When people say David Bowie changed their lives, they're usually talking about his music or how he made it OK to be weird or different. When Tim DeLaughter says it, though, he's speaking literally: Bowie wasn't just an influence, someone whose music his band The Polyphonic Spree occasionally recorded and performed. He was a fan, a friend.
"He mentored me," says the Spree frontman just a few hours after Bowie's death at 69. "And he literally brought my band to the world."
In March 2002, the Spree, risen from the ashes of Tripping Daisy, was still a relatively unknown band from Dallas with only a handful of gigs under its robe. Yet it was tapped to play a prestigious gig that year: They were the opening act for that year's South by Southwest keynote speaker, The Band's Robbie Robertson. It was a good get, despite the early hour. Every rock critic in the country suddenly knew the The Polyphonic Spree. As Austin rock scribe Michael Corcoran wrote just last year, "By 10:30 in the morning, a band nobody had heard of at 9:59 was the talk of SXSW."
Unbeknownst to most, Bowie had people at South by Southwest scouting talent for that year's Meltdown Festival in London, which Bowie was tasked with curating that year. They were immediately smitten with the Spree. Days later, DeLaughter got a call.
"It was from someone in his camp who said he has a record, he loves it and he wants us to play his festival, Meltdown," DeLaughter says. "And that was it."
By June of that year, the band was sharing a bill at the Royal Festival Hall with, among others, Coldplay, Television, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Philip Glass, Supergrass and The The, among other more familiar names.
"If it wasn't for him bringing us over there, I don't know what would have happened," DeLaughter says. "He's the first guy who took real interest and initiative and brought us over there. He changed our life."
The Spree repaid the debt by going on the BBC and performing Bowie's "Five Years," the opening cut on 1972's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. They released it as a single in October 2002, and it became a live-show staple for years after that.
Bowie and the Spree never met at Meltdown. And for a while, DeLaughter thought theirs would be a one-off relationship. And that would have been fine, more than enough. That Meltdown spotlight got labels interested, and four of them -- four! -- paid for the band to return to the U.K. for an encore performance and tour. And in the end, Hollywood Records picked them up and released the band's second record, Together We're Heavy, in the summer of 2004. It was released in Europe before the States.
By then, the Spree was on the road with David Bowie.
"He was doing his Reality Tour and reached out and wanted us to be his opening act," DeLaughter says. "That's the first time we ever met him -- on the tour. He was so down to earth, so cool and ... really ... I dunno." A pause. "Like, taking us under his wing."
Distant fans became fast friends. DeLaughter recounts conversations he and wife Julie Doyle, also a member of the Spree, had about music, the business, selling out, buying in. Bowie taught them how to deal with labels, and how not to worry about selling songs to commercials.
"And he would come out and watch sound checks," DeLaughter says, still overwhelmed by the memory of it. "He would wear disguises and come out and watch the show. He was so good, man. Some people you open up for, they never see the band. He was out there pretty much every show, either on the side of the stage or out front. And after the show he came back to talk to me. And, I'll never forget this: We were wrapping up the tour, and one night he says, 'I want you to sing a duet with me and I want to implement that in the show and do it on a nightly basis.' That was 'Slip Away.'"
They performed the song, about the passage of time, a handful of times during the Spree's tenure on the tour. A video from one performance -- on June 4, 2004, in Wantagh, New York -- survives online.
"I was freaking out," DeLaughter says. "We were on the stage talking about it. He said, 'I'd like to have the Pollies on stage. And I want you to come across the catwalk in front of the video screen and meet me at the bottom while I play the Stylophone.' And I was like, 'Oh, my God.' I was freaking out. The first time I did it I was so freaking nervous. I mean, come on. Jesus! I was giddy and nervous and so excited just to be up there, much less singing a duet with David Bowie. It was pretty fantastic -- and he was so comforting, telling me, 'This is really good, really good, a great idea.' He loved it. God. To be able to be a fan of his music all these years and then to share a stage with him on a nightly basis and for him to pick my band out of obscurity? We owe him a lot."
When the Spree signed up for the tour, they had to agree not to pester Bowie. He was a private man who wanted his space, they were told. And of course they vowed not to violate that agreement. As it turned out, it was Bowie who had no intention of adhering to the arrangement.
DeLaughter and Doyle brought their young kids on tour. Bowie made a point of introducing himself, even if, at the time, they were far too young to know who David Bowie was.
"He knelt down and introduced himself and chatted and made sure they felt comfortable and welcomed," Doyle says. "Later he told me Stella seemed like she didn't feel well. I explained she had a bit of fever. She was pale. He spoke with her, and next thing we knew a doctor was there immediately to give her attention, and over the next few days he would check in on her as he frequently dropped in to our dressing room before we performed. He also gave our son Julius his scarf he performed with on that tour and would joke with him and taught him a funny 'squiggly leg' dance."
There was talk of Bowie and the Spree recording together. But it never happened: Shortly after the band left the tour in June, Bowie was onstage in Germany when he felt a sharp pain his left shoulder. He had to have an emergency angioplasty. He never toured again, and only played a handful of shows before receding from sight altogether.
But he didn't forget about the Spree.
In May 2007 Bowie was curating the High Line Festival in New York City. Once again he asked the Spree to play, along with Arcade Fire, Laurie Anderson, Dallas' Secret Machines and Ricky Gervais. They spoke briefly and posed for the photo seen above.
DeLaughter and Doyle didn't see him after that, and and never spoke again. But by then, they didn't need to.
"I got to sing a duet with David Bowie -- on a nightly basis," says DeLaughter. A long pause. "I'm getting choked up even saying it." A small laugh.