Peter Case - A guitar makes a band
Oh, the excitement Peter Case must have been feeling, staring into a pop star future so bright, he had to wear industrial-strength Hollywood Ray-Bans. It was 1979. His Los Angeles band, the Plimsouls, had been signed to a big-time record deal. His days of scuffling were over. Scuffling? When singing for change down in San Francisco, "a young acid casualty looking for someplace to land," he had slept in junkyards and abandoned trucks. Now, after those days and nights on street corners hearing nothing but the sound of his own voice, he was part of a band. A band with a big-time record deal! But in what you come to learn was a classic Caseian moment, "the future drove off laughing in a rented Cadillac," to quote one of his later songs. With his advance money, he bought a new Gibson Hummingbird, "the first good acoustic guitar I ever had in my life." He started playing it, and boom: "I immediately started losing interest in the Plimsouls. They were playing music in the other room. Roadies were coming in and out. There was all this expectation. And all I could think of was what I could do with that Gibson." This may not be the happiest revelation for those who remain devoted to the Plimsouls, who for a fleeting moment captured a decisive Los Angeles zeitgeist with their rave-up power pop. Their fans -- including young Nicolas Cage, who got them into his 1983 film Valley Girl -- were embracing them as the West Coast coming of the Beatles. But as much of an impression as the Beatles and Stones -- and let's not leave out the Standells -- made on Case, he had Woody Guthrie and Lightnin' Hopkins in his DNA. Then, as now, no vision meant more to him than that of one man, one guitar, with a suitcase of songs and a road map to guide him. No music is stronger or purer than the kind an artist makes looking directly in the audience's eyes. That vision has proved durable, as witness his new folk-style effort, Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John -- the record he says he has had in his head since he started plucking and strumming that Hummingbird. "Don't get me wrong, the Plimsouls were a lot of fun," Case says, "but in the same way dark clouds are fun. There was an element of insanity to it. The music was extremely explosive, very compelling to the audience. The shows completely rocked. But I got lost in them. "I felt like I was part of this huge metal sculpture. It was like being a robot in your own dream. It looked like it was so spontaneous, but actually everything was so planned, I felt like I was in a straitjacket. I started to purposely make mistakes, go off on a tangent, and it drove the band nuts. They could play, but not that well." For a songwriter who valued words as much as music, or more, the experience was especially frustrating. "The Plimsouls did this one old song, 'Sorry', and people always thought I was saying 'party,'" he said in an interview a few years back. "The words to all the songs were getting covered up by, like, 30,000 watts of noise." At 53, with a deep, multifaceted body of work bearing his name, Case understandably gets a bit put out when people dwell on the Plimsouls. Ditto the earlier, punkier Los Angeles band he played in, the Nerves, which even with only a handful of songs still in circulation (they originated the Blondie hit "Hanging On The Telephone" in 1977) boasts an avid cult following. Evidence of that can be sampled on YouTube, where you'll find a recent video of Case doing his best to play a Nerves tune on an acoustic guitar, leaning against the hood of a car. A fan asked him to play it. The last thing he expected when he complied was that it would be made public. But even if the Plimsouls are in the past (notwithstanding the occasional reunion), they remain relevant to the Case story. Listening to him in his troubadour mode, drawing on the folk of Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the blues of Lightnin' Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt, the fingerpicking styles of John Fahey and Bert Jansch, the Appalachian and Celtic traditions, it's hard to imagine him as lead Plimsoul. Lennon and McCartney loved their blues too, early on, but once they hit the Top of the Pops, there was no turning back. Then you hear Case's high-voltage garage-band cover of "The End" on the Alejandro Escovedo tribute album Por Vida, or you hear him attack his acoustic guitar from every which angle, and you hear his sensibilities converge. You hear the defiant hooks in his roots performances and the folk roots in his pop. Folk is punk. The Plimsouls are dead. Long live the Plimsouls. "Peter has a kind of stamp, a really strong songwriter personality," said John Doe, Case's Los Angeles crony and sometime touring partner, whom he actually didn't get to know until a decade after X and the Plimsouls took turns waking up the city. "He has the ability to bend his creativity toward whatever he decides he's gonna do. Everyone put his previous influences aside, filed them away, to dive into that new music in the late '70s and early '80s. But he was always a huge blues fanatic and he allowed it to rise to the surface." (In his introduction to the first installment of Case's stream-of-blog memoir, As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport, Doe describes the young Case as "flying without even knowing