David Peel, the subversive New York folk singer, street musician, counterculture icon and one-time John Lennon crony, died Thursday at the age of 73.
Peel’s death came less than a week after the artist suffered a massive heart attack, Peel’s former bandmate Jeff S. Levy told Billboard.
The singer, born David Rosario, first came to notoriety in the late Sixties when he and his band the Lower East Side – named after the New York City region where they routinely performed on the streets – scored an offbeat hit with “I Like Marijuana,” off the group’s 1968 debut Have a Marijuana.
Peel and the Lower East Side’s first studio album, 1970’s The American Revolution, also boasted pro-pot tracks like “Legalize Marijuana” and “I Want to Get High,” but also examined more social issues of the era, including his anti-Vietnam War stance (“I Want to Kill You,” “Hey, Mr. Draft Board”) and a song about “bad cops” (“Oink, Oink”).
A year later, while Lennon and Yoko Ono walked around Union Square Park after relocating to New York, the pair witnessed one of Peel’s street performances. Lennon became fascinated by Peel, with the former Beatle saying of the folk singer, “He can’t sing, or he can’t really play. Picasso spent 40 years trying to get as simple as that.”
Lennon would soon sign Peel to Apple Records, and along with Ono, produce Peel and the Lower East Side’s 1972 LP The Pope Smokes Dope. Lennon also took part in Peel’s street performances as well as other higher-profile appearances, including a spot at 1971’s John Sinclair Freedom Rally and a pair of performances on The David Frost Show, where Lennon played on a tea-chest bass:
Lennon also immortalized his first encounter with Peel in the first verse of “New York City,” a track off 1972’s Some Time in New York City.
“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 he was real,” Lennon sang. “He sang, ‘The Pope smokes dope every day’ / Up come a policeman, shoved us to the street / Singing, ‘Power to the People today.'”
The Pope Smokes Dope was the lone album Peel recorded for Apple, but the folk singer continued to pay tribute to Lennon and the Beatles throughout the Seventies, first with 1977’s Bring Back the Beatles (featuring Peel’s punk-fueled rendition of “Imagine”) and then 1980’s John Lennon for President, an album released just months before the Beatle legend was murdered.
Peel continued to be a prolific performer in subsequent decades. In 1994, Peel was recruited to pen the campaign theme for Howard Stern’s gubernatorial run in New York, with the singer performing “Howard Stern for Governor” on the radio show:
Recently, Peel resurfaced as a street musician during the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, where he was a regular at the Occupy stronghold of Zuccotti Park; he refashioned his “Up Against the Wall” into “Up Against the Wall Street” for the protests. Peel also recorded a song titled “I Can’t Breathe,” a response to Eric Garner’s death.
“A lot of people come up to me and say, ‘Peel, I thought you were dead,'” he told the New York Times in 2012, adding that he would continue to perform in public “until the day I drop dead and go to rock & roll heaven.”