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WIRE FROM THE BUNKER: Meet Peter Case

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Houlon2BY JONATHAN HOULON FOLK MUSIC EDITOR My contempt for radio – particularly the local variety – has been well-documented in these pages.  But at the risk of belaboring the point, let me say:  fuck you very much.  It wasn’t always like this.  1986:  I’m driving my folks’ American Eagle station wagon down the Pike in Rockville, Maryland, possibly on my way to chess club practice, most definitely not en route to rendezvous a non-existent crush, when a song came on the radio that compelled me to pull over and listen.  The ‘80s were a tough time for those of us utterly perplexed by the popularity of such bands as U2 and REM:  soul-free drivel with god-awful front men.  Don’t get me wrong.  The 90s and the rise of phony indie rock were possibly worse and, in this century, the album itself has tragically been put to rest.  But what I heard that day in 1986 sounded completely new but completely old as well.  A way forward with a steady look to the past.  I patiently waited for my favorite DJ, Weasel, on WHFS 99.1 FM out of Annapolis, to pronounce the credits in his endearingly rodent-like voice.  The song that had so gripped me was, he said, “Echo Wars” from Peter Case’s eponymous debut on Geffen Records.  I turned the wagon around, cruised over to Waxie Maxie’s and picked up the record (that’s what they were called back then without the now preposterous “vinyl” modifier).  I’ve been stalking Peter Case ever since.

Case has a new book out called Somebody Told the Truth which is a compendium of lyrics and stories from his incomparable career.  One of the tales concerns Peter dreaming a song called “Hothouse Madman” which he would later revamp into “Echo Wars” with 61p0BmvfZ0Lthe help of T-Bone Burnett who produced the aforementioned Geffen debut.  But if you really want to get a sense of Case’s incredible journey, you must start by reading the memoir of his early years, As Far as You Can Get Without a Passport, in which he recounts running away from his hometown of Hamburg, NY, while still in his teens and landing in San Francisco around 1973 as a street singer.  Case was pretty much “homeless” back then tho this was before Reagan actually invented the homeless.  I once heard Peter say that Bob Dylan moved East and went straight to the top whereas he moved West and went right to the bottom!  Somehow, Case converted his busking skills into joining the legendary Nerves who would tour the country with the Ramones in ’77 and were also responsible for “Don’t Leave Me Hanging on the Telephone” which Blondie struck gold with a year or two later.  As if that were not enough to establish a legend, post-Nerves, Case put together the Plimsouls who were enormous in LA in the early ‘80s and wrote the power-pop chestnut “A Million Miles Away” which earned a spot in Valley Girl of all places.

All of this is cool as fuck, of course, but it’s decidedly not what makes Case exceptional.  Rather, it’s his solo career which began in ’86 and continues to this day.  On the back cover of Somebody Told the Truth, musician/scribe Sid Griffin writes that Case “has the musical goods to be mentioned in the same breath as Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk, and Liam Clancey.”  Impressive company, to be sure.  But listen, Long Ryder, I’ll see you those folk legends and raise you three:  based on the music he’s made for the past 35 years as a solo artist, I would argue that Case must be mentioned in the same breath as Bruce, Butch, and, yea, Bob himself.  He’s that good, friends.  Most importantly, Case has just released a new record, The Midnight Broadcast, which to these ears couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune time.

The Midnight Broadcast is an imagined radio program of sorts but not of the lifeless variety that has so turned me off to 51BY8ZX6K2Lthe actual form.  Ross Johnson – whose name I last came across on Alex Chilton’s genuinely unhinged Like Flies on Sherbert – plays the DJ and is compared in the materials accompanying the record to the voice of Finnegans Wake.  The term “Joycean” gets thrown around a lot by those without the actual background to know what that means.  The easy take is “stream of consciousness” and, yes, that applies to the The Midnight Broadcast which is certainly Case’s most untethered (or stream-like, if you will) effort to date.  But the more interesting take is from the Wake itself in which Joyce leans on a Viconian, i.e. cyclical, account of history in which past, present, and future collapse.  Case achieves precisely this with his Broadcast:  his voice – which is mic’d just perfectly in terms of capturing its humanity (i.e. it’s life force AND death rattle) – rings ancient and current at the same time.  And in this era in which the stature of the album has been demolished by streaming, Case points a way to the future:  a wider net, a broad cast.

