Interview

Peter Case Sings About What's Goin' On

Peter Case (Photo by Greg Allen)

I don’t know if Peter Case is on Bernie Sanders' playlist (to be honest, I’m not sure Bernie even has a playlist) but several tracks from Hwy 62 (Omnivore, 2015) touch on social issues Bernie has addressed and other candidates, on both sides of the aisle, have largely if not entirely ignored.  Just two examples: Peter addresses the widespread use of solitary confinement and mass incarceration in “Pelican Bay,” and in “All Dressed Up (For Trial)” he sings about a justice system which too often assumes arrested equates with guilty and doles out jail time as punishment for poverty.

Social consciousness is nothing new to Peter who has toured extensively for over 30 years, guitar in hand,  singing about issues many choose to ignore.  Do music and politics mix?  If you've written  "The Ballad of the Minimum Wage"  they obviously do. Should they mix?  Yes. According to Peter, “I consider it being alive.”

HB-I saw you perform “Pelican Bay” before Hwy 62 was released. It’s really moving when you hear a song live one time and then hear it maybe a year later on an album and you can recall specific phrases. That is a really powerful song. I could imagine Bernie using it at a rally.

PC-Yeah, totally. That is the thing about writing one of these kind of songs.  You want to have it so the context is included in the song. It is either included in the song or included in the introduction to the song. John Prine said “If you do the same introduction every night that is part of the song.” (laughs) You want the song to be able to stand by itself so you can just come out and play it and it tells the whole story. I can walk into any bar in the United States with a guitar and pull it out and sing “Pelican Bay” and everybody knows exactly what I’m talking about. They feel it and get a really strong picture of it. It's protest blues, electric troubadour-style, me on 12-string and stomping foot. Some people might kick back at it, and I have had people kick back at it, but it’s a complete piece.

I am political I guess but I don’t really consider it being political. I consider it being alive. I’m trying to stay alive as an artist and as a person and as a human being in America. It’s natural for me to want to talk about everything that affects me. I write love songs. I write songs about traveling, and stories about the country and people I meet. And I write songs about situations of injustice. I write songs like “Pelican Bay” because they make me feel so strongly about it. I’m horrified that they put someone in solitary confinement. I feel it viscerally. A lot of places don’t allow it. It’s terrifying. You put yourself in those shoes and think “What a nightmare”.

I’ve been writing about social issues since my first record produced by T-Bone Burnett and many other records over the years.  I recorded “I Shook His Hand” about the Kennedy assassination. Elvis Costello calls it a “great song” somewhere around page 400 in his new book! On my second album I sang about veterans and homelessness in “Poor Old Tom” and homelessness and drug addiction in “Travelin’ Light”. It was the same thing.  You feel strongly about something and it doesn’t seem like a separate thing from writing a love song. It’s the same impulse to put that vivid feeling and experience into a song. It makes you want to shout about it or sing about it and make some music about it. It’s your whole life.

When I was 12 years old I had a garage band and we were playing “She’s About a Mover” and stuff like that. My sister came home from college and she had a copy of Sing Out!, the folk-music magazine and I learned this song called “Kill for Peace” by The Fugs out of it. It was this three chord song kind of like “La Bamba” or “Twist and Shout” except it was “Kill for Peace.” It was about the American habit of going out and bombing the world into submission. I started putting this song into my twelve year old set and we’d be at the youth center doing songs like “The Letter” and all of a sudden I’d whip out “Kill For Peace” (laughs).We did it in the Plimsouls too. It was one of the first songs I ever learned.

What was the name of that band?

That band was called Mustache Sandwich. That was our psychedelic name.  It (protest songs) has always been a part of me. A part of my consciousness. I never really saw it as a separate thing. I was into Dylan as a kid. You listen to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and it has protest songs on it but it also has love songs and blues songs. Really funny songs, it had everything.

I consider myself a “full service songwriter”. That’s why I had that album Full Service No Waiting. You talk about 360 degrees of life. For the last fifteen or twenty years, it takes up more of my bandwidth because things are so hairy out there. So maybe I’m writing more about it now but for the last thirty years I’ve been doing it.  It’s not like you’re lecturing. It’s rock and roll or folk-music or whatever you want to call it. You want it to have a groove and to rock and something that people will want to listen to. You should be able to listen to it before you even know the words, before the words catch up with you. Or you can just listen to the words.

