Mike Garson: The Untold Story Of Bowie's Piano Man

“Bowie’s Piano Man” is the first ever biography of master of the keyboard, Mike Garson. Author Clifford Slapper explains the personal journey which lies behind the new book.
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Photo: Kate Simon

Photo: Kate Simon

At the age of 11, I ran home through the streets of Wembley to my parents’ “Dansette” record player with its legs off, clutching the first record I had ever bought: an album of 12-inch vinyl in a gatefold sleeve. It was David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane, in the spring of 1973, and as the bright orange RCA label started spinning at 33 and a third revolutions per minute, I was transfixed. The opening two chords of “Watch That Man”, a G and a C, were an apt fanfare for the start of my adolescence. In particular, it was the piano playing by Mike Garson on that album which was a revelation. I had been playing the piano since I was seven, but this gave a whole new purpose to my studies. It sounded bright, at turns both melodious and unnervingly discordant. Like shards of broken glass, his rapid, cascading high notes danced over his rumbling, thunderous bass runs. I knew then, this was what I wanted to do.

I went on to become a pianist myself, always inspired by Garson as well as Bowie, and I have played with many artists (Boy George, Jarvis Cocker, Gary Kemp, Marc Almond, Holly Johnson) who have declared themselves hugely influenced by Bowie albums such as Aladdin Sane, Pin Ups, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans and David Live - all of which Garson played on.

Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, Mike Garson seems to reappear at various points in modern music history, each time able to give perfect expression to that moment, whilst still retaining his own identity. Martha and the Vandellas, Stan Getz, Lulu, Nine Inch Nails, St. Vincent, Luther Vandross, Smashing Pumpkins, Gwen Stefani, Freddie Hubbard: these and dozens of others have had their sound enhanced by the Garson touch.

It was appropriate that this young American jazz pianist’s first appearance on a David Bowie album should be on Aladdin Sane in 1973 - which Bowie described as “Ziggy goes to America”. When Ziggy had got to America the year before, manager Tony Defries had phoned up Mike Garson and asked him to tour the States with Bowie. Garson was an avant-garde musician of the New York underground, and his reaction was along the lines of “David who?” but twenty minutes later he was at the audition in a Manhattan Studio. Just a few seconds in to his playing over the first few chords of “Changes”, Mick Ronson said “you’re in!” and he has never looked back since, playing on nineteen Bowie albums and numerous live appearances, including Bowie’s last live spots to date in 2006.

Also in 2006, I finally worked with David Bowie myself, playing the piano for his hilarious cameo appearance on the Ricky Gervais television comedy, Extras. He sat at a piano and sang to Ricky Gervais’ character, whilst miming his piano-playing to my own playing on a second piano, off-camera. It was surreal to ‘be the hands’ of my musical hero that day. He was a dream to work with: fast, witty, intensely intelligent, supremely professional and yet modest - and very funny.

Equally intriguing was my first meeting with Mike Garson in Los Angeles two years later. At one point, without knowing I had played for the Extras show, he told me how he had enjoyed seeing an English comedy on cable TV with Bowie in it, apparently playing piano. He had spoken to Bowie and joked with him, “I see you’re playing the piano pretty well yourself, now. I guess you won’t be needing me any more!” Garson told me that Bowie had replied, “No, Mike, that wasn’t me, it was some English guy playing.” It was an enjoyable twist for me to be able to tell Garson then, “I was that guy!”

We bonded over this coincidence, and discovered much common ground whilst sharing stories of our work as pianists. It became apparent that Garson is an exceptional man, with a fascinating and inspiring story of his own. I said, “There are many biographies of David Bowie; has anyone ever written a biography of you?” He replied, “No, but I think you would be the perfect person to write it!”

Photo: Ray Burmiston

Photo: Ray Burmiston

I recorded 25 hours of intense conversation between us, Garson specifying his preference that the biography I would write should start from this dialogue between two pianists. In addition I interviewed about fifty other people who have worked with him or known him well, including legendary producer Tony Visconti and French music writer Jérôme Soligny, who described him as a “cathedral of music”. Star artists queued up to contribute to the first biography of their much loved fellow musician. Current Bowie guitarists Gerry Leonard and Earl Slick were both effusive in their praise for Garson’s work, and Leonard has prounounced the resulting biography “really great and fascinating, a fabulous book”. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails called me to speak about Garson whilst on tour, and rang off two hours later, only when called for a sound check for that night’s show.

Garson never drank or took drugs, which makes him not only a reliable witness, but one of the only participants in the 1970s rock scene who actually remembers anything. His outlook on life is inspiring, enlightening – and often very funny. I spent much of the interviews laughing with him at the tide of hilarious stories from his working life, all told in the strong vernacular of his Brooklyn roots.

The book has three relationships at its heart. The first is between myself and the fellow pianist who has helped shape my life twice – once in 1973, to become a pianist and again in 2006 to become a writer. The second is between him and his music. But then there is David Bowie, who in 1972 helped to transform the direction of Garson’s life. They have had ever since a very special creative rapport based on their shared passion for artistic sincerity, integrity and spontaneity.

On the last ever Ziggy Stardust show, at Hammersmith in July 1973, Bowie asked Garson to go on stage alone first and play several of the songs from that night’s set just on solo piano. This trust has often been repeated, such as when Bowie again asked Garson to go on stage first alone and start the set at Glastonbury in 2000 in front of 100,000 fans. In the 1990s and 2000s songs such as “Life On Mars?” were often performed with just Garson’s piano accompanying Bowie’s voice. Garson tells me that Bowie is the best producer he has ever worked with, because ultimately he lets Garson be himself. But he also says that he has often fulfilled his brief by playing the piano as he feels Bowie would play it, if he were the pianist.

Photo: Barry Bittman

Photo: Barry Bittman

“Bowie’s Piano Man: the life of Mike Garson” by Clifford Slapper is published by Fantom Books at £19.99.

Available now from Amazon

Clifford Slapper is working on his second book, which will be more autobiographical, and continues to work as a musician, having played on recent albums by Marc Almond and Holly Johnson, as well as working with artists including Carl Barat (Libertines), Glenn Gregory (Heaven 17) and composing for film.