The record’s repertoire ping pongs in Joycean fashion between the past and present.  It begins with “Just Hanging On” which Case composed in 1970 at the tender age of 15 with an already older man’s perspective.  He sings, “Since I was born I’ve been fighting time // I see the time passing and it eases my mind.”  “Hanging On” first appeared on Case’s best record from this century, 2006’s Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John, where it fit comfortably alongside the other solo acoustic numbers that populated that fine collection.  I heard Case play an astounding version of the song on piano shortly after Sleepy John was released and here it appears in that comforting gospel form but still creates, via its theme of precariousness, an unsettling start to the Broadcast.  Case also essays Mance Lipscomb’s “Charlie James” which likewise ping pongs to his own past:  thumbing his nose at any notion of commercial marketing, Case somehow slipped this Texas blues onto his second record for Geffen, 1989’s Blue Guitar, as the lead-off track!  Take that, David!  There it was ghost-like, here it is almost jaunty.  Again looking backwards from the present, Case gets around to praising Sleepy John Estes with his take on the late bluesman’s “President Kennedy” which itself reminds me of “I Shook His Hand,” a standout from the Geffen debut, which, tho not strictly about JFK, certainly brought him to mind. You get the point.

The Midnight Broadcast was recorded at the Old Whaling Church in Martha’s Vineyard.  Kudos to producer Ron Franklin for the loose-limbed but in your face sound achieved throughout.  Joyce is certainly a reference but, in a way, Moby Dick, may be the more accurate pointer.  Ishmael’s neither here-nor-there-ness permeates the proceedings.  Just as neighboring Nantucket provided a transition between life on land and life on sea, here Case gestures in both directions.  Songs such as “Grey Funnel Line” (an absolutely gorgeous number), “Farewell to the Gold” (most famously cut by Nic Jones on the seafaring Penguin Eggs) and “Captain Stormalong” are maritime through and through.  But the racetrack of “Stewball” and dusty environs of “When I Was a Cowboy” are as land-locked as you can get with or without a passport.  No matter.  It’s all of a piece and you don’t need my limn to love it.

The Broadcast will surely send you back to Case’s catalogue if you’ve never heard him before.  But here’re a few to get you started.  I’ve gotten some hate mail for including amongst these Wires from the Bunker YouTubes bereft of an actual video component.  I can dig:  music and lyrics are simply not enough to capture your wandering eyes.  But that’s ok.  By limiting myself to tracks with an actual moving picture, I was able to confine my choices to five in what otherwise would have been an impossible task of reduction.  I really love Peter!

“Put Down the Gun”:   As good as his debut was, Peter’s sophomore effort, The Man with the Blue Post-Modern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar (yea, Case was working the long album title angle while Fiona Apple was still in short pants!) was even better.  Sometimes described as a record about homelessness, 1989’s Blue Guitar contains many of Case’s finest songs and is considered by many to be his best album.  Songs like “Hidden Love,” “Poor Old Tom,” “Two Angels” and “Put Down the Gun” on their own justify Case’s reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter as do opening lines like this:  “On the hills outside of town there’s a hiding place // where the green fields sway with lavender, mustard, and Queen Anne’s lace // where the silent clouds go sailing in a sea of Dutchman’s blue // and the lonesome tracks by the railroad cut make me think of you and a train we missed.”  Yea, not exactly what you’d expect from a song that really should be the rallying cry for gun control.  But the truth is Case is talking about a lot more than guns here:  he’s got his eye on everything that separates us and prevents constructive discourse.  As always, his unerring sense of melody is the great connector.

“Dream About You”:  After making as good a case (sorry, had to do it) as anyone that he invented what is now called “Americana” with his first two records, Case veered back in a more pop-oriented direction with his third LP, 1992’s Six Pack of Love, an album that he himself now largely disavows.  “Dream About You” to my ears sounds like something Lennon would have come up with had he lived into the ‘90s.  Case may, in fact, be Lennon’s only rightful heir.  It’s not just the vocal resemblance – Case has a Lennonesque way of sounding both boyish and sneeringly wise at the same time – but also that pop offerings like this one better honor the legacy of the Beatles than anything Noel or Liam ever came up with or ever will.  Case’s pop chops are second-to-none when he chooses to exercise them.  How Geffen managed to not make this a hit is a real head-shaker.

