Peter Case – Street Legal
“I play guitar and I sing,” Case says. “And things sort of need to be centered around that. And then some producer comes in and they want it to be centered around their keyboard playing or something. You end up feeling like a guest on your own record.”
In 1993, determined to take control after a period of post-Geffen depression, Case decided to record and release a homemade album of traditional songs and perennial favorites he ironically titled Peter Case Sings Like Hell. The Marvin Etzioni-produced collection rambled from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Matchbox Blues” to Roy Orbison’s “Down the Line”. Its stark folk-singer arrangements put his voice and guitar in high relief, and caught the ear of listeners at the recently revived independent label Vanguard Records. They reissued it in 1994, and the small company has remained his happy home ever since.
“Vanguard takes on artists they believe in and lets them do what they need to do,” says Case. “That’s what they did in the ’60s — that’s what they’re famous for — and they’re living up to that legacy. That’s so alien to the big-time record industry, in my experience.”
Torn Again, released in 1995, was his first original album for Vanguard. It marked both a return to form and an overdue bit of housekeeping. “It had songs from several different periods,” Case says. “It had six brand-new songs, then a few that had been left off Six-Pack Of Love that I really wished I’d recorded. By contrast, the songs on Full Service were all kind of conceived in one way. They came in this one big burst, and the recording kind of went down like that too.”
Though he won’t come right out and say it, you get the distinct impression Case thinks Full Service No Waiting may be his best album since Blue Guitar. Like several from that set, most of the new songs deal with his scattered youth and the ripples that continue to flow from it. “That period of time between when I was 10 and 21,” he says, “is something that, for some reason, keeps coming back to me. There’s a lot of energy and a lot happening there, and hopefully I think I’m starting to work through it.”
“Aw, man it was great, if you had to be there,” he sings on “See Through Eyes”, a song he says is about the first group of songwriters he ever fell in with. The lines that follow continue the bittersweet tale: “We were pulling the songs out of thin air/Played ’em and laughed and threw them away/Just passing by, well I decided to stay/Through the black nights and high times.”
Case started heading for those times at an early age. “I feel like I was born to do what I do,” he says. “Basically I live to play and write. And I’ve known what I was going to do since I was 10 years old.” He discovered the music of Mississippi John Hurt and Lightnin’ Hopkins at 13, and their music became his key to the highway.
“Basically I wanted to be an itinerant bluesman,” he says wryly. “That was my career choice. And I started taking off hitchhiking all over the East Coast, running away from home, going up to Canada. My parents were teachers, and I quit going to school, so that was a big problem. And I moved out when I was 15.
“I was older when I was 18 than I am now in certain ways,” he continues, echoing the chorus of Bob Dylan’s classic “My Back Pages”. “I was an old man there for a while, I was so fried. By the time I was 17, I was pretty messed up. By the time I was 18, I was a young acid casualty — really hurtin’ bad and into all different kinds of trouble. I ended up leaving Buffalo one night in a blizzard, heading west on a Greyhound bus. I got off in Chicago, I don’t even know where, and went into a bar and got drunk. And then I bought a train ticket for the West Coast. That got me to Oakland, and then I took a bus over to San Francisco and walked off at the foot of Mission Street in, like, 1972.
“I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I was sort of fleeing my life — looking for a geographical solution. I lived in San Francisco on the street for a couple of years, just purely living on the street without an apartment or an address or anything. I lived in a junkyard out in Sausalito in a truck on blocks.”
Powerful images of leaving home and living and singing on the streets course through Full Service No Waiting. Though he claims he’s “not really a confessional writer,” “Crooked Mile” is as close to a full-scale rendition of the Peter Case story as anything he’s put down. “Originally that song was a lot longer,” he says. “We cut a bunch of different versions of it — one was like 10 minutes, and there are a lot more verses. And yeah, it’s autobiographical. It sort of brings my past forward into the present. But I finally ended up cutting it down to its bones. I cut out a lot of the detail, because it was a really involved thing.”
When he’s not on the road, Case spends his time working in his studio across the street from the famed McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California. He’s currently cooking up a children’s album, so even when he’s at home looking at the world through the eyes of his two young daughters, music is often on his mind. His wife, Diane Sherry, is a writer who shares credit on “See Through Eyes”. And his son Josh, 23, who plays in an Austin, Texas, group called Gold, helped pen “Spell Of Wheels” and “On The Way Downtown”.
Most of what makes Case such an interesting character, though, lies hidden beneath the surface of what he calls “daily survival” — down in the world of the songs.
“I was basically trying to just write my way through my whole situation,” is how Case sums up Full Service No Waiting. “That’s what I always try to do to begin with. And then I’m looking for some place where it lifts up to something worth singing about. It’s not just journal notes. You have to capture your own imagination.
“My ideal is that I could take one of these songs, walk into a room with a guitar and play it for a stranger — just sing them a song and blow their mind with it. It’s that whole mystery that I’m trying to unravel.”
Bob Townsend lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where he writes lots of stories for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Stomp and Stammer, eats lots fried chicken at Son’s Place, and drinks lots of beer at the Euclid Avenue Yacht Club.