April 6, 2017 – David Peel, born David Michael Rosario on August 3, 1942 in New York City. After his fulfilling his national duty in the US military, he became a New York City-based street musician and social activist, who first recorded in the late 1960s with Harold Black, Billy Joe White, George Cori and Larry Adam performing as David Peel and The Lower East Side Band. His raw, acoustic “street rock” with lyrics about marijuana and “bad cops” appealed mostly to hippies and the disenfranchised.
Brooklyn-born Peel had been performing in the blossoming counter-culture that awakened in the early 1960s, since forsaking a potential job on Wall Street in favor of becoming a hippie in the mid-60s, soaking up the vibes in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury before taking his stoner street activist ethos to Washington Square Park. (At this point it should be pointed out that, apart from the more dullard factions, punk was essentially propagated by hippies with shorter hair).
He joined the hippie movement during the middle 60s in Greenwich Village and played guitar with all the other musicians and folkies, and became part of the ‘out crowd’ having fun. New York then was pretty straight looking and leaned more towards jazz and folk music, but the Fugs were the first band in the East Village to erupt into counterculture underground rock.
In March 1968, the UATWM (Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers) gatecrashed 3000 Yippies sitting in at Grand Central Station, where Peel made his presence felt by leading the singalong of I Like Marijuana which became Have A Marijuana after being misquoted in Time magazine. Soon it would provide the title of his first album.
In an ‘everything goes’ era, Elektra Records, this bastion of the folk movement, had never recorded an album live at Washington Square, so engineer Peter Siegel was dispatched to capture Peel and his gaggle of like-minded stoners who called themselves the Lower East Side, bellowing over guitars, harmonica and basic percussion to create the Have A Marijuana album ( the sleeve said “recorded live on the streets of New York” for extra cred). Although Peel escaped being sent to Vietnam because he had already done his national service, the opening track was Mother, Where Is My Father?, a cutting indictment of the escalating war. Normal service was established on ditties such as Show Me The Way To Get Stoned, Here Comes A Cop and I Do My Bawling In The Bathroom. Sometimes it sounds like a musical version of a stoner cartoon, as the group shout, giggle and warble their messages through tangible clouds of marijuana smoke, but Up Against The Wall, Motherfucker highlighted the revolutionary slogan and marked first use of the Motherfucker word on record, while I’m Going To Start a Riot presaged The Clash (who later admitted it was an influence).
As a document of the times, the album can be seen like a more goofy forerunner of the Last Poets’ much darker and dangerous Harlem equivalent. It’s almost unbelievable that such an anarchic set was given the backing of a major record company and rose to rank 186 in the national top 200.
The following year, John Lennon and Yoko Ono caught Peel in action in the park, after he had approached them in a Greenwich Village clothing store and introduced himself with his customary hustler’s patter. After local writer Howard Smith brought John and Yoko to a Washington Square Peel hoedown, a relationship was formed as the three, plus Yippies Abbey Hoffman and Jerry Rubin strolled around the Village singing Have A Marijuana.
Lennon embraced Peel as a conscious heartbeat of the city he would soon adopt as home, declaring “Yoko and I love his music, his spirit and his philosophy of the street.” John, with Yoko, produced the album which became The Pope Smokes Dope, complete with ditties such as Everybody’s Smoking Marijuana, The Hippies From New York City and I’m Gonna Start Another Riot. The album promptly got banned all over the world.
After the Lennon episode fizzled, Peel went on to start his own Orange label (in homage to Apple), which released variations on his themes including 1974’s Santa Claus – Rooftop Junkie and 1976’s An Evening With David Peel. He also released an album devoted to getting the Beatles to reform, which opened with The Beatles’ Pledge Of Allegiance and included him interviewing Lennon.
By now, another movement had started bursting from the bowels of downtown Manhattan, starting with the first steps taken by the New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center then turning into the giant footprints left by the Ramones and usual suspects at CBGBs and Max’s, which coalesced into downtown’s punk explosion. As Peel puts it, “These music scenes were in my East Village neighborhood; a new happening which was a lifestyle type of music that I did on the streets and at local venues. Joey Ramone and his brother Mickey Leigh used to hang out and sometimes perform with me in Washington Square when they were teenagers. As Mickey has often mentioned to me, it was sewing seeds for the punk rock movement. Hey ho, let’s go!”
In 1978, Peel released King Of Punk. The title track was one of the first punk “beef” records, spitting a succinct “Fuck” at the new bands and recently deceased Sex Pistols. The album also explores Peel’s perennial themes of CIA mind control on The Master Race, Uptight Manhattan, the jaunty He’s Called A Cop and, of course, Marijuana.
“It just organically happened as part of my living and singing in the East and West Villages,” explains Peel. “Punk rock was another form of rebellion and counterculture music style expression that began at CBGB. My punk music began on the streets. As I always say, punk rock forever!”
The album’s most intriguing detour comes in the form of the 11-minute Who Killed Brian?, which addresses the Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones’s controversial death, (heisting Strawberry Fields Forever on the chorus). “I really don’t know, but I have a suspicion that Brian’s music and personality and the Rolling Stones as a band was just too much for him to handle,” reasons Peel. “But Brian may have been killed by one of his employees drowning him in his swimming pool. My song is a metaphor about his death after he was persuaded to leave the Rolling Stones because of his lifestyle and behavior, leaving the rest of the Stones in control of the band’s music and performance direction.”
Further albums followed, including a predictable harangue against disco called Death To Disco, John Lennon For President, 1984’s 1984, World War III, Anarchy In New York City, Battle For New York and War and Anarchy.
After 1995’s “comeback single” Junk Rock he again stated the obvious with Legalize Marijuana. In 2002, Peel was declaring himself a Rock And Roll Outlaw but, by then, had another major topic to beef about as his Lower Manhattan stamping ground became systematically smothered and its artistic spirit snuffed out by the yuppie gentrification juggernaut. In 2011, he joined thousands in the Occupy Wall Street movement, recalling, “Me and my music friends performed there and made a record as David Peel and the Protesters called Up Against The Wall Street.”
In this age which portrays his beloved New York inexorably turning into a vastly different, greed-propelled city, David Peel now seemed as ancient, venerable and immortal as one of the old trees which have stood in Washington Square Park, or his now-favored Tompkins Square, since it was a burial ground for the city’s unknown poor, a loud vestige of his city’s wild, exciting past, still railing and kicking against the pricks. He describes modern New York City as, “Very digital, yuppified and nerdy, sort of like George Orwell’s 1984. But the good news outside the yuppie ghetto was the reissue of my classic King Of Punk. Punk rock forever, forever punk rock!”
But on March 31, 2017 Peel was taken to the Veterans Administration hospital in Manhattan New York by fellow musician Joff Wilson, after complaining that he was not feeling well. Upon his arrival he suffered a series of three heart attacks and died at the hospital on April 6, 2017. He was 74 and buried with full military honors, which considering his lifestyle and attacks on the military apparatus makes you wonder, how many layers there are to peel (no pun intended) before getting to this man’s truth.