Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Pope Smokes Rope

The Persistent Sound Of Memory



After the advent of Stereophonic sound for 33 1/3 LP recordings, 'Quadrophonic' sound, albums engineered for four-track playback, appeared in the early 1970's. They were a relatively short-lived phenomenon, and not that many Quadrophonic records were available relative to all the two-channel Stereo albums being marketed (It was that decade's version of Beta and VHS).

I bought Sonic Seasons, the electronic music of (then) Walter Carlos; "The Engulfed Cathedral", Isao Tomita's interpretation of Debussy piano works; and several in the Environments - A Totally New Concept In Sound series.

They were essentially field recordings -- several technicians with multiple microphones and (then studio- or motion-picture sound quality) reel-to-reel tape recorders simply went to a location, and let the tapes roll. The concept was originally created by Syntonic Research, with albums released through Atlantic Records. Syntonic / Atlantic eventually released eleven different environmental recordings, in two-channel and Quad stereo versions.

I liked the concept of putting on 'ordinary' sounds as background White Noise (Also, getting toasted while listening to them was pleasant). I bought Disc 1 ('The Psychologically Ultimate Seashore' and 'Optimum Aviary'); Disc 5 ('The Psychologically Ultimate Thunderstorm' and 'Gentle Rain In A Pine Forest'), and Disc 3 -- "Dawn In New Hope, Pennsylvania", and "Be-In In Central Park", described by a reviewer as
The sounds of a spontaneous gathering in Central Park, April 6, 1969 with strolling musicians, dancers, anti-war protesters, and fragments of conversations. This recording presents the unmistakable ambiance of a place and time in culture now gone. Though many of the Environments recordings have been imitated, this one stands alone as a totally unique recording.
The Be-In was held in what is now Strawberry Fields in New York's Central Park, on Easter weekend, April 6, 1969.

On that day, the number-one ASCAP hit song in America was Let The Sunshine In, performed by the Fifth Dimension from the musical, "Hair". The Grateful Dead and 'AUM' were playing that night at the Avalon Ballroom on Van Ness in San Francisco. British explorer Wally Herbert reached the North Pole on foot that day, having started to walk across the entire frozen surface of the Arctic Ocean -- 3,720 miles -- sixteen months before.

And in New York City's Central Park, the roving sound engineers of Syntronics Research, Inc. eventually picked up the sounds of a pro-marijuana rally as part of the Be-In. One of the performers was David Peel, a 'personality' on the Lower East Side, who urged the unseen crowd to chant, "I Like Mar-i-juan-a!", and to smoke dope. He was a fixture in the Hippie, and later the more political Yippie, counterculture scenes, and was friendly with John Lennon after his move to New York (so much so that the FBI once mistakenly distributed a picture of Peel, assuming that he was Lennon). Peel was also well-known at the time for a (non-Quadrophonic, one would assume) album entitled The Pope Smokes Dope.

David Peel: Singing “until the day I drop dead and go to rock ’n’ roll heaven.”

So it was with a small amount of surprise that I came across this article in the New York Times: Peel, aged 68, still kicking out the jams as a Character in The Big Apple. The photo above is exactly the Peel I remembered hearing, and hearing about.

Peel is a part of the cultural soundscape of my past. I admit that I haven't thought about him in over thirty years; but remembering the album briefly touched my memories of "a place and time in culture now gone" -- and to honor all of that, more than any other reason, is what moved me to put this up.

I do not, of course, know whether the Pope smokes dope or not. But it's an alliterative turn of phrase, que no?