“When I start writing,” allows Peter Case, “it’s not like I have something that I really want to say. It’s more like there are a million things to say. And I’m just trying to find my way into the world of the songs.”
The world of the songs is where Case has lived most of his life. As a teenager in the ’60s, growing up outside of Buffalo, New York, he listened to blues singers and played in garage bands. He hitchhiked and roamed around, and did hard time by himself on the streets of San Francisco, busking for many years before finally joining punk/power-pop trio the Nerves in the mid-’70s. In the early ’80s, he fronted the Plimsouls, a Los Angeles rock quartet best known for its jangled blast of alienation, “A Million Miles Away” (featured in the 1983 film Valley Girl). After the demise of the Plimsouls, Case fell back on the two things that had always sustained him: his voice and his guitar.
His sixth solo recording, Full Service No Waiting (Vanguard), finds Case connecting the abject ways and wild joys of his youth to his current existence as a well-regarded middle-aged singer-songwriter with a wife and family. As he’s done for more than a decade, Case delivers this latest bunch of songs through a timeless combination of melodic verve and closely observed lyricism. But it’s his mature struggle with the restless ghosts of his past that makes the new disc so resounding.
“From my first record on,” he says, “I’ve been trying to take the things that happened to me — and the world we thought we were growing up in — hook them into the present, and then look at where it’s all going. Some people say, ‘Oh, you’re writing about the broken American dream.’ But I guess the reality is, we were born into a country in this huge transition, and all the people are in transition too, so that’s what I write about.”
Produced by longtime pal Andrew Williams (of the Williams Brothers), the sound of Full Service No Waiting is mostly acoustic, except for the sinuous cries of Greg Leisz’s pedal and lap steel guitars. David Jackson’s upright bass, Sandy Chila’s drums, Lili Haydn’s violin and Don Heffington’s percussion round out the first-rate instrumental ensemble. For his part, Case contributes some deft fingerpicking and harmonica, which serve to reinforce the set’s down-home tone. But as often happens, the easy animated quality that comes through was born as much of necessity as design.
“Maybe our limitations worked for us on this one,” he says. “It was the freedom of the shoestring that allowed us to go with early takes, and work in a real energetic way. The whole process of going in and making a record can be kind of overwhelming. Even when you’ve done it a lot, it can clamp down on the spontaneity of the music. This time we really made a point of catching things when they were really fresh, and really alive — before they’d gotten run into the ground. So besides probably being my favorite record to work on, I think it was one of the quickest I’ve done.”
Case’s recording career has been almost as rough and tumble as his life and music. And though his days with the Nerves and Plimsouls continue to grant him hip cachet in certain circles, his transition from rock to a much less defined style wasn’t easy. For his self-titled solo debut in 1986 on Geffen, he came under the tutelage of like-minded producer T Bone Burnett. Together they made a lean, rhythmically complex album that opened with a “tribal folk” tune they co-wrote, “Echo Wars”, and ended with a lilting cover of the Pogues’ “Pair of Brown Eyes” powered by Roger McGuinn’s 12-string guitar playing.
A harbinger of good and bad things to come, it drew raves from critics, including the late Robert Palmer of The New York Times, who put it at the top of his year’s best list. Trouser Press referred to Case’s songs as “barbed Americana,” back when the term still had a sociological rather than a musical meaning. But in that time before “unplugged” and Beck, it seemed Geffen wasn’t equipped to handle such a diverse artist.
“The people who didn’t dig it were at Geffen Records,” Case says with a sigh. “And that was really a shock for me…totally disheartening. In fact, one night, when it looked like the record wasn’t even gonna come out, I had this long talk with T Bone — you know, about artists who hang their paintings in their own yard, and stuff like that. Like, I might just end up singing for people in the neighborhood.”
In 1985, Case and singer-songwriter Victoria Williams married and began what appeared to be a uniquely simpatico personal and musical partnership. Williams sang harmony and helped write two songs on Case’s solo debut. But by the time Case’s second album came out in 1989, the couple had split up. Despite its unwieldy title, The Man With The Blue Postmodern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar (commonly shorthanded to just Blue Guitar) became a watershed album. With its detailed story-songs and incredible group of guest players — including Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Jerry Scheff, Jim Keltner and David Hidalgo — it not only regained the critics’ attention, it registered with fellow musicians such as Bruce Springsteen.
“I’m really proud of Blue Guitar,” he admits. “But again, it was hard to get that one to come out. They couldn’t believe I started it off with a Mance Lipscomb song. But I just wanted to make a deep singer-songwriter kind of record — a blues and folk roots kind of thing. That’s what Blue Guitar was. And, until recently, that was probably my strongest batch of songs to go out and play.”
Following up Blue Guitar proved tough. With increasing label pressure to make a more commercial album, Case came up with the ill-conceived and, by his reckoning, poorly produced Six-Pack Of Love in 1992. The album was his last for Geffen, and it’s clear he’s still bothered by the experience, even though he most certainly learned from it.