50 years ago: David Bowie conquers America

David Bowie gave his first concert in the United States on September 22, 1972. Like his new pianistMike Garson, would soon find out, the excitement over Bowie’s debut had been building up over a long period of time.

The fact that her initial performance was in Cleveland was fitting. Bowie had received early radio support from WMMS, the eventual rock powerhouse which was also still quite young in its development. Brian Sands, a Cleveland-based musicianhad also created 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 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 came out of. Now we had more to play that kind of music. So what, Ziggy Stardust spell. We also had Lou Reed, Mott the Hoople and T. Rex. The more we played it, the more popular we became.

Bowie would also continue to grow in popularity, but those triumphs were always on the horizon. In this never-before-seen interview, Garson reflects on the inaugural visit to America with Bowie, his audition to join the Spiders from Mars, and how everything changed in a short time..

Watch silent footage from David Bowie’s first concert in America

What are your memories of this first concert with David Bowie in Cleveland?
I had just joined the band and because it was the first gig, I didn’t know the tricks of the trade. Already, David had generated a lot of enthusiasm in America, even if it was the first tour. So when we finished the last encore, they hadn’t explained to me what was going on. The group took an elevator through a parking lot and they ran off the stage. I collect my piano music and I take my time because I used to play in jazz clubs and all of a sudden there are thousands of people invading the stage. [Laughs.] So that’s the experience I remember.

The band, prior to your arrival, had been touring for almost a year at that time. What did the other band members tell you as things progressed in terms of how things evolved and what they had been through while they were going through this?
They were all working-class people. I think the drummer [Woody Woodmansey] has been to do plumbing and someone was doing something else – very, very laborious work. I think they were all shocked that suddenly the spiders from Mars took off. I was a bit like a wrench in the tire because I brought something completely different. In some ways it disrupted their vibe, but it also added to it, so it was a double-edged sword. He 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 was never fully recognized – although, you know, anyone who really knows David knows his contribution was extremely strong.

You auditioned for the gig with Mick Ronson. What did you ultimately learn about what Ronson loved about you as a player?
Well, first of all, he was a pianist himself, wasn’t he?

Alright, yeah.
He was also a very good orchestrator. A lot of those string parts you hear on those albums were him. “Life on Mars” and “Starman” 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 beyond the reach of a rock musician, it all happened within the first eight seconds of playing that song. He knew immediately: “It will help this music.” It was the speed of the audition: 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 have you seen develop between you and Ronson as players?
I’ve played with literally hundreds of guitarists. There are jazz guitarists and there are fusion guitarists – let’s put them in a separate category. Let’s say I played with 100 rock guitarists. There’s Mick Ronson and then everything else comes under him. That’s how good he was because he just wasn’t a loud grinder. He was just a guy who was very musical because he thought like an orchestra. He found beautiful melodies and he had a beautiful timbre. He was good at finding hooks. He was music. You know, we were just going out to dinner at night and he was a warm person. He even warned me not to work too much in the studio after the tours were over and all that. He said, “You’ll become white toast if you just play on everyone’s album and don’t feel it. Only do the ones you love. Ninety percent of the time, I was able to follow those words.

What kind of knowledge did you have about Bowie during this audition? I’m curious how nervous you were or not based on your awareness of what you were looking for.
The awareness was nil because I had never heard of this guy. So I wasn’t nervous at all. I didn’t even know why I was going to audition. [Laughs.] I didn’t have Google or YouTube to research him, you know? I see these wild characters and they’re all different hair colors and different outfits they’re wearing and I’m standing there in jeans and a T-shirt and I’m thinking, “This is crazy, but I like this.” That’s what happened. But I was only hired for eight weeks, and I ended up being the longest serving musician.

This seems to be quite the show 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 acoustic jazz gigs with nothing. I said, “Guys, the PA system is in my face and pointing right at me.” They all laughed and showed the real sound system, which was 20 feet higher than what was facing me. What was facing me were only my monitors, so it was a culture shock. The good news is that David took my talents in jazz, classical and avant-garde, and he kind of added it to his recipe. Maybe I was the whipped cream on the cake or something.

Yes, you mentioned the disruption you caused with the other band members. Was it your improv tendencies and stuff like that that shook things up?
I think so. It’s always like that, even with the bands I’ve been traveling with for 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 intros and endings and certain parts, but I probably improvise 50-70% every night. Of all those 1,000 shows 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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