Interview by Robert Cavuoto
David Bowie’s long-standing keyboardist, Mike Garson, has assembled some of David’s key alumni musicians to celebrate the music of David with a series of 30 concerts in the US and Canada this Spring.
The David Bowie Alumni Tour will perform David’s fifth album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, his eighth studio album Diamond Dogs as well as a few surprises along the way.
The tour features former David Bowie band members; Carmine Rojas [bass], Alan Childs [drums], Kevin Armstrong [guitar], and Gerry Leonard [guitar]. Singing for this all-star line-up is Corey Glover, Joe Sumner, and Sass Jordan.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Mike Garson to talk about the tour and what David Bowie fans can expect.
Robert Cavuoto: Tell me why you decided to put this celebration tour together for David Bowie fans?
Mike Garson: When David passed, everyone was shocked, and it was a big loss. I thought I would do a tribute to him with some solo piano shows and have a vocalist here and there. I didn’t know that this would fall in my lap. Over the last three years, it has turned into a mammoth thing. You can see the joy in people’s faces as they sing the words to every song across three generations of fans. There are fans in the audience who saw me play with David in 1972 and 1973, and now their kids are here. Sometimes I look out and see 9, 10, 40, and 70-year-old people. I think it’s because I have an alumni band. Everyone has worked with David at some point in his career, with me being the longest standing member with over 1,000 shows and 20 albums. It’s very authentic. I added three singers because it takes a village to make David’s music; Corey Glover from Living Colour, Joe Sumner who is Sting’s son, and Sass Jordan from Canada who sings like Janice Joplin. We have Carmine Rojas on bass who played on Let’s Dance, Kevin Armstrong on guitar who was the musical director for David during Live Aid, Gerry Leonard on guitar who played on the Reality album, Alan Childs on drums who worked with David on the Glass Spiders tour, and myself on piano. It’s not a tribute band; it’s the real thing.
Robert Cavuoto: David was so theatrical, how do you represent that aspect during your shows?
Mike Garson: Only through the beauty of the songs, the lighting, the sound, and the great musicians. You can’t touch what he did artistically [laughing]. We don’t have one-thousandth of the budget he did, so I don’t even go there. It’s about the music; it’s like a sing-along on steroids. Everyone loves the songs, and it’s authentic as everybody on the stage wants to be there.
Robert Cavuoto: Are you playing both Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs in their entirety?
Mike Garson: Yes. We play both starting with Diamond Dogs. It’s pretty challenging. We just finished 12 Diamond Dogs shows in Europe and Israeli, and it was very successful. I’m adding Ziggy Stardust for America and Canada. We start rehearsal in a few days, as everyone is working privately now. They will get together as a band next week.
Robert Cavuoto: Over the decades of working with David, there must have been multiple arrangements to the songs you are performing. How did you pick the version you want to represent in your show?
Mike Garson: That’s a great question. For example, “Life on Mars” I must have played over 200 times with David, and every time I played it, I played it a little differently. The band plays the parts as everyone knows from the records. I have always been known as the “loose cannon,” and David gave me the freedom to create new stuff and improvise, provided I played the parts where they were necessary for the production and endings. From the audience’s viewpoint, the band sounds like the records, and I’m the whipped cream on the cake keeping things fresh.
Robert Cavuoto: Do you include any of David’s MTV hits songs?
Mike Garson: Yes, the two albums will be about an hour and 15 minutes, so instead of doing two encores, we may do eight! Three years ago, I did a four-hour show, go figure. Some places have a curfew, so as long as they don’t throw us out, most shows are about 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Robert Cavuoto: I’m intrigued by how do you decide who will sing which of David’s songs?
Mike Garson: That’s a great question. I’m always thinking about who sings what song the best. For example, when I heard Corey singing “Young Americans,” I was like that song is all yours! Sass nailed “Moonage Daydream,” and Joe did an amazing version of “Lady Grinning Soul.” I listen to them, and if something is not right, I switch it around. Knowing their voices and vibe, I assign the song which I think is best. I try to balance it where each vocalist is singing 7-8 songs. Sometimes I’ll make duets of the songs as well.
Robert Cavuoto: Was it a big undertaking to pull this tour together?
