Former Bandmates Keep Magic of Bowie Alive

February 21, 2019 GMT

By Peter Larsen

Southern California News Group

ianist Mike Garson calls from Amster- dam -- at least, he thinks that’s where he is, the longtime David Bowie sideman jokes. Traveling by bus through Europe on a tour called “A Bowie Celebration,” it’s sometimes hard to know where you are when you wake after the overnight journey to the next city in another country.

But Garson was definitely in Cologne, Germany, the previous night with a band that includes other veterans of Bowie albums and tours. And the reaction of fans in that city mirrored those he has witnessed at every show he has played in tribute to Bowie since the rock icon’s 2016 death: pure passion at hearing that music once more -- all the reason Garson says he needs to continue traveling the world to honor his friend and former boss’s musical legacy.

Garson, 73, says he upended his life of playing jazz, composing classical works and occasionally a bit of rock ‘n’ roll with bands such as Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins when Bowie died.

Things turned even more topsy-turvy when the Woolsey fire destroyed Garson’s home and studio in November.

“My first response is, like, I lost everything but I have everything,” he says of what the fire wrought. “It sounds like it could be the lyric to a song but it’s true. Thank God, I have my family and my wife and my fingers, and I can play the music and rebuild and reboot and restore.”

Gone in the flames were all of his studio equipment and three pianos. Hard drives of music, some 200 pieces, vanished like smoke. Original Beethoven manuscripts. A Purple Heart earned by his wife’s uncle, who died in the invasion of Normandy in World War II. Letters he wrote to his wife while serving in a U.S. Army band in the ’60s.

“It’s beyond belief,” Garson says. “The miracle is that four things survived.”

They included a statue of Buddha, untouched by the fire. A mezuzah, the Jewish symbol of faith and home, still intact 2 feet from where one of his pianos melted. A pair of rocks inscribed with the words “dreams” and “hope.” And a tiny boot he’d worn as a child, bronzed by his parents decades ago.

“I think the Buddha statue stands for maybe a universal love -- you realize you gotta keep that,” he says of how he interprets the survival of those few items. “The little boot was burned but still intact. That sort of stands for when we get burned in life, it’s still there.

“Then there was the mezuzah. Growing up in a Jewish family, you know, it sort of shows that you still have your family and your life and your traditions. And the rocks, well they stand for themselves: We still have dreams and hopes, and we move on.”

Despite all the heartache and loss of the fire, Garson says, he stuck to the already announced tour dates out of loyalty to the fans he sees every night.

“The reason I’m doing this, the fans sing every word,” he said. “You look out there and it’s just, oh, my God.

“These people grew up with David Bowie, and he was the soundtrack to their lives. Plus, I’m seeing a third of the audience being 18 years old or 12 or 25. They must be the sons and daughters or grandchildren of the parents who saw me in ’72.

“It’s an amazing phenomenon to see the joy, and that’s because David Bowie was a great, great songwriter. These people love the songs.”

“A Bowie Celebration” plays Sunday, March 3, at The Wilbur Theatre in Boston. Tickets range from $37 to $199.

Bandleader Garson was hired by Bowie to play on the U.S. dates of his “Ziggy Stardust” tour in 1972 and stuck around for more than 1,000 shows, 19 albums and such great piano playing as his avant-jazz work on “Aladdin Sane,” a track about which he still gets regular fan mail.

The rest of the band includes other veterans like guitarist Earl Slick, who started with Bowie in 1974; bassist Carmine Rojas, who joined Bowie’s band in 1983 for the “Let’s Dance” album and tour; guitarist Charlie Sexton, who played with Bowie in the late ’80s; and guitarist Mark Plati, who signed on for records and shows in the ’90s.

“Sonically, the good news is, you’re going to hear the same sounds that we backed David up with, because that’s how we played,” Garson says. “What’s different is that David’s not there, but that’s why I’m spreading it out over three singers.”

Those singers include Bernard Fowler, a longtime backing vocalist for the Rolling Stones; Corey Glover, the front man for Living Colour; and singer-songwriter Joe Sumner, who happens to be the son of Sting.

Garson says the songs resonate so strongly with fans and performers alike because many have become part of the rock ‘n’ roll canon even with Bowie gone.

“They need to be sung the way that Gershwin wrote songs and Frank Sinatra sang them, and Tony Bennett and Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughan,” he says. “That’s what I’m doing with his music.”

He says in all those years touring with Bowie, he never appreciated his greatness as much as he does now.

“David Bowie was a renaissance man,” Garson says. “These songs stick because he was a philosopher. He’s making people feel better. He’s showing what’s going on in life. Songs like ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,′ he’s telling it like it is, and he’s making people feel like, ‘Holy mackerel, I’m not alone!’

“And then you have great melodies, great chords, a great band and a handsome guy and a great singer?” Garson says. “You get the best artist of the century -- that’s how I feel.”

The biggest problem he faces every night is putting together a set list, he says.

“I’m ready to play 125 songs, the band is ready to play 40,” Garson says. “We can’t do more than 21, 22, so we shuffle things around.”

Deeper cuts, such as “Lazarus” off Bowie’s final album, might alternate with “Quicksand” or “Lady Grinning Soul.” “Station to Station,” Sweet Thing/Candidate” and “Stay” also rotate in and out, depending on the night.

“But we always seem to do ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Heroes’ and ‘Changes,’ ‘Moonage Daydream’ and ‘Rebel Rebel,’” Garson says, all of which rekindle the love that players and fans alike feel for the man who gave them to the world.

“I’m sitting out there last night, looking at the fans, they’re right on us,” he says. “A thousand people, right in our face, smiling, waving and screaming the words. It’s like I had a choir and a band.”