“He gave people permission to be themselves”: 10 of the best David Bowie songs, picked by Bowie keyboard player Mike Garson

Mike Garson sitting at a piano
Mike Garson: the man who played more gigs with David Bowie than anyone (Image credit: Chris McKay/Getty Images)

Mike Garson had no idea who David Bowie was when he met him for the first time. It was September 1972, and the pianist had been invited to audition for Bowie’s band at New York’s RCA Studios by the singer’s manager, Tony Defries. “I had never heard a note of his music,” says Garson today. “I was a jazz guy.”

Despite that inauspicious start, Garson would get the gig and go on to play more than 600 gigs with Bowie between 1972 and 2006, more than any other musician. The most famous of these came early on, at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on July 3, 1973. That was the fabled night when the singer dramatically retired his Ziggy Stardust character onstage. “Not only is this the last show of the tour,” he announced to a shocked audience, “but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do.”

To mark the show’s 50th anniversary, D.A Pennebaker’s famous film of show, Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars: The Motion Picture, is being reissued in digitally remastered form along with the accompany live album from the gig. Garson has spoken about that gig a lot, so we’ve asked him to pull the camera back and talk about 10 of his favourite Bowie songs – ones that he played on and ones that he didn’t.

“I could list 50 songs,” he says. ““These are just the songs that come to mind today. Ask me tomorrow and it’ll be a different set of songs: Space Oddity, Always Crashing The Same Car, Seven, Width Of A Circle…”

It’s clear from the moment we begin talking that Garson remains in awe of the man he calls “a genius” and the time he spent in his orbit. “Who would have known at the time that I’d still be talking about it,” he says. “I mean, I’m just a fucking piano player.”

Metal Hammer line break

Changes (Hunk Dory, 1971)

MG: “My audition song for David was Changes. And the last piece I ever played with him, at a benefit show in 2006 with him and me and Alicia Keys, was Changes. So there’s a personal connection to it. But it’s also just a fantastic song. It’s a great set of chord changes, which is funny because the song’s called Changes. Rick Wakeman [who played on the original studio version] played beautifully on it, I just expanded on it with my jazz sensibilities.

“It’s a deep song, and the meaning was different when he wrote it when he was a kid compared to when he sang it later. David had many layers. That’s why we still love his music.”

What were your very first impressions of him when you met him?

“Very handsome. He was beautifully sculpted – his face, the make-up, the clothing. You knew you were in the presence of a star. The only other person I’d seen like that was Elvis Presley.”

And you passed the audition.

“I did. I was hired for a week – it was just a gig that meant I could pay my rent. I ended up playing over 600 gigs with him.”

Starman (The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, 1972)

MG: “There was no piano on the original. He gave me free reign to do anything I wanted. He’s the only person that said that. I’ve played with other people since then who have sort of pulled me back: ‘Can you play less notes, can you do this?’ [Laughs] ‘Fuck you, David didn’t mind!’ If he hired you, he trusted you.”

Your first tour was the US leg of the Ziggy Stardust tour. What was that like?

“I knew after a few gigs that he was brilliant. During the Ziggy tour, at the very beginning, I didn’t play every song. So I’d slip out into the audience and watch him from the front row. And what I saw was phenomenal. I said to myself, ‘Oh, this is the real deal.’”

Did American audiences get what he was doing at the time?

“Not in the way English audiences did. Later they did, but it took a little time because Americans are generally stupid. [Laughs] I can say that, I’m American.”

What was Mick Ronson like?

“You mean once I got over the accent? He was a classic northern guy, a salt of the earth person. We became really good friends - we’d go for dinner every night. He’s still my favourite rock guitarist of all time. What made him great was his melodic sense. And he played the piano, and he was a good string arranger as well. He had it all.”

Life On Mars? (Hunky Dory, 1971)

MG: “That’s my favourite song to play that I didn’t play on in the studio. In some ways it’s probably his best song. I played it as part of an overture before the final [Ziggy Stardust] show at Hammersmith Odeon 50 years. He got nervous before we went onstage and he said, ‘Can you open the show with an overture.’ I said, ‘Sure,’ and went on and played Space Oddity, Ziggy Stardust, John, I’m Only Dancing and Life On Mars?. Of course, I was a basket case myself just before I went on. Afterwards he told me he was even more nervous for me than he was for himself.”

What did you think when he announced onstage at the Hammersmith gig that it was the end of Ziggy?

“I might have been the only one he told. So it was a shock for me when I heard it beforehand, but I was worried how my friends in the Spiders were going to take it, because we were a band. I was thinking, ‘I’m not being fired, and they are.’”

Aladdin Sane (Aladdin Sane, 1973)

MG: “Let’s face it, Aladdin Sane made my career. The thing is, the solo on that song wasn’t my first take. My first take was a blues solo. And David said, “That’s too commonplace.” So I went at it again and I played a Latin solo. And he went. ‘Yeah, we can all do that. Play something wild and avant garde that uses all your classic and jazz knowledge of music.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s why I can’t get gigs on a Saturday night.’ And he just said, ‘Leave that to me.’ He gave people permission to be themselves.”

Sweet Thing/Candidate (Diamond Dogs, 1974)

MG: “What a fantastic song. I have very clear memories of the Diamond Dogs album, because the Spiders weren’t on that album. There was Tony Newman on drums and Herbie Flowers on bass, but it was essentially me and David. He played the guitar parts. We were co-creating together on that album. And the freedom he gave me – anything I played, he loved.”