Mike Garson: It’s a fucking nightmare [laughing]! I work on it every day from 7:00 am all day, and started working on it when we finished the tour last year. The music is the simplest part. The administrative work is rough. To be honest with you, the tour loses money, and the person who loses is me because I pay everyone. I have a sick mission that I have to do this. I’m hoping that somewhere down the line it goes viral but right now I’m losing, but I have to do it. I have eight band members and nine crew members which are as many people who toured with David! We are making one-thousandth less than what he got per show. It’s a labor of love! I have to do it; I don’t think about the money when I go out on tour. For example, today, I found out that two tour buses for six weeks cost $123,000; it’s insane. I have a tour manager, production manager, assistants, a lightening guy, a sound guy, a monitor guy, tech guys for guitar and keyboards; it’s unreal. I’m getting educated in it at 74 years old. I love it, it keeps me young, and the music sounds great. Life has its challenges, but at least I’m playing music.
Robert Cavuoto: You had such an illustrious tenure and friendship with David. What was he like? He seemed like a musical genius.
Mike Garson: We will start with the genius part; he was like a Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo kind of character. He was a Renaissance guy. He could paint, create sculptures, write songs, perform, sing, produce, act, and was the editor of an art magazine. He had it all and paid a lot of attention to detail across all of those things. He was the consummate artist of the century. I was blessed and lucky to work with him as I was initially only hired for eight weeks.
Robert Cavuoto: It’s incredible that he was able to do everything with all his demons and addictions.
Mike Garson: How he pushed through it. It’s a credit to him because he shouldn’t have been alive in the 1970s with the way he lived his life. He cleaned himself up eventually. He had a gift or a sense of being an artist. As a person, he was friendlier than I was. He would talk with anyone and be very warm as long as he didn’t feel threatened by a crazy fan. He was a very cordial person with a great sense of humor. That’s what people don’t know about him. If you were talking with him now it would be the same as if you are talking to me. I never had one problem with him on stage in 1,000 shows and recording 20 albums. He and I never conflicted about anything as our process was very similar. Over my life span of playing professionally since I was 14 years old, I played for 1,000 singers. David was on the top of the list and the next group with everyone else was miles below him.
Robert Cavuoto: Can you share a favorite or funny memory that you have of the two of you being together?
Mike Garson: I have a few stories, and this is a hilarious one. In 2000 at the Glastonbury Festival in England, we were playing a show that was supposed to be 100,000 people but 250,000 people squeezed in. As David looked out on the crowd, he must have had a moment of panic. What does he do? He sends me out to warm the crowd up on the piano! I’m thinking, “Holy shit!” and I have to do it. I just about died. It turned out to be a blessing because when I sat down at the keyboard, it didn’t work. To have the whole band come out and not to have the keyboard working would have been humiliating. It took three minutes to get it working, and it turned out to be as stupid as they didn’t turn up the volume. The audience of 250,000 was getting grumpy as I’m stood in front of them, wondering if I was going to be fired in 10 minutes.
Robert Cavuoto: Does something like that make you stronger as a musician and entertainer?
Mike Garson: At a certain point, stage fright tends to go away when you are performing every night. You get used to it and embrace the audience. You don’t feel separated from them and start to feel like a collective unit with them. If you don’t get that muscle going, it can be very frightening.
Another great story was 30 years earlier for the last Spiders of Mars show at the Hammersmith in London. At the last minute, before we were about to go on, he asked me to open the show with a medley of his songs. It was the last show of the tour and at the time he told me I was going to continue with him but the rest of the band was going to be fired. In the first two years, he fired five bands. I was the only one who remained because I could change styles with him. When we went on stage for that last show, it was very awkward. To top it off he tells me to open the show with a piano medley of “Life on Mars,” “John I’m Only Dancing,” “Changes,” and “Ziggy Stardust.” In the audience are Paul McCarthy, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones, Barbara Streisand, and Elliot Gould. I was like, “Are you serious?” He liked fucking with me. He loved it and would get a smirk on his face when he did it.
I felt terrible for the guys in the band and knew it wasn’t personal; there were albums he didn’t use me on. If he had a different vision of something, he is entitled to do that. A lot of people are afraid to make those types of changes due to friendships. I’m not good at that. I kept bass players in the band through the years that I didn’t want, but felt an allegiance to them, but his allegiance was only to the music.