“On My Way Downtown”:  After his three-album stint on Geffen, Peter moved over to the venerable folk label, Vanguard, and released some of his strongest work to date.  His 1997 release, Full Service, No Waiting, is considered by many fans to be the equal of Blue Guitar if not superior.  As usual, the songwriting leads the way.  “Green Blankets,” one of Case’s hardest hitting songs about his early SF days, starts with this doozy: “Out in street it isn’t so bad or all that it’s cracked up to be.” Hmmmm.  “Crooked Mile” may well be – along with “I Ain’t Gonna Worry No More” from the Sleepy John LP – Case’s song of songs but my own favorite from Full Service is “On My Way Downtown” in which Case’s sly sense of humor (never jokey in the way that sinks so many of his peers) is on full display.  Poking fun at himself, he sings:  “I’m going out tonight going way downtown where my friends who died still hang around” and later “the girls are smoking cigarettes and chewing gum // they just get scared when they see my come.”  Hah!  This beautiful evocation of the past is supported by the celt-a-billy (Case’s own description) sound arrived at during his Vanguard period.  This much more recent video should give you an idea of what Case is capable of in live performance:  (1) he’s an incredible picker and (2) even sitting down, he rocks as hard as anyone around.  Stance is the issue and Peter’s is rock-folk vs. the more typical and less rawkin’ way around.

“Brokedown Engine”:  1993’s Peter Case Sings Like Hell was an initially self-released offering that served as a bridge of sorts between the Geffen and Vanguard years (the latter would actually pick it up for official release at a later date).  On this record, Peter truly brought it all back home – specifically to his street singing solo days with mostly folk and blues covers with one original thrown in for good measure.  Sings Like Hell in its immediacy and repertoire can really only be compared to Dylan’s debut.  I am particularly grateful for Case’s take on songs by Jesse Winchester and David Allan Coe, both of whom I was aware of but didn’t really appreciate until Case shined a light.  “Brokedown Engine” (shown here in a later performance at Case’s home club, McCabe’s Guitar Shop in LA) by Blind Willie McTell demonstrates why Case is the exception that proves the rule when white performers attempt to sing the blues.  Such well-meaning efforts tend to lack groove at best and veer into rank cultural appropriation at worst.  “Artists” such as Clapton, Mayer, Plant, Healey, Cray, Bonermassive, Trout, and, yea, even Stevie Ray Vaughn may play and sing the blues.  Case inhabits them.  Check out his harp work here.  Lawd have mercy!  And if that ain’t enough to convince you, see also his takes on Memphis Minnie’s “Bumblebee” and Leadbelly’s “Thirty Days In The Workhouse.”  Peter Case is the real deal, man!  

“Early Roman Kings”:  This video brings us up to the Broadcast where Case offers this more recent Bob cut from Tempest as well as a haunting, program-ending version of “ This Wheel’s On Fire” from the Basement Tapes.  On 2015’s Highway 62, Case cut a remarkable version of the Nobel Laureate’s very early composition “Long Time Gone” and throughout the years has peppered his sets with Dylan songs such as “Black Crow Blues” and “Pledging my Time.”  Since Jimmy Lafave’s passing a few years ago, Case might just be the best Dylan interpreter left standing.  I recall seeing him perform “Mr. Tambourine Man” at the late lamented Tin Angel on the day that Jerry Garcia passed.  The performance was “laser-focused” (a term that I keep hearing these days and have no idea what it means) and reduced this drug-store vaquero to tears.

To put a cap on it, I’ll quote another one of Peter’s great opening lines:  “I was standing on the corner of walk and don’t walk.”  Yes, my trusted friend, that’s about the size of it right now.  So we’ll just have to wave from across the street (or the continent itself as the case may be) in salutation and look forward to a warm embrace somewhere down the line.

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