Photo by Ross Chandler, thanks to Craig Padilla
Crossing the Bridge of Air
by Mark S. Tucker
This is not a new article- it was published in 2004 in a very small-circulation, nearly-unknown, now-dead magazine, but I'm resurrecting it because, being a frequent listener to Garrison's music, it struck me that his work still needs better exposure and is not getting it. Whilst fact checking this piece for what was supposed to be the second (but not final) home for this article though, the new publisher dropped me a line to inquire whether I was aware Garrison had passed away two weeks prior to my submission, while I'd been in final edits and not in contact with him.
I was, to say the least, shocked but, as you'll see in the interview, also knew Mike's childhood had been unfortunate; outside the interview, he'd briefly told me of black depressions endured since youth. I contacted his sister, Cyndi, as well as an ex-girlfriend, Kathy Kielty; eventually, Don Slepian, hearing of the impending article, got ahold of me. I was informed that Mike had died of massive liver failure from prolonged overuse of alcohol, a process of self-medication that trauma sufferers often resort to, in order to cope with the real world and a maze of problems most people could never even begin to understand.
This news was greatly saddening. Mike was a lot like another of music's genuinely tragic figures, Nick Drake, a very gentle individual grievously conflicted by circumstances beyond his or anyone's control and who also succumbed to medication - in his case, an overdose of the pharmaceutical antidepressant Amitriptyline - that had helped him keep balance amidst it all. In suffering with recurring depression, Mike had pretty much come to retreat from the world, attempting to hold things together on his own in private - a classic situation and, equally classically, one doomed to failure. Therein lies the tragedy.
Michael Garrison had created his uplifting music to counterbalance the pain, ugliness, and isolation life had brought him. He was dealt a hand no one should have to play; he did his very best to overcome it. To entertain even for a moment that he failed would be an egregious mistake, the sort of thing an uncompassionate world might too easily bequeath a situation it helped create, then turned its back on. There are individuals who too long carry burdens few could hope to even lift. They often do so quietly, dutifully, and, if particularly capable, they transcend the madness of existence from time to time, somehow markig a passage that benefits the rest of us. This was the weight Mike carried.
He was not blind, seeing the marvels that existed all around him despite accompanying lunacies and pain. Rather than tread a Kafkan path of existentialist angst, he embraced that beauty, augmenting it in his bars and measures, his music. If it was necessary to tread his days with a perpetual wound, so be it, he would, but it would be done in such a way as to bring light and comfort to himself and others, easing distressed minds with art. When all's said and done, that's what great artists do.
Mike carried this on for the more than 25 years he was world-known; now he's gone. The music left behind melds in with a larger oeuvre remaining as balm to those yearning for succor from the veil of insanity we call "reality." In the final analysis, creative minds are change-agents, manipulating life for us, showing where our paths lay and where we've gone off them. Through these things, we're all granted, as Andrew Vacchs put it so well, "another chance to get it right." Garrison's artistry was the most precious possession he had, the truest expression of himself as he time and again shed that grim overcoat of earthly travail to splash out the colors and vistas he knew best. He will be greatly missed.
I haven't changed much in what follows. Some revisions were necessary but the piece has been left almost completely as originally written; thus, the flavor is retained of the short period when Mike and I exchanged communications and I, and everyone else, was innocent to what was to come. You'll see the unmistakable and unquenchable vivacity in his responses, providing a sharp contrast to the ailments plaguing him. If any sum-up might be drawn, perhaps it would be that he was living proof that, even amidst the most unbearable of circumstances, spirit always prevails.
BERLIN COMES TO AMERICA
Michael Garrison was a holdover from the days when DIY had meaning, when the now completely corrupted phrase carried definition without its latterday mainstream taint. In a small wave of underground, non-patronized, progressive musics that would soon transmute into the largely malodorous "neoprog underground," he distinguished himself, in a struggling community, as a musician with a solid '70's grounding in the Berlin school of Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, as well as, to a much lesser degree, Adelbert Von Deyen, Dieter Schutze, and the European second-stringers.