that a net was an option.") Case became hooked on the blues growing up near Buffalo. Though it doesn't get the attention other roots towns do, Buffalo left a powerful imprint on important artists, including The Band. (Legendary local pianist Stan Szelest preceded Richard Manuel in Ronnie Hawkins' Hawks, the band from which The Band emerged, and joined the Robbie Robertson-less Band after Manuel's death.) In local clubs such as the Governor's Inn, run by blues guitarist James Peterson (father of contemporary blues star Lucky Peterson), Case was exposed to blues legends including Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Freddie King and Big Joe Turner. Hitchhiking down to Boston, he heard folk and blues in the coffeehouses. At home, one of his older sisters played stride piano a la Fats Waller, and the other introduced him to Bob Dylan albums. His father was a "hopeless" harmonica player. Everyone sang. "I have a warm memory of discovering what music can be," says Case. "I remember Peter singing Howlin' Wolf songs before his voice had changed," said Gurf Morlix, a fellow member of the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame who has known Case since their pre-teen days. "I've always learned a lot from him. I remember borrowing B.B. King's Live At The Regal from him back then. Nobody else I knew had that album." Case took to the swinging, melodic quality of the blues bands in Buffalo. "The sound was almost Texas sweet," he recalls. "You can hear it in The Band's 'Mystery Train' and Van Morrison's 'Blue Money' and 'Domino'." At the same time, says onetime Morrison drummer Gary Mallaber, another Buffalo Music Hall of Famer with a great appreciation for Case, "the musicians who were part of that scene had a grittier way of looking at everything. They liked a dirty sound, the kind you could hear in [organist] Bill Doggett's 'Honky Tonk', which dominated Buffalo back in the '60s. "The music scene there was like a city within the city. There were all kinds of music being played, but there wasn't a lot of separation of musicians. Peter was exposed to all that stuff from the time he was 14. His understanding of how all that music and all those different elements came together is the engine inside his car." In 1970, as detailed in the memoir, Case walked out of his ninth-grade class at Hamburg High School and never went back. He was hallucinating. Everything, he wrote, appeared in two dimensions. Sound was out of sync with sight. "I've broken my senses," he thought. No need to ask about the influence of drugs here. A handful of trouble for his mother, he was in a band called Pig Nation. Two years later, he took a Greyhound to San Francisco and, as he wrote in a blog entry, "dove in." "I was 19, hair down to my shoulders, and playing a cheap Japanese guitar (the Yamaki deluxe: $99.95: it had a rockin' buzz to it). I was carrying a fork in my coat pocket, in case I ran into dinner somewhere. I was drinking THE WINE, as it would come to be known in numerous songs of the day. Today it's called 'homeless,' but that term never occurred to me at the time. I was 'on the street,' a street singer, crashin' around, a wanderer." Even after settling down in his first house, in Santa Monica, Case never has stopped wandering. During the solo career he has pursued since the release of his T Bone Burnett-produced solo debut in 1986, he has made "Crooked Mile" as much his theme as Bob Hope made "Thanks For The Memories" his. "I go on the road alone a lot," he says. "Sometimes, I'll hit Highway 10 and go like 20,000 miles, just travel from town to town playing clubs, sometimes for a crowd and sometimes just a few people." When he returns home, he has more than little soap bars and shampoo bottles to show for his travels. A kind of verite poet, he keeps his songwriter's lens wide open. The places he goes and the frequently struggling people he encounters show up in songs such as his haunting Kansas City saga "Spell Of Wheels" ("The black car keeps on goin' and I guess so do our lives"), "Three Days Straight" (about a man trapped in a mine cave and the media zoo he attracts) and the new "Underneath The Stars" (about an abused woman tragically on her own, untouched by the beauty that surrounds her). "When people ask me why I have to roam/I'll say that ninety percent of all accidents occur in the home," Case sings on "Never Comin' Home". Now that he has a house of his own and his tours of sofas and floors is safely in the past, he can afford to joke. As much as his songs are marked by hardscrabble realism, underdog themes, cheap violence, cheaper drugs, the push-pull of sin and salvation, and righteous political indignation ("Wake Up Call" was inspired by Abu Ghraib), Case projects a remarkably positive vibe. He uses experience not as grist for moralizing or Beat-style romanticizing, but as fiber in a diet of striving. The light of possibility shines through even his bleakest songs, which may explain why a roster of roots artists as varied as Amy Rigby, Richard Buckner, Bob Neuwirth, Chuck Prophet and Todd Snider made themselves available when a nonprofit outreach organization called Hungry For Music put together A Case For Case, a 47-song, three-disc tribute. Their affection for Case and his songs comes through in the ease and confidence with which they interpret them. "You know a song has got something