The death of British DJ John Peel from a heart attack on Oct. 26 sparked something close to national mourning in England last week. Peel's colleagues on BBC's Radio 1 honored his memory all day last Tuesday as listeners e-mailed tributes into the station.
It's fair to say, actually, that Peel's death was felt around the worldincluding in Nashville. Readers might wonder how a radio DJ in England could matter to so many peopleafter all, it's not like we could just tune him in here in the States. But the fact is that his 37-year career had an incalculable impact on popular music. Punk, for one, would never have become as widespread (or, ultimately, as acceptable) as it did, were it not for Peel's pioneering broadcasts in the mid- to late 1970s. While the British establishment saw the Sex Pistols and their gobbing peers as a threat to society, Peel heard something urgent, something essential and gave it a national forum through the BBC's powerful signal. Whether consciously or not, he recognized that society needed just the kind of threats that punk was issuing.
Peel was the rare radio programmer who didn't care for distinctions between kinds of music, and it was that all-embracing spirit, his soul-deep love of music, that made his work so crucial. He might not necessarily have invented the idea of freeform radio, but he raised it to an art. And the deeper he got into his decades-long career, the more insistently he bore out Duke Ellington's oft-repeated dictum that there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. A listener tuning in just last week would likely have heard full-bore speed metal, jagged art punk, glinting electronica, unadulterated honky-tonk and a scratchy 78 of a popular '20s tune, all in the space of about 20 minutes. (At least that's what I heard the last time I tuned in via Real Audio.)
I had the chance to listen to Peel's thrice-nightly broadcasts for an entire summer when I was a teenager in the mid-1980s. It must have been a lot like the experience people had tuning in WLAC late at night in the '50s and '60s: completely mind-blowing, even life-changing. Being a kid from Nashville, I thought country music was completely square. All I wanted to hear was The Fall, Jesus and Mary Chain, The Smiths and whole bunch of bands no one remembers anymore, like Tools You Can Trust and The Men They Couldn't Hang. I got to hear all that, but I also heard Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, and it was one of the first times in my life I had any inkling country music might be cool. Elvis Costello was the other person who taught me thatand I heard him on Peel's show too.
If I had to thank anyone for encouraging me to discover all different kinds of music and showing me the ways music connects us to the larger world, it'd be my parents. But after them, there's little question I'd thank John Peel, who taught me the same lessons. I'm just sorry I never got the chance to thank him in person.
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AGGGHHHH that last picture!