August 1, 2021

Peter Stone Brown Archives

Archives of musician and writer

The last Rolling Fumbler by Derek Davis (a remembrance)

Photo by Jon Perlmutter

Listening to UPenn’s outrageously wonderful radio station, WXPN, in the late 1970s, I’d hear references to a musician named Peter Stone Ground. Maybe I heard the program he DJ’d or maybe he’d already left the station, can’t say for sure. I thought that was a hell of a neat stage name for a homegrown cornmeal dude facing off against weepy-eyed singer-songwriters (who became the station’s staple 20 bland years later).

When I started running Pete’s music reviews in the arts section of the Welcomat weekly in Philly, I found his name was really Peter Stone Brown, a different but equally unlikely pileup of syllables. And here, again, I experienced a sprung misrendering of the man: Over the phone, I’d pictured a trim semi-academic slumming through alternative music in his off hours. Instead, I found a stocky, muscular guy in shorts, shirt untucked, likely on the road to pick up an injection of Burger King.

Over the next decade-plus (roughly 1982-1994), I ran a steady stream of Pete’s often dreamlike rock and folk reviews in the Welco, sat four feet away from him as he input hand-typed stories into our early Mac setup, and worked with him in our attempts to organize the ridiculous Tuesday paste-up operation in South Philly at Comp Art, the deathpit of newspaper production.

Pete died about a week ago of pancreatic cancer at age 68. Pancreatic is a death knell, both thumbs firmly down. I learned about the diagnosis last year when he included me in a note on his impending last concert, “Peter Stone Brown: A Celebration of his life and music.” In a later note, that September, he held out some slim hope: “…[Y]esterday the oncologist said I’m eligible for a treatment called immuno therapy… It is supposed to be less invasive than chemo which I wasn’t going to do. Eligible means I have the right genetic marker for this treatment.”

 He tried it and it worked for a bit. Then it didn’t work.

The Welco had a hell of a lineup of music writers in the ’80s: Dan DeLuca, who went on to become the Philly Inquirer‘s top pop-rock critic; Bruce Warren, who graduated to program director at WXPN; Devin Leonard, a superb jazz critic who offended his pristine readers by daring to also review punk bands. And Pete.

Pete penned straightforward album/CD reviews, but he also took his general ruminations on music into cloud cuckoo land, as though the groups he was trailing on about had tumbled out of an old-time radio broadcast and into a New Jersey pine barrens’ lake.

The Stone in Peter Stone Brown – the name he insisted on in the music world – came from his family, which included the grand leftist gadfly of the 1950s, I.F. Stone, who, in I.F. Stone’s Weekly, almost singlehandedly took on the madness of McCarthyism and the anti-Communist mania. Pete’s uncle Mark wrote rabid, unapologetically Communist letters to the Welco every couple months; I still picture Mark kissing Stalin in his dreams.

Before the cancer kicked in, Pete’s closest brush with tragedy was a vicious mugging at a Broad St. gas station in 1990, leading to the wreckage of his face, including a broken jaw that was wired shut for weeks. Typing in stories at the Welco, he took his nourishment through a straw inserted in the gap where a tooth had been yanked.

In most of his life, Pete did not come across as a happy guy. He boiled with anger that, in the current context, might be called alt-left, not so much a political stance as fury against the world in all its evil workings. He seemed to hate society yet have no interest in changing it. He collected conspiracy theories like baseball cards and treated the popular and the even marginally powerful with disdain (he told me he announced his retirement from a yard job as a teen by mowing “fuck you” in the grass; in many ways I see him as a much more honest version of myself).

Yet where music was concerned, he was open, focused, delighted, at home. As Mike Newall noted in an Inquirer article on Pete in May of 2018, “He was a champion of local talent, his record collection a guidepost for young artists.”

As a performer he was a sing-songwriter in the Bob Dylan vein. His one CD, Up Against It, is hauntingly reminiscent of Dylan. Indeed, his attachment to everything Dylanesque was legendary; it’s probably safe to say he knew more about Dylan than Dylan did, having collected every known fact and anecdote about the man he’d followed musically since his early teens.

Working with local musicians, he put together one of his bands, the Fumblers, in the early 1990s and organized the Rolling Fumbler Revue, a distant echo of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue of 1975-76. I often prodded him to write a book on Dylan.

According to Newall, “There was the time the stars aligned in 1974, when [Pete’s] brother, Tony, a New York musician, was tapped to play bass on the original Blood on the Tracks recordings. But Dylan, ever mercurial, re-recorded some of the album, and for so long, the other songs that featured Tony’s bass lines — Peter’s closest connection to his idol — existed only on bootlegs.”

Pete gave his last performance on September 30, 2018, in Manayunk, surrounded and supported by “all those he’s championed and played with and shared a love of Dylan with,” as Newall put it. If they let him into heaven – or, more realistically, if he agreed to gig on its insipid streets of gold – you can bet he’s giving the angels hell about the crap they play on those damned harps.