if you can slip inside it easily," said Pieta Brown, whose version of "Spell Of Wheels" is one of Case's favorites in the collection. "I fell right into it, the lyrics and the pretty music of it. The recording I did of it was pretty much my first attempt at delivering the song." "I like the mystery aspect of Peter Case. I can't quite put a finger on him or his style and I dig that. I got to meet him in Austin for a brief time when I played his song at a tribute gathering. He got up and played along on my rambling open version of his song. So I've still really only met him through the music. I remember his sweetness." Case liked Brown's recording, which features Bo Ramsey on guitar, for "the way the guitar went off the road." He also liked the liberties the Tom Waitish San Franciscan Jesse DeNatale took with "I Hear Your Voice", possibly Case's most haunting love song. "It has a mini-Spector, folk-Spector quality," says Case. "I like the way both singers changed the songs around. That, to me, is what this music is about." Asked whether he admired the way Bob Dylan never plays a song the same way twice, he laughed. "I love Dylan," he said. "But he does that because he hates the sound of audiences singing along with him." It's possible there is no more voracious a music listener in the greater Los Angeles area than Case, who is on intimate terms with everyone from boogie pianists Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis to Malian guitarist Boubacar Traore. He described an album he recently produced for roots artist Crosby Tyler as "Space Oddity a la Taraf de Haidouks" (a reference to the Romanian gypsy ensemble). In one blog entry, he weighed in on the new Edith Piaf movie bio La Vie En Rose, the new Leonard Cohen novel, and the British pop documentary Love Forever. On early Pulp, Blur and Oasis: "I dig all of that more than I'm digging the White Stripes' new jams. The level of schtick that's going on is putting me off." Case, who has curated music programs for the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and produced Avalon Blues, the Grammy-nominated album salute to Mississippi John Hurt, wears his influences lightly. He never projects a sense of sampling styles or of "dropping" genres. He always sounds like himself -- if he can help it. He couldn't on his 1992 Geffen album Six-Pack Of Love, a collaboration with the heavy-duty, texture-minded team of producer Mitchell Froom and engineer Tchad Blake. "To me, it was a disaster," Case says. "I had a lot of songs written for it, but I got steered away from them and the cool grooves on the demo. The music was pumped up way too much. It was like blowing up pictures until the dots take over." (And yet, and yet: With its swirling organ effects, sharp drumming by reunited pal Mallaber, and roomy sound, there are moments worthy of Elvis Costello at his churningest, and Case is at his John Lennon-est vocally. Peter Wolf also comes to mind.) Dropped by Geffen after Six-Pack Of Love, Case quickly rebounded with a raw, independently released personal statement, Peter Case Sings Like Hell. Abetted by a band including one of his most welcome co-workers, mandolin man Marvin Etzioni (who contributes a fine version of "Old Blue Car" to A Case For Case), he hunkered down in the blues of personal heroes such as Sleepy John Estes, covered Roy Orbison, and shed light on neglected California country great Wynn Stewart, who greatly influenced Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John is Case's first album of new material in five years and his first for Yep Roc Records following a productive stay at Vanguard. "I was, as they say, between agents," he says. He wasn't expecting any label action. But Yep Roc, for whom Doe records, expressed heightened interest. The album was recorded in San Francisco and produced by Ian Brennan, a Bay Area singer-songwriter who helmed Ramblin' Jack Elliott's Grammy-nominated I Stand Alone and whose special nonmusical skills come in handy in a recording studio. He teaches triage in a hospital psychiatric ward. This is a solo album with an asterisk. Richard Thompson's harmony vocal and counter lead guitar on "Every 24 Hours" lifts a standard round, and there are other guest contributors including pedal steel player Norm Hamlet of Haggard's Strangers and Los Angeles veteran Carlos Guitarlos, former leader of Top Jimmy & the Rhythm Pigs. Case, who knew Guitarlos during his punk years, discovered him singing on the street. "He was going through some hard times," Case said. "But now he's back. He's a great blues singer." Case wrote most of the songs on Sleepy John in the middle of the night. "I was having insomnia for some reason," he explains. "I can never sleep on the road, but I wasn't on the road, so I can't blame it. For whatever reason, I'd wake up in the middle of the night and write. I woke up and a song would spill out. That happened with 'Million Dollars Bail' [a comment on the justice system] and 'Palookaville' ['where you can't tell your baby how a left jab feels']. They just came out, fully formed. Other songs, like 'Every 24 Hours,' I wrote right before we went in the studio." Then there is "Just Hangin' On", a soldier's lament inspired by the Vietnam War and relevant all over again. "I rediscovered it," Case says. "It's the first song of mine people kept wanting to hear, and the first one