David Peel – died, April 6, 2017… in New York. Where else?
If you’re being painfully honest about it, there’s not much to be said for the Apple label’s non-Beatles output. A bunch of great singles, a few fine albums, the odd stray LP track, a wonderful logo and, at the end of the day, a dream which deserved a lot better.
But all is (and, indeed, was) not lost, even in the darkest days of the Corps’ cauterization amid the flames of wrecked idealism. For there is one album which remains not simply a Holy Grail of sorts for Apple collectors, but which should actually be regarded as essential listening for anybody who wants to understand where the American head’s head was at in the early 1970s; not only that, in fact, but there’s also great swathes of John Lennon in there too, producing and playing and generally partaking in a series of sessions whose very being exudes all the qualities towards which Apple once aspired. Indeed, David Peel’s The Pope Smokes Dope might well be the first truly essential American album of the 1970s. It was certainly one of the last.
Not, of course, that you can just pop down the road and pick up a copy. Though Peel himself was forever insisting that a reissue was pending on his own Orange Peel label, the fact is, David Peel and record stores hadn’t really got on that well since 1972, with the bulk of his back catalog available only via the internet and even his last major label release, the anthology And The Rest Is History (comprising his first two albums, Have A Marijuana and American Revolution) available only as a ludicrously limited edition via Rhino’s Handmade subsidiary. Which, of course, was also buried deep in cyberspace somewhere.
But things were never hopeless. He scored his first #1 hit in the late 1990s, when Euro-electro-mavens Technohead sampled him for their internationally chart-topping “I Want To Be A Hippy,” while a string of movie soundtrack appearances gave further life to his work. Indeed, he even returned to the same studio where he cut The Pope Smokes Dope, to record his contributions to the High Times movie, Pot Luck.
Other forthcoming projects tripped off his tongue with volcanic gusto, ranging from new songs to social outreach programs, to a full scale autobiography, Rock’n’Roll Outlaw. He performed alongside Howard Stern and Cheech of Cheech and Chong, and could be heard in the Abbie Hoffman biopic. His personal credo said it all – “know what is possible and do what must be done.”
Born in Manhattan, Peel took the most circuitous route imaginable to the Lower East Side with which he would subsequently become synonymous, via a stint in the army and a posting to Alaska.
Interviewed in 2000, he recalled, “I was in the army in 63 and 64. I knew I was going to be drafted, so I pushed it up and was saved from going to Vietnam. If I’d waited for a normal cycle I probably would have gone.” In Alaska, he worked in data entry and lived through the earthquake which rearranged great swathes of the coastline; but he also met “this guy who was a jazz freak who used to hang out in Greenwich Village. He told me all about it,
the music and the freedom, so when I got back to New York in 1965 I went down there.”
He was not a guitarist at the time. “I used to play harmonica. I played for the USO when I was in the military, I did things like ‘Moon River’ and ‘O Suzannah,’ not blues but more melodic, and I messed around on piano. But basically I was a harmonica player before I got to the Village. But then I learned how to play guitar and started writing my own songs.”
He arrived, he said proudly, before the hippies got there, which meant that by the time Greenwich Village was a magnet for an entire slice of American counter culture, Peel was already firmly embedded in the local consciousness, a wired street performer who made Washington Square Park a virtual home from home.
“I loved playing music and I saw all the musicians standing there in Washington State Park, I got involved and had a great time with the older people, playing all those oldies, from camp songs to calypso. And that’s where I began.”
Originally extolling the virtues of smoking baked banana skins (once considered as reliable a high as any better known herbal additive), Peel graduated to songs about marijuana as he himself was turned onto the substance. Soon, his performances in the Park were drawing crowds to make a concert hall die of envy. “We had a very good crowd, every week, loyally. With great loyalty to follow everything I said as a Happening.”
Automatically, he became associated with the anti-Vietnam war movement – indeed, when Abbie Hoffman led a massive phalange of hippies into Grand Central Station, taking over building and railroad trains alike, Peel was one of the people to whom the police turned to, in an attempt to calm the situation.
“One of the cops or detectives or whatever came over and said ‘why don’t you sing some songs?’ because they knew who I was…” and the following week’s Time magazine completes the anecdote. “[In] the vast main concourse of Grand Central Station, 3,000 strong, singing to the tune of ‘Have A Marijuana’.” In fact, Peel pointed out, the song was “I Like Marijuana,” but it worked either way. When Elektra Records’ Danny Fields signed Peel to the label that same spring, Have A Marijuana would be enshrined as the title of the singer’s first album.
