Mike Garson has made a mission of celebrating David Bowie since the singer's death at the start of 2016, just two days after his 69th birthday.
And he's not letting a global pandemic derail him, either.
Since 2017 the keyboardist, who worked with Bowie from 1973 until 2004, has been organizing tours featuring band alumni and guest singers. The 2020 tour and this year's editions, of course, were derailed by COVID-19, so Garson pivoted into virtual space, and in a big way.
"A Bowie Celebration: Just For One Day," streaming on Friday, Jan. 8 (what would have been Bowie's 74th birthday), will feature more than three-dozen alumni as well as longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti, joined by a corps of guests that includes nine inch nails' Trent Reznor, Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter, Def Leppard's Joe Elliott, Bush's Gavin Rossdale, Adam Lambert, Boy George, Lzzy Hale, Perry Farrell, Academy Award winner Gary Oldman, Macy Gray, Duran Duran and others. The endeavor has had Garson, 75, in his studio for weeks, spending 15 hours a day putting files together for nearly 40 songs — and somewhat in awe of what he's wrought.
"Y'know, I thought I would just do a little evening of Mike Garson at the piano and play and talk, and all of a sudden it's a monster. I don't know how it happened," Garson, surrounded by instruments and computers, says with a laugh by Zoom from his home studio in California. "Maybe it's because the virus humbled us out or everybody's sitting on their ass with nothing to do, but all I know is it's the easiest ask.
"I ask people to go on tour and they don't want to go out (to play) six nights a week, but this is easy. This is like Live Aid in virtual world, or Woodstock."
And Garson is well aware that ease is due to a universally high regard for Bowie, a chameleonlike icon best known for music (27 studio albums and 128 singles) but also for acting, fashion and painting as well as pioneering work in online — such as the 1998 BowieNet subscription service — and in finance, with his 1997 Bowie Bonds securities.
"People aren't doing it because of me. They're doing it to celebrate David. We all have David in common," Garson acknowledges. "There have been so many phenomenal artists over the last 50 years, but there's something about (Bowie) that transmutes over everything else. His influence on actors, singers, producers, songwriters, fashion people, performances — it's different in the way it passes through generations, and the effect of it.
"Many of these artists worked with him or knew him well, and then there's a bunch that weren't born, even. It's very heartwarming, and it's very, very deep."
It's deeply personal for Garson, of course. The New York native was classically educated and notes that Bowie's music "is not the soundtrack of my life," which in his case was jazz and the Great American Songbook. But from the time Bowie heard Garson through experimental artist Annette Peacock and brought him on board for the latter part of the Ziggy Stardust tour in 1973, they discovered a kindred spirit. Bowie tapped that spirit for 10 studio albums — starting with the title track of 1973's "Aladdin Sane" — and more than 1,000 concerts with 14 different Bowie bands.
"When David passed, it was hard on me. More than I expected," Garson recalls. "We didn't hang out that much, but when you have a 40-year relationship and you've played together as much as we have, there's a closeness. It's like a marriage of music. His talent was just so phenomenal ... I feel like I have to honor that and make sure people still have a chance to hear this music. It's as classic as Gershwin or Cole Porter, you know?"
Garson hopes "Just For One Day," which will stream for 24 hours — and is raising money for the Save the Children Fund, a favorite charity of Bowie's — will eventually be released commercially. In the meantime he's continuing to compose his own music and is eyeballing a 2022 tour to celebrate Bowie's 75th birthday — not necessarily as involved as the virtual extravaganza, but just as heartfelt and, Garson hopes, entertaining.
"Y'know, there's only one David Bowie," Garson notes. "If I could resurrect him, I'd have him come out and do his songs. But the next best thing is having people who loved him who are very sincere in their interpretation of the music and working really hard.
"This is the best substitute I can come up with."
"A Bowie Celebration: Just For One Day!" premieres at 9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 8, and streams for 24 hours. Tickets through rollinglivestudios.com/bowie. Tickets begin at $25, with merchandise packages available. A portion of the proceeds goes to the Save the Children Fund. Updates via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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