older musicians played. But I never recorded it until now." The songwriting process has never fallen into any reliable pattern for Case, even when he tried to make it do so. In his most inspired moments, he says, he has experienced the sensation of "someone walking with me -- not like Jesus, just someone with an eye on me, helping me along, opening my eyes to things." Mostly, his craft comes to him in mysterious ways. For Full Service No Waiting (1998), he went to a nearby town, rented a room, and recorded tunes on a tape recorder. "Life is superjammed. Going there, I felt freed, like a little kid playing," he says. "I worked four hours every day, from 9 in the morning until 1 in the afternoon. The music poured out. But when I tried to do my next record, Flying Saucer Blues, like that, I couldn't. My system rebelled from that approach. I have to trick myself. I don't like to hit things head-on. I get the willies. "Thinking doesn't help you write songs. Thinking about songs doesn't help you write songs. The most painful and disagreeable thing I can think of is sitting down and trying to write a song. That's how you get stuck. A lot of times, my best songs come when I'm doing something else. I've sat in a restaurant and suddenly had a song come to me in the margins of a newspaper. It's like you're fishing and all of a sudden you pull out a big one." If most folk artists pour most of their energy into writing and perhaps arranging their songs and are content to get them cleanly recorded, Case has long chased the Holy Grail of fully capturing the presence of his acoustic playing. "Peter is a folk musician, but he never played with any sort of folk piety," says T Bone Burnett, recalling the sessions for Case's solo debut. "I remember him assaulting that acoustic guitar, just playing the shit out of it, knocking out these unusual but completely happening chords. No one plays like him." "The guitar makes a band," says Case, quoting a lyric from one of his own songs ("Hidden Love" from 1989's The Man With the Blue Post-Modern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar). "The whole band is in there, just the way the whole band was in the piano for Art Tatum or James P. Johnson or [Thelonious] Monk. I have a way I really want to hear the guitar. I don't want to just hear standard strumming. The way I tune, I have the high strings up and the bass strings tuned down two steps. That gives me a wider range. I lead with my fingers and play bass with my thumb. It's gotta be a fat bass sound, a great sound." Years ago, Case was hooked by John Fahey's 1967 album Requia. On the back cover, it showed how Fahey tuned his instrument. It took Case a while to try out the method. When he did, he says, "it made sense." Using the tuning, he recorded "When The Catfish Is In Bloom" for the 2006 Fahey tribute I Am The Resurrection. His first recorded instrumental is a beauty, seven-plus minutes of "primitive" guitar bliss. "I hear minuscule variations, different frequencies when I play," says Case, who has long led guitar and songwriting workshops at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica. "At the same time, I like to keep the music simple. It's gotta talk to me. I'm looking for a real straight shot of soul. If it's not there, something is missing." Case has had such a full career, winning so many accolades and so many friends, you'd think he would have the higher profile of a John Hiatt or a Steve Earle. And perhaps he would, had he not busted out of the Plimsouls, been a little more impressed with making it into Valley Girl, not rebelled against the Froom/Blake treatment, and generally hung out with more famous kids on his block (such as Hiatt and Roger McGuinn, who appeared on his self-titled debut, and Ry Cooder and David Hidalgo, who appeared on Blue Guitar). His Vanguard years were mostly spent with a circle of associates including producer Andrew Williams, drummer Sandy Chila, and his son, Joshua Case, a guitarist and all-around studio wiz who now teaches at the University of Texas. But that's neither the fate that was in store for him, nor the fate he for which he would trade what he has. He's playing the music he loves, he's settled into a rewarding romantic relationship after a series of failed ones (including his mid-'80s marriage to singer Victoria Williams, who co-wrote some of the songs on his first solo record) and he remains plugged into the American mythology he described in an interview for the publisher of As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport. One of the highlights of his youth, he said, was seeing workers for the annual county fair pull up in a train and then march through town. "I loved hearing traveling folksingers and ramblin' blues singers and stories of strange and difficult journeys, hitchhikers and sailors," he said. And: "I idolized the garbage men, enthralled by the drama on the day the truck broke down in the middle of the street out front of where we lived. I remember thinking, 'When I grow up I want to be a bum.' I was drawn to the drama of life on the street, and I still am." ND contributing editor Lloyd Sachs, a guiltless fan of the old "Hootenanny" TV series, found a kindred spirit in Peter Case, who shared fond memories of seeing the Kingston Trio, the Brothers Four and the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem on the show.