David Bowie pianist Mike Garson talks Ziggy Stardust's last stand ahead of 50th anniversary premiere

David Bowie pianist Mike Garson talks Ziggy Stardust's last stand ahead of 50th anniversary premiere

David Bowie's long-time pianist Mike Garson has spoken to Music Week ahead of the 50th anniversary of Bowie's last performance as Ziggy Stardust.

Bowie abruptly revealed he was retiring his famous alter-ego near the end of the concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on July 3, 1973.

The venue, now the Eventim Apollo Hammersmith, will host the global premiere of the newly restored version of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars: The Motion Picture 50 years later to the day - July 3, 2023. 

New Yorker Garson will join Bowie producer Ken Scott (the recording engineer for the show), Spiders From Mars drummer Woody Woodmansey, and Madness frontman Suggs on a panel at the event to discuss the gig’s legacy, prior to the screening.

Garson will also open the show with solo piano arrangements of some of Bowie’s best-known tracks, just as he did on that night half a century ago.

Bowie's announcement that he was retiring the Ziggy persona was made just before his final encore, Rock 'N' Roll Suicide, and came as a surprise to all in attendance including members of his band – except for Garson.

"I was the only one that knew – that made it harder," he told Music Week. "Fortunately, there was that great after party and everybody was there – The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Barbra Streisand – so you got a little distracted. But then as the days went on it was a little painful, because people take it personally."

The panel’s conversation will be beamed to cinemas around Europe on that same night followed by the film, with further screenings to take place around the world throughout July.

The film, made by DA Pennebaker, and its soundtrack have been newly remastered, with the medley of The Jean Genie/Love Me Do and Round And Round featuring the late Jeff Beck reinstated - the latter track receiving its first official release anywhere. Both performances were newly mixed by Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti.

The 50th anniversary edition soundtrack, including limited edition gold vinyl and CD/Blu-ray, will be released on August 11. It's the latest release in the major Rhino reissue programme for David Bowie.

Here, in a Q&A with Music Week, Garson opens up on on his memories of the gig, the Ziggy Stardust persona and how close Bowie came to ending his touring exile post 2004...

How vividly can you recall that night in Hammersmith in 1973?

"The memories are very clear to me because it has come up in so many conversations over the last 50 years, as well as the last few weeks, so it's really on my mind. It's bittersweet, because the Spiders were my friends and I was personally told beforehand that I'd be continuing on with other projects with David. He was done with that era. It wasn't a personal thing, he had to move on. He had to spread his wings, so it was bittersweet but it was a great concert. The audience was exhilarated and everyone then went into group shock and I felt bad. That was the bittersweet part, because they were my friends." 

Tell us about your piano intro...

"I was just fooling around, I was sitting on a break and David heard and he said, 'Oh, make that an overture. Take that song and do other ones that you like.' I took Changes and John, I'm Only Dancing and Life On Mars and Ziggy Stardust. So now I'll do those four again a little different, updated version, and I'll add three from Aladdin Sane, but it came about that way and then after the show was over David said he was more nervous for me than he was for himself."

Have you watched the remastered film back yet?

"Purposely not, because I want to be a fan and an audience member. So I'll play the piano first and then there'll be a little panel and then we'll see the movie. I think it's probably going to look better and sound better. And I'm looking forward to watching the Jeff Beck portion - Jeff and Mick Ronson together on stage, probably two of the greatest rock guitarists ever, right? I played with Jeff in his own band seven years later with Stanley Clarke for a few concerts in England and America, just a very talented guitar player. And Mick, his melodic phrasing on the guitar, we haven't heard the likes of that since then. There are people who have copied it, but he had so much heart. He is the unsung hero in this picture, Mick Ronson." 

Did you think it was the right decision for David to move on from the Ziggy persona?

"I had mixed feelings. We were on the road together so I knew him and would be in the limo with him driving around through the States and I could see he was itching. And every tour I ever did with him, which was probably 13 tours over 40 years, he was almost always done towards the end of the tour. He was almost always done five shows earlier and was already talking to me about the next project. So that's who he was. He was always breaking ground and he was always ahead of the curve."

How important was the Ziggy tour in solidifying David's legend? 

"In 1972/73, this persona of Ziggy that he brought to the world was somehow needed and wanted. It was so right for the time and he was too nervous and scared as a performer to just be himself. It was a great persona to hide behind, but at a certain point he was done with it. The audience wasn't. The fans weren't - we could have milked it for another year-and-a-half. But he was done, and that's what I realised, 'Oh, he's going to do this next and then he's going to do this and thank God I know those styles on the piano.' He had this incredible ability to just go into my head and find everything I ever studied and find the song for it to place it. It's actually incredible that gift he had, like the ultimate casting director."

How highly do you rate The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust LP? 

