50 years ago: David Bowie conquers America

David Bowie played his first concert in USA on Sept. 22, 1972. As his new pianistMike Garson, would soon discover that the excitement for Bowie’s debut had been building over a long period of time.

The fact that his first appearance took place in Cleveland was quite fitting. Bowie had received early radio support from WMMS, the eventual rock powerhouse that was also still quite young in its development. Brian Sands, a Cleveland based musicianhad also established the first American 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 there was something there. “We started playing”Space Oddity,” Bass said Cleveland Scene in 2018. “Almost the next day, or so it seemed, Hunky Dory come out. Now we had more to play that kind of music. Also, Ziggy Stardust comes out. We had that too Lou Reed, Mott the Hoople and T. Rex. The more we played it, the more popular we became.”

Bowie would also continue to gain popularity, but those triumphs were still on the horizon. In this previously unpublished interview, Garson looked back on the first visit to America with Bowie, his audition to join The Spiders from Mars and how everything changed in a short time.

Watch Silent Footage of David Bowie’s first concert in America

What are your memories of playing the 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 caused 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’s going on. The band took off down an elevator out through some parking lot and they ran off stage. I gather my music at the piano and take my time because I’m used to playing jazz clubs and suddenly there are thousands of people storming the stage. [Laughs.] So that’s the experience 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 development of things and what they had been going through while going through it?
They were all working-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 the spiders from Mars suddenly took off. I was a bit of a wrench in the tire because I had a completely different thing with me. In some ways it disturbed their mood, but it also added to it, so it was a double-edged sword. It added a lot of good components. But to answer your question, they were very humble about it. Mick Ronson is one of the nicest men I have ever worked with and he is truly an unsung hero. I did two of his solo albums and toured with him. He never got his full credit – although you know, anyone who really knows David knows that his contribution was extremely powerful.

You auditioned for the gig with Mick Ronson. What did you eventually learn that Ronson loved about you as a player?
Well, first of all, he was a pianist himself, right?

Okay, yes.
He was also a very good orchestrator. A lot of the strings you hear on those albums were him. “Life on Mars” and “Starman,” those were his arrangements. When I played the song “Changes”, with a lot of experience in the piano world with virtuosity and very advanced jazz harmonies and improvisational skills that are usually beyond the reach of a rock musician, it all happened in the first eight seconds of playing. song. He knew immediately, “This will help this music.” That’s 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 bond did you see developing between you and Ronson as players?
I’ve played with hundreds of guitar players, literally. There are the jazz guitar players and there are the fusion guitar players – let’s put them in a separate category. Let’s say I played with 100 rock guitar players. There’s Mick Ronson, and then everyone else comes under him. He was so good 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 good at finding hooks. He was music. You know, we just went out to eat at night and he was a warm person. He even warned me not to do too much studio work after the tours were over and all that. He said: “You become white toast if you just play on everyone’s albums and you don’t feel it. Only do the ones you like.” Ninety percent of the time I have been able to follow these words.

What kind of knowledge did you have that Bowie was going to 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 had never heard of the guy. So I wasn’t nervous at all. I didn’t even know what I was auditioning 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 like, “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 tenured musician.

It seems like something out of the spectacle you walked into.
Let’s put it this way. We were rehearsing and there were these big speakers in front of me. I’m used to playing jazz concerts acoustically without anything. I said, “Guys, the PA system is in my face, pointing right at me.” They all laughed and they pointed to the real PA system, which was 20 feet higher than the one facing me. What was facing me was just my monitors, so it was a culture shock. The good news was that David took advantage of whatever my jazz, classical and avant-garde talents were and he wanted to kind of add it to his recipe. Maybe I was the icing on the cake or something.

Yes, you mentioned the disruption you caused with the other band members. Was it your improvisational tendencies and such that shook things up?
I think. It’s still like that, even with the bands I’ve had traveled with For the last four years I’ve been a loose cannon and I think that’s what he liked about me. You know, I know when to play the introductions and the endings and certain parts, but I probably improvise between 50 and 70 percent every single night. Out of all the 1,000 concerts I did with him, it was always different. I played “Life on Mars?” probably 200 times, but it was always different.

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