50 Years Ago: David Bowie Conquers America
David Bowie played his first concert in the U.S. on Sept. 22, 1972. As his new pianist, Mike Garson, would soon discover, the excitement for Bowie's debut had been building up over a long period.
The fact that his initial performance took place in Cleveland was quite appropriate. Bowie had been receiving early radio support from WMMS, the eventual rock powerhouse that was also still quite young in its development. Brian Sands, a Cleveland-based musician, had also established the first U.S. fan club for Bowie and his music.
WMMS’ Billy Bass said he finally “saw the light” when fellow DJ Denny Sanders shared Bowie’s breakout single with him, knowing that there was something there. “We started playing ‘Space Oddity,’” Bass told Cleveland Scene in 2018. “Almost the next day, or so it seemed, Hunky Dory came out. Now, we had more to play of that kind of music. And then, Ziggy Stardust comes out. We also had Lou Reed, Mott the Hoople and T. Rex. The more we played it, the more popular we got.”
Bowie would continue to become more popular too, but those triumphs were still on the horizon. In this previously unpublished interview, Garson looked back at the inaugural visit to America with Bowie, his audition to join the Spiders from Mars and how everything changed in a short period.
Watch Silent Footage of David Bowie's First Concert in America
What are your memories of playing that first show with David Bowie in Cleveland?
I had just joined the band and because it was the first show, I didn’t know the ropes. Already, David had stirred up a lot of excitement in America, even though it was the first tour. So when we finished the last encore, they hadn’t filled me in on what goes on. The band took off down an elevator out through some parking lot and they ran off stage. I’m collecting my music at the piano and taking my time because I’m used to playing jazz clubs and all of the sudden, there’s thousands of people storming the stage. [Laughs.] So, that’s the experience that I remember.
The band, before you arrived, they had been touring for close to a year at that point. What did the other band members tell you as things progressed as far as the evolution of things and what they had been through as they were going through that?
They were all worker-type people. I think the drummer [Woody Woodmansey] was doing plumbing and someone was doing something else – very, very blue-collar work. I think they were all shocked that all of the sudden, the Spiders from Mars took off. I was somewhat of a wrench in the tire because I was bringing a whole other thing. In some ways, it disrupted their vibe, but it also added to it, so it was a double-edged sword. It added a lot of great components. But to answer your question, they were very humble about it. Mick Ronson is one of the nicest men I’ve ever worked with, and he’s truly an unsung hero. I did two of his solo albums and toured with him. He never got his full recognition – although, you know, anyone who really knows David knows that his contribution was extremely strong.
You auditioned for the gig with Mick Ronson. What did you eventually come to know as far as what Ronson loved about you as a player?
Well, first of all, he was a pianist himself, right?
He also was a very good orchestrator. A lot of those string parts you hear on those albums were him. “Life on Mars” and “Starman,” they were his arrangements. When I played the song “Changes,” having a lot of experience in the piano world with virtuosity and very advanced jazz harmonies and improvisational abilities that are usually outside the range of a rock musician, that all happened in the first eight seconds of playing that song. He knew immediately, “This is going to help this music.” That was how fast the audition was: It was eight seconds.
Watch David Bowie Perform 'Starman' in 1972
You went on to do two of Ronson's solo records and two of his tours. What’s the bond that you saw develop between you and Ronson as players?
I’ve played with hundreds of guitar players, literally. There’s the jazz guitar players and there’s the fusion guitar players – let’s put them in a separate category. Let’s say that I played with 100 rock guitar players. There’s Mick Ronson and then all of the rest come underneath him. That’s how good he was because he just wasn’t a loud shredder. He was just a guy who was very musical because he thought like an orchestra. He found beautiful melodies and he had a beautiful tone. He was great at coming up with hooks. He was music. You know, we would just go out to dinner in the evenings and he was a warm person. He even warned me not to do too much studio work after the tours were over and all of that. He said, “You’ll turn into white toast if you’re just playing on everybody’s album and you don’t feel it. Do only the ones that you like.” Ninety percent of the time, I’ve been able to follow those words.
What sort of knowledge did you have about Bowie going into that audition? I’m curious how nervous you were or weren’t based on your awareness of what you were going for.
The awareness was zero because I’d never heard of the guy. So I wasn’t nervous at all. I didn’t even know what I was even going to audition for. [Laughs.] I had no Google or YouTube to research him, you know? I see these wild characters and they’re all different hair colors and the different outfits they’re wearing and I’m there in jeans and a T-shirt and I’m thinking, “This is crazy, but I like it.” That’s what happened. But I was only hired for eight weeks, and I ended up being the longest-standing musician.
It seems like quite the spectacle that you walked into.
Let’s put it this way. We were rehearsing and there were these big speakers facing me. I’m used to playing jazz gigs acoustic with nothing. I said, “Guys, the PA system is in my face and pointing right at me.” They all laughed and they pointed to the real PA system, which was 20 feet higher than what was facing me. What was facing me were just my monitors, so it was a cultural shock. The good news was that David took advantage of whatever my jazz, classical and avant-garde talents were, and he would sort of add it to his recipe. I was maybe the whipped cream on the cake or something.
Yeah, you mentioned the disruption that you caused with the other band members. Was it your improv tendencies and stuff like that which shook things up?
I think so. It’s still that way, even with the bands I’ve been traveling with for the past four years, I’m a loose cannon and I think that’s what he liked about me. You know, I know when I have to play the introductions and the endings and certain parts, but I’m probably improvising between 50 and 70 percent every single night. Out of all of those 1,000 concerts I did with him, it was always different. I played “Life on Mars?” probably 200 times, but it was always different.