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“The show was great. We were in rare form. And then the hammer came down, and it sort of went dark. The audience was in shock — like, did this mean he was done forever, period, or was he just ending this phase? So, it had a dramatic aspect to it — but let's face it, that was David.
"And I looked out at the audience and I was like, ‘How did I get here?’”
So says Mike Garson, David Bowie's longest-running band member, reflecting on that historic night 50 years ago when his boss “killed off” the Ziggy Stardust character in spectacular fashion in front of 5,000 stunned fans at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. Garson, a Brooklyn-based trained jazz pianist who’d worked with artists like Mel Tormé before getting a random call about an audition to join a rock band called the Spiders from Mars, had initially been “hired for eight weeks — God knows how I got myself in there for another hundred years,” he jokes to Yahoo Entertainment.
After Bowie retired Ziggy on July 3, 1973, Garson was the only Spider to move on to the ever-shapeshifting artist's next phase — famously contributing avant-garde jazz piano to the title track of Aladdin Sane and playing on the ‘70s classics Pin Ups, Diamond Dogs, and Young Americans, before reuniting with Bowie in the ‘90s and 2000s for albums like Black Tie White Noise, Outside, Earthling, Heathen, and Reality. Garson even played at Bowie’s final concert, in 2006. But it was his first run with Bowie — starting in September 1972 at Cleveland's Music Hall, which was the singer’s first-ever U.S. show, and explosively ending at Hammersmith a little more than nine months later — that he acknowledges will always stand as his definitive experience of working with “the greatest individual rock star of that century.”
“I was part of history in a big way, even with my small contribution, because I knew that in a hundred or 200 years, he was going be known — while a lot of other [musicians of that era] were going to go by the wayside,” says Garson. “It's all about timing. It was the right moment for that thing to happen — and once something like that happens, it's good to go for 50 years. Every interview I've ever done about David, it always comes back to some aspect of Ziggy.”
But before we dig into Garson’s stardust memories of the Spiders’ final night onstage with their snow-white-tanned messiah, we must address Garson's above-mentioned question: How did someone like him get to this point? In many ways, despite Garson and Bowie’s differences, their alliance was truly meant to be.
“I was playing jazz clubs in New York City, and in 1972 I got a dream gig with people who played with Miles Davis. I'm at this jazz club on 69th Street in Broadway, and I see five people in the club. And I made $5. I said to my wife, ‘Something's wrong with this picture! … I think I'd like to go out with a rock band.’ And the next night, Bowie called,” Garson marvels. “I just made my manifestation come true, by saying I'd like to go out with a famous rock band. But when David called, I didn't know who he was.”
As it turned out, experimental singer Annette Peacock, of whom Bowie, “an encyclopedia of music,” was a fan, had recommended Garson to Bowie, after Garson had played on her debut album I’m the One; however, Garson did not find out that Peacock was that “magic source” until some 20 years later. Garson was about to teach a piano lesson in his Brooklyn home that fateful day in ‘72, with his toddler daughter present, when “the phone rang: ‘Can you be at RCA Studios in 20 minutes? David Bowie wants you.’ I was like, “Who's David Bowie?’” Garson chuckles. “But something hit my brain and said, ‘I gotta go.’ So, I had the student babysit my daughter while my wife was working. When she came home and saw this guy with my daughter, she [was so angry that] she wanted to cut my you-know-what off!”
Lackadaisical ‘70s-era parenting aside, it turned out Garson was right to follow his instincts, as it set him on a course that would enable him to provide for his family for decades to come. But he had no idea what to make of the scene when he entered the studio that day. “I zoomed down to RCA. I walked in the room, in jeans and a T-shirt, and there's these Spiders from Mars and Bowie, all decked out as if they were going onstage — like, in the middle of the week! And I'm thinking, ‘Where the f*** am I?’ I thought, ‘Oh, maybe it's a freak show.’ But even though I didn't know who David was and I didn't know his music, I had this gut feeling that he was great. ... I had been blessed to be in New York in the jazz scene of the ‘60s, but David was bringing something fresh, and I just had to be part of it. I didn't know it quite that analytically then, the way I know it now, but it was more just my gut to go with this guy.”
As it turned out, Bowie was operating on instinct as well. “I auditioned, and seven seconds later, he says to me, ‘You got the gig!’” Garson recalls. “I said, ‘But I didn't even start to play!’ He just said, ‘I could tell.’”
