RIP: David Peel - NYC Legend / Punk Icon

posted Sunday Apr 9th, 2017

I wish I could say something profound in memory of David Peel. If there was a Brain Lapse #2, he would have been interviewed along with Giorgio Moroder (the bubblegum years), the October Cherries guys, and the Hudson Brothers. But now David’s dead.

It speaks volumes that Peel is completely unknown outside of counterculture circles. As an artist, he was dismissed and ignored. The Trouser Press Record Guide could have squeezed him in between their entries for the Pedaljets and Pegboy … but they didn’t. The 1300+ page All Music Guide to Rock omitted him in print between Ann Peebles and Teddy Pendergrass. Spin’s Alternative Record Guide only had room for Pearl Jam and Pere Ubu, it seems.

I have a 1979 Rolling Stone Record Guide that has a lone entry for Have A Marijuana – Peel's first album with his band The Lower East Side – with a complimentary lone star rating. The review states:

“The Sixties relic to end all Sixties relics; New York street freak arouses anthropological [nay ethnographical] instincts of hip record company [we’re talking Elektra here], who sends specialists [Danny Fields – a GENIUS] to capture him in native environment [Washington Square Park]. As the record that demolished the ban on drug references, this one gets high marks [nice one – pun intended?] in the blow-for-artistic-freedom department.”

It’s that last line that deserves an extra star. In light of the times, David Peel and The Lower East Side made a landmark case for freedom of speech without fear of government retaliation or censorship, or societal sanction. When fellow Elektra recording artists The Doors “Unknown Soldier” was banned on radio stations across the country for its anti-war theme, Peel kicked off his debut album’s “Mother Where Is Father?” with WEEE DOOHHNT WHAANT NOOO MOOO WHAAAAHS.

The album's take on the rights guaranteed by our First Amendment wasn’t coded flirtations with questioning authority or dropping double entendre around sex and drugs. This was a stance taken by a band that exercised its right to peacefully assemble in public spaces to explicitly speak out against an illiberal government. Up until a few days ago, Peel could still be found in NYC’s parks and squares – from Washington to Zuccotti and Union to Tompkins – defending his right to free speech.

If only the people of this country acted on Peel’s call in ’68 to MAKE MEEEE PREZIDENT OF DA YOO NII TED STATES. Instead, America blew it. And continues to blow it. And I don’t just mean Robert Christgau who gave David Peel and The Lower East Side’s The Pope Smokes Dope LP on Apple Records an “E” rating in his Record Guide to Rock Albums of the ‘70s. From the pen of the critic himself:

“The hippie as hype strikes again. Not that Peel isn't a ‘real’ hippie--on the contrary, he's a case study in the moral inadequacy of authenticity. He's real, yes--and he's also stupid and hypocritical. In 1969 Danny Fields, then ‘house hippie’ at Elektra, got Peel's Have a Marijuana onto the charts; now John Lennon's doing the same thing for this tuneless doggerel. It's enough to make you miss the Maharishi.”

According to Christgau’s grading standards, “E records are frequently cited as proof that there is no God.” Which, ironically, couldn’t be more true. But Peel had his champions, from John and Yoko to, most recently, Todd Novak who re-released David Peel & Death “King of Punk” LP from ’78 on HoZac.

More importantly, Peel leaves behind a legacy of being a champion of you and me … of Occupy, and even the NY Jets; of all the so-called “street freaks”; of all those that fucking dig “tuneless doggerel” in the face of Christgau and the historical record left unwritten by critics who MISSED OUT ON ONE OF AMERICA’S GREATEST ARTISTS and ADVOCATES TO EVAH LIVE.

Yeah, I’m glad we recognize The Fugs and the Godz, but we’re way overdue in giving Peel his just due. What I admire about Peel is that he knew how to collaborate. It wasn’t just about him. (I mean, check out everyone listed on the back of those Lower East Side, Super Apple Band, and Death records.) It was also about who – and what – he stood up for.

“Up Against the Wall [Motherfucker],” another track from his debut album, was a line from an Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) poem called “Black People.” It was that poem, in the wake of the ’67 Newark Rebellion, which was used as evidence against Baraka in a show trial conviction by an all-white jury. Certainly, it could be suggested that Peel had that case in mind.

But it was also the namesake of a Lower East Side anarchist group active at the time. In ’68, the Up Against The Wall Motherfuckers (or, simply, The Motherfuckers) occupied one of the buildings during the Columbia University takeover. They also were notorious for dumping uncollected garbage – due to a NYC garbage strike – into the fountain at Lincoln Center during the opening night of a “bourgeois cultural event” gala.

I would have liked to have talked to Peel directly about all of this. But hey, he reached so many people through his life. It’s possible that through each of us we can piece his story back together. Hopefully someone is in his apartment on Avenue B right now gathering his personal archive. It’s something preserved in videos like this. And it's locked in the “E” rated grooves shared through his music. It was a simple message: you can D.I.Y., but together our voices are stronger.

R.I.P., David Peel. You will be missed.

First use of the word "fuck" on a major label record (1968):

David Peel's memorial service: