Just Like Heaven
When David Lee Parsons died of cancer in a Swiss hospital on September 23, he was only 58 years old. But in his relatively short life, Parsons had ventured across three continents, switched his gender, helped popularize the electric ukulele, worked with the Charlie Chaplin Estate in Switzerland as a street performer/mime, given the Beastie Boys their first push on the swing, and sweated through careers as an illustrator, skateboard builder, and magazine publisher. Here in South Florida, Parsons is legendary for creating Mouth of the Rat, a handmade fanzine that virtually introduced this part of the country to punk rock.
According to his stepson, Jon Parsons (a member of Fort Lauderdale band We Got the Missiles), Mouth of the Rat was "the definitive chronicler of the SoFla punk scene." He should know -- he; his mom, Sarah (a.k.a. Sam, a.k.a. Fish); and David Lee all produced the magazine in their Boca Raton living room. Though not yet a teenager, Jon even wrote reviews for the paper, which began publishing in 1979.
"It was funny and neat and weird to be the only kid going to school with a Clash T-shirt!" he recalls enthusiastically. "The overall tenor of South Florida would have been a lot more dull without Mouth of the Rat. "
At the time, tall tales of the Sex Pistols and the Ramones had been trickling down from New York, but Boca Raton was about the last place in the world you'd expect to find a sympathetic ear. Leslie Wimmer, a long-time fixture at North Miami Beach's venerable Blue Note Records, remembers meeting Parsons in the late 1970s when he hosted an Amway party. "When we walked into the house," she recalls, "I thought, 'This is not Amway country.' It was filled with records all over the place, a very bohemian setup. They were a young couple with children -- and they had the new Damned record, Machine Gun Etiquette! He had the Ramones, the Clash, all these imports from England, things we had read about but hadn't had any way to hear. It was just like heaven. We had landed in the middle of punk-rock heaven!"
Wimmer's boyfriend at the time, Ted Gottfried, says, "What made it unique in the late '70s and early '80s was that they wrote about being into punk rock in a God-forsaken place." He even claims that if it weren't for the publication, much of South Florida would still be listening to Yes. In October 1979, Gottfried and Wimmer opened a store in Deerfield Beach called Open Books and Records, which became another nexus in culture-starved South Florida. Mouth of the Rat was available there and at the Peaches on East Sunrise Boulevard, then the biggest record store around. Parsons, previously known as a "kingpin surfer ace," and his wife were regulars on the tiny music scene. South Florida's punk soundtrack for the era was supplied by the Cichlids, the Eat, and the Reactions. The magazine was hugely popular not only because it was the sole source for any information on punk rock, national or local, but also due to its striking hand-lettered design.
"It was all handwritten in beautiful calligraphy," Wimmer remembers. "It caught your eye immediately because of the bold beautiful photographs that were always on the cover."
Parsons and his wife began having problems in the early '80s; both Wimmer and Gottfried laugh at memories of David Lee's sleeping in the back of Open Books and Records, which had relocated to the Progresso Plaza in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Parsons continued to produce the zine from there. Finally, the siren of New York City, where punk rock lived and breathed in mythical places like CBGB, was too loud to ignore, and the Parsonses divorced. In 1982, David Lee set up a store in New York City -- Rat Cage Records -- and plunged into the world of this new dangerous music.
That same year, David Lee Parsons met Mike Diamond and Adam Yauch, a pair of well-to-do Jewish kids jonesing to put out a record. Their hardcore-rap-punk band, the Beastie Boys, was an up-and-coming favorite in the city's clubs, and Parsons agreed to release the first Beastie Boys record, a seven-inch single called "Pollywog Stew," on the Rat Cage Records label. At the time, the band also included guitarist John Berry and drummer Kate Schellenbach, who went on to join all-girl hip-hoppers Luscious Jackson. By 1983, Schellenbach and Berry were out, and rapper Adam Horovitz was in; then Rat Cage released a second Beastie Boys record: the notorious "Cookie Puss" single. Built upon a Crank Yankers-styled prank call to the Carvel Ice Cream Co., "Cookie Puss" gave the Beasties their first hit. And, by some accounts, they gave Parsons the shaft. Only recently was the situation rectified and financial restitution made.
"I don't know what, but something went down," Jon Parsons opines. "He was pushed out of the deal or something." With no fanfare, the elder Parsons turned his back completely on the music industry. Like Robert Crumb, he listened only to 1930s jazz. He turned the record store into a skateboard shop. In 1986, beset by financial and personal problems, he left New York for New Orleans.
Starting as a Lucky Dog push-cart vendor at a nasty intersection, Parsons quickly worked his way up to a choice spot on Bourbon Street. From there, it was a short hop to Jackson Square, where he became a storied street performer and acted as a lobbyist for his fellow artists, who were fighting harsh city regulations. He watched Charlie Chaplin films to duplicate the silent film star's every tic, mannerism, gesture, and mode of dress. An Italian film crew shooting a documentary in the French Quarter spotted him and invited him to Europe, where he ended up visiting Switzerland, meeting the Chaplin family at a film festival, and then permanently relocating there.
In an online obituary (http://sonic.ukule lefreaks.com/donna), Gottfried, who now runs a bookstore in New York's East Village, says he was sitting in the store one day in November 2001.
"In walks this 'woman' with a ukulele who says, 'Hi, Ted, what you been up to?' It's Dave! But no, she says, she's now Day-Z."
Wimmer says, "When he was living in New Orleans, we'd heard that he'd basically become a cross-dresser."
Toggling among Day-Z, Daisy, and Daze, Parsons eventually settled on the name Donna Lee Parsons. Discovering that he and Gottfried had inexplicably (and separately) found true callings as ukulele revivalists, they teamed up as a duo called (yuk-yuk) Sonic Uke. During the past two years, they recorded two albums of what Jon Parsons calls "the ukulele pumped through a Marshall stack." Whenever Parsons would visit from Switzerland, Sonic Uke would play shows in New York City -- even at CBGB -- and last April, he returned to South Florida and performed a short set at Churchill's with his friends the Psycho Daisies.
Good and bad news followed him down here. The Beastie Boys had finally made good on the back royalties they owed him, and he planned to use the money to finance sexual reassignment surgery. But he'd also been stricken with colon cancer. After part of his intestine was removed, the disease went into remission. Still, the sex-change operation would be problematic. Over this past summer, Parsons traveled to Thailand for the surgery, seeing "the granddaddy of all such specialists," Jon explains.
Proud enough to post his official gender-reassignment documents on the Internet, Parsons lived only three months as a physical female. In his own obituary e-mail, with the subject header "A legend rides into the sunset..." Jon Parsons wrote, "She was the coolest dad a kid could have, whether she knew it or not, and I was lucky enough to have Donna Lee as my daddy during the most formative years of my life."
On the phone from Blue Note records, Wimmer describes Parsons and his importance to the South Florida music community: "He was the instigator," she says. "A bright shining light bringing us all together. He has been an inspiration for me to live life to its fullest."
From New York, Gottfried says Parsons "really stirred shit up. She was an incredible catalyst."
Back in Fort Lauderdale, Jon Parsons says, "He lived a really interesting life. I wish I'd been involved in it more, now that it's basically wrapped up."
Get the Music Newsletter
Find out about upcoming concerts and special offers happening in the South Florida music scene.