David Bowie's four key Canadian connections

From Floria Sigismondi to Arcade Fire and La La La Human Steps, a handful of Canadians entered David Bowie's orbit over his five-decade career.

He changed the world, and our place on the map was no exception

David Bowie is shown performing on stage during a concert in Hamburg, Germany in October 2003. Bowie died Jan. 11 after a battle with cancer. (Maurizio Gambarini/EPA)

"You can't make a big enough deal about him. He changed the world." If you're a Bowie fan, you'd agree with those words, spoken by Emm Gryner on q this morning, and our place on the map, obviously, wasn't exempt from this cultural icon's influence. 

Canadians have occasionally entered Bowie's orbit — Gryner's story being just one example. In 1999, the Ontario singer-songwriter joined the rock legend's band, singing and playing keyboards on his Hours world tour. Six years on, Bowie would perform with Montreal's Arcade Fire, later joining them to record "Reflektor," a song he reportedly loved so much he threatened to steal it for himself.

Bowie covered Canadians (Neil Young, "I've Been Waiting For You"), and a Canadian famously covered Bowie. (The artist called Commander Chris Hadfield's video of "Space Oddity""the most poignant version of the song ever created.")

And then there's his influence on our homegrown superfans, including one Toronto man who has amassed one of the most extensive collections of Bowie music and memorabilia in existence.

"I have everything," says Andrew Zealley, an artist and York University instructor. At Zealley's count, his collection comprises some 450 Bowie-related bits and bobs, including 315 vinyl records. So vast is Zealley's personal archive, that the Art Gallery of Ontario displayed a curated selection of his memorabilia in 2013 as part of the travelling David Bowie Is exhibition, a collection that he's been building since the days when Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars had just arrived on Earth, never mind the record shops. "I was, in 1972, trying to wrestle with the idea of being queer, and this was a time when there was no media representation. So he was this beacon," says Zealley of what drew him to Bowie.

Items from Andrew Zealley's David Bowie archive, which was featured on CBC program Four Rooms. The Toronto artist and university instructor has been collecting Bowie records and ephemera since 1972. (CBC)

"His importance cannot be overstated, I think. … The nexus of politics and art, culture and music: he was a key figure at different points in his career," Zealley explains. "There are some highlight points, and there are some lowlight points" — and you'll find Canadian connections in both categories, something of an inevitability when you consider Bowie's influence on western culture as a whole. Here are a few examples that come to mind.

Floria Sigismondi

Music videos are a major part of David Bowie's art, and over the last 20 years, Toronto's Floria Sigismondi has created some of the most indelible images associated with his music. Since 1997, with the release of "Little Wonder," the Canadian director has been a notable Bowie collaborator and fan favourite.

Says Zealley, "I think her vision is so powerful and it certainly meshes with Bowie. It's such an ideal collaboration because he has these images in the music and the lyrics and she's able to translate them flawlessly, and quite disturbing actually. Even when they're glamorous they have some disturbance," he says, praising her signature choppy and jittery style. Just think of "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" from 2013. Of all Bowie's personae, none is as shocking as regular ol' Dave. In the clip, Bowie doesn't play the rock star or the alien. Instead, he's living the suburban dream with Tilda Swinton until some otherworldly neighbours turn up in their subdivision.

David Bowie recorded his 1984 album Tonight at Le Studio. (André Perry Studios)

Tonight

Nobody's perfect, not even magical, alien rock gods with the power to change the world.

The 1983 album Tonight proves that point, at least in certain camps of Bowie fans. Zealley is among their ranks. "That record, to me, is probably the lowest point in Bowie's career," he says, citing a dud of a duet with Tina Turner and a variety of reggae influences, including a dub version of Iggy Pop's "Don't Look Down." And it was all recorded at Le Studio, near the Laurentian Mountains outside Morin-Heights, Quebec.

"I think I read it was recorded in three weeks, and it sounds like it," says Zealley. At the time, though, Tonight was at the very least a commercial success, going double platinum in Canada.

La La La Human Steps

Human Sex, a show from Quebec dance company La La La Human Steps, became an international sensation in the late '80s, and when Bowie saw the piece, he was blown away, recruiting the troupe's choreographer Edouard Lock to be the artistic director of his 1990 Sound + Vision stadium tour, a trek which launched that March in Quebec City.

The above video clip captures some of his performance with La La La Human Steps' principal dancer Louise Lecavalier. Zealley remembers seeing them perform together in Toronto during the tour. "It was dazzling to see it," he recalls, saying the collaboration was a natural evolution from Bowie's early days studying mime with Lindsey Kemp.

As Bowie said in 1990, discussing his work with La La La Human Steps: "I think one can redefine the music through movement as well, and bring all the senses into play as much as possible."

In this 1989 interview from the CBC Archives, Lecavalier and choreographer Edouard Lock explain what La La La Human Steps is all about.

Diamond Dogs Tour

Sound + Vision, that aforementioned greatest-hits tour, was neither the first — nor the last — live extravaganza Bowie launched in Quebec. The most notable example was in 1974. Bowie had infamously"retired" his Ziggy Stardust persona, during a show at London's Hammersmith Odeon, the year prior. When his six-month long Diamond Dogs tour began in Montreal, fans couldn't have guessed what they'd witness.

Snapshot from the Diamond Dogs era. David Bowie performs at Radio City Music Hall in New York, Nov. 1, 1974. (Canadian Press)

Zealley had tickets to see the Diamond Dogs tour stop at Toronto's O'Keefe Centre. "I remember standing outside in the lineup and there were lots of people dressed in glam finery. I had really pulled out the stops," he says. "And then Bowie appeared on stage in a suit!" he laughs. "We were all like what the f***?!"

The '70s-dandy look of Diamond Dogs may have been conservative, at least compared to Ziggy's Yamamoto jumpsuits, but the tour itself was an incredibly ambitious stage production for the time, featuring a massive set called "Hunger City," which included skyscrapers and movable catwalks. It helped set the template for Bowie spectaculars to come — notably '80s productions like the Glass Spider Tour — never mind today's stadium spectacles.

For more on David Bowie's legacy, visit CBC Music and CBC News Arts.

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