A decade ago, violinist and songwriter Daniel Hart became one of the primary new driving forces in the Triangle's music scene. Along with a cadre of friends who relocated to the area, Hart launched Bu Hanan Records and the short-lived but interesting Go Machine. This hub spawned great records by David Karsten Daniels, The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers, Kapow Music and Hart's own The Physics of Meaning. (Read our 2007 cover story about Bu Hanan here.)
Many members of that collective are now scattered across the country, with Hart back in his hometown of Dallas. Still, during his time as a Triangle resident, he joined David Bowie on tour as a violinist while touring with The Polyphonic Spree. Not long after Bowie died, we asked him to share his memories of that time in 2004.
"I FEEL LIKE I'M BEING SAVED"
I moved from Dallas to North Carolina in the summer of 2002. I moved because of a terrible band I had just quit in a huff and because of a sour relationship that had gone on too long but which I was too cowardly to end outright. I saw the move as an escape from the doldrums I associated with Dallas, a city in which I had grown up but for which I had no love.
North Carolina was very lonely. I had convinced my college friends to move there and start a record label with me, but I arrived months before any of them. I got a job driving buses for Chapel Hill Transit (they were advertising in The Independent
, when it was still The Independent
, I think), which improved upon my ability to pay bills but was not exactly a stepping stone toward a career as a professional musician. Then I got the call from my friend Ryan.
"Dude, The Spree needs a new violin player," he said. "I told Tim about you. He wants to talk to you."
I had very lazily tried to join The Polyphonic Spree
in 2001, when I was still living in Dallas. Ryan was singing in the choir. My lack of real effort yielded a lack of results. But the original viola player for The Spree was ready to hang up his robe, and they were headed to the UK that summer to play showcases and festivals. They needed a quick replacement.
Polyphonic Spree founder Tim DeLaughter was kind and vibrant, and the tour was fun, weird and hectic. I had just become a vegetarian before we left, so I was grateful for all the Indian restaurants in London. I began my love affair with channa masala on tour that summer.
At the end of the tour, Tim or Julie Doyle or Chris Penn asked me about joining The Spree. Since I had just moved to North Carolina with a purpose, I declined, feeling like I should put my friends and our endeavor first. But we stayed in touch. I recorded the strings for their second album.
Early in 2004, Julie left me a message about some "big news" and asked me to call her back ASAP. The Spree had gained so much traction by that point, and one of their earliest supporters had been David Bowie. He asked The Spree to support a huge chunk of his 2004 North American tour, part of the "A Reality Tour
." Julie asked me to come back and play violin. Given that I was most likely on my way home from a day of driving buses around Chapel Hill when I got the news, it probably sounded as surreal to me then as it does now.
We met up with Bowie in Philadelphia at the end of March. We played the Wachovia Center for what must have been a crowd of about 10,000 people, at least by the time we finished our set. It was by far the biggest crowd I had ever played for. I imagine most of those Bowie fans did not know who The Polyphonic Spree were,, but they were sweet to us nonetheless.
After our set, we were rushed backstage because we were doing a photo shoot for Rolling Stone
with Bowie himself. They sat us in rows on mini-bleachers in one of the locker rooms, all wearing our robes, waiting for The Thin White Duke to show. He walked through the door a few minutes later, graciously and quietly. Per the photographer's instructions, he sat down on the bleachers in the middle of our sea of white. He looked around at all of us, and said, quite dryly, "I feel like I'm being saved."
"HE COULD LICK 'EM BY SMILING"
The tour was mostly stadiums, and a large chunk of it was in Canada—i.e., hockey stadiums. I think Bowie flew between the majority of cities. We made two-day bus drives. We didn't see much of him for that Canadian leg of the tour, but anytime we would pass him in the hallway, he was always smiling, always cordial. He called us his "Pretty Pollies." I think he and Tim had more involved conversations throughout the tour, but I never asked Tim about those.
Despite Bowie's seemingly approachable demeanor and general friendliness, I was still completely starstruck. What the hell was I going to say to him that could have any meaning whatsoever? "Ziggy Stardust changed the way I thought about music." "Ooh, nice boots." "What juice did you make in catering today?"
Tim and Julie can correct me if I'm wrong, but Bowie paid a lot of money to have The Polyphonic Spree open for him. This was not the usual "exposure is how you get paid" support band situation. There were 26–30 of us on the tour at any given time, and he was paying enough for us to have two tour buses (a rarity in The Spree at that time) and for the Spree to be paying me more than I would make driving buses back in North Carolina. I suppose Bowie had the money to spare, but I still thought it was incredibly generous.
I watched his whole show those first few nights. He and his band would do four or five songs from Ziggy Stardust
in the encore every night. That by itself would have been enough payment for me.
At least one of those more involved conversations between Tim and Bowie was about The Spree joining Bowie onstage for a song during the encore. I can't remember when that started. Towards the end of Canada? Maybe in Kelowna? The song Bowie had in mind was called "Slip Away,"
his tribute to New Jersey kids show host Uncle Floyd
. The song would start with some video footage of Floyd and his puppets. We would walk out on stage together right before the first chorus. I was jealous of the horn players, who got to play their instruments. The rest of us were singing along.
Somewhere in Canada, I learned the sax solo from the end of "Walk on the Wild Side"
and would play it in Polyphonic Spree sound checks, hoping that Bowie would happen to walk by and hear it and think I was cool or think I was anything at all. It didn't happen.
Most nights Bowie and Gail Ann Dorsey would duet on "Under Pressure." Gail told me once in the catering room that she was a huge Freddie Mercury fan long before Bowie asked her if she would be willing to sing that song with him.
"FRIENDS, AND THE END"
One of The Spree members saw Tom Waits in the bathroom at one of the Berkeley shows. I walked outside the dressing rooms after the encore at The Greek to see John Cleese and Maryiln Manson standing about 10 feet apart, presumably both waiting to say hello to Bowie.
My friend Toby (The Spree's longtime theremin player) snuck Annie Clark
backstage at the Boston show, before she ever joined The Spree or before she became known as St. Vincent. Toby, Ryan and I all told Tim and Julie to hire her. We got in trouble with Chris
for that and had to escort her back out into the audience.
I became friends with Rich, one of our bus drivers, over the course of that month. Once Rich found out that I was also a bus driver, he would ask me every day, "So when are you gonna drive the tour bus for me?" I would respond, "Whenever you pay me." Somewhere in the middle of Canada, Rich bought me and a few others dinner at a truck stop, so I agreed to take a leg driving. As I was making my way down the Trans-Canada Highway in almost total darkness, a skinny green finger started drawing unreadable cursive in the night sky. That finger turned into a spider web, and I thought I'd better let someone else take the wheel. I had never seen The Northern Lights before.
The Spree had a Tonight Show
performance mixed into our time in Los Angeles. Florence Henderson was in the audience at that taping, and she was talking to Jay Leno as we were leaving the stage after we played. I just happened to be the person walking by as she acknowledged us, and so she looked directly at me and said "Good job!"
The last show for me was in New Orleans, April 30. The rest of The Spree continued on with Bowie for another month, but I had to get back to North Carolina for some reason I've long forgotten. I went back to work driving buses for Chapel Hill Transit the very next day. And as the UNC students got on my bus, ignoring my greetings and smiles, I just kept thinking to myself, "Do you know what I just did?"