"I didn't play on it, I wish I did. I met him after, but I obviously played on the Ziggy movie. I thought it was a fantastic album. I mean, Mick Ronson is the unsung hero of the last 50 years in rock and roll. He contributed so much to it and the Spiders as a band. Bands bring something to the table that a solo artist can't, and that was a fantastic band and it solidified David, but he was done with it. He respected people for being who they are. So we had to respect that he wanted to move on. I was fortunate that I could play Diamond Dogs music with him or Pin Ups, Young Americans, but I felt bad for the guys, yes, for sure."

Your piano solo on the title track of Aladdin Sane is legendary, how did the band react to it at the time?

"I was a little scared but I had David's permission to do it because there was a blues version I played first that he said was too commonplace, and I played a Latin solo. He said, 'Why don't you play that avant-garde jazz and classical mixed and all the wild stuff you do in New York jazz clubs? Leave it to me. I'll know how to frame it.' And it was one take.

"I didn't hear that track for probably 10, 15 years, maybe more, but since the internet's come about I've had an email or a text or an interview [about it] every day for the last 30 years. One song, just on that title track, not even Time or Lady Grinning Soul, just Aladdin Sane and it's still going. Sometimes I feel like insulted, what about all the other stuff I did? But no, music is connected with life and time and what was going on, so I have to acknowledge and accept it and embrace it. I didn't for about 10 years. It's like don't talk to me about that. Now, I love it."

Glastonbury 2000 was another legendary Bowie show, how was it for you?

"He did the same thing to me on that night, he looked out in the audience and he got scared. And he said, 'Mike, go warm up the audience' and I went out and played Greensleeves. It's on the DVD that's floating around, who uses DVDs anymore?! But it's there."

You also returned to play Hammersmith with David in 2002, what do you remember about that show?

"I loved that one. Especially as an American, you knew [Hammersmith Apollo], just like they know Madison Square Garden over here, or the Hollywood Bowl, so it was a good feeling in '73, it was a good feeling in 2002 and it is going to be a great feeling next week. The same place, the same date, 50 years later, and to be able to play the same four songs that I played 50 years earlier. Plus, because it's 50 years of the Aladdin Sane album, I'm going to play three of those songs in this crazy, condensed eight-minute medley that should take about an hour, but I have to squeeze it all in."

This persona of Ziggy that he brought to the world was somehow needed and wanted

Mike Garson

Famously, David never toured again after 2004...

"Well, I did two or three shows with him, just me and him alone. My audition song in '72 was Changes and the last piece I ever played with him and that he ever did live was in 2006 - with Alicia Keys on Changes [from 1971's Hunky Dory]. Unfortunately he didn't allow that show to be filmed. There's a horrible YouTube [video out there], but you can't see anything or hear anything properly."

Did you ever discuss the possibility of him playing live again?

"Oh, so he called me in 2006 and he said, 'Well, Mike, do you think we should go out again?' Now, I think the band and my wife want to kill me because I said something absurd, but actually deep and correct and honest. I said, 'David, only if you're feeling it,' because he wasn't feeling it. I knew it, because I knew him so well and he wanted to give work to the band and our tour was cut short in 2004, so he was feeling guilty. Of course, my first thought was, 'Yeah, let's go.' But my second thought was, 'I don't want to be on the road with someone who's miserable and doesn't want to be there [laughs].' So I said, 'David, only if you feel it,' and he didn't feel it. But then there were other times - even a few months before he passed, he wrote to me saying he was hoping to maybe do another version of [1995 LP] Outside with Brian Eno and tour that. I had some hopes, but it was cut short unfortunately."

You've revisited old Bowie albums for Tim Burgess' Twitter Listening Parties, how much have you enjoyed that process?

"I love it. I can't believe that I hear it differently now. It was almost too ahead of its time for me when I did them. Not my playing, that I always was in tune with, but just to sit back and listen to what was he thinking. It was never just bullshit, or just Las Vegas entertainment, or just a cool song. There was always 50 layers to everything he was doing and I'm still figuring it out. Because for all those years I played with him, I was just listening to his beautiful voice and the melodies and the music and the band. I wasn't even hearing the words, because I'm a musician that's tuned into sound and all the music I play is instrumental. Now I look at some of the lyrics and I just go, 'What a fucking genius this guy is [laughs]!'"

To finish, why do you think David and you hit it off so well musically?

"Our creative process. How I see it is we were on the same aesthetic wavelength, because we were very different people, but the way we thought about music, and created, merged very well. He gave me my entire career. I still wouldn't be playing if I never worked with him. I had a few thousand jazz fans, a few hundred classical fans, but once you play with David Bowie, if you do your job right, you have millions of fans. And I was only hired for eight weeks, and I ended up the longest standing member - 600 shows, 23 albums - that's unusual." 

Click here to read our interview with Warner Chappell CEO and co-chair Guy Moot on David Bowie's songwriting legacy. 


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