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Ahead of Celebrating David Bowie at O2 Academy Brixton, uber-Bowie fans Simon Parkes and Emma Milzani discuss the icon’s influence on his hometown.

As news of David Bowie’s death spread around the world on 10 January 2016, a common theme emerged: a feeling of personal loss amongst even the most casual of his fans.

His passing, coming just two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his final album, Blackstar, was the first in what started to feel like an avalanche of bad news in 2016.

For many, Bowie was a star cut down before his time – a sentiment that became all the more real in November 2016 when his former saxophonist Donny McCaslin revealed the icon had been working on another album before his death.

And for all of his fans, his death was accompanied by the heart-breaking realisation that they would never get to see Bowie play live again.

So while there is no substituting the Thin White Duke, fans rejoiced when, in mid-November, Celebrating David Bowie was announced. The first stop of a planned six-city celebration tour will take place on what would have been Bowie’s 70th birthday at O2 Academy Brixton – a fitting venue in a neighbourhood so historically attached to the man. Gary Oldman, who presented a tribute to Bowie at the 2016 BRIT Awards, has been confirmed for the celebration, along with key Bowie collaborators including Mike Garson, Earl Slick and Adrian Belew.

When Access found out about Celebrating David Bowie, our first thought – after ‘How do we get into this gig?’ – was ‘Who can tell us more about how this came together?’.

There’s no one better to talk through O2 Academy Brixton’s history than Simon Parkes, the man who bought it for £1 back in 1983, when it was known as the Brixton Academy. And there’s probably no one more qualified to be putting together a gig honouring David Bowie than Emma Milzani, a promoter at the venue who wrote her dissertation on Bowie.

So Access decided to bring together these two, who had, incredibly, not yet met – despite Parkes being a regular around Brixton, all these years after selling it (Academy Music Group now owns and runs O2 Academy Brixton). As our photographer clicked away in the venue’s VIP lounge, they fell into a deep and passionate discussion about their shared idol, how Celebrating David Bowie came together and Brixton’s long cultural history. 

In conversation

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Simon Parkes (SP): “I was a massive fan of Bowie at school. I was brought up in rural Lincolnshire, so any time I’d hear he was playing, I could never get a ticket; it was always sold out. I always wanted to see him, so when I ended up at Brixton Academy – as it was then known – Bowie being very historic with Brixton, I used that fact as a sales point when I was trying to pitch to get Brixton off the ground. Bowie was important – so if it was good enough for Bowie, I’d say.

“I had to pinch myself, because I grew up lying on the floor pretending I was in space and listening to ‘Space Oddity’ and so when he played here, that was the first time I’d really seen just how popular he was. It was November, and it was freezing. He was playing here two nights and the fans camped in sleeping bags, all the way down the side of the building and around the corner. I thought these people were going to die, it was so cold – so we couldn’t let them into the main hall because the set was being built and we didn’t want them to see what was going on, but we let them in the foyer so they could use the toilets and we set up a soup kitchen and coffee and tea to keep them alive. They were fanatical. But what a cool guy he was.”

Emma Milzani (EM): “Yup. He was one of the main artists of our lifetime.”

SP: “Some artists have an aura, and Bowie was just uber-cool.”

EM: “But 1991, that was the only time Bowie played Brixton, isn’t it?”

SP: “Yeah, certainly when I was here, between ‘83 and ‘96-‘97, it was the only time he played here. And he played here as the Tin Machine, which, being an old fan, I wanted him to play all the old stuff, like Ziggy Stardust – I would’ve been in heaven if he’d done that. But you gotta respect the guy, he just moved and changed and morphed into different things. You couldn’t get a cooler guy, actually.”

EM: “I had a chance to see him when I was writing my dissertation, the last tour he ever played. I was in Milan and I said, ‘I’m gonna go, because it’s David Bowie, and once in your life if you get the chance, you just have to do it’. It was fantastic. Even the way they did the stage with all these props and trees coming off the ceiling, it was fantastic. It was the Reality tour, the last time he ever toured.

“This is the event of my life – a circle that’s closed”
-Emma Milzani

“Aside from Celebrating David Bowie being the event of my year – and probably my life – it’s just a circle that’s closed. The best way would’ve been to meet David Bowie, and actually shake his hand, but this is just an honour, and the cherry on top of the cake – a circle that is complete. For me, it’s a massive honour. I’m very excited, as you can tell.”

SP: “Over the years when I was here, lots of famous artists came through the doors, and people said, ‘Did you meet them and say hello?’ And the reality is when you run a venue, the most you’re gonna do is pass them in the corridor and nod. I never used to get in their faces and go, ‘Hello, really nice to meet you’. There were not many bands that I could genuinely do that to – but I did that with Bowie, just because I was a big fan and I was in awe. He was right up there for me. For you though…”

EM: “I know! There’s this producer from LA, who is also a musician, and in his career he knows all of Bowie’s friends. And they all came together and thought, ‘We really want to put together a show as a celebration of David Bowie’s life and to honour his art’. They got in touch with us here at O2 Academy Brixton and obviously, me being based in Brixton and having all this Bowie history, I got really excited and said, ‘Well, it has to be Brixton, you can’t go anywhere else, this is where it all started, and I’m the person for you’.

“We got talking, and that’s how we put together the core band of musicians and Gary Oldman, Bowie’s old friend. We’re approaching loads of special guests and people who he worked with over the years and who worked with him, and who surely want to participate and pay tribute. It sold out on 18 November in under two hours, so that’s very exciting, so just stay tuned for more announcements.”

“Brixton has always had a very big
heart for Bowie. He’ll never disappear”
-Simon Parkes

SP: “I’m gonna come, by the way! You can’t take away the legacy of Bowie here. I’ve seen Brixton change from the early ‘80s, when it was considered a mean neighbourhood, up to now when it’s incredibly trendy. But Bowie was always somebody that everybody was very proud of in Brixton. ‘This is where Bowie was’, they’d say.

“I think over the years, the influence of people like him, even on the area – forgetting the music side – the fact that he was such an iconic guy, that this was his old patch, made the area quite cool. It gravitated to lots of creative, artistic people moving into Brixton over the years, and it’s now far too trendy for me! You can track back to the ‘30s, when people like Van Gogh lived in Brixton.

“Then, after World War I and World War II, people like Bowie, and other artists, were all hanging out in this area. It’s always had a creative underground scene, and it’s full of creative people. Bowie was a very key part of Brixton’s vibe, if that’s what you want to call it. Hence, long before Bowie’s death, that mural of him on Tunstall Road was on that wall for 20, 30 years. It was always there, and that just shows that deep down, Brixton had a very big heart for Bowie.”

EM: “Even when I’m walking down Brixton Market, in these little shops, there are pictures in the window of David Bowie. Even in Brixton Market!”

SP: “He was a big part of this area. He’ll never disappear out of Brixton, so it’s fitting that Celebrating David Bowie is here.”

EM: “And the fact that 8 January would’ve been his 70th birthday, so it’s the perfect day to celebrate him. And there will be other shows – they’re not just doing London, they’re doing six other cities. London is the first because it’s his birthday. It’s a big event.”

SP: “I can imagine you’re gonna get some very big surprises turning up.”

EM: “Yes – we’re not saying anything!”

 

Celebrating David Bowie takes place at O2 Academy Brixton, on 8 January, with proceeds from the show benefitting the Children & the Arts charity.

Image credit: Christy White