Fields, as Peel remarked, can rightly be numbered among the founding fathers of punk rock – aside from Peel (whose own fans include Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten and the Adverts’ Gaye Advert), he also brought the world the Stooges, the MC5 and the Ramones. But he was not the only visionary at Elektra, as the label took its first steps into the world of revolutionary rock – it was label founder Jac Holzman who told Peel to “use your music and songs as a weapon,” advice which has remained with him ever since. “That’s exactly what I do. It’s a way of expressing myself and fighting back at the system.”
The album was recorded live in Washington Square Park, of course. Over the course of four weeks, Peel would set up in his chosen corner with a bunch of friends, and play, adding new songs and ideas as they came to mind, reworking songs to push them to their ultimate form – the “finished” version of “I Like Marijuana” itself did not come in to being until the final performance.
Have A Marijuana was an immediate success. Within a month of its April release, the album had recouped all costs, and while it climbed no higher than #186, Peel was adamant, “I may have a gold record for that, I have to check it out. It’s been over 25 years, it must have sold 500,000 copies – according to Danny Fields, it’s sold 900,000. I’m not sure yet, I’ve got to find out from Elektra.”
Elektra promptly commissioned a second album, The American Revolution, for release in February, 1970. A far more dramatic, electric set than its predecessor, it arrived in a sleeve emblazoned with Peel’s impersonation of George Washington crossing the Delaware River, and packed with such toe-tapping gems as the defiantly proto-punk “Hey Mr Draftboard,” the storming “I Want To Kill You” and, somewhat presciently, a closing track called “God” – prescient, because John Lennon would wrap up his own next album with a similar title, and Lennon, of course, looms laboriously large in the next chapter of the Peel story.
Peel recalled, “I met John Lennon at a place called the Limbo clothes shop in 1971, in St Mark’s Place in the East Village.” They were introduced by Howard Smith, the Village Voice critic who Yoko had recruited as the Lennons’ private chaperon for the duration of their visit.
“Then that Sunday I was playing music in the park there, and John and Yoko joined my audience and had a great time.” Lennon would immortalize Peel in the opening verse of his then-gestating “New York City” song; more importantly, he would over-ride the objections of certain other former Beatles and sign Peel to Apple in early 1972, to record The Pope Smokes Dope.
An early version of one of this new album’s songs, “I’m A Runaway,” is appended to the *And The Rest Is History* collection, and immediately one can see what Lennon brought to the proceedings. “John was an excellent producer. He had that Phil Spector Wall Of Sound down pat, with everything exaggerated. We had six guitars and ten congas. He was deadly serious, but he knew how to have fun.” Peel told Lennon biographer Ray Coleman that “I never saw Lennon so happy as he was doing my album. John said ‘go in and play like you play on the street,’ but how could I with that fantastic sound behind me?”
For a few months, Peel and the Lennons were inseparable. He appeared alongside them at the Free John Sinclair benefit in Ann Arbor in November, 1971; performed when they appeared on the *David Frost Show* (Lennon played bass behind him, Yoko drums); and starred at the One To One concerts at Madison Square Garden in August, 1972. They parted company soon after, however; even before the Lennons realized it, Peel knew that their involvement with the “revolution” was nearing its end, and knew that the fall-out was going to get ugly. He drifted away before he could be drawn into the battleground and, almost alone of the Lennons’ primary conspirators of the time, has remained aloof from the mud-slinging which still turns up in the press.
The Pope Smokes Dope reached #191 on the chart; but a couple of singles, “Hippie From New York City” and “F Is Not A Dirty Word,” passed by unnoticed and Peel himself slipped off the radar for close to another decade. He did not, however, stop recording.
A single, “Bring Back The Beatles,” debuted his Orange label in September, 1973; while the remainder of the decade saw a constant stream of albums, albeit low profile: *Santa Claus – Rooftop Junkie* (1973); *An Evening With David Peel* (1975); *Bring Back The Beatles* (1977) with the Lower East Side band, *King Of Punk* 1978) with the delightfully-named Death; *John Lennon For President* (1980 – with the Super Apple Band); and *Death To Disco* (1980, with the Death-o-lettes).
A union with former MC5 mainstay Wayne Kramer brought *1984* in, of course, 1984; the pair also cut *War & Anarchy* in 1994. Two further albums, *The Battle For New York* (1994) and *Up Against The Wall* (1995) followed, while a string of singles was lengthened in 2000 by the release of the scarce 1979 45 “Junk Rock.” And all that was simply the tip of the iceberg. By the end of the last century, Peel’s catalog comprised 57 cassettes, 20
videos, 15 CDs and sundry other odds and ends. By the time of his death, that tally was even vaster, with his most recent album, Give Hemp a Chance, released just two years ago.
Peel himself, meanwhile, had the final word on his career, past, present and future: “My records are a music history and biography in truth and fiction on how I see myself, the world and its people. The songs speak for themselves. David Peel is real – forever David Peel – yes!!”