Peter Case – A guitar makes a band
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.