07 May 2015

Peter Case

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Peter Case hit my radar in the early eighties, when The Plimsouls released “A Million Miles Away.” They were well known in Los Angeles, even among those of us who were too young for their club shows. How is that possible? The song was, after all, a minor hit in the scheme of things (#82). Maybe my guitar teacher told me about them, or I read about them in the Calendar section of the L.A. Times, or Richard Blade or Rodney Bingenheimer played them on KROQ. There was also the 1983 film Valley Girl, in which Nicholas Cage plays a “punk rocker,” who drags the titular female to a dingy Hollywood club where The Plimsouls—co-starring as a cool rock band—perform “Everywhere at Once,” “Oldest Story in the World,” and “A Million Miles Away.”

The Plimsouls played a Loyola High School dance around that time. I couldn’t get a ticket—they were hardcore about limiting attendance to their own students and students from “sister schools” like Marymount and Sacred Heart—but still gave them props for hiring hip, original acts in an era when new wave cover bands grew on trees. The Blasters also played a Loyola dance, by the way. I asked Dave Alvin about the experience many years later, but he could only remember the paycheck.

Robert Hilburn of the L.A. Times wrote the review that inspired me to buy a cassette copy of Peter’s second post-Plimsouls recording, The Man with the Blue Post-Modern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar. How about this for a first sentence:

“If the pop industry was still obsessed with finding the next Bob Dylan instead of settling for the next Poison, you might find Peter Case’s new album being greeted with the excitement that once surrounded ‘Another Side of Bob Dylan’ or maybe even ‘Bringing It All Back Home.’”

Blue Guitar came out in 1989, when folk-influenced singer-songwriters had taken up temporary residence in the mainstream. Tracy Chapman’s first album came out in 1988, and I loved the combination of acoustic guitar and high-intensity lyrics that drove “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution,” “Fast Car,” and “For My Lover.” “Luka” was also borderline ubiquitous, although Suzanne Vega wouldn’t become a big part of my life for another ten years. It seems likely that Peter Case, whose defining album came right after those of these and other female artists, has been called “the male Tracy Chapman” or similar.

The thing is, Blue Guitar wasn’t actually all that folky, except for “Poor Old Tom” at the end of side one and “Hidden Love” at the end of side two. Rather, it has more of an Americana feel, reminiscent of John Hiatt’s 1987 album Bring the Family. In fact, Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner played on both albums. But, then, “Americana” hadn’t been invented, and Peter was making waves with his live show, which was fairly folky, featuring him on stage alone with a guitar and a harmonica.

I saw that show for the first time at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica at the end of the summer of 1990. One afternoon at the beach, two friends tried to convince me to go with them to see John Denver at the Universal Amphitheater. I have nothing against John Denver, but the Universal Amphitheater was far away, and I’d actually seen him there before. So, I convinced them to check out the Peter Case show at McCabe’s, which was practically walking distance from where we were sitting.

That show had a big impact. It was so great, in fact, that I went back the next night. These two ticket stubs tell the story:


Unlike Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega—who started out in coffeehouses in Boston and New York and were associated with the folk scene—Peter Case came from rock and roll. In fact, he may have been the first “rock guy” to unplug. Be that as it may, it’s that rock energy—which fueled uptempo numbers like “Put Down Your Gun” but also folk-sounding tunes like “Walk In the Woods,” “Poor Old Tom,” and “Wilderness”—that I responded to at McCabe’s. I also liked the “fun-with-words” element of songs like “This Town’s A Riot,” “Blind Luck,” “4th of July/Christmas Rag,” and “Space Monkey.” You know, I can’t guarantee that all of those songs were performed at those particular shows, or had even been written yet. Whatever songs I heard, they were the kinds of songs I wanted to write.

I engineered a handful of encounters with Peter over the next few years. For example, I approached him after shows at the Paradise Lounge in San Francisco and Schuba’s in Chicago. He was enormously generous with his time, and a willing conversationalist. I recall discussing Wallace Stevens, among other things, which must mean I was in my (brief) poetry phase.

Later, when I had moved to New York and written a few songs of my own, I sent a first batch of demos to the address on the back of one of Peter’s CDs, and he called me on the phone. That phone call spurred a few longer-than-expected conversations and a gig in Los Angeles, at the recently-reconstituted-but-soon-to-close Ash Grove on the Santa Monica pier. Peter was hosting a series called Peter Case’s First Flight, in which he and a handful of guests presented new songs “in the round.” The other artists on the show were Mike Martt from Tex & the Horseheads, Thelonious Monster, and The Low and Sweet Orchestra, David Baerwald from David & David, and Kris McCay from The Wild Seeds, who is captured on this flyer as “one more guest TBD:”

A few notes on the Ash Grove gig:

  • I became suspicious, as I watched and listened to David Baerwald from acrossthe stage, that I’d taken guitar lessons from him. Years later, I was able to confirm that David had, in fact, subbed at the Slippery Disc when my regular teacher broke both his wrists doing martial arts.
  • Thelonious Monster was one of my all-time favorite bands, but I couldn’t get Mike Martt to talk about them. Maybe I wasn’t asking the right questions, or maybe he was just fed up with Bob Forrest et al.
  • I met Marky and Kipp Lennon from the band Venice for the first time that night. They have been friends ever since, and even played at my wedding.
  • That was when Peter Case was working on Full Service No Waiting. He invited me to the studio the next day, but immediately rescinded the invitation because of space concerns.

Eventually, I did some more gigs with Peter, in the Midwest. The first one was at Club Café in Pittsburgh, which was a new venue at the time, an alternative to the way-too-big-for-folk Rosebud. The second one was at the Canal Street Tavern in Dayton, OH, home of Kim Deal and Guided By Voices. I remember that gig for two reasons. First, we did not draw, like, at all. We’re talking single digits in a triple-digit room.

Second, there was an accident. While Peter was playing Two Angels, we heard a crashing sound in the alley outside the club. He might have remarked upon it from the stage, but we put it out of our minds…until we hit the street at the end of the night. It turns out that a motorcyclist had slammed into BOTH of our rental cars—one after the other—and then hightailed it out of there. Peter and I had some unexpected quality time: waiting for the police, comparing our insurance situations, etc. That was one of two times I returned badly damaged rental cars, but my attorney has advised me to clam up on that subject.

In the early 2010s, Peter moved back to San Francisco – where, incidentally, he got his start as a street singer in North Beach and environs – and we meet periodically for coffee in the hinterlands of the Outer Sunset. During those conversations, I extract as much songwriting wisdom as I can, and also solicit stories about the Los Angeles music scene in the 1980s. I never get tired of hearing about L.A. in the 80s.

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