late 1960s, even the most adventurous rock and folk acts usually
cloaked their drug, sex, and anti-war references in coy, coded
language. It took several New York bands to spell these out in plainly
explicit, taboo-breaking lyrics, matched to music as raw and
pile-driving as their words. The Fugs, the Holy Modal Rounders, and the
Velvet Underground are all celebrated for such contributions, but even
they weren't as underground as David Peel and the Lower East Side. Peel
wasn't just plugged into what was going on in the street – he was what
was going on in the street, recording his 1968 debut album Have a Marijuana in Washington
Square Park after gaining a following for his performances there.
After a stint in
the military from 1963 to 1965, Brooklyn native Peel moved to New York
and played music in the city's streets and parks. Greenwich Village's
Washington Square Park had long been a haven for informal folk
performers, and it was there that Peel came to the attention of Danny
Fields from Elektra Records. The singer's material was riddled with
no-holds-barred commentary about war, illicit substances, and other
hot-button topics like police brutality that few labels would have
touched. Partially for those very reasons, Elektra was a logical home
for the performer.
Label president "Jac Holzman and his Elektra team were certainly visionaries, and not afraid to use candid, controversial, and artistic originality as part of their repertoire of independent music and artists like me – to say what we mean and mean what we say," observes Peel today. "They also had pop, rock, blues, classical, and other good music stuff as part of their music catalog, along with concept recordings. The Doors, as a blues rock pop band, definitely influenced my decision to be signed on Elektra. The Doors are one of my top favorite music bands, along with Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan."
Peel was unusual, indeed almost unique, in building his sound and reputation outside of the clubs and studios where most musicians scuffle for a break. "The Fugs were one of the first bands that influenced me to sing my type of music as part of my street and underground sound," he remembers. "They were candid, satirical, and contemporary with what was happening all around us and beyond. I saw them perform in Tompkins Square Park [in New York's East Village] and [they] blew me away with their content and style; I had my life changed into a street singer ever since."
As for the other most notorious New York bands, "The Holy Modal Rounders and the Velvet Underground had their own thing going on -- more or less as electric indie music bands. They had very little influence on my style of music or on me, since I performed mostly in the parks, streets, and other outside public places as an acoustic performer, while they rocked electrically on the stage. I was basically influenced by my outside audience and other park musicians. I usually never hung out at any clubs or cafes or music venues. The parks and streets were my studio and stage."
Although his route to a contract wasn't conventional, as David adds, "I was thinking of becoming a recording artist before I was signed by Elektra Records after living the Haight-Ashbury scene, then going back to the East and West Villages to do my live street performances. All of my material came organically from the streets and parks wherever I performed in and outside New York City. I more or less fine-tuned my songs when Elektra signed me." And since his sensibility was so shaped by his outdoor performances, it made sense to record his debut album in Washington Square Park itself. According to Peel, "Me and Elektra wanted it to be recorded in Washington Square as [an] acoustic songs concept record. The park was my stage and hangout where most of my songs were naturally developed in my own habitat and comfort zone."
As spontaneous as Have a Marijuana sounds, with loose spirited backing by several like-minded friends who comprised the Lower East Side, it was actually cut over a period of four weeks. Producing was Peter Siegel, who'd worked with such Elektra folk and psychedelic acts as Earth Opera, Tom Paxton, the Charles River Valley Boys, and Pat Kilroy. "We actually got a permit from the city, but that didn't stop some policeman from unplugging us," recalled Siegel in Follow the Music: The Life and High Times of Elektra Records in the Great Years of American Pop Culture. "Yeah, I had a permit in my pocket, but they were singing about cops being pigs. The light would go out, you'd look up and the cop would be right there with the plug in his hand, you'd show him the permit and plug it back in."
Siegel and Holzman, Peel emphasizes, "were very supportive to music openness along with Danny Fields, [sleeve photographer/artist/designer] Bob Heimall, [art director] Bill Harvey, and all the Elektra crew. They were a family of friends that made my work and my Lower East Side band have so much fun -- but also getting the music job done as natural but professional recording artists. I am so thankful that I made records on their label." More than forty years later, Holzman remained proud of the LP, commenting in Becoming Elektra, "David Peel was a phenomenon on the street, and we recorded it right out on the street. It was the spirit of Washington Square. Why not? Nobody was telling him or us what to do."
The art direction and sleeve design was a quite important component for Have a Marijuana, since as Holzman explained in Follow the Music, "The album cover featured a massive marijuana plant, with 'Have a Marijuana' in outsized letters. That cover and the photos of David singing to and with the crowd made it into newspapers, magazines, and onto murals throughout the world as an example of what was happening in rebellious America." Elaborates Peel, "We also added the hemp leaf on the cover along with the title 'Have a Marijuana' – using a pot word (marijuana) that was very rarely used on any record covers until our entry title became real – hemp, hemp, hooray!!"
An album containing songs like "Up Against the Wall" (which used the same phrase, adding a crucial FCC-unfriendly fifth word at the end, that Jefferson Airplane sang the following year on "We Can Be Together"), "I Do My Bawling in the Bathroom," "Here Comes a Cop," "I've Got Some Grass," and "The Alphabet Song" (with its chant "smoke pot smoke pot everybody smoke pot") was bound not to gain much aboveground airplay, as much as it did reflect day-to-day realities in the Village and Lower East Side. Nonetheless, it did attract some positive press, Eye magazine declaring, "What it lacks in virtuosity and polish it more than makes up in raw gusto." Music trade bible Billboard (whose charts the LP actually entered, peaking at #186) even gave it a blurb, pithily and accurately pegging it as a "folksy post-Fugs peek at pot, cops, and lunacy."
Sales were profitable enough for Elektra to give a go-ahead to a second album, 1970's The American Revolution, distinguished from the debut as it was "done in an electric music format as I requested it to be done. I wanted to have some rock songs as recordings and had no problem with the record company to do so." A move to Apple Records brought Peel to his greatest level of visibility on 1972's The Pope Smokes Dope, produced by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. He's continued to release recordings since then, April 2012 finding him profiled in the New York Times for performances at Occupy movement encampments and protests, for which he's written songs like "Up Against the Wall Street."
How do the songs and sentiments of Have a Marijuana reverberate down the years as the United States gears up for the 2012 election, with many of the same issues Peel addresses, satirized, or protested in the late 1960s still very much with us today? "History repeats itself as the rights and wrongs of peoples trying to get their share of peace and harmony," he responds. "I merely sang what I saw in action and otherwise. The Occupy movement certainly comes to mind as a current example of what's happening to our freedom and liberties. Singing songs concerning these matters is one way of expressing yourself in defiance without going to the extremes of no return."
Continues David, "Elections are all the same in America and all over the world. We artists have to expose their wrongs on our rights as I do making music for the people – by the people – and with the people. David Peel will always be singing on the streets as a messenger of truth and honesty through my songs. And I will always sing my songs from Have a Marijuana until it's legalized as an open celebration for everyone. Thanks for listening. The journey and the adventure continues..." – Richie Unterberger
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