Music industry legend Danny Fields recently reflected on the beginning of his friend’s career, Lower East Side anarchist and musician David Peel, who died last month.
“He was such an oddball phenomena, one of the great bursts of urban folk.”
“The day I met David Peel was the day Lyndon Johnson abdicated. We came back to my apartment and watched his speech, a historic day and moment.” The day that President Johnson announced he would not run for reelection “matched the energy of that era. [Peel] was always there at something being protested.”
Born David Michael Rosario, Peel was a fixture on Manhattan’s Lower East Side for more than 40 years.
In 1968, Danny Fields, then director of press and publicity for Elektra Records, heard Peel playing in Washington Square Park one Sunday afternoon. Fields thought a happy, positive weed-smoking album was a good idea, and when he related this to Jac Holzman, founder and head of Elektra, Holzman agreed. Together, Fields and Holzman went to the park the following Sunday to watch Peel perform. Holzman immediately signed him to a record contract, which resulted in two albums for the label: Have A Marijuana (1968) and The American Revolution (1970).
Washington Square Park was the center of many of Peel’s outdoor performances, which combined music and street theater. Fields recalls, “Washington Square had little mini-hootenannies and his was the biggest and the best for a long time.”
The park served as the impromptu “studio” for the making of Peel’s first album, Have A Marijuana. Fields describes the process of making the album this way: “Peter Siegel, the producer, came equipped with a Nagra Reel-to-Reel tape recorder. He figured out how to tap into a light pole for electricity, then monitored and mixed the whole thing. Then we released it and thought ‘Let the teenage word of mouth do what it can for it.’ How efficient that was! It was like an early manifestation of social media. Even though it was stripped down, it worked… a $1,500 amazing album of wonderful music.”
“I wish his legacy would be that people would go out and start singing about all the horrible things that are coming at us now. But in a nice way.” Danny Fields on David Peel
The story of how Have A Marijuana got its title is a Peel classic. “There was some demonstration,” Fields recalls. “The Yippies were marching to Grand Central Station to make a statement and David was at the front of the parade. People were walking behind him. He was leading the way as a singer, a pied piper. And they were singing about marijuana, but David’s speech was a little funny, and a reporter from Time magazine was there covering it and he wrote something like, These hippies and Yippies stormed into Grand Central Station singing Mara-mara-juana, mara-mara-juana, I like marijuana. He misheard, ‘I like marijuana’ as ‘mara mara. Have a marijuana.’”
“I saw that in Time and I said, BOING! That’s the title of the album. It’s not English. It’s not anything anyone had ever said to anyone in the history of the world. It’s so funny – it’s like “Have a drink!” So that’s how the title came to be. I thought having the marijuana word in big type was going to sell this because kids are going to want to bring it home to give their parents heart attacks!”
In 1971, Peel met John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Greenwich Village and later that year performed with them at a benefit show in Ann Arbor for John Sinclair, the imprisoned leader of the White Panther Party and manager of the MC5. In fact two of his albums were named after Lennon: 1980: John Lennon for President (1984) and John Lennon Forever (1987)
From his early albums like The Pope Smokes Dope on Apple Records (banned in several countries) to several albums about war and anarchy in the 1990s, Peel’s music was also coupled with activism. In more recent years, Peel was involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement, performing regularly during the group’s encampment in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in 2011. In 2013, he released Up Against the Wall Street, under the name David Peel and the Protesters.
Fields describes Peel’s songs and his performance style this way: “Everything became a song, slogans become songs. People now say it’s not cool to be excited. Back then, it was cool to be excited! He made it exciting, standing up there and bellowing!”
Fields is struck by how different Peel’s Washington Square Park was from today’s version. “I was in Washington Square Park yesterday and there was this jazz combo playing and it was just horrible, this shrieking, hideous saxophone and pounding and they were unattractive – like bad jazz, squawk, squawk. Then at the fountain there were these dancing rappers or rapping dancers or something. David Peel made little eddies in a Sunday afternoon spring sprawl in Washington Square. God, I would love to see that again. I mean, come on! Let there be the singing of songs and raising of spirits.”
Asked about Peel’s legacy, Fields responded, “I wish his legacy would be that people would go out and start singing about all the horrible things that are coming at us now. But in a nice way.” Fields concluded. “Have a message with a melody. Sing it loud, sing it far.”