"I dabbled with piano from age 6 to 12 but didn't get serious until 15. My piano teacher told me I had latent talent: every lesson, I'd play a new song and she thought that was so cool. I didn't want to get to involved with sight reading because none of the music I was listening to was available on sheet; therefore, developing a good ear was really important. The earliest LP that got me pumped up and excited about the awesome new electronic sound was by Gershon Kingsley, Switched on Gershwin, all done with synthesizers. The thing that made this album different from what Wendy Carlos was doing was the addition of great electronic effects, beautiful floating melodies, and echo; gave the music a whole new meaning. Then came the Berlin school, the Tangerine Dream/Schulze influences. I'll also note that Larry Fast had a powerful album out, Realizations for Rock Orchestra. I loved what these people were doing and decided I'd build a synthesizer for a high school Electronics Class project. Well, it didn't turn out to be much so I bought one instead and started to put together the sound I wanted."
Doing so, as he released his work, he occasionally came under fire with the usual dunderheaded charges of derivativeness but easily withstood such slings and arrows: his music was highly engaging, infinitely attractive, lush, minimal, spatially deep, and airily profound. It was also ubiquitously benevolent, an odd-ish characteristic for a genre usually at least vaguely preoccupied with doom and thunder. What accounted for this?
"It comes from the environment I grew up in. Both my parents were very ill when I was growing up and I used happy musical themes to escape day-to-day problems taking care of them. Obviously, it was a labor of love but no child should have that kind of weight on his shoulders. Today, I don't know how I got through those times. Music was my outlet. Thank God it was there, or I don't think I'd be alive today. Also, I live in an absolutely wonderful area, rich with beautiful mountain peaks, clean water, awesome lakes, and nice people. These are all positives that work into my music; it makes a difference."
In Portland, Oregon, Garrison lived a quiet life, unassuming, rural, very average, in no way flamboyant or ostentatious, but from his mind and hands, and from such rustic origins, flowed exceedingly satisfying space musics, sounds simultaneously outré, serene, multidimensional, and catchy as hell. He was recognized the world round for a distinctiveness that no one else quite carried, and therein lay the kiss-off for crits and their perpetual accusations of "thievery" through any intimated wisp of derivativeness.
Though he started with the most modest of means, it didn't take long for his work to make its way into the globe. At first self-promoted in the most basic fashion, tramping around the west coast of America in 1979, selling LP's from the rear of his car, he returned from a half-year sojourn to find labels and distributors world-wide stuffing letters of inquiry into his mailbox, some with orders for as many as 5,000 copies. Steve Roach would've envied such a response, and the comparison isn't improper, as Garrison fitted easily into the top ranks of American synthesists. This begs the question of whether the two ever met up.
"I'd heard his name a few times. Actually, I think he was more known for motorcross skills at that time. I'd spoken with him on the phone, though. His wife was putting together a dictionary-type reference guide for electronic music and we talked. I enjoyed our conversations, he's a really nice guy."
Listen to most any good space-music radio program and, unless it's the saccharinized Hearts of Space, the chances are good Garrison will pop up. His website has claimed, and still claims, that he "performed" with Jarré, Oldfield, Tangerine Dream, and other artists when actually, he was only included on an anthology LP in Europe that included those artists; in reality, he never so much as met the top dogs in person, let alone played with them, alas.
"I should probably change the wording on my site to being "featured" with the other artists."
But, for all that, and for the selling a half million units from a 13-title catalogue, his was, and still is, not a well-known name. Perhaps that's partially due to an insistence on remaining solo, except for limited use of session players, to which the question of cosmic monasticism is put.
"That's a tough question but the main reason I do this is because I have to trust and believe what I'm doing will be successful. If you create a beautiful painting, something you really enjoy and are extremely proud of, why would you ask someone to come in and change it, possibly destroy it? I've done some musical collaborations, like the Seed project for CUE Records a few years back, and it was very difficult. One artist, John Kerr, wrote a simple 10-note melody which was sent to a bunch of artists worldwide. It was the first time I'd ever used someone else's music and frustrating. Ron Boots, who I feel is one of the best progressive artists alive, told me it was also the most difficult project he'd ever done.
"As well, it's tough to locate artists where I live, people refined enough to compose in the electronic field. In Europe, it's much easier to find very talented artists living in the same town or a rock's throw away. It makes a difference, in collaborations, to work with other artists in the same studio. You have to share ideas and make hundreds of critical instant decisions that'll be forever stored on tape. You have to get it right the first time, there may not be a second chance."
