Peter Case - A Case of Integrity

 Peter Case sits in a diner on West 57th Street in New York City, and he's got one of those appearances that speak volumes without a sound. His eyes have that slightly skeptical, I've-already-seen-it-all quality; his weathered face suggests at least a few years of admitted hard living; and his manner of dress - while far from marking him as some kind of vagabond - leaves you confident that he's done a lot of thrift store shopping.

The 46-year-old Case has come a long way since the early '70s in San Francisco. And while some things have changed during the past 30 years, one constant remains -- his penchant for crafting intelligent, slice-of-life vignettes that compel you to root for some drifter who's just resigned to surrender. Case's stories of trials and tribulations, which have been captured on more than a half-dozen solo records since 1986 (including his latest, Flying Saucer Blues), are told over the gentle accompaniment of a flatpicking guitar style popularized by Mississippi John Hurt. And like Hurt, Case's creations, which incorporate blues, folk, rock and other sounds, don't pray at the altar of a single genre.

Case grew up in Buffalo and was playing in rock bands by his early teens. He dropped out of high school at 15 ("to be a member of the revolution," he says). As an 18-year-old in 1973, he boarded a Greyhound bus, eventually arriving in California. Once there, he lived in a Bay-area auto-wrecking yard for about a year, spending his days busking and trying to find meal money.

His time on the street led to a chance meeting with songwriter Jack Lee, and the two eventually formed The Nerves in 1975, one of the earliest left-coast punk bands. The group's existence, however, was short lived. By 1978, Case had founded the Plimsouls, a power-pop outfit. In the early '80s, they scored big with "A Million Miles Away."

But by 1983, the band had split, and Case, answering an internal yearning, returned to the music of his youth - Hurt, Mance Lipscomb, the Rev. Gary Davis, the Beatles and Elvis Presley. It may have appeared that Case was undergoing a transformation from rocker to folkie, but in truth, it was only his own music coming full circle. After years of struggle, it seems like you'd finally made it with the Plimsouls. What ultimately led to your departure?

Peter Case: Power pop is something that I loved, but I began to see that I didn't want to ultimately keep doing that. I just wanted more than what I was getting with that. I love all that music, but I remember being on stage one night, in Lubbock [Texas], in 1981. The Plimsouls had just come out with their first album and we're on this, like, endless tour. All of a sudden I looked around and I just knew that I wasn't going to keep doing that. I mean, maybe it was a big mistake - that's the way I looked at it at the time. But I felt like I had to get more of what I loved into my music. I wanted to bring a real sense of American roots music to it, the blues that I grew up on. And I wanted the words to be able to carry it. What was your life like after first arriving in San Francisco as an 18-year-old?

Case: It was all about survival and learning to play the blues. When I was in that situation, on the street like that, I didn't have anything else in my life. I didn't talk to my family for ages. I didn't have a job; I had no intention of getting one. I didn't have any idea of going to school. I didn't have any money, or any hope of having any. I didn't have anything - and I didn't want anything. I just wanted to play guitar. That's all I did, walk around and play guitar. Let's talk about your new record. What does it mean to have a case of Flying Saucer Blues?

Case: I guess it's just like feeling that you live on the moon sometimes. I live out in L.A., but I've felt like that in a lot of different places. It was originally a song that I was writing about a place down near Memphis, a club called The Flying Saucer in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I knew a bunch of people that have played there, and I just liked the sound of it. It seems to size up a lot of things. I wanted to make a record where we sort of took blues and other traditional forms of music from this country. We kind of twisted them around a little bit lyrically.

Guitar Case

Singer/songwriter Peter Case - as you might expect of a guy who prefers to play acoustic - isn't particularly big on amplifiers. As a matter of fact, he doesn't even have one with him when he's on tour. He'd much rather run a direct line to the house P.A. system. "I do the soundcheck without the monitors, and after the soundcheck, I'll have them bring the monitors up a little bit," he explains. Strong lyrics and good stories are central to what you do. Did you always have an inclination to write songs?

Case: Before I knew anything about how to play music, or before I could write a very coherent song, I could always kind of rock out. I always had this thing where I could just go out and make a noise, a rocking kind of noise. It was always sort of the bottom line with me, sort of an urge to just do it - to sing and to play and all that. I never really had much of a structured period of study in music. I just pieced things together. In a lot of ways, I feel like I've invented the wheel or invented fire, even though other people have been using them for years. It took me a long time to put different things together. Do your tunes come from personal experience?

Case: When I'm writing a story song, I don't just make up stories. It's not really about fiction, you know. I come from a family of storytellers. It's a whole mode of communication in a lot of families -the family stories. They kind of drive you crazy, really, but I imagine that's where my instinct to do that came from. When things happen in your life, sometimes they don't add up to a song for quite a while. Other times they do right away. But I don't feel like I try to write about losers; I just write about the people that I know [laughs].

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