Why Shelved ‘Toy’ Album ‘Pissed Off’ David Bowie
Pianist Mike Garson recalls David Bowie being "pissed off" after his Toy album was scrapped by his label Virgin/EMI back in 2001. Garson wasn't too happy about the turn of events either.
The album was recorded by Bowie and his band in 2000, following a tour that culminated in a landmark performance at the Glastonbury Festival. The studio sessions featured some new material but also re-recordings of songs from the early part of Bowie's career — including Davy/Davie Jones singles such as 1965's "You've Got a Habit of Leaving" and "I Dig Everything," which came out a year later. Some of the songs appeared on subsequent albums and compilations — "Uncle Floyd" as "Slip Away" and "Afraid" on 2002's Heathen, for instance — but Toy itself has languished in the vaults until it was included as part of the Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001) box set in November and in the Toy:Box set, which arrives on Friday.
"I love that album, and I was very pissed off that the record company passed on it. You don't pass on a David Bowie album," Garson, who's hosting the virtual A Bowie Celebration on Jan. 8, tells UCR. "[Bowie] was upset, but within months [the songs] were all online. I've been hearing those songs for 20 years. People get ahold of everything, one way or another. But I'm so glad it's coming out now."
Toy, produced by Bowie and band member Mark Plati, features one of the singer's most potent backing bands, including longtime members Garson and guitarist Earl Slick, bassist Gail Ann Dorsey and drummer Sterling Campbell. Gerry Leonard also played guitar during the sessions, while frequent Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti created string arrangements. Plati recalled the sessions as "a moment in time ... the sound of people happy to be playing music," which was Garson's takeaway as well.
Listen to David Bowie's 'You've Got a Habit of Leaving'
"It was very free-flowing, playing live together in the space [Sear Sound in New York City]," he remembers. "We'd just come off a tour, so we were in good shape. The camaraderie was great. David was in good spirits, healthy, joyful. Everything was just the way you'd want it to be." That said, Garson acknowledges some mixed emotions about Bowie's desire to revisit his early material.
"I liked the fact that he was being respectful to his earlier catalog, but I wasn't a big fan of some of those older songs," Garson confesses. "I love 'Conversation Piece' and 'Shadow Man,' but I didn't like the songs. But I figured we're a good band, we've been on the road for months and months, let's make it better than when he was a kid writing them. And I think we did. They're not 'Life on Mars?' or 'Space Oddity,' but they're good. They're fun."
While that part of Bowie's past has surfaced, Garson has been working on A Bowie Celebration livestream, which takes place on what would have been Bowie's 75th birthday. Unable to take his Celebration tour on the road due to the coronavirus pandemic, Garson pivoted to an online show last year, incorporating Bowie band alumni and special guests. He's approaching this year's edition with more confidence.
Watch David Bowie Perform 'Can't Help Thinking About Me'
"You learn from some of the mistakes [from] last year," says Garson, who had to delay the 2021 livestream by a day at the last minute. "There are lessons that we're applying to putting this show together. Last year, because of COVID, I couldn't be there for all the final mixes, so there were things left out that I would have liked to be in. Everyone was doing the best they could under the circumstances. Personally, it drove me insane, but the audience didn't know what wasn't there, and people enjoyed the show a lot."
Garson's goal for this year's Celebration was "half new artists" along with some returnees from 2021. Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon and John Taylor, who performed "Five Years" with their band last year, will take part, along with Def Leppard's Joe Elliott, Living Colour, Rob Thomas, Walk the Moon, Gary Oldman and Ricky Gervais. A wealth of Bowie alumni joined forces for the songs, including Slick, Leonard, Dorsey, Omar Hakim, Carmine Rojas and others. Singers include Celebration regular Bernard Fowler along with Judith Hill, Gaby Moreno, Sting's son Joe Sumner and Gretchen Parlato, who will perform a jazz version of "Starman."
"Can it work? I don't know ... but in theory it felt so good to me," Garson says of the Parlato collaboration. "As a jazz musician, we can play with standards, songs from Broadway shows or Thelonious Monk tunes or 'Round Midnight' or Miles Davis or blues. Why not do that with Bowie songs? It’s left field, but those who do resonate with it will get a big kick out of it — and certainly David would have. And I think the David audience is open to that."
This year's Celebration will also nod to the 35th anniversary of Labyrinth, the Jim Henson-directed fantasy film in which Bowie starred as the goblin king Jareth, with a performance of "As the World Falls Down" from the soundtrack. "I didn't like that period, which just shows you that you don't really know what you don't know," Garson says with a laugh. "So there was some humility that kind of woke up in me and superseded the arrogance of 'Fuck that shit! I don't want to do it!' I realized it is a good song. It's more of a novelty, but we arranged a whole new vibe with that song, featuring the piano and vocals, and I love it. It's beautiful." (The late Henson's son Brian will also make an appearance during the livestream to talk about the project.)
Listen to David Bowie's 'As the World Falls Down'
This year's A Bowie Celebration will be dedicated to Mick Rock, the British photographer who died in November. A portion of the proceeds will go to Save the Children, a favorite charity of Bowie's. Tickets for the event are available via RollingLiveStudios.com. The stream will be active for 24 hours.
Garson, meanwhile, has two album projects on tape for 2022: a live album recorded from a jazz performance in July from Newport Beach, Calif., and a set of classical improvisations.