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.”