Mike Garson Is The Piano Player You Didn’t Even Realize You Loved

by Daniel Warren

Mike Garson has performed on more Bowie records than any other single musician; earned the kudos of Ricky Gervais, Trent Reznor, and acclaimed Bowie producer Tony Visconti; collaborated with a truly eclectic mix of artists including Gwen Stefani, Nine Inch Nails, and Dillinger Escape Plan; and inspired sounds used by Brian Eno and David Lynch; and, finally, fellow pianist Clifford Slapper has produced the first biography about him.

Above: David Bowie and Mike Garson at Olympic Studios, 1973. Photo: Kate Simon.

I’m Skyping from L.A., over and across the pond. On my screen, a glimpse into pianist-turned-biographer Clifford Slapper's private space (is it a studio? I think I spy a baby grand piano...). The shyly articulate author speaks with mild English accent (far from cockney, not as stuffy as a 'received pronunciation'). He asks not to be shown in the viewfinder. It's a pleasant divorce from what you might expect upon reading Slappers's CV; active since the late 80s, he played the piano for David Bowie's cameo on Ricky Gervais's BBC comedy, Extras (Bowie was miming his piano to Slapper's actual playing on a separate piano off-camera); he's backed up Boy George, Jarvis Cocker, and Lisa Stansfield; he's composed for a new soundtrack to Roman Polanski's Repulsion; he's performed for runway shows by McQueen and Marc Jacbos; he's taken on a televised acting role as Dudley Moore in recreations of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketches; Slapper's list of achievements is commendable in and of itself. More importantly, though, his achievements grow by one since he has also taken it upon himself to historicize a rare, fellow pianist whose achievements surpass even his own.

Last year, Slapper's biography of jazz-gone-rock godsend pianist Mike Garson was published. Almost half a decade in the making, Bowie's Piano Man (Fantom Publishing) was immediately the leading resource spanning the life of eccentric pianist Mike Garson, i.e. the longest running David Bowie-collaborator. A new edition of the book is in store (out later this year), with plans to produce an American edition as well. Today, Slapper is demure about his opportunity to assay Garson's transformation from unbelievably talented, yet sorely under-compensated, NYC jazz scene virtuoso.

Slapper recounts the anecdote off the cuff:

"[Mike Garson] was a struggling jazz musician in 1972, in his late twenties. He had a baby, one year old. He was married, but playing wasn’t lucrative. [Garson and his peers] were playing avant garde jazz in the “smoky underground bars of the New York jazz scene.” He was scraping together a few dollars per performance. Garson remembers coming back home to his wife in August, 1972, and saying to her, he'd really had it. He’d played a great set and got $5 of door money. It’s insane, I can’t survive like this, he said, but music is his life, he tells her. [He's] gonna have to do something bigger that can earn some money. The very next day there were three phone calls offering him jobs. The other two were standard jazz stuff, big band, touring, really not ideal, another gig that paid, and then this third call from Tony Defries [David Bowie’s manager]. In any case, Bowie hadn’t really hit America yet. He’d had one or two hits in the UK."

"Well, what'd he say?" I ask, excited in spite of the obvious conclusion.

“Mike, you were recommended to us, and we'd like you to come on the road with David Bowie."

According to Slapper, Garson's reply is the stuff of legends.

“David who?”

Slapper goes on to tell me, "[Mike Garson] believes that David quite liked that!"

From Garson's first stint with Bowie on the Ziggy Stardust World Tour, to decades of collaborations with artists such as Gwen Stefani, Trent Reznor, Briano Eno, David Lynch, and a staggering list of luminary creatives, it's undeniable: Mike Garson is a musical genius.

"Bowie was famous for being an outsider, always one step ahead," Slapper tells me. "What drew [Bowie] to Garson was that he was an outsider, but in a different way. [Garson] looked conventional. He didn’t dress up colorfully or electrifying, and he was a family man, married with a baby before that tour—not the wild boy—but when it came to creating artistic music, they really started to see eye to eye."

Garson's atonal piano solo on the title of Aladdin Sane validated Bowie's expectation: avant garde brilliance could coexist with accessible rock 'n' roll.

“[Bowie and Garson] had a tendency to borrow from numerous influences,” Slapper continues.  “Mike [Garson], as a master pianist, that’s his only speciality—but within that, he can play jazz, or blues, soul, pop, it’s just endless—I think David really loved that range of influence."

Cliff Slapper stands beside David Bowie

"Bowie picked up on the fact that Mike Garson was an outsider within outsiders," Slapper tells me, a coda to our focused, exuberant conversation about outsiders folded in, and given the opportunity to thrive.

I'm confronted with personal suspicions about fate and destiny when Slapper tells me Aladdin Sane was the first album he ever bought, back in 1973 when he was around 10 years old.

How fitting that forty-plus years later Slapper would be putting out the biography of a formative musician who defined the track, and the trajectory of Bowie's grandiose and self-defined compositions (atonal piano solos were not the thing of Platinum Records). But maybe that's another secret of genius, tapping into this invisible hand that realizes what IS possible. And perhaps certain people invent their fate, per se. Remember, it was Garson who came home and decided he wanted to do something better than make five bucks playing unappreciated improv sets in a smoky bar. Within a year, Garson would be all alone on stage, just his mind, his fingers, and a keyboard, entertaining the adoring, anticipatory Bowie fans with solo renditions of classics like "Life On Mars?" before "Ziggy Stardust" descended from the stars to bewitch the audience with his glimmering presence. What a difference a year can make, when one sets intention.

Slapper and Garson sprout from the same branch, one that's undeniably talented, with personal styles disjointed from their accomplishments. Garson's life has been a trip, an opportunity to create, to bless the most well recognized artists with unexpected and enjoyable contributions. Slapper's has been, too.

“The process [of writing this book] has been a long one, a labor of love,” Slapper confides. “The tragedy of losing David Bowie [back in January] hit us whilst we were already working on the second edition, and hearing the news of his death was the most terrible blow.”

Here's to hoping Slapper's disciplined choice to historicize a fellow avant-garde performer are embraced, and that he too continues to magnetize future creative endeavors. Death is inevitable. Our choices define the light we leave behind.

Garson front cover

Bowie's Piano Man: The Life of Mike Garson is now available in hardcover and on Kindle.

Of note: Creativity and reciprocity appear to go hand in hand. Clifford Slapper is also at work on Bowiesongs1, a collection of ten Bowie classics, arranged for piano and voice. Says Garson himself: "Clifford Slapper has been playing David Bowie music for many years in England. He has accompanied many singers doing David Bowie music. His love for his music is very obvious. His new CD, with many excellent singers each singing one of David’s songs, is very potent. Cliff plays very well, and it is a heartfelt recording."