THE ALBUMS - ON THE ASCENDENT
He started his release history in '79 with In The Regions of Sunreturn, a marvelous compendium of eight songs created through two ARPs, a pair of Moogs, and a Synare. The tunes started as they've always been: simple, lush, and cosmic in the extreme. One listen and you know you're headed for Alpha Centauri on a transgalactic cruiser whilst, back on earth, compeers are content with Little Red Corvettes and Deuce Coupes. Like the mid-period T. Dreamers, Garrison made extensive use of thematics, anthems, and hooks, sometimes unloved quantities in the sometimes sniffy prog world he occupied the periphery of.
The cuts are chiefly slow majestic traipses through galactic sunfields, planetary byways, spatial back alleys, and dead civilizations. Even the revved-up tunes, such as "The Search," have a restraint that harnesses their splendor for more minute study. There exist ever-present shadows in Garrison's music - not ominous, just the natural inkiness of the gulf. Most of his catalogue is upbeat and awe-inspiring, exhilaratingly graphic, sci-fi written by a hip L. Frank Baum rather than Dante. As opposed to much of his brethren, none of the Garrisongs (also the name of his copyright) brood or nihilate, they're interested in vivacity and exploration, life and wonders, ever refreshing over and above absorbing introspective bases.
Sunreturn's debut was so positively received that Prisms issued in 1981, commencing in the energetic "Eruption," illuminating the fact that Sunreturn had been far from a fluke. Adding a Syntar and more electronic percussion, he gained sonic ground. The already huge backdrops expanded, painting every corner of the environment in rich hues, crackling with energy. Moods shifted and overlapped but were shackled to the imagery. Like Roach, Garrison had a sound, an ecosphere, and knew it intimately; he limned it in the same way a graphic artist manipulates visual media. A bit airier than its progenitor, Prisms addressed Garrison's benchmarks effusively.
Eclipse followed (1982), with no hint of backing off the trademark, once again billowing out, not just via hardware but now with sporadic vocals, in the person of the mellifluous Shari Barna. On the opener, Mike displays greater facility in lead lines and flowing layered textures. A guitar and what seems to be a bass, possibly a synth, also step in, the guitar pronouncedly leonine in "Airborne." Each song churns with interlocking keyboards and whooshing chuffing washes. His palette kept growing while the compositions became... not more complex necessarily, but deeper. Eclipse combines the straightforwardness of Sunreturn with Prism's pastellier nature, tracking in Barna's flowing vocals for an angelic element.
1983 saw Point Of Impact, boasting the particularly subtle "Daydreams," an almost tabernacularly moody number, a gem in the Garrison repertoire and unusually pensive. Much too short, it segued into a choppy intro for the title cut, which again featured Barna. With pleasure, the listener then encounters the hook, now taken into brisk life, shot into the stratosphere, crackling with tingling warp-outs. Without applying overt pyrotechnics, Garrison was able to nail down convincing authority. Impact also contains one of his more abstract pieces, "Bridge of Air," an eight-minute ramble that holds a theme but saunters hither and yon, aiming to no particular destination. Over it all, one thing had become noticeable: his entrancement with analogue equipment.
"My first love in synthesizers was the way you could modify sounds with unique filters, like on the old Arps and Moogs. You could work days modifying just one sound, making it fit perfectly. This, to me, was the ultimate machine. The only drawback for the early oscillator-driven synths is that they didn't have a full thick tone to them, most were monophonic and you couldn't play chords. Up stepped digital. Now, you have the perfect balance between the uniqueness of analog and the polyphonic power of digital. I think I really saw the balance on Jarré's Magnetic Fields. I could tell he was jumping all over the combination of sounds. It made for a powerful result. My studio has analog and digital synthesizers - I use all of them now."
1985 saw an invitation to be published alongside the heavyweights, the musicians Garrison had drawn inspiration from: Tangerine Dream, Jean-Michel Jarre, and others:
"In 1985, we all worked together on the Wolkenreise Zwischen Traum und Phantasie album for Ariola Eurodisc in Munich, now known as BMG. Actually, there were more artists who contributed than I listed on my promo: Michael Cretu, Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark, Eroc, Sky, Incantations, and a couple others. It sold well over 200,000 albums. It was a real honor to be a part of this project, by far the most successful compilation disc I'll probably ever do."
