of Bowie musicians (including Garson) in Quartz.
It was the summer of 1972, and David Bowie was riding high off the first leg of his Ziggy Stardust tour in his native England. But as he set his sights on the United States and the leg of a North America tour, he was one man short.
“When he came through America, he realized he needed a piano player, and he needed a piano player to play that music,” recalled pianist Mike Garson, who at the time was working his way through the jazz scene of New York City.
He’d just played on an album by vocalist Annette Peacock, called “I’m the One.” “She was pretty wild,” he said, noting the two shared an avant-garde sensibility that intrigued Bowie as he prepared for the tour.
Garson is recalling these memories during another in a series of phone interviews from his home in Los Angeles on the heels of news of Bowie’s sudden death Sunday (Jan. 10) at the age of 69. As Bowie’s longtime piano player, Garson remembers those early days well, though some details are sketchy. Hooking up with Bowie was easy to remember.
“He asked (Peacock) for a suggestion, she said, ‘This is the pianist to use,’” Garson said. “And that was it. They called me. I was living in Brooklyn at the time, giving a piano lesson. They told me to come to RCA’s studio in New York. I left my 1-year-old with my piano student. My wife almost killed me. And I went to this studio to audition for the band, and David, and, seven seconds after playing his song called ‘Changes, Mick Ronson (Bowie’s guitarist) said, ‘You have the gig.’ … Would you believe that?”
The North American leg of the tour started on Sept. 22, 1972, and found its way exactly two months later to the now-legendary Warehouse in New Orleans. (White Witch, a Tampa glam-rock band, was booked as the opening act and appears on a Beaver Production flyer, but their truck broke down on the way to New Orleans, a spokesperson said, and they arrived the day after the show.) Garson’s foggy on much of the specifics of that night, though he concedes the Warehouse might not have been as spiffy as the other U.S. venues that preceded the show — there were auditoriums, theaters, concert halls, etc. .. and then there was the Warehouse.
Filmmaker Jessy Cale Williamson captured the iconic nature of that rock venue in his 2013 documentary, “A Warehouse on Tchoupitoulas.” When I reached him about the Bowie show, he vaguely recalled, “I think a few people mention the show but there isn’t a segment dedicated to it. If I remember correctly, someone said the rednecks didn’t like it and were booing and cursing. But I don’t think I put that in the film. I tried to keep it upbeat.”
Garson doesn’t remember much about the show, either. What he does remember, as so many do, was the music and the food he enjoyed. (Mick Ronson apparently knew his way around New Orleans restaurants.) But Garson got a bird’s eye view of New Orleans music during his brief stay there — which is also famous for being the city in which Bowie wrote the lyrics for the song “Time” that appeared on his next album, “Aladdin Sane.”
“I loved that tour and I especially love New Orleans because I have a specific memory of, when we weren’t playing, I went into some of those clubs and just sat in with some of those Dixieland bands and played some of that music with them,” Garson said. “So that was a thrill for me. And the inspiration for ‘Time’ I would suspect would’ve come from there. I was there, and he was writing that music through that whole tour and being affected by every city we went to.
“There could’ve been no better place to help inspire that version of the song for me, and for me to utilize all those ragtime elements from New Orleans in the ’20s and ’30s, and put a little avant-garde twist on it, which was part of my personality for that album.
“I didn’t even remember the names of the places we played. It becomes like one big concert in the sky or something after you play 5,000 shows,” he added. “I do remember the feeling playing there was great. I just remember sitting in these clubs and playing with these jazz musicians, which was trained to do.
“I totally adored it, you know?”
Some Internet sites also cite a Nov. 14 show at Loyola, which probably would have been performed at the Field House on Freret Street, but Loyola officials cannot confirm this date. My personal theory: It had been scheduled, and for some reason canceled — hence, a possible Nov. 22 “make-up” New Orleans date at the Warehouse. When I asked Garson, he replied, “I wouldn’t swear to it, but my recollection was one concert (in New Orleans).”
