Friday 15 December 2017

Obituary: David Peel

Controversial New York street musician who attracted friendship and backing of John and Yoko Lennon

David Peel Photo: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
David Peel Photo: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

David Peel, who has died from a heart attack aged 74, was a New York street musician whose best-known foray into a recording studio was a widely banned album made after he came into the orbit of John Lennon.

The former Beatle moved to New York in 1971 and became so embroiled in Peel's radical politics that, for some time, he was pursued by the FBI. Lennon's song New York City, a boogying chronicle of that period, describes the scene: "Up come a man with a guitar in his hand / Singing 'have a marijuana if you can'. / His name was David Peel / And we found that he was real. / He sang, 'The Pope Smokes Dope'."

Peel's (now highly collectable) album of that title, produced by Lennon in 1972, caused outrage.

Nevertheless, it led to Peel appearing on The David Frost Show to sing two of his songs. Surviving film reveals that among Peel's musicians, in the back row, are none other than John and Yoko: he plays a bass fashioned, as in his skiffle days, from a broom handle and packing case.

Peel was in fact a stage (or street) name, for he had been born David Rosario on August 3, 1942 to Puerto Rican parents and brought up in Brooklyn, where his father was a waiter. In due course Army service took him to Alaska. There, another serviceman enthused about the burgeoning folk-music scene in Greenwich Village, and something told Peel that this would be the place for him (as was, for a time, San Francisco).

In that New York tradition, Peel survived by his wits and hand-outs, and, inspired more by an often-scatalogical band, The Fugs, than earlier protest singers, he fashioned a rough, sloganeering style with ad hoc performances in such places as Washington Square Park (which had narrowly escaped demolition for a dual carriageway). He attracted an audience which included some future Ramones as well as Danny Fields, a scout for Elektra Records. Given a free hand by the label, Peel recorded a wild live disc, Have a Marijuana (1968), which reached 186 on the album charts, success enough for it to be followed by The American Revolution.

With the escalating war in Vietnam, and proliferating, sometimes violent protests, Peel was a part of the Yippie movement with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffmann, whom Lennon came to know.

Lennon recalled being taken to see Peel in Washington Square and standing "at the back of the crowd all embarrassed" when Peel, unaware that he was present, demanded "why do we have to pay stars?" John Lennon later said: "It was arranged for us to meet but it seemed like a happening." What's more, "he writes beautiful songs, simple as his basic chords are. He could do a Pop 40 hit as easy as pie". That was not to be. As Lennon - keen to remain in America - moved away from political involvement to write again of his states of mind, Peel started his own label, Orange (an echo of Apple). A 1978 album was the self-proclaimed King of Punk, which included an 11-minute number about the Rolling Stones' guitarist, Who Killed Brian Jones?

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