The internet is bending under the weight of a gazillion David Bowie memories. The influential 69-year-old musician died Sunday following a 2014 cancer diagnosis.
Among the legions of tributes and tales of Bowie encounters, one by neighborhood resident Christopher Todd Penn, who belongs to the inimitable rock ensemble Polyphonic Spree, will expressly touch the heart, unless you have no heart, of those who have lived their lives in East Dallas.
For many of us, the existence of Polyphonic Spree, led by Lakewood resident Tim DeLaughter, and the idea that they are from where we are from, is a source of deep hometown pride. And despite the fact that they are internationally celebrated—they write theme songs for TV and movies and appear in award-nominated films (see The Big Short) and tour with Bowie (which we will get to in a minute)—they also might show up at the local elementary school and take the auditorium stage. Tim’s kids maybe went to school with our kids. His wife, Julie (also a bandmate and band manager) will wave when she sees you at Whole Foods; her mom, known to hundreds around here as “Grandma,” might have cared for your children during the many years she taught at Kid Country on Skillman. “Grandma” sometimes sews robes for the Spree choir. Spree members belong to your PTA and work at the neighborhood record store, and they accept your Facebook requests. You know, they are famous and they are our pals.
After taking a night to process and bawling like a baby, Penn says, he posted the story of how David Bowie helped make the Polyphonic Spree what it is today. (We use his quotes with his permission).
Once the Spree finally got into Austin’s SXSW festival, from which they’d been denied entry the previous year, they took full advantage, playing six shows in three days. They managed to gain the attention of the industry, especially the UK contingency, Penn notes. Thus, they were selected to play Meltdown in London, a Bowie-curated festival.
“For me personally it was the first time I had been out of North America as it was for a lot of the band had to scramble to get passports,” Penn recalls. “It was also a milestone for the band as it was thought The Polyphonic Spree [with more than 20 members] could not be a viable touring entity.”
Later, in 2004, Julie convinced the Spree’s booking agent to throw their names in the hat for the David Bowie Reality Tour.
Then one of the best days of Penn’s life happened. He was at a little bed and breakfast, hashing out plans for his upcoming nuptials, when he received the news.
“While mapping out the spot to marry my wife, Jennifer, who was also in the band, I got a call from Julie saying we got the Bowie tour. I was in the front yard of the bed and breakfast and yelled out a “F___ Yes” or something equally eloquent. I was to be married Feb. 14, and we were to embark on our tour March 28 with the one and only David Bowie. Hell of wedding present indeed.”
As tour manager and co-manager of the band it was Penn’s time to shine. “The Polyphonic Spree were to open for an icon for a whole month on an arena tour.”
[See Penn at the 6:23 mark of this video. At 8:10, Bowie says, “… and they’re from Texas. You’d never believe it.”]
Penn’s favorite moment happened backstage.
“I went to retrieve Tim for some press or something and walked into Tim and David conversing about artists and how they release albums that fly under the radar and/or experimental albums that they know will alienate a good chunk of their audience. Neil Young came up and Tim told David Bowie he should talk to me because ‘he loves Neil Young.’ So for a brief moment I got to talk to David Bowie about our mutual admiration for Neil Young and his do-what-you-want attitude.”
In 2007, Bowie invited the Spree to play his week-long High Line Festival. That’s where Bowie interacted with Penn’s infant son.
“He stopped into our dressing room to say hello and take a photo with us. While he mingled he took a moment with Oliver, my then 6-month-old son and stroked his arm and made small talk,” Penn remembers.
“Whenever we listen to David Bowie I always tell Oliver that story. One day it will resonate how cool that is but for now it is just his crazy music-loving dad talking too much.”
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