You can go as far as you want without a passport. Whereas a piece of government-endorsed paper can only put you across country lines, the expanse of a creative soul can transport itself and others over time and space parameters. A string of rhyme and strummed chords can take you from coast to coast, bouncing from the punked out streets of LA to the deepest delta ditches. A well placed riff can turn a rock club in San Francisco to the city streets of upstate New York. Peter Case has traveled the universe over, all while walking the streets of America. From his early days hitchhiking to California, to moderate success in a punk band, and coming full circle as itinerant American, his crooked mile has turned out refreshingly straight.
It all began with two older sisters and an Elvis record. Peter was born April 5, 1954, 10 minutes and right down the hall from Rock n’ Roll. Under the tutelage of his older sisters, he fostered a love for Elvis, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and the like. In 1964 it grew to include the Beatles and Bob Dylan. 1967 found Peter in a local library, discovering a dusty copy of an old Mississippi John Hurt record. That moment changed everything; “‘Today’…that one changed my whole outlook…”. At 15, he dropped out of school, joining local bands, playing local clubs, and generally cutting his musical teeth. From 1969 to 1973 he traveled from place to place, never settling, always playing. His songwriting career had begun, but had yet to make an impact. He finally came off the road, settling on San Francisco, CA. There, he hit the streets, playing for tips and passers-by, often catching the ears of local homeless characters. In fact, he remembers being followed around by every crazy person on the streets of town. Many songs were created around the facts of these almost fictitious characters.
He banded together with Jack Lee and Paul Collins to form The Nerves, in 1976. They enjoyed success around the area, taking place in some of the first punk shows in California. Their song, “Hanging On The Telephone” would later be recorded by Blondie. Eventually they broke up and Peter migrated to warmer climates in LA. In 1980 he formed The Plimsouls. Enjoying more success than his previous band, their single “A Million Miles Away” was featured in a movie called Valley Girl. By the time their single took off, the band had already broken up, lasting until 1984. Despite their brief career, The Plimsouls had an effect on punk rockers that would come later on. As important as Case’s early career was, his solo work has proven to be the most expansive and influential.
Teaming up with T Bone Burnett in 1986, his first self-titled solo album was released. Some of his most well-known songs appear on this first effort, including ‘I Shook His Hand”. These next few albums take on a more stripped down approach, as opposed to the punk-rock he was putting out before. This is where Peter morphs from aggravated punk to itinerant blues man. Traveling troubadour, identifying life from all angles and pushing the truth as far as he can. More recognizable songs stem from the next album, The Man With The Blue Postmodern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar, such as “Poor Old Tom”, “Travelin’ Light”, “Two Angels” and so forth. He rides the line between gritty pop and raw acoustic power, continuing through the 90s and early 2000s. He was signed to Vanguard records in the 90s, after a stint with Geffen. In 2001, an album of previous recordings, Thank You St. Jude was self-released. It features Peter and fiddle player David Perales, who did a series of small club dates together. In the span of a few days, between gigs, they popped into a studio and laid down a handful of acoustic tracks, which became the first Peter Case album I purchased.
Along with making his own music, he has become a music preservationist. He created the music program at The Getty Museum in LA in the late 90s. One of his larger projects involved producing and playing on a tribute album to his hero, Mississippi John Hurt. Avalon Blues: A Tribute To The Music Of Mississippi John Hurt was released in 2001, receiving a Grammy nomination in 2002 for Best Traditional Folk Album. Peter also received a Grammy nomination for his song “Old Blue Car” off his self-titled debut. He has been teaching songwriting classes around his home in LA for years, and is a staple at McCabe’s, a local LA venue. Along with his memoir, As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport, 2006 also brought on the release of a three disc tribute album called A Case For Case. Among contributors were John Prine, singing some of Peter’s best-loved compositions.
A health scare temporarily sidelined him in 2009, finding Peter in the hospital for open-heart surgery. Being without health insurance, a foundation was established to cover his medical costs, Hidden Love
, plus a string of benefit concerts were put on in LA and Nashville, with many friends and compatriots coming out to support Peter. He is now back from the recovery stages, with a new album being released, Wig!, and a new tour putting him on the road through the summer. All in all, there are no signs of slowing down for the itinerant observer.
Peter Case has seen it all and was intelligent enough to write it down for the rest of us. His work has spanned from the early fringe of a counterculture movement to the deepening roots of early American song. He champions the everyday man, and writes from a soul steeped in the ideas of truth at any price. At times it is beautiful and at others it is grotesque, but it is always honest. Peter Case has carried the torch of the wayfaring stranger for most of his life, and someday he will pass it on to the next person willing to step into his shoes. For now though, the coast is clear with no signs of stopping.