"There goes the last DJ/who plays what he wants to play/and says what he wants to say/There goes your freedom of choice/There goes the last human voice," Tom Petty sang.
On Oct. 26, rock 'n' roll lost one of the true greats.
That John Peel wasn't even a musician is telling. He was, in many ways, the world's greatest rock fan, a man who, up until his death at 65, wore his love for music proudly on his sleeve, with all the idealized swagger of a teenager scrawling the name of his favorite band on the front of his math notebook.
Peel, who helped launch BBC Radio 1 in 1967 and stayed with the station until his death, was much more than a DJ. He did far more than spin tunes. Rather, he influenced the tastes of a few generations of listeners, exposing them to bands and artists they very likely would not have heard otherwise. And he broke a laundry list of important bands, giving them their first exposure and backing them with a passion known only to rock fans who stay rock fans for life -- aging, maturity, increasing responsibilities of adulthood be damned.
When I heard of Peel's passing, I immediately reached for my copy of the Undertones first album, grabbed the headphones and played the relentless "Teenage Kicks" at earsplitting volume. Legend has it that, when Peel first heard this power-pop fantasy come to life, on a grimy demo-tape in his car stereo, he pulled to the side of the road and played it repeatedly, sobbing all the while. Peel then spun this unknown Irish band's single obsessively on his Radio 1 show, and as a result, the Undertones were signed.
The song is a fitting epitaph for Peel. Simple in structure, propulsive in rhythm and with a chorus hook one never forgets, "Teenage Kicks" is a classic, the sort of rock 'n' roll tune that captures the youthful moment when we fell in love with the music in the first place and a piece that stands as a mile-marker as we grow with rock 'n' roll. It's an absolute classic, and without Peel, we never would've heard it.
The Undertones aren't the only band Peel supported. In his early days, his guests included David Bowie, Marc Bolan and T Rex, and Jimi Hendrix. Later, he'd champion the Ramones, the Clash, the Buzzcocks, the Sex Pistols, Joy Division, New Order, the Fall, the Smiths, the Pixies, Pulp and the White Stripes, among many others.
In the early '80s, Peel pushed our 10,000 Maniacs, then a struggling band in their own country. According to original guitarist John Lombardo, Peel was instrumental in breaking the Maniacs abroad.
"How far would we have gone if Peel hadn't been there for us?" ponders Lombardo. "It's impossible to say. When we arrived in England, people already knew who we were. Without him pushing us pretty heavily on his shows -- the track 'My Mother the War,' in particular -- we would have been a totally unknown commodity. But because of him, we arrived with a reputation."
Peel did the same for countless other bands. In fact, on Wednesday, Buffalo's Bloody Hollies were scheduled to appear on the Peel show, joining the ranks of the 10,000 Maniacs and Mercury Rev as Buffalo-area Peel honorees.
Peel's death leaves a gaping hole for more than just the Bloody Hollies, however. A DJ of his ilk is not likely to be seen again, for Peel existed in a world outside of nonmusical pressures. Fitting for a kid from Liverpool whose life was changed when he first heard Elvis Presley singing "Heartbreak Hotel" on the radio, while ensconced against his will at a boarding school in Shrewsbury.
Peel, it seems, never lost his taste for that liberating, hard-to-define magic.
"Part of what made him great was his unending enthusiasm for the music," says Lombardo. "But that's not all that made him great. I mean, (MTV's) Martha Quinn had enthusiasm for music too, you know? But Peel had remarkable taste to match his enthusiasm. He was a musicologist in many ways. He didn't just play punk records; he played African music or techno or whatever. He was truly eclectic in his tastes.
"I had a friend living in England, and he used to tape Peel's show and send it to me. I picked up on so many bands and artists that way, things I'd never heard of."
Perhaps that's Peel's greatest legacy: He urged his listeners to explore music further, to dig deeper, to question the accepted choices hoisted upon them by the mainstream.
Immediately following Peel's death, the New Musical Express printed listener reactions on www.nme.com. One longtime Peel follower nailed the essence of the man's gift to listeners.
"It was like having a friend come over to your place and play you all of the records he'd been scouring the shops for that day. You didn't always have to like what he played, but it would always be interesting. . . . I will miss him because he made the world a bigger place. (He's) irreplaceable."