Live Sound Remembers David Bowie

By Clive Young. While David Bowie was known for artistic studio efforts, the man was also a considerable performer, and that meant he crossed paths with many live sound pros over more than 30 years of touring before retiring from the road 10 years ago.
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Photos, production notes handwritten by David Bowie and a crew pass from Buford Jones' first tours mixing the artist.
When news broke that rock mainstay David Bowie died of cancer on January 10 at the age of 69, the music world looked back at his adventurous songs and groundbreaking personas. But while he was known for artistic studio efforts, the man was also a considerable performer, and that in turn meant he crossed paths with many live sound professionals over the course of more than 30 years of touring before retiring from the road 10 years ago.

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“I had the pleasure of mixing stage monitors for David Bowie from 1995 to his last live performance in 2006,” recalled Michael Prowda, who was at stageside for productions like the Outside tour, which found Bowie teaming with then up-and-comers Nine Inch Nails. “David brought out the best in people because he set the example; he made me a better engineer,” recalled Prowda, “and he was always the gentleman.”

That seems to have been a running theme throughout Bowie’s performing career. Legendary sound engineer Buford Jones, who handled Bowie’s front-of-house mix for most of the Seventies, remembered the first time they met in 1974:

Diamond Dogs was a very complicated production; it had only been out a month and it had some serious problems with the sound. I had been out with Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top just before that, pretty much had my roots planted in Southern Rock and my hair was long, but I got a notice from Showco to join the tour. All I’d seen of him were pictures of lightning painted across his face and orange hair, and I wasn’t sure if I would fit—and nonetheless, Showco let me know, ‘No, you’re going to do this.’ So I saw it in Akron and mixed it the next night in Pittsburgh. It was terrifying in Akron when I was asked to go to the dressing room and actually meet him, but I did—and it was the most pleasant welcome and he was the nicest person. Sitting down and talking, I realized I’d had the wrong impression of him. He was extremely professional and a genius; I saw that many times over the years.”

That night, Bowie handed Jones a handmade book that broke down the show song by song, suggesting ways to approach mixing the complex concert. “He had created this book,” recalled Jones, “and it’s a one-of-a-kind thing—he had his assistant, Coco, get the lyrics to all the songs, and in his own handwriting with a marker, he had written notes on there for me how it all went, because onstage, he would sing, set the microphone down, dance, go somewhere else, pick up another mic, and so on. If I didn’t have some sort of record to work with, I wouldn’t have had a clue.

“He said, ‘Buford, this is something that I thought might give you a little bit of guidance. If you try any of these suggestions and you don’t like them, please don’t do them—feel free to be as creative as you want to be and do it however you see fit.’ The book is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever been given in my career. It’s torn and tattered from so many years of keeping it at the console, but I still have it.”

Maryland Sound International (Gwynn Oak, MD) handled audio for a number of Bowie’s latter tours, starting with 1990’s Sound + Vision extravaganza, which was billed as a greatest-hits tour. Bob Goldstein, owner of MSI, recalled the era with a chuckle, noting, “I first met him a couple of times [in the Seventies] when I was doing Mott the Hoople—he was stranger then.

“Working with him was great,” added Goldstein, “because he was a consummate professional; he understood that live was live, and he wasn’t bothered by mistakes—unless they were consistent. It can’t happen twice. He was a demanding guy in that he wanted the shows to be unique and not someone else’s thing, but he wasn’t a micromanager. He got on stage and if he liked what he heard, he let you know and it was good. It was fascinating to watch him go through that portion of his career, going from that crisp sound [of his 1980s hits] to playing with Tin Machine, which was raw, distorted and just raunchy.

“Backstage, I remember, he loved to surround himself with people who were funny; it was always about humor. And the interesting thing is, he’d be the one laughing and someone else would be the one telling the story. That was telling, because so many artists, it’s always all about them, but he really enjoyed other people.”

That sense of humor showed up when Buford Jones returned to the Bowie camp one last time to mix Sound + Vision. “We hadn’t talked to each other in quite a while, just the way the cards fell,” Jones recalled. “I was mixing Pink Floyd’s tour and we were playing in Lausanne, Switzerland [July 12, 1989] where he was living at the time. He was watching the show from the stage and asked who was mixing the sound; one of the crew told him, so he got on the headset onstage and called up to FOH. I never take those calls; I want the crew to do it so I can concentrate on the mixing. Steve Guest said, ‘Buford, I think you really want to take this,’ so I did. First word, I recognized his voice immediately and we had a conversation right there in the middle of Pink Floyd’s show! That’s how he asked me what I was doing [after Pink Floyd], told me about Sound + Vision and asked me to do it.

“After that, I kept going on my way and he did some things, too,” said Jones. For Bowie, that meant a productive spate of creativity leading into the millennium, with five albums—and resulting tours—in just eight years. For Jones, it meant joining Meyer Sound as Tour Liaison Manager in 2001, founding the company's Nashville office, and more recently taking on the role of Live Audio and Education Specialist. But throughout all that, Jones was still hitting the road periodically, mixing acts like Counting Crows and others. “There was a big show—something to do with streaming video and audio—about 12-13 years ago in Vegas, maybe longer than that," Jones recalled. "I was there with Faith Hill, and I was surprised to see David there, too, so we sat down on his bus and chatted quite a while. It was good to catch up—and that’s the last time I saw him.”