R.I.P Brian ‘Zuppa Inglese’ Parsons.
Not only did you help Vibe get off the ground, but you were an inspiration.
Eulogy – Part 1
Where on earth do you start with Brian Parsons? There’s too much. So I apologise in advance if I don’t cover everything, but hopefully you’ll recognise something. Rather than spend too much time on his last 25 years I’d like to give you an insight into the Brian that most of you don’t know – his first 40 years or so!
In the words of his beloved mother Dorrie, Brian was ‘born in a bucket!” (literally) in a pre-fab house in West Heath, just outside Kings Norton, on the edge of South Birmingham on the 31st of December 1951.
Brian the boy was his own little man. Always up for an adventure. As one of his old childhood friends wrote: “We played hard and immersed ourselves in an imaginary world of films and television – Zorro, Superman, Flash Gordon, the Lone Ranger and Popeye the Sailor Man”
Yes, that sounds like Brian – happy, independent and always up to summat! Their post-war prefabricated house backed on to Kings Norton Golf Club and Peter, Brian and their friend would sell golf balls they found back to the Club House. When they heard the thunk and clank of a golfball rolling down the corrugated rooves they’d be out in a flash to grab it. They weren’t even averse to nicking golfballs from the clubhouse and then selling ‘em back – a nice little earner… until they got caught out and were sent packing by the groundsman!
As a boy Brian was also a good footballer and became a lifelong Aston Villa fan.
In 1963 BP went to Kings Norton Secondary Modern School, where he met his lifelong friend Alfred Ball (who is here with us today and – alongside Brian’s brother Peter – has helped me out with a lot of the stories for this part). Alf tells me that Brian was very bright at school, in the top sets for everything, a good student, although he was quite a sparky character.
You see even then Brian was no stranger to controversy. At school in the mid-60s whilst the Cold War raged and revolution boiled round the world, young Master Parsons wrote to the Chinese Embassy requesting a copy of the Thoughts of Chairman Mao! You know, the infamous Little Red Book, not for political reasons but just for the sheer audacity of owning one!
And when the embassy replied back and sent him one (in Chinese, printed on rice paper), our hero wrote back and said no thank you he’d like one written in English please. And so they duly obliged and Brian was, if not the envy of his friends, certainly the centre of attention for a while.
Of course this was not enough for Parsons so he then insisted all his school friends write off for copies too. The Chinese must have thought the glorious revolution of the British proletariat was about to start, led by a vanguard of politically committed communist warriors from the oppressed suburbs of South Birmingham…
Of course they had no idea it was just a bunch of schoolkids ordering them for a laugh (with our young Master Parsons at the centre of it all). So they sent a crate of Mao’s little red books to help in the struggle. You can imagine the uproar when “a man from the government” (and we can probably substitute MI5 for that!) came a-knocking at the door of the dad of one of the boys, investigating the setting up of a communist Fifth Column in leafy Kings Norton… Pure Parsons! Light the blue touchpaper and retire…
Brian also was the proud owner of a tape recorder! He would collect records of BBC Sound Effects (you know, bombs falling, trains rushing by, airplanes taking off, doors slamming, etc), tape them and make the journeys home from school more fun by surreptitiously “letting off explosions” and other hilarious sound effects whilst on the bus! Ever the rebel. More of buses later!
Brian was fascinated by broadcasting and especially Pirate Radio Stations. In fact, he constructed a home-made crystal wireless set so he could listen to them at night. It is quite possible that this interest in radio technology pushed him into his first short-lived career, because in 1967 straight from school, aged about 15, Brian followed in his Dad’s footsteps and joined the Navy – possibly to learn more about radio communications.
He was only there for 6 months, because he quickly realised he didn’t like it, too many rules – so his father had to go and buy him out of it! You can be sure that didn’t go down well with Dad!
It was around this time in the 60s that Brian got into ska and reggae, “The Guns of Navarone” by the Skatalites being his first ever record. He loved his music – a lot(!) and would insist on playing it VERY LOUD! His brother, Peter, would even pick up the Dansette and dump it on the front lawn, just to try and get some peace and quiet!
