Even though it totaled over 15,000 words and was spread out across five parts, one of the most popular posts on this blog remains an archival piece on pianist Mike Garson (From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie – Part 1 of 5). Most recently, the two-hour plus interview provided at least a tiny bit of backing material for a book: Bowie’s Piano Man: The Life of Mike Garson. I was honored the author, Clifford Slapper, found my work interesting enough to reference in his book, which stands as the first biography of the one musician who has spent more time collaborating with David Bowie, than any other one.
The UK-based Slapper — who is also a pianist — kept me posted about the book up to its publication. Below is a Q&A we recently conducted via email that reveals his noble inspiration behind it (the art and craft trumps the gossip) and also shows his light approach to prose, making the book not only an informative read but a breezy one at that.
Hans Morgenstern: What inspired you to write the book … besides Mike being such an important Bowie collaborator?
Clifford Slapper: When I was 7 I started going to piano lessons, as my parents had noticed that my miniature piano was my favourite toy. They found a local teacher called Miss Beryl Silley — quite a name, especially since she was teaching a young Slapper! My grandmother — who used to take me to the weekly lessons — bought me a cassette tape of Elton John’s Honky Chateau album (so named as it was recorded at Le Chateau D’Hérouville, where Bowie would subsequently record Pin Ups), which has great piano parts and which I love to this day. My real epiphany, however, was when I went out and bought a record myself for the first time, at age 10: David Bowie’s 1973 album Aladdin Sane, on vinyl. It completely blew my young mind! I have been in love ever since with the music of both Bowie and Garson!
Many years later, I got the chance to work, briefly, with David Bowie, and a couple of years after that to meet, and become good friends with Mike, and then to work closely with him in the extensive interviews and research involved in writing his biography. Within a few hours of meeting, I asked if there were any biographies published of him, and he replied that there were not, but that as a fellow pianist with a similar outlook, I might be the ideal person to write one, and here we are five years later with the book finally being published.
How long were you working on it?
About five years. In addition to hundreds of hours of discussion with Mike, I also interviewed some forty people who have worked with him or otherwise know him well.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Mike while doing it?
On first hearing that he had once planned to become a rabbi, I was initially surprised. In time, however, this was less surprising as he approaches his life and work in a way which is always studied, disciplined and yet inspired, and he naturally adopts the role of mentor, educator, and guide for many of those around him.
What was the most challenging part of writing Mike’s story?
It was difficult to decide how best to approach telling that part of his story in which he was involved with Scientology for some time, many years ago. In the end, I think we found the right way and the right balance. He has had an honest and unstinting spiritual quest throughout his life, and that was simply one period alongside many others in that regard. I also did not want to dwell on any salacious details which might pertain to the early tours with Bowie or others. This is a book about creativity and finding artistic and developmental meaning in life. It does not engage in the cheap gossip or petty mundane details which can all be found in profusion elsewhere.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
As I say at the end of the book, “Our shared hope is that people may be inspired … to overcome any obstacles in their quest for authentic expression and creativity … and that this opens up a wider exploration of how music is created and what it can do.” Mike hopes that the story of his life might bring pleasure and insight to readers but above all wants to encourage people to be active in taking “a few things from this book that ring true for them, and use that in their lives to bring joy to themselves and others”.
* * *
The book is published in the U.K. You can purchase it in the U.K. and Europe here (that’s a hot link) or direct from the publisher here (another hot link — they ship worldwide). But there is also a U.S. entry on Amazon.com for those in the States. You’ll be supporting Independent Ethos by jumping through this link and purchasing it:
Thanks to Clifford for taking some time to answer my inquiries and including me in his terrific book!
Book cover photo by Terry O’Neill/Getty Images. Photos of author Clifford Slapper are copyright owned by Ray Burmiston. From top to bottom: 1. Clifford Slapper on the set of Ricky Gervais’ TV show ‘Derek’ photo by Ray Burmiston; Clifford Slapper with David Bowie, photo by Ray Burmiston.