What was he like to work with on a musical level?

“In that area, egoless. [Laughs] There might have been other areas where that didn’t pertain, but he was so open to ideas. He didn’t consider me some hired piano player, he considered me part of his creations.”

What do you remember about recording the album?

“I was living in Sussex at the time, so I’d take the train into London and meet them there. There was this Hammond Organ with all these straps around it. I said, ‘What’s that?’ And someone said, ‘That’s Keith Emerson’s, it’s for when he goes upside down.’”

Were you tempted to have a go on it?

I was, but there was no way I was going to go upside down. I never liked those kinds of rides when I was a kid.

The Diamond Dogs tour has become semi-mythical, because it was never properly filmed. What are your memories of it?

“David told me it was one his big regrets, that it wasn’t filmed properly. He always said that was the one that had the best theatrics. It was like a Broadway show every night, except we would play in the same place two days then they would have to break down the set and take it to the next place and set it all up again. You can’t do that with a show that’s so humungous. We should have played in one place and have people come to us, like a month at the Carnegie Hall.”

Can You Hear Me? (Young Americans, 1975)

MG: “I love that album. His voice is probably better on Young Americans than on any album he did. Obviously, he was changing the vibe: we had [guitarist] Carlos Alomar, we had [backing vocalist] Luther Vandross, the music was funky and soulful. We’d just sit there and jam, and songs would come from that. We were writing on the spot.

“I don’t know what went on when I wasn’t there. I was married, I’ve never used drugs in my life, I’m all about the music. I just know that when I was there, David was focussed on the music.”

Was there ever a point where he went off on a musical tangent where you thought, “Hang on, I’m not sure about this?”

“I never doubted him. You have to remember that during my time with him early on, he fired five different  bands. I was the only one who remained. I could change with them.”

He seemed to have an unerring ability to pick the right musicians for what he was working on at the time. What was his secret?

“David was the ultimate casting director. He never hired a bad musician or producer. He was an alchemist in terms of mixing all these constituent parts.”

Jump They Say (Black Tie White Noise, 1993)

MG: “Black Tie White Noise isn’t my favourite album of David’s, but I really like Jump They Say.”

You appeared on one song on that album, Looking For Lester. It was the first Bowie album you appeared on since Young Americans. Did you miss not working with him?

“I had a lot of other things going on, but there was always part of me that was waiting for the phone to ring. And then, after 18 years, he got on the on the phone and called me and said, ‘Hi Mike, it’s Dave,’ like the last 18 years hadn’t happened. I said, ‘Dave who?’ And he laughed and we were off and running.”

What was it like working with Nile Rodgers?

“Nile Rodgers is another brilliant musician and producer. He was very welcoming to me, very warm. And I was happy I was going to be playing on the album with Lester Bowie, who is the wild trumpet player. We’re on a song together [Looking For Lester], we’re both playing kind of whacked out stuff.“

How was he different to the man you’d worked with 18 years before?

“Once he married Iman, he really relaxed into his own space. He didn’t have to hide behind any persona.“

The Motel & Strangers When We Meet (Outside, 1995)

The Motel & Strangers When We Meet (Outside, 1995)

MG:Outside was the most creative album he ever did, as far as I was concerned. David was happy to come back to himself. He told me the 80s were hard for him. He felt he compromised his integrity.

‘We were improvising for weeks, and then him and Brian [Eno, co-producer, who was working with Bowie for the first time since 1979’s Lodger] and then him and Brian made songs out of it.”

What was it like watching Bowie and Eno work together?

“It was unbelievable. It’s what I said about stupid Americans: me and Reeves [Gabrels, guitarist] would be sitting there having these discussions about everything from philosophy to perfume. We’d look at each other, we didn’t know what the fuck they were talking about. But those two were brilliant.”

Outside baffled people. Why didn’t people respond to it in the way they did to earlier albums?

“It’s a difficult album. It’s too advanced for people. Think of Chuck Berry, rock’n’roll music, then think of something like A Small Plot Of Land – you can’t connect the two. But now, 25 or 30 years later, people are starting to get it. I teach piano, I have students around the world, and of course they come to me because of Bowie. And Outside is the album they talk about.”

The Loneliest Guy (Reality, 2003)

MG: “That was after 9/11, so the Reality album was deep. He told me about how The Loneliest Guy came about. He’d read or seen something about this town that had been built in Brazil – they spent years creating this city, and no one moved there. I don’t know if that rings any bells, but it sounds entirely conceivable, right?

“So it gives me this vibe. Naturally, I go to the lower part of the piano, where it’s in a dark key – I think E flat minor – and I start playing this thing. And that was the song – piano and voice and some ambient guitar from Gerry Leonard.“

What was it like on the tour in support of the album, A Reality Tour?

MG: “It was great. He was in good spirits, until he got sick [Bowie suffered a heart attack following a gig in Germany in June 2004]. There was a lot of laughter, there were a lot of good moments. He was content – he was married, he had his daughter.”

Was there still a sense that he needed to innovate? After all, he’d done so much by that point.

“Even more than ever. He never stopped. Even on Blackstar he was innovating. I mean, that was him writing his own requiem, right? I’ve never met another artist that influenced so many people as David did - not just singers but actors and actresses and dancers. And that includes people like John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Dylan, Prince. They were all so influential but none of them influenced the world like David.”

The 50th anniversary reissue of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars: The Motion Picture is released on Blu-Ray/CD and LP on August 11

Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.