At around 16 or 17 Years old Brian got a job at the Bham Post and Mail where he worked as a Counter Asst and Proof Reader between about 1967 and 1975.
Of course his sense of fun turned the bus journeys back home into a mobile party for him and his friends as Brian mimicked anyone and everyone around – but especially characters from radio and television (such as Eddie Waring and Eamonn Andrews).
Brian loved things like The Goons, Spike Milligan, the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah band and any kind of off-beat humour. Years before the invention of the mobile phone Brian would carry a disconnected house-phone with him and an alarm clock hidden on his body. He’d set off the bell, pull the phone out of his pocket, answer it and then hand it to some random person on the bus saying “It’s for you”.
Brian made friends with George, the man who sold the Evening Mail in Pigeon Park (anyone else remember their incomprehensible shouts of “Evening Mail!’?). George would ask Brian to look after his stall whilst he ran to the loo for a ‘jimmy riddle’. So Parsons would oblige by sitting down and shouting out his own made-up headlines: “Read all about! The Queen abdicates!”.
Brian had a lifelong obsession with newspapers – he was always getting them for free too (when I knew him he would nick them from the Britannia). He loved a bargain did our Brian. His brother said that he’d even gatecrash the openings of art exhibitions just in order to get at the free food… And we all know Brian had an appetite for food!
Brian eventually left home in the early-mid 70s and moved into the YMCA where he galvanised the rather oddball residents together and they would all go off to the pub en masse, Brian often sporting a smoking jacket and little tasselled hat. Sometimes he’d dress up in full Bishop’s regalia and go around blessing people in the pub, as well as up and down the bus…
Whilst down at YMCA he put his first band together. There were called the Filthy Stan Trio – although they weren’t a Trio, none of them were called Stan and they had no discernible hygiene problems. The band consisted of random instruments from classical guitar and sax to hobnail boots and a musical saw…
Brian joined the Labour Party in 1971, yet his political education was about to get a huge boost when at some point after the 1974 Birmingham Pub Bombings he went to live and work in Northern Ireland at a homeless hostel in Derry.
Of course they were dangerous times and Brian eventually ended up being arrested and detained at the leisure of the British Army. It seems he was only released upon the intervention of the Labour MP for Northfield.
In true Parsons publicity style he managed to get himself plastered all over the front page of the Evening Mail! “City Man Arrested In Northern Ireland!” – apparently with a picture of Brian spreadeagled up against a wall. To say that his Dad was not happy about this, is something of an understatement…
Brian disappears off the radar at some point after this, often hitchhiking round Europe and even living in Italy for a while. Amongst other things we know Brian worked as a guard for British Railways between 1977 and 1979 and for Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council from 1983 to 85 as a Researcher in the Ethnic Minorities Unit.
He also studied Sociology at Polytechnic, where he was known for always having a satchel full of political leaflets under his arm – a few years later and it was plastic bags full of flyers for gigs! He was known as ‘Big Flame Brian’ – after the activist group – and would march, protest and campaign at the drop of a hat. Brian Parsons: Making Politics Fun! You can imagine!
By this time though Brian was tuning into Parisian radio stations and hearing the music of a continent being pushed through the airwaves. Africa beckoned! To the best of my knowledge he never went there physically, but through the music his mind and body were ignited!
Politics can’t compete with Music and Dance on the endorphin-releasing stakes and this was to the benefit of most of us in this room today. With Latin American music and Caribbean music thrown into the mix, Brian’s head was spinning and so DJ Zuppa Inglese and the Bongo Go Sound System was born!
From its early days in the mid-80s at the Triangle, via Acafess to the legendary nights at the Moseley Dance Centre, Brian kick-started a musical revolution in the Midlands. And this is how most of us remember him.
But not just Bongo Go: do you remember, Club Afrique and Club Cu-Bop, or my nights with him: Viva La Música, Brazil In My Soul and Moseley Tropical? Or what about his adventures up in Sconny Botland with Arakataka? He brought tropical music to many 1000s of people.
