David Peel, the anti-establishment New York street singer and political activist known for his songs about marijuana and John Lennon, died Thursday (April 6), his longtime friend and former bandmate Jeff S. Levy, who knew him for more than 40 years, confirms to Billboard. He was 73.
Peel had suffered a massive heart attack on March 31. “He was like a big brother to me,” Levy says.
Peel, real name David Rosario, released his first two albums, The American Revolution and Have a Marijuana on Elektra Records in 1968 and 1970, respectively. Peel met up with Lennon and Yoko Ono when they were being shown around Greenwich Village in 1972.
According to Lennon biographer Ray Coleman, Peel introduced himself by saying, “Hello, my name is David Peel and I work for Elektra Records.” Lennon told an interviewer about watching him as he talked to a crowd: “He was shouting about, ‘Why do you have to pay to see stars?’ And standing in the back of the crowd embarrassed, I’m thinking, ‘He must be talking all about me. He must know I’m here.'”
According to Coleman, Lennon recalled himself and Ono joining Peel to sing in the streets. “It was arranged for us to meet him, but it seemed like a happening,” Lennon said. “And he was suddenly there and we started singing with him in the street. And we got moved on by the police, and it was all very wonderful. That was it. He was such a great guy, you know. We loved his music and his spirit and everything. His whole philosophy of street and everything.”
Peel was signed to The Beatles‘ Apple Records label and recorded an album produced by Lennon and Ono called The Pope Smokes Dope that was released in 1972 and immediately caused controversy because of its title. Peel also made a guest appearance on the Lennon-produced, self-titled Elephant’s Memory album for the band that backed Lennon. Two of his eclectic albums made the Billboard 200 albums chart: Have a Marijuana peaked at No. 186 in 1969, while The Pope Smokes Dope peaked at No 191 in 1972.
In 1974, Peel started his own label, Orange Records, where he released his own album and those by others, including GG Allen. His later solo albums included tributes to Lennon: John Lennon for President and John Lennon Forever, plus Bring Back The Beatles and Long Live The Grateful Dead. Peel had continued to live in New York until his death, Levy says, and his political activism never stopped. In 2012, he was interviewed by The New York Times as a supporter of Occupy Wall Street. He told The Times he planned to keep singing “until the day I drop dead and go to rock ‘n’ roll heaven.” A reissue of The Pope Smokes Dope, which was in the works before Peel’s death, is now in limbo, Levy says.
“My own artistic growth, musically and otherwise, could not have taken on the shape it has had I not met David Peel,” Levy, who recorded and toured with Peel’s Lower East Side band, wrote on Facebook. “He had been a direct and wonderful assault on my senses. I can’t thank him enough. I wouldn’t know where to begin.”