Garson then underwent a bit of an amusing glam-rock makeover. “They fixed me up good! They put me in a very cool tuxedo, but with a big gray flower and these crazy boots that went up high. I went to a store in Hollywood [to buy those boots], and Elton John was in the store, in 1972, so I should have known I was in the right place,” he laughs. “I was more conservative-looking than [the other Spiders from Mars], but little by little, I had the makeup on and I knew my role. … But I was not part of that world. I'm still not part of that world. I wasn't privy to the drug world and what was going on. I knew how to stay out of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, because I just was interested in the music.”
Garson was so interested, in fact, that when he started touring with the Spiders, he would duck out into the crowd whenever there was a song on the setlist that didn’t require his playing, so he could observe Bowie from a fan’s point of view. “I would slip out to the audience in the front row and watch him. And I said, ‘Ohhhh, this guy's a f***ing genius. This is fun. I'm gonna enjoy this ride.’”
It wasn’t a ride Garson could have ever prepared himself for. He says Spiders guitarist Mick Ronson, an “unsung hero” and “one of the true gentlemen in ‘n’ and roll,” made him “feel so comfortable,” but he chuckles as he recalls socializing with his bandmates and their sophisticated associates: “We'd be on the bus and David would start talking about religion or psychology or philosophy or art, and I felt like a moron. I'd be sitting with him and [Bowie’s friend] Brian Eno and I would think, ‘No wonder they think we're stupid Americans!’” However, Bowie-mania was already starting to spread in the States, and Garson says it was at that very first U.S. Spiders gig, in Cleveland, that he realized “this was very different from a jazz club.”
“When we finished the [Cleveland Music Hall] encore, the Spiders and Bowie took off down the rear entrance into the limo — they took off, because they didn't want to be attacked — and I was still packing up my music. I was left right there. All of a sudden, 3,000 people were storming the stage, and I was the line of target. I took off like I’d never run before in my life. I thought, ‘Holy shit, I better get outta here!’” Garson also recalls other mob scenes from “the Zeitgeist of the ‘72,” like when fans would cling to the sides of their moving limousine or even attempt to chop off locks of Bowie’s flame-orange hair to keep as souvenirs. “I realized, ‘Oh, I'm in the rock ‘n’ roll world now. This very, very, very different from the jazz world. There are new rules for this game.’
“I was staying at places like the Beverly Hills Hotel, in a bungalow right next to Elton John and Perry Como,” Garson continues, reminiscing about his sudden rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle change. “And the bills that would get accumulated! The guys were buying cameras and fur coats, and I saw like 35 cases of champagne coming in. There was an entourage that had about 35 people. I thought, ‘This is very different than a $5 jazz gig!’ I had just played a week earlier with five people in the club. I had to make a big adjustment.”
Of course, no one had to make a bigger adjustment than Davie Bowie, who’d been trying to break through for years and had “tested a lot of things out in the ‘60s before he found the Ziggy thing” and became an international phenomenon. Bowie famously stayed in character throughout much of the 1972-73 tour, even offstage, but Garson, with whom Bowie shared a special bond, caught glimpses of the real David from time to time.
“He would drop that Ziggy persona around me,” Garson recalls. “For example, no one knows this, but he’d invite me up to his room at the Plaza Hotel and he'd have a video machine, whatever they were using in ’72, and he'd start showing me videos of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. And because he respected me and he knew I knew that world, he would do motions and say, ‘How does this look? Does it look like I'm capturing that? Am I doing this right?’ And I thought, ‘Wow, he really wants to know about American music and the great stars from here.’ He figured I'm from Brooklyn, so I would know. It was very humbling that he would ask me to do that, but the truth of the matter was, he wanted to know. And obviously he wouldn't be in the Ziggy persona then. … He ‘broke character’ for me.”
However, as a “spiritual being looking at another spiritual being,” Garson says he was “concerned” about Bowie’s state of mind during this era, “because getting stuck in any identity or character can mess you up for months. Actors do this all the time, and before long, they lose their essence. It's one thing to put on the costume, but it’s another thing to take it off. And I think that worried David, because he had a high awareness level. That's the thing that separated David from most of the rock guys I knew, was that he really wasn't a ‘rock ‘n’ roll guy.’ He was brilliant — an intellect, an artist, a painter, an actor. He played the role. He found something where he could hide behind this character, which was very helpful to him at the time because he was nervous. It was the perfect solution for him, and he got recognized for it, so he stayed in it, just like an actor stays in a role. But he stayed in it a little too long. Yes, this show and this persona could have gone on for six months to a year longer than it did, but he cut it short at the Hammersmith in ‘73 because he’d had enough of it. Fans didn't get enough of it, because it was just warming up. But he knew it would screw him up if he stayed in it any longer. So, he dropped it.”
