Mike Garson wanted to become a Rabbi. Instead he became one of the world’s most renowned pianists. He made his name collaborating with David Bowie on some of his most famous songs. His most notable contribution was the piano part to Aladdin Sane, which features what can only be described as the piano solo.
I was lucky enough to see Bowie sing Life on Mars to Garson’s piano accompaniment in 2004. It was probably the greatest live performance I’ve seen. There’s no doubt that both artists have created some of the most memorable moments in pop.
Garson was born in Brooklyn in 1945. It was a fortuitous time and place to be born. Post war America was booming and New York was the centre of the world. When Garson’s obsession with music became apparent, he was encouraged to pursue it. If he hadn’t been raised in such a creative environment, Garson concedes that he may have opted for a more humdrum life.
Like many Jewish artists of his generation, he started out by playing on the Borscht Belt in the Catskills Mountains. Before cheap air travel ruined the resort, it was the place to go for middle class American families. Live entertainment was on offer throughout the day, providing a perfect springboard for aspiring artists. Although the Borscht Belt is now a lost world, the cadences of that time can still be heard in the work of many ageing American comics. Garson’s music can not however be situated in one time or place.
He progressed to playing in smoke filled bars in New York in the sixties. By the early seventies, his piano playing came to the attention of Bowie, and he was enlisted into the Spiders From Mars.
“Bowie’s Piano Man” is the first biography of Mike Garson. It is also musician and writer Clifford Slapper’s first book. It is refreshing read a music biography written by an actual practitioner – rather than an all too often pretentious NME journalist employing a sub Alan Ginsberg tone.
So how did an aspiring Rabbi become one of the great avant-garde pianists? There is no single answer to that question. But one aspect of his life certainly shaped him as a man and an artist.
During the Vietnam War Garson discovered the darker side of the American Dream. To avoid the draft he signed up for the army band. It was a three rather than a two year draft, but he favoured the prospect of making music to fighting on the front line. As the only Jew in his barracks, Garson encountered anti-Semitism from a German sergeant who said, ‘If you’re an example of the Jews, it’s not wonder what Hitler did to them.’ But when it became apparent how well he could play, Garson became a popular figure. The rigours of army life improved his artistry. He went from rehearsing for a couple of hours a day to working for eight hours. A habit he has maintained.
His early collaborations with Bowie led to songs like Lady Grinning Soul, Time, Watch That Man, Sweet Thing and Young Americans. But this initial phase of creativity was strikingly abrupt. By the mid-seventies Garson and Bowie parted ways. Numerous factors were involved, but one of them is particularly eye catching.
In a 1997 interview with Q Magazine, Bowie referred to ‘one or two problems’ he had with Garson. The maestro, it transpired, had an unfortunate penchant for Scientology, along with a tendency to inform the uninitiated about the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard. Garson would remain a member of the Church until 1982. In fairness, the full horrors of Scientology were not well known at the time.
One rock star habit Garson avoided was drink and drugs. He fared less well avoiding quirky belief systems. (Many rock luminaries choose to dispense with logic and believe in the most eccentric and enervating religions they can find, often leading to ill advised concept albums and worrying hair styles).
Garson has refined his beliefs along with his playing, and admitted that he may have been a little too eager to share his beliefs with others. His approach to spirituality is now milder and more nuanced. He believes that music can actually heal – there hasn’t been enough research in this field, but circumstantial evidence is encouraging. I for one would struggle to imagine a world without Aladdin Sane and Hunky Dory.
By the early nineties Bowie was ready for a creative rebirth. In the previous decade he had enjoyed huge commercial success, but then lost his way with albums like Tonight and Never Let Me Down. He then made not one but two albums with Tin Machine. These were not golden years. As Bowie himself suggested in a later interview: His audience had become uncomfortably similar to Phil Collins’ audience.
With Garson back in fold, Bowie rediscovered his artistic brilliance. They collaborated on albums like Black Tie White Noise, Earthling and the wondrously bizarre Outside. They also set out together on a series of world tours. During this period, Bowie was making music that rivalled some of his finest work from the seventies.
Garson’s singular contributions can be heard on songs like A Small Plot of Land, Bring Me The Disco King and Battle For Britain.
It is clear from reading this book that Garson is a musician’s musician. All of the artists who have worked with him are in awe of him. His work with Bowie has secured him a place in music history. But when you listen to Garson play on Lady Grinning Soul or Time, you hear a pianist who’s sound is entirely his own and entirely definitive.