He spread music also through his home-made cassette tapes – “Crank It Up” and “Essential Samba”, and later on through CDs like “Gone Fishing”. They became the soundtracks to our lives.
As one part of World Unlimited he also helped bring some huge international artists to Brum – too many to mention here.
And then there was the Union St Buskers musical collective, out of which grew the Midlands School of Samba, the Birmingham School of Samba, B’ham Afrobloc, Xango and their descendants today like Oya Batucada, Muvuca or Ubu Samba.
And the Birmingham salsa and latin scene grew largely out of our all-nighters at Los Andes restaurant – that’s where most of the early promoters of the salsa scene first met.
In fact if none of this had happened, then I wouldn’t be who I am, I would never have DJed, I wouldn’t have met my wife – my own children wouldn’t exist!
From this point onwards of the early 90s most of you will have your own memories of Brian and how you met him. So I hope you’ve enjoyed this whistle-stop tour of the first 40 years and now I’m going to take a break and we’ll have some more music and then I’ll come back and deliver a shorter but more personal tribute to our dear friend. Thank you.
Eulogy – Part 2
The same day Brian died, Sat 14th Feb 2015, images and words entered my head and within a day became a poem. Helen saw it the very next day and asked me to read it out to you here. So, I hope you’ll indulge me a moment.
My Best Friend Died An Hour Ago
My best friend died an hour ago
The email woke me up.
Minutes later the phone rang
Another friend, in tears,
Sobbing into her cup,
To break the news.
But I already knew.
And then later, another
To discuss an obituary.
And could I help out too.
I said very little. Empty. Numb.
No shock, no real surprise.
Just “Oh. Yes. Ok”.
No moisture in my eyes.
Shouldn’t I at least be crying?
Pulling out my hair?
Distraught and inconsolable?
Screaming “It’s just not fair”?
But I’d quietly said goodbye
A month ago,
Whilst he slept,
Pillows plumped at his back.
Morphine-riddled, thoughts befuddled;
I knew I wouldn’t be coming back.
Held his hand, kissed his head
All the words left unsaid,
He’d never hear them now.
Brain shutting down a piece at a time,
No longer able to reminisce
About the where and the who
And the how.
This vibrant man, so debased,
Shrunken legs, swollen face,
There’s often very little grace,
But if you love someone
Then that doesn’t matter.
Because what we love
Is that ‘inner self’,
That which makes us come alive.
The body is just a vessel
To carry round our brain.
And the brain is but a hard-drive –
Of perceptions and memories
Thoughts, actions and dreams,
Of mind and feelings and intentions
Ways of caring, loving and being.
I’ll carry them with me,
For the rest of my life,
These stories of my best friend.
He changed all our lives for the better,
And I suppose that’s the
Best kind of end.
My best friend died an hour ago
Drew in his final breath;
Only now my tears begin to flow,
For the joy of his life,
Not the sadness of his death.
(Glyn Phillips – 14-15/2/15)
To the best of anyone’s knowledge there are no ‘little Brians’ running around the world… No massed fortune, huge house, best-selling novel, film, album or Nobel Peace Prize. So what will Brian’s legacy be?
His legacy is actually us. What he did to us. What we became from the moment he first danced his way into our lives. Brian left his mark everywhere.
He dispensed love, generosity and inspiration in bucketloads. He would educate you musically, socially, politically without you having the faintest idea that that’s what he was doing because you were too busy having fun. But the seeds still took root.
Always introducing you to different people, bringing people together, making things happen around him, lighting that blue touch paper and then buggering off before he got caught. Always moving on. Always ahead of the curve.
Throughout his life Brian indulged himself in the things he loved: travel, swimming, walking, cycling, and nature. A love of eating and cooking and drinking hedgerow-foraged alcohol – remember that hipflask? A love of music, dance, conversation and people. And, oh yes… A love of women… Brian loved his ladies! And they loved him too. Didn’t you?