And that brings us back to July 3, 1973, at London’s Hammersmith. Garson says he “was one of the only ones that knew that the guillotine was going come down, so to speak. I knew something was going down. I was told he was ending this thing. But I also knew I'd be continuing with him.” Perhaps that is why Bowie had transitional band member Garson open the now-legendary Hammersmith show. “David asked me to play a medley of three or four of his songs from Ziggy before he came onstage; I was the guinea pig,” Garson laughs. “And I knew Barbra Streisand was in the audience and I was a Barbra Streisand fan, so when I played ‘Life on Mars,’ I played it in a way that I knew she would recognize, that maybe she’d say, ‘Oh, this is a song I could sing!’ And she ended up recording it many years later. I had an agenda there, in that way, just because I wanted David’s music spread into other areas. But I played ‘Ziggy’ and ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ and things like that, like an overture in a Broadway show. David told me he was nervous for me. I was very nervous myself.”
Nerves aside, Garson admits “part of me was happy” about the Spiders’ early retirement, “because I was bored. I needed to do some other music, and I got to play different on Diamond Dogs and Young Americans and Pin Ups, so I was able to stretch my wings. I was like David and got bored quickly.” However, he was sad to part with his Spiders from Mars bandmates, “because these guys were my friends.” But Garson insists that Bowie’s decision that he had to break up the band wasn't personal.
“It looked personal, but it wasn't,” says the pianist. “This guy couldn't help himself. He had to move on and move on and move on. And I know that for a fact, because there were albums of his later on that I didn't play on, and it wasn't because he didn't love me; he just didn't hear, in his inner ear, me playing on that particular album. You have to respect the integrity of the guy, because he always had a vision. He didn't do it out of meanness. He just had to move on. He was always that way. He was impatient, because he couldn't help wanting to create the next thing. … He was the Miles Davis of the rock world, in that he had to change styles every few years.”
Garson, who has since worked with obvious Bowie descendants like Duran Duran, Trent Reznor, the Smashing Pumpkins, and St. Vincent, went on to play in “13 different bands over four decades” with Bowie. “I was the only one he kept [from the Spiders from Mars], but it wasn't because we were friends — which we were — but because I was able to change styles with him,” he explains. “I could play with the Spiders and play English rock, but I could also play gospel stuff with Luther Vandross on Young Americans. The things that I had studied prior to meeting David, which was so much music — pop, fusion, country, jazz — David had the ‘casting director’ skills and gifts to pull them out of my head. It wasn't me as much as it was his genius, you know? And I always played the piano the way I thought he would play, if he could play as well as me. I played through his head. And I think that was what kept me in there so long. … David loved the fact that I could make his songs sound bigger and better in a way that resonated with him. His songs were great without me, but he was very open to wanting the whipped cream on the musical cake. I would try things thinking, ‘He's not going to like this,’ but there was nothing that I could play that didn't put a smile on his face. So, that really bonded us. Even though our worlds were different, the music and the creative process was very similar.”
While the Spider from Mars’ era was short-lived, it remains iconic, and now D.A. Pennebaker’s film of their final concert has been digitally restored with remastered audio by the renowned director’s son, Frazer Pennebaker. The new edition of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: The Motion Picture, which will screen at roughly 1,000 cinemas worldwide this week (with Garson returning to the Hammersmith stage for a special London premiere), also includes a previously unseen performance of “Round and Round” with a special guest, the late Jeff Beck. “Jeff Beck came onstage and sat in with us, and it was great, but Jeff never let the footage out because he didn't like his shoes or something,” Garson chuckles.
The concert film, which was not widely seen for more than a decade, documents a moment that — despite everything Bowie went on to do, with and without Garson, over the ensuing 50 years — remains one of the rock star’s most defining achievements. “There are certain things where all the coordinates come together; they just meet, and it's magical,” muses Garson. “Mick’s guitar-playing, my piano playing, David's voice, Woody [Woodmansey’s] drums, Trevor [Bolder’s] bass — the whole composite aspect of it was meant to be. There are a lot of albums that David did, and a lot of great performances, but the Ziggy world is what he's going to be most known for. It was bigger than all of us.”