As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport
Anyone who has met Peter Case may be familiar with at least one of the tales he tells in the first installment of his heartbreakingly beautiful memoir, As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport. But, as John Doe points out in the intro, you don’t need any knowledge of who Case became to come under the spell of his compelling first-person story.
Before he emerged as a dynamic contemporary singer-songwriter with his Geffen Records solo debut in 1986, Case was a member of the ’70s punk-pop trio the Nerves, and the founder of the early-’80s underground-rock quartet the Plimsouls.
In this concise volume, though, he remembers his earliest musical days, beginning back in 1970, in bleak, wintertime Buffalo, New York, where he was a teenage acid casualty and a high school dropout, playing piano and singing in a garage band called Pig Nation.
Case writes in a plainspoken voice that often recalls such hipster heroes as Kerouac and Bukowski. Sometimes there are glimmers of Kafka, too: “My tongue is hanging out, black with death. There’s a constant knifing pain in my chest and fire in my limbs. On top of all this, the hallucinations continue, the walls moving and such. I try not to say too much, but it’s enough to drive me mad.”
In 1973, in an attempt to ditch that horror, Case travels west to San Francisco. And with little more than the clothes on his back and a cheap Yamaha acoustic, he lives by busking on the streets in North Beach and down at Fisherman’s Wharf, sleeping at crash pads and later living in a junkyard. His buddies are assorted winos, bums, leftover hippies, and a crazy cabbie who becomes his first “manager.” Eventually, he hooks up with some fellow musicians, and despite the calamity and paucity that beset him daily, bits of what will be his art begin to emerge.
To his credit, Case never telegraphs too much about that, keeping his perspective in the past, and allowing the details to flow naturally from the narrative — even if longtime fans will recognize people and places from that period in songs such as “Travellin’ Light” and “Entella Hotel”.
And when at the end, Case dangles the wistful line — “Tonight I’ll take my guitar and go back up on the street” — it’s a disappointment only because there are no more pages to turn. But it’s also a cue from a great performer that it’s time to start clapping for an encore.