Images (1986) capitalized on the composer's extremely attractive way with repeating melodies and hooks. Nearly every song boasted clever enneagrammatic convolutions amidst vaporous exhalations, twinkling novas, and distant vistas. Garrison was becoming stronger, more masterful every LP, buyers looked eagerly forward to new releases. They may have had to wait three years for this one but weren't disappointed, getting more of the anticipated beautiful presentations, landing in favored euphorics.
Another three years passed. An Earth-Star Trilogy (1989) came out. The songs had become more cinematic, gaining a dimension of motion seemingly timed to a script. Unlike progsters who'd been seduced by DX7ing (including Froese), Garrison stuck to his basic analogue guns and used purposely evanescent patches in properly airy ways, preserving helium transcendencies. "Aurora Visage" was almost a dewline change-agent, having a heavily filmic infusion while working on the old dreams.
1991 and Aurora Dawn signalled a return to earlier environs, stepping back eight years but commencing with an accelerondo in chases which had never before quite so speedily marked Garrison's oft-recessed lead lines. Mike was nostalgic for the old days, the entire flavor of Aurora was markedly retro. He temporarily abandoned evolution for the joys of the fossil record. No one complained. Dragging a distorted guitar in, he unleashed chords that buzzsawed like a raggedly loping Korg. It was this perpetually Jurassic tone and continuing reliance upon golden-age synths that played into his evolution and made one wonder what he'd favor in advanced hardware.
"K.I.S.S.! You know that saying: 'Keep it simple, stupid'? Most artists are more into songwriting than being technicians. Some synthesizers today come with 2-inch manuals that take an electronics engineer a month to figure out. Most synth builders aren't songwriters and most songwriters are not synthesizer builders. We want cool sounds and a fairly quick and easy way to access them. Time's important in the recording studio, you don't want to take a whole day looking for one or two sounds. My ultimate synthesizer would be an ARP 2600 with sequencers, integrated with a mini-moog, and any of the Kurzweil full-piano-touch synths. If I could get all that in one synth, that'd be heaven."
WOW, FLUTTER, ANTHOLOGIES... AND CONCERTS
1991 also witnessed The Rhythm of Life, a second release for the year, attempting to continue established progressions, trying to lose no antecedents. The new Shari Barna, Jeanne Jarvis, sang on two cuts; Clay Smith provided guitars on one. Also appearing was Garrison's mellowest and longest cut yet, the 11:28 "Infinity Dream." Though quite pleasant, it was his second-weakest song... right behind the follow-on, "Passages," his weakest. The track after both these was no prize-winner either. Garrison had finally published a CD that wasn't a solid gem. Was he "going Froese"? Fans waited nervously.
To fill a growing need, he issued two anthologies, A Positive Reflecting Glow and Tranquility Cove, in 1992. Each featured an unreleased cut and provided the perfect intro for anyone not familiar with him, a cross-section of what the last nine years had brought. Still not returning to the studio, 1995 saw another double release: Live, Volume 1 and Live, Volume 2, comprising a complete 1994 Cologne, Germany, concert, supplying a growing fanbase with long-awaited clues to his extemporaneous abilities. Garrison acquitted himself well, getting quickly back on his feet after Rhythm. If anything, the exposure brought even more élan to many of his already galvanized songs, and the audience was clearly enthusiastic.
"I headlined the KLEM Festival (now the E-Live Festival) in Nijmegen, Holland. I think it was in 1995. There were seven bands that day, over 3000 people attended. Live shows are a lot of hard work and getting equipment overseas can be nothing short of a nightmare. I wish we had world music fests here in the U.S. but logistics make it really tough for most artists to participate. I played a fest at the base of Mt. Shasta, California, a few years back; that was real fun, I'd do it again in a heartbeat: easy on the equipment and no jet lag. Perfect."
Why, then, hasn't he been more apparent at American progfests?
"I get asked all the time but it really depends on who's behind the event. People just don't understand the effort, money, and organizational skills involved. If I do an event, I like to have my own sponsor, someone I know and can trust will pay the appearance fee, handle all my expenses, travel, food, lodging, etc.. When I played Mt. Shasta, a doctor-friend who lives in the Bay Area paid all my expenses. It really makes things easy and you know your time and energy won't be wasted."
This bridges into his planetarium appearances and the question of what he plays in concert.
