Peter Case : The Long Cut

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Revisiting the Best of Peter Case, the Vanguard Years…

(the unpublished liner notes for Peter Case’s “Best of Peter Case“)

“I was always sort of not interested in what my generation was doing,” Peter told me four years ago after flipping through Louvin Bros. re-issues at a suburban bookstore in Sugar Land, Texas, surrounded by car dealerships, business parks, and seamless lawns. Radio pop, as I knew it from endless FM hours listening to his band the Plimsouls’ “A Million Miles Away” in my yellow shag carpeted room almost two decades ago, was molded by this nasally voiced desperado. Yet now, in front of me, Peter was a skinny, five o’clock shadowed, gumption-filled rocker with a poise that reminded me of some foreign actor drenched in noir solitude. He openly vented about rock n roll’s infantile, cream puff, lackluster edge, and his bluntness was indelible. After singing dog and monkey songs (striking chords like he was chipping away at heaven) to a confused, grassy-haired five year old, I gave him a tape of West Texas yodelor Don Walser’s broken down drive-in, Indian country tear jerkers. “Thanks,” fell from his dinky lips. Two years later he thanked me again and spoke so candidly that I’m content knowing that I’ve written “Case knows you have to unhinge memories and know where to fall down. You have to die a little to remember anything at all.”

For better or worse, Peter Case is a rambler, rover, musical hobo and drifter, anti-hero, lovelorn beatnik romantic post-punk, and to put it mildly, an outsider.  During the late 1960s, after a childhood filled with his sister tossing slabs of vinyl on the record player culled from her collection of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry records, Peter dropped out of school at fifteen, started hanging at downtown Buffalo blues clubs, smoke-encased places guys like Elmore Witherspoon would go to after leaving the factory and Van Morrison would drop by and grab players for the road. These close-to-the-ground joints is where Peter learned his chops on the piano, because as he puts it, “Back then it was not a unique form of expression. You played blues piano because you were supposed to play in bands. It was more like baseball than psychedelic.”

By 1973, he jettisoned the cold rust belt action of eastern New York for San Francisco’s notorious Mission Street. Like other acid casualties, he came armed with a heady mix of post-Easy Rider, post-Ken Kesey open road dreams, simply stuffing his rucksack with a spartan combo of fork and Yamaki deluxe guitar. He was now a street singer, nonplussed by homeliness, delighted by the variety of offbeat characters he encountered while being down’n’out. Around Polk Street, he immersed himself in Kathy McDonald’s throaty blues (found on a Rolling Stones record), jammed impromptu with guru poet Allen Ginsberg, and noticed Doug Sahm and Ramblin Jack finding their way through the fog and drone of Frisco at night. He even got picked up by notorious Satanist Anton Levy for a ride to Portland. Yet, the abandon, the joyrides, the petty crime, the midnight waitress hustling, the creepy resident hotels, the endlessly mimicked licks and tricks from Robert Johnson and Gary Davis, the endless freedom of it all, began to fade and take its toll. That’s right about when Peter met Jack Lee, the Nerves founder and progenitor of unyielding pop stripped down to punk sensibilities.

For the next decade, Peter unknowingly molded the shape of things to come. First, Paul Collins was added to the Nerve’s lineup, and they made a modest garage band single, which led to a tour with the Ramones and a sudden propulsion to semi-fame when Blondie covered their rough gem “Hanging on the Telephone.” Then Peter began booking seminal bands like England’s raucous upstarts the Damned and pushed local art punk bands like the Weirdos up on stage, thus triggering a tidal wave of hitherto unknown music, deemed new wave by the majors labels, that soon left him behind.

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Undeterred, he gathered his wits and soon forged The Plimsouls, whose melodic pop was more culled from the Byrds than Johnny Rotten, and within a few years they were signed, touring, and even being featured in movies like Valley Girl, starring young tongue-wagger Nicholas Cage. But that limelight grew old too, and Peter found himself enjoying the after hours acoustic hoedowns in bland hotel rooms more than the not-so-posh clubbing, thus re-immersing himself in the likes of Mississippi John Hurt and Lightning Hopkins.

So, he left the band and found a solo path first backed by Geffen, who, unfortunately, even after several critically lauded records, fired his A&R person, his producer, and waited far too long to follow up on his success. Luckily, Vanguard saw the light and Peter found a home, and producers like Andrew Williams (Full Service No Waiting, Flyer Saucer Blues), who understand an artist like Peter, who avoids all niches and trends and draws from a rich and rootsy tradition that fully acknowledges one of philosopher W.E.B. Du Bois’ main dictums: Black music is American music. This includes the undying work of Mississippi John Hurt, whose pre-blues minstrel quality lent itself to a sweetly lyrical, subtly rhythmic sound that somehow tapped into a jazz element, yet never detoured from Hurt’s ear for melody. This absorption in legacy led Case to produce Avalon Blues, a tribute to Hurt featuring performers like Gillian Welch, Steve Earle, and Lucinda Williams. Not unexpectedly, it was nominated for a Grammy.

peter case flier

Case has spent the last decade going back-to-the-basics, forging a mature and modern folk sensibility that synthesizes everything from Depression era boxcar and back porch songs to literate, incisive ballads that make the ghost of Jeff Buckley quiver. But don’t fear the folk reaper, for Case’s often hearty songs shine way past the Prozac and yogurt haze of A Mighty Wind caricatures, and when knocked out live, end up being rough and tumble as any rock’n’roll show. This compilation dips into the essence of his Vanguard catalog.

The album begins with a shot to the gut, a return to form, with the topical, timely, politically charged “Wake Up Call” and “My Generation’s Golden Handcuff Blues,” which are injected with wise blood that acknowledges the turbulent times we’re living in. Then it quickly moves backwards to the late 1990s, first to songs like “Crooked Mile,” a sentimental yet keen stab at memoir, and “Spell of Wheels,” which highlights Peter’s knack for narrative speed and condensed unfolding action, a not-so-unconscious nod to Beat writers. Meanwhile, “On the Way Downtown” percolates with adult-sized realizations that the past may be fading fast, but there’s some consolation in going downtown, where the locusts, elm trees, and school yard walls remain unchanged.

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The middle of the CD takes a long lookout at “Flying Saucer Blues,” which, and I don’t mean to pun here, seemed to have cruised underneath the radar of the record industry, but is a well-worn treasure of songs. From the colorful, humorous, and rambunctious narrative of “Two Heroes” to the not-to-be-missed languid and uplifting beauty of “Blue Distance,” these oft-overlooked cuts are prime Peter territory. And if you desire something with a bit of a shuffle, try the rollicking, regret-filled romp of “Coulda Shoulda Woulda,” or lean back and relax to “Cold Trail Blues,” a lonely and wistful look back at taking the road less traveled.

The last third of the album concentrates on Peter’ impressive new millennium songs, including his humble exhortations for a little help in “If You Got a Light to Shine,” the loose-limbed, slightly funky “Something’s Coming,” the tender look at cityscapes as places that echo lost love in “I Hear Your Voice,” and the forlorn “Gone,” a mantra that reveals things gone forever, but somehow it doesn’t stoop to willful desolation but instead finds consolation, redemption, and regeneration in the very act of songwriting itself. That, perhaps, is the endnote. Peter has led a well-examined life, untrammeled by too much doubt or concern for the habits of others, where dead ends actually become new kinds of promises, but also where the hand you love is often the hand you might tear down. Peter burrows in these contradictions, finds the spaces in-between, where survival might simply mean knowing how to utilize the art of everyday experience — the inexhaustible here and now.

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