He lived how he wanted to, he was who HE wanted to be – and how many of us can truly say that? He was uncompromising with his vision of how he was going to live his life; not in a confrontational way – he just got on and did what he wanted. And for the most part it worked.
He was, let’s face it, a commitment-phobe – trying to tie him down to anything was like trying to lassoo the wind or staple the mist. But although this must have been a hard and frustrating lesson for the lady friends in his life – it is very telling that he always seemed to end up on excellent terms with them afterwards – often becoming lifelong friends.
He had his own frustrations though – particularly with bureaucracy and with people who really just didn’t get where he was at. And I think it did irk him that he didn’t get the recognition that he felt he deserved both at a local and national level. It did bother him. But, then he’d shrug his shoulders and get enthused about the next project.
And what a pity so many of them didn’t get to see the light of day such as his satirical screenplay about the lamentable state of the UK salsa scene featuring a Colombian marimonda mask, fictional danceteachers ‘La Reina Maureen and Kevin’, and a cast that featured myself, Noel and Bernard as the Spaghetti Western style, yet dreadlocked, quasi-Mexican revolutionaries of the Salsa Liberation Front. Sadly, we’ll never see it now.
Or what about his Carnival Buzz idea of completing redoing Brum’s buses inside and out in the style of different Carnivals from around the world – you got on a No 11 and find yourself in a miniature mobile Port of Spain or Rio or Venice or New Orleans all complete with costumed characters and tropical music… For some reason Brum City Council didn’t buy into it…
He might have lived most of his life in grimy industrial Brum, but in his head he was always dancing on a tropical beach somewhere.
So, just how DO you sum up ‘The Life of Brian’? Well in the words of the mother of another famous Brian: “He’s NOT the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy” (thanks Alf for that one!). And he was, wasn’t he? He was a naughty boy, but we loved him for it.
After his death, tributes poured in and I’d like to run over some of the adjectives and descriptions from everyone:
“kind, wacky, always fun, self-deprecating, hilarious, sociable, funny, adventurous, inclusive, sensitive, legendary, endearing, spontaneous, warm, friendly, formative, sincere, honest, positive.
Brian was: always your friend, one of the good guys, a pioneer, a real nice guy, committed to equality and fairness, a great Brummie, a wonderful wonderful man, a dear friend, a brother DJ, a Latin music pioneer, a rare soul, a good man.
Brian had: passion, vitality, humour and spirit, a deep political understanding of feminist issues, boundless energy, infectious enthusiasm, a thirst for life. An inner soft heart, gentle spirit, soft face, welcoming smile, an openness and non-judgmental attitude to everyone…
Brian: never sacrificed his values and principles, embraced everyone, entertained, educated, brought people together, treated me as if we had known each other from childhood…”
These are just some of the tributes.
As I said myself, just after his death, was a man ever more loved than Brian?
For me he was a man of love and he radiated it to all he met. He was idiosyncratic, imperfect, and at times extremely frustrating! But, always, always loving.
His energy levels were off the scale, his knowledge vast, his passions not just palpable but positively oozing from him and, crucially, inspiring those around him. He embodied Love and Inspiration to people all over the globe.
How many of us owe a debt of gratitude to him? How many of us were not just inspired but encouraged by him try something new that fundamentally changed our lives? How many of us have said: “If it wasn’t for Brian, I’d never have . . .”?
He changed my life. Without a doubt. And I’m sure he changed all of yours. We are his other family and it’s up to us, the Tribe of Brian, to carry on nurturing the seeds he sowed.
Once again, he’s moved on. If there is a Heaven, then at least he’s got the doorman for the gig sorted for once! You can be sure he’ll be fly-posting the clouds and chasing the lady angels. Bless him.
Brian was always his own man, but he was also ours. Wasn’t he? And our lives were infinitely the richer for it.
So, goodnight me old mucker. Our lovely, loving, on the beat, off the wall, rejuvenating, exasperating, extremely worldly, very Brummie, utterly unique, Brian Edwin Parsons – Bongo Gone, but not forgotten.
Glyn Phillips (13/3/15)