When David Bowie suddenly and shockingly shuffled off this mortal coil in 2016, a huge void was left in the world of music.
For more than four decades, the grand old dame of rock had been the soundtrack to our lives with a vibrant, innovative and often astonishing body of work that constantly confounded expectations and kicked at the confines of what we knew as pop music.
The folk rock of Hunky Dory, the glam rock thrashing of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars, the plastic soul of Young Americans, the obtuse electronic musings of Low and the new romantic stylings of Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps); Bowie’s albums stretched genres and defined eras.
His legacy will never fade but after his untimely passing many thought we would never hear the songs performed live on stage again. But now, thanks to Bowie’s long-time collaborator Mike Garson, the songs have been given a fresh lease of life as a touring collective of Bowie alumni. Many who played on the actual records and toured with the Starman are paying tribute to the chameleon of pop.
Avant-garde pianist Garson first met Bowie in 1972 during the Ziggy Stardust hysteria that made Bowie an icon of the glam generation. New Yorker Garson joined Bowie’s band the Spiders for a short US tour and stayed for an extraordinary lifetime, including playing on such classic Bowie albums as Aladdin Sane, Pin Ups and Young Americans.
He appeared on 16 Bowie albums and played more than 1,000 gigs with the great man. So yes, let’s just say Garson is the right man for the job.
Garson first met Bowie in the early Seventies during his ascendant after the huge success of the Ziggy Stardust album. “I did his first American tour which was with the Spiders From Mars,” explains Garson.
“That was right before I played on the Aladdin Sane album. Before then I didn’t even know who David was. And I think that intrigued him. Because I was a jazz musician and worked in a different world. I went down to Manhattan and auditioned for Mick Ronson and David was listening and the other guys were listening to the Spiders — I must have played seven seconds on the song Changes and Mick Ronson (Bowie’s then musical right-hand man and a sensational guitarist to boot) said ‘You Got The Gig!’.”
“I was in shock,” laughs the affable American.
“I was used to playing small jazz clubs with 10 to 20 people and then, all of a sudden I am in a big stadium so it was a culture shock for me. And I didn’t know what to make of it in the beginning but as I did it I saw how people loved him and then I myself from day one recognised his extreme talent.
“I feel very lucky to have this happen to me in my life. I don’t think there’s another artist that has the width and the breadth that David had.
“You know. I used to think in the earlier days it was Prince and Stevie Wonder and Bob Dylan and John Lennon and they all are phenomenal artists but I think David surpasses them all in terms of just acting ability. Speaking ability. Sculpture. His fashion. No less his performance and song writing.”
And it’s those songs that have brought Garson, along with fellow Bowie band members Gerry Leonard, Carmine Rojas and Mark Plati, to Australia.
Joined by drummer Lee John (son of Earl Slick) and singers Joe Sumner (son of Sting), Cory Glover (lead singer of Living Colour), The Rolling Stones backing singer Bernard Fowler and Gaby Moreno, the band are here to celebrate all things David Bowie, diving deep into his repertoire to send even the most hardened of sceptics into rapture. All that will be missing is the great man himself.
“I miss him. Every night,” reminisces Garson. “No one can ever replace him. But the reason, for example, on this tour I have four singers, the way it takes a village, you know. And they each brings their own voice. David wrote these great songs and they deserve to be sung by the best singers possible. So over the last three years I’ve worked with about 100 singers who joined me as guests.
“We’ve had Simon Le Bon from Duran Duran, Joe Elliott of Def Leppard, Lorde, Evan Rachel Wood, Ian Astbury from The Cult; singers of every style. The list just goes on and on because they all loved David’s music, you know, so the songs deserve to be sung.”
But even Garson knows that people will always compare what they are doing with Bowie.
“I have to let go of comparison but I have to make the music sound great and have depth and the alumni band certainly does that because the music sounds like what I recall doing in the days when I worked with David.
“I played over a thousand concerts with him in thirteen different bands so I got to experience a lot and every band was great and I’ve had like five different bands over the last three years with various alumni depending on peoples schedules.
“So this band sounds very, very good. It’s very well oiled especially after 55 concerts. We’ve been looking forward to Australian audiences — they are always great. You know David lived here for a period of his life and even talked about doing a really long tour here over three months. He was very fond of the place and I can see why.”
Garson ends by looking back at that moment he first walked into the studio at RCA Records in Manhattan in 1972.
“I saw red hair like I never saw. And makeup and a costume just in the middle of the day time, not even like a show. I thought well, welcome to planet Earth.
“Here I am coming in a T-shirt and jeans and these guys were all just maxed out in beauty and aesthetics and clothing and I thought this will be an interesting ride. I didn’t know I’d last more than the eight weeks I was hired for. And I turned out to be a longest living member,” he ends, smiles, “who would’ve known?”
A Bowie Celebration tour plays Sydney’s The State Theatre on Friday, May 10 and Melbourne’s Palais Theatre on Saturday, May 11