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Sunday, June 17th, 2007
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John Peel: Margrave of the Marshes

by John Peel and Sheila Ravenscroft

I Am What I Play

A review by Stephen Burt

Years ago, after the dawn of email but before streaming audio, there was the semi-secret John Peel Tape Trade Chain: some compliant Briton would record, every weekday night, the two-hour John Peel Show, in which the legendary BBC Radio One DJ played whatever he felt like playing -- some alt-rock, some Afrobeat, a New Wave single, a demo tape that sounded a lot like a chainsaw, and some future intercontinental indie rock hit. The Briton would then send cassette tapes to America, where fans would copy the tapes, then send them to other fans who would copy the tapes again, and so on.

Why would anyone devote that time to cassettes of a radio program? Eclectic, wry, all-knowing, and irreplaceable John Peel (born John Ravenscroft) was, as far as we knew (and still know), the best DJ in the English-speaking world, from his late-60s shows on Radio London until his death on holiday in Peru in 2004. Though Peel discovered, or helped to discover, T. Rex, the Undertones, the Fall, the Smiths, the Wedding Present, Billy Bragg, and many more, his greatest achievement was year after year of attention to acts that had no interest in making it big, acts such as Half Man Half Biscuit (whom I recommend), or Extreme Noise Terror (not so much).

Peel listened to everything, and he played what he liked. (If you think it's easy to do that four nights a week, you're no DJ.) He also invited bands to record Peel Sessions, giving some great groups their first, raw, exciting studio time; he wrote, with unmistakable rambling wit, what must have been thousands of record reviews and personal essays, often for BBC-sponsored magazines; and he created the slightly shambling, always inviting, carefully-improvised radio-show style, with juxtaposed genres and apologetic breaks, that made us sit through sets we didn't like just to hear what he'd say about them after. If you listen to skillful radio DJs who play independent music now, you might hear overtones of Peel's speaking style.

You can hear that style, too, almost as if he weren't gone, if you sit down to read this slightly rambling, always entertaining, surprisingly memorable quasi-memoir, begun by Peel and attentively completed by his wife, Sheila, known to decades of Peel's listeners and readers by the unlikely, but somehow genuinely affectionate, nickname "Pig." The first 165 pages are those Peel wrote. We find the young Ravenscroft (born 1939) raised in mild affluence in Liverpool, then bullied at public (that is, elite private boarding) school, where consolations come from football (soccer) and Elvis. We see him finish military service as a young, somewhat lost, record collector, so unhappy in the family business (cotton) that his father found him a job in Texas, where he might learn, if not the cotton trade, another. In Houston, we see him discover racial segregation, Southern insularity, and the greats of acoustic blues. And in Dallas, in 1962, we watch him talk his way onto local radio, where his record collection makes him valuable, and his connection to Liverpool makes Americans think he has something to do with the Beatles. Local fame and sexual conquests ensue.

There Peel's own telling breaks off, and Sheila's -- less digressive, clearer, faster -- begins. (She follows the outline he made in 1992, which she also prints as an appendix.) John and his first wife, Shirley (an unstable, sadly unsuitable teenage Texan) migrate to Oklahoma City, then to southern California, as John pursues DJ gigs: in San Bernardino, he finds a band so inspiring that he wants to manage them, and so hapless that they accept his offer. The Misunderstood moved to London to live in John's mother's flat; in 1967, John moved to London himself, where he joined the offshore station Radio London, adopted his DJ name, and won enough fans by playing Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Fairport Convention, and the like to get himself hired soon after by the BBC's Radio 1. John and Sheila met in 1968; by the next year, he was winning "favourite DJ" polls.

The mostly happy life that followed included four children, a home in rural Suffolk, a youth club John and Sheila founded, an overwhelming loyalty to Liverpool FC soccer team, close friendships with an odd array of rockers and singers (e.g.: Rod Stewart, Robert Wyatt, and Laura Cantrell), a radio talk show about family life called "Home Truths," thousands of guest spots at universities and festivals, and day after day, week after week, year after year, "listening to record after record, all day long." John "carried a portable record-player wherever he went," and saw himself primarily as a listener -- "his shyness was simply overwhelming." Sheila calls John's mature years "overworked and boundlessly happy," and she makes the judgment convincing, not least through her portrait of their marriage: it is a life almost anyone devoted to music might wish to have lived.

It's also a life that generated anecdotes -- more, per page, than any other memoir I have ever read. Subjected during a television appearance to a duet between Aretha Franklin and George Michael, he remarked on camera, "You know, Aretha Franklin can make any old rubbish sound good, and I think she just has." When John and Sheila's children left home for university, he sent them "care packages" of CDs, "each bearing a handwritten label. One might read, 'Here's one I think you'll like.' Another would be, 'Here's one I think you should like.' Inevitably there would be one marked 'Here's one you should pretend to like to annoy people.'" One evening in 1983, Peel remarked on the air that he would "murder someone right now in exchange for a mushroom biryani." Billy Bragg, who had just self-released his first single, bought a biryani, walked to BBC headquarters, told the receptionist he was delivering food to John Peel, and then offered Peelie the vegetarian meal in exchange for a promise to play Bragg's single that night, which Peel did -- at the wrong speed. Promise fulfilled.

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