"Most people want to hear the songs they're familiar with, but it's always fun to include new stuff. It's also important to know what kind of format the planetarium is doing: deep space with a floating haunting feel to it or up-beat with the idea of space travel? Sometimes, it's just a laser show, so you need to be flexible."
The last release to appear, Brave New Worlds in 1998, marked a return to the Froese Syndrome, wherein Garrison "went modern," with mixed results. Amidst some great lines and colorations, there's also a plenitude of soul-less Private Music and wallpaper synths. He seemed to have forgotten what his forté was, or perhaps had wearied of it after almost two decades. The compositions became rushed, the patterns less natural - after 13 releases, it had become slavish. There's a smattering of dynamite material but ennui is much too prevalent and dishabilitating.
From then to now, there hasn't been a new Garrison CD. That's five years. It makes one wonder how he views changes in the field.
"I love them. The discs I get from overseas and in the states are fantastic. There's some incredible talent out there and it's getting better all the time. Artists are working a lot harder on their skills; sometimes I get discs with one guy playing ten instruments very well. I wish they were getting more exposure. With labels cutting back, it's going to make it much more difficult for artists to get music out. It's a shame because it's a no-win situation for everyone."
And the advent of laptoppers and box-manipulators?
"I hope this isn't a matter of artists thinking: 'Hey, I can make it in the music biz without learning to play an instrument!' I'm kind of old-fashioned here. I think some decent musical training and lots of practice are the backbone of a career, but I also think creativity is the ultimate goal of any artist. If someone feels he can create a unique sound people will enjoy, and if he has fun and is challenged with what he's doing, then he or she should go for it; but I've yet to hear pedals, mixing boards, or junction boxes write a beautiful melody - that comes from the hearts, souls, and minds of artists."
And so we wait for his next garland of interplanetary canvases. In sum, Michael Garrison's work represents a unique underpopulated niche in electronic and progressive musics, one abandoned far too hastily while everyone was sprinting to "out-new" everyone else. He hadn't sold all those many discs because he was amateuristic, not by any means. The tail end of his output has shown a lull period, from which he may recover and go on to greater things - that supposition only makes the most fundamental sense - but the bulk of his music is as fresh as the day it was issued and will remain so. Most of his fellow DIYers fell by the wayside (Lauri Paisley, the Nightcrawlers, etc.) chiefly because the largest part of their musics didn't age gracefully at all, but Garrison's oeuvre has a quiet fire and élan that is inextinguishable and will weather the endless changes yet to come in the ever-metamorphosing world of progressive music.
After the above was in the publisher's hands and I learned of Mike's death, realizing that the words I'd recorded would be the last he'd given on his work, I posted the following on the website mentioned in the Intro:
"It is with shock and unhappiness that I am just now learning of Michael's passing. Having interviewed him only several months previous, I had no idea this might occur. Mike had long been one of my favorite synthesists, with his marvellous and positivistic songs, and it took me many years to find a venue that would run an article about, and interview with, him. Now, having finally found a publisher for that piece, I sadly find he is no longer with us. There is a wistful irony to that, unfortunately.
"The few exchanges I had with Mike showed him to be a gentle soul who'd overcome much adversity; those difficulties had, in fact, caused what we all have enjoyed through these many years: his art. As with so many creative minds, Mike found profound solace and intellectual engagement in beauty and wonder, documenting his visions for the rest of us. That is the essence of all art.
"We also spoke briefly of a love for hiking and some of the places we'd both been, about how much we both liked Oregon. It is my great misfortune that our colloquy occurred so close to his passing. Mike had none of the pretensions too often normal to many artists. He was unhurried and natural. Even in his e-mail's, there was always an unselfconscious smile.
"An aberrative incident occurred with the publisher who first was going to run our talk, and now Mike wlll never see the discourse in print. It will, however, appear elsewhere and, I hope, be a small memoriam. Michael Garrison was far too young, much too full of gentility, and certainly too provident a creator of needful beauty to be so abruptly transitioned to the next phase of existence. It may be inevitable that such things must happen, Fate may have the ruling hand, but I, for one, do not have to like it, and I lament that we will hear no more from him.
"On the other hand, I hear the song, I hum the tune, and I know the score: despite what I just said, we will indeed hear from him again: in another time, under another name, and, hopefully, on another planet. So, to Mike, wherever he may be, in the words of The Prisoner: 'Be seeing you!'"
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