“Name five songs I’ve done in my solo career,” Peter Case challenges.
Maybe it’s just one of those days, or perhaps he’s a professional curmudgeon, but the veteran singer-songwriter gets combative when he discovers I haven’t heard his new album yet. He asks me what my real job is. Soon the former Plimsouls frontman compares me to the reporters whose negligence paved the way for the Iraq debacle.
I protest that I fully intend to listen to Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John before writing the piece. I argue the songs speak for themselves, and like with film, it’s all how you splice the whole story together, so with Thanksgiving less than 48 hours away, I concentrated on his biography (while listening to a different disc that required pre-holiday review).
“Name one song,” Case counters, ignoring my entreaties. I assume the “solo” predicate still applies so I ignore my favorite two tracks Case has ever written, the Plimsouls’ power-pop classic “Million Miles Away” and “Oldest Story in The World.” I can’t remember the name of that one about people in hell (who want “Ice Water”).
It’s a little unfair, because I like Built to Spill a helluva lot more than Peter Case but would be hard-pressed to name any of their songs, other than maybe that one about the Big Dipper. (Suffice to say, the Case interview was conducted in two parts, a week apart.)
Case probably feels it’s unfair as well. After 20 years and 10 albums he might’ve expected a warmer welcome, but Case is a sometimes overlooked musical ’tweener, who’s not dusty enough for Texas country or delicate enough for the folk crowd. Admired by jangle-pop devotees for his early work on the LA scene with the Nerves and Plimsouls, he’s become a bit too rootsy for much of that crowd to actively enjoy.
“I’m playing fairly soulful kinds of music - it’s not soft folk music; it’s much more involving. But I think it puts off people who are into the super cerebral kind of folk music. They find it to be too intense,” Case offers on our second go-round. “There’s a lot of call-and-response at my shows, and a lot of different things going on. `Unlike playing with a band` the words become much more important because you can hear them.”
Case endured a hardscrabble childhood, but maybe that’s par for his Buffalo, NY, home. He remembers staging Friday Night at the Fights in someone’s basement as a teen, predating Fight Club by decades. By 15 he’d left home, and by 18 he’d hitchhiked cross-country, enjoying the last gasp of San Francisco’s ’70s acid-folk scene. While there, Case befriended Charlatans psych-guitar genius Mike Wilhelm, and then hooked up with Jack Lee to form the seminal, if overlooked, power-pop trio the Nerves. (Lee’s “Hanging on the Telephone” was recorded by the Nerves before becoming a hit for Blondie.) After the Nerves imploded in 1978, Case started the similarly minded Plimsouls. When they disbanded six years later after two albums, Case decided to go it alone.
“I felt really naked, but it felt kind of dangerous. I was in a place with just 200 people in it – the Plimsouls were playing to much bigger crowds – all of a sudden I’m playing this smaller place acoustic. I liked that it added that kind of risk factor. It seems a lot more dangerous and involving than rock shows,” Case says.
That’s the way it’s remained much of the last two decades. In that time he’s recorded more than a hundred songs, many of them autobiographical. He says he tried making stuff up for a while, but didn’t like it. “I write the stories that come to me, which are true stories,” he says. “I write songs that generally strike me as true. They’re movies projected on people’s imaginations.”
In January Case published a memoir of his early days in San Francisco, As Far As You Can Get Without a Passport. He’s finished the second volume, and is planning a third. “Dylan had Chronicles, mine was the anti-Chronicles,” Case jokes. “Dylan went east and straight to the top, I went west and disappeared into the bottom for years on end.”
Of course, Case’s most recent endeavor is his new album, Sleepy John. The 11-song release is an understated, straightforward affair, highlighted by a folk-inflected collaboration with Richard Thompson (“Every 24 Hours”) and the shuffling, rescue shelter vignette “Underneath the Stars,” with Carlos Guitarlos. The latter is part of a consistent theme about the “two kinds of justice in this world” (“Million Dollar Bail”) and the resilience required to survive (“Just Hangin’ On,” “Ain’t Going to Worry No More”).
“The idea was to do an album of my songs really stripped down. A folk album like I grew up on, like early Dylan and Bert Jansch,” Case says. “I love albums that are simple like that. It’s what I like to do. People always ask me, ’Which one is the most like what you did tonight at the gig?’ This one’s it.”
There is no second flare-up from Case. He doesn’t begrudge me, and I don’t take it personally. I’m reminded of a comment from our first exchange, when I pressed him about dismissing Randy Newman after his second album.
“I’m not like a normal person in the way that I listen to music,” he says. “Music hits me in a different way. I’m hard on it because I have to be hard on it to do what I do.”
There’s no arguing that little brilliance arises from low expectations, which certainly won’t happen on Case’s watch. •
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