After the tour concluded, Bowie set his sights on his next album, and wanted to bring his new sideman into the studio in London to record “Aladdin Sane.” But the two were still feeling each other out, even after the Ziggy Stardust tour. For the title track, Bowie had a very particular idea about how he wanted the piano to sound, and so he pressed Garson to show him what he could do in the studio.
“My first solo was a blues solo and he said, ‘Naaah,’ the second one was Latin, and he said, ‘Naaah. Play that crazy stuff that you told me you play in New York in the jazz scenes,’ and I said, ‘Are you sure? That’s why I’m not working Saturday nights.’ And he said, ‘Leave that to me.’
And so Garson played his avant-garde style, and Bowie was convinced. Getting Garson into the zone for “Time,” which Bowie had written in New Orleans, was a much easier chore, given his sensibilities and love of New Orleans’ piano tradition. It’s one that spoke to the kind of cabaret, Brechtian feel Bowie wanted and Garson could deliver on along with everything else — including the “stride” style popularized by some New Orleans piano professors but also the great James P. Johnson.
“Well, I knew David liked that kind of stuff, so, I have a fairly wide palate of music that I have loved, so I just sort of went back into those archives of my mind and brought that to it so it had the avant-garde-ness, it had the stride-ness, and it had the Brechtian, and I think that made David very happy,” Garson said. “But it was all very organic. We didn’t even talk about it that way; it’s just how it evolved, you know?
“Once I heard the song, it was so obvious this is what had to happen with this piece of music.”
Garson has a clearer New Orleans memory: performing alongside the great jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard at the 1988 Jazz & Heritage Festival, and later dining at a restaurant that stayed open until 1 a.m. to accommodate his party. As for those New Orleans piano professors, he said: “It’s Allen Toussaint, it’s Dr. John, it’s Harry Connick. It’s all those people, there’s something about that feeling and that kind of way of playing the piano that was inspiring to me when I was growing up.
“I’ve given over 11,000 private lessons in the last 50 years and I suspect I’ve given more lessons in how to play in those styles than any other kind of music that I teach.”
Garson said Bowie never discussed his songwriting technique, on “Time” or any other, so it’s hard to guess how the lyrics, written in New Orleans, came about. But they did speak to what critics and even Bowie himself admitted in terms of his complicated perception of the United States as he moved through the tour and with his bandmates, the “Spiders from Mars.” He often referred to the album as “Ziggy goes to America,” and he often seen alternately repulsed by and fascinated with the country. All Mike Garson knew was, it was the beginning of an incredibly fertile relationship between the two men.
“I was hired for that tour and only that tour. So I was hired for eight weeks and I end up the longest-playing musician with him who did the most albums and the most tours (with Bowie). Go figure,” said Garson, who was profiled in fellow piano player Clifford Slapper’s book, “Bowie’s Piano Man.”
“So I was on there having come playing from jazz clubs in New York City, I was treasuring every moment of it in every city because they were all wonderful concerts. And I, knowing it’s only eight weeks, was thinking this is going to be one of the greatest experiences in my life. And it turns out it is, but I had many, many more after that. So, coming from a jazz club or playing for 10 people and making five bucks, and then you’re playing for thousands of people in these cities all through the United States, driving in the limo with David, as he was writing these songs, as he’s listening to Aretha Franklin, as he’s listening to soul music, preparing even towards the ‘Young Americans’ album, no less the ‘Aladdin Sane’ album – this was miraculous.”
Looking back, it stuns him how easy it was to take it all for granted.
“When you’re in it and you’re in your 20s, you kind of think, ‘This is fun,’ but you’re too much of an idiot to realize that you’re doing something that will be historical. It was like, great gigs, they were fun, and it was more money than the jazz gigs that I did, but it was like a ‘big deal’ kind of thing.
“Now you look back and you wish you could be starting that tour tomorrow.”
NOTE: I’d love for folks who attended the Warehouse show in 1972 to share their memories of that night in the comments section, and to please help confirm this possible Nov. 14 show at Loyola. I doubt it did happen, but would be nice to confirm. I’m working with Loyola on this as well.
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Great piece. Well done, man.