"Pelican Bay" also address the broader issue of the mass incarceration.

It’s unbelievable when you think about it. When I first started to see those figures it was mind-blowing. I think it is 2.3 or 2.4 million people and 400,000 of those people haven’t been convicted of anything. They just can’t make bail.

That is a perfect segue to “All Dressed Up (For Trial)".

I became friends with a guy who was a lawyer in L.A. He was a public defender and he told me how he had been called into the judge’s chamber and reprimanded. They told him you are going to play ball with us. We’re not here to hear people’s trials. We’re here to extract pleas from people and then we’ll reduce their sentences. They told him “We’ll hear a few trials here but that’s not what we’re about.”

All these people are being picked up in sweeps. Sure, there are guilty people but a lot of innocent people are picked up and they have to plead guilty just to avoid getting hit with a Draconian sentence. It's a really nasty injustice. I took that and I wanted to make a song but make it a power-pop song. I want to go the other way with it. It is almost like if the Nerves were playing songs about social injustice. It's got the same groove that the Nerves did with "Hanging on the Telephone" but with a new kind of lyric and some different instrumental twists.

Bonus features:  Peter’s obviously not the only musician who has addressed social issues with their songs. Here are a few timely tracks that predate the 2016 Presidential campaign. Listen here if you are interested. I'm pretty certain you won't hear them at a Trump or Clinton rally.

Ian Hunter’s “When I’m President” from  When I'm President (2012)

"I'm gonna lean on the 1% when I’m President
No more bargains in the basement when I'm President"

Chuck Prophet’s "Let Freedom Ring" from Let Freedom Ring (2009)

"Let 'em have Mercedes and a house on the beach
Sit by the pool and get high
Raise a cool bottle to the heavens above
While the creatures struggle in the tide"

 

Jeffrey Dean Foster's  "Young Tigers Disappear" from The Arrow  (2014)  

"Old lions lie, young tigers have no fear

Old lions walk away, young tigers disappear"

Marvin Gaye "What’s Goin’ On" from What's Goin' On (1971)

"Mother, mother
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There's far too many of you dying"

Great interview Hal...Peter Case is a road warrior for sure...I remember buying the first Plimsouls record a really long time ago, right after reading the review in Rolling Stone...glad he's still stirring the pot so to speak.   Incarceration is almost an industry, in some places privatized with all that goes along with that...trials are expensive, and tax payers have no sympathy for "law breakers"...factually, plea agreements are much cheaper, and they count as convictions...since a lot of people arrested are actually guilty, it is easy enough and very common for someone who isn't, or who is minimally involved, to plead as opposed to facing trial...for a Judge to actively instruct a PD to not advocate for his/her clients is frightening and is not the norm I would hope...but all the things I mentioned are pressures to go along on everyone that is in the system, from the accused to the actors...so that is a reality on some level in most places...and it works against people who lack education, money, etc.

Again, fine piece Hal...good protest music at the end...Marvin Gaye was a master...and Ian Hunter always did call them like he saw them...

 

You have a consistently nice touch with interviews, Hal, and Pete's the kind of guy who, if  you ask him a decent question, you're going to get a decent answer.  

Years back toward the end of a show, Pete asked if there were any requests.  Of course there were.  Without thinking of the lyrics (wished I had), but remembering just the catchy sound of the song, I called out for "Baltimore", a song off Torn Again.  I was standing off to the side, he couldn't tell where that request came from, but said, with a bit of an edge I thought, "who said Baltimore?"  By his reaction I sensed the song was probably autobiographical and I've wondered since if the incident in the song had happened to him.

Politics is on everyone's mind these days.  And it seems like the conservatives/republicans take it on the chin for a lot of things in these protest songs.  I don't claim to be an expert on law enforcement or incarceration, but some of these protest folks might read up on the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a bill written by two democrats, Rep. Jack Brooks of Texas and Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, and signed by President Clinton.  This bill seems to have Hillary Clinton in hot water with many on the left for contributing to increased incarceration and plea bargaining to mitigate overcrowding prisons. 

Random political thought after reading about Ted Cruz's dad:  the apple did not fall far from the tree.  What a pair.

I meant to add this song as an additional bonus feature.  The inspiration for this selection provided by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant who recently signed into law a bill allowing guns in churches! 

 

Well that's an instant classic!