To pinch from a Roky Erickson song, Peter Case lives in a time of his own.
On "Paradise, Etc.," the lead-off track from Flying Saucer Blues, Case lurks in the stratosphere, in his personal twilight zone: "The blue serene, the hyaline, seventh heaven on cloud nine, the realm of light, the world above, milk and honey and a snow white dove ... I'm stuck in this primordial ooze with a case of the flying saucer blues."
In dreams Case plumbs for songs, and mines them from the murky fringe between wakefulness and unconsciousness. "Several albums were written in dreams," he said in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where he was preparing to finish the last song — very much awake — for a new album. "I go into an active imagination state. It's mysterious to me. There are moments of heightened perception and the pressure drops and the atmosphere changes when songs are coming. Like you're loading up the lines. It's almost like speaking in tongues at times."
Case is one of contemporary music's most versatile troubadours. Over the past seven solo albums and several records with bands, his work has spanned country, folk, blues, and power-pop. Always intelligent, always clever, with an economy and preciseness of language, Case packs complex short stories into three or four minutes.
Released in 2000, Flying Saucer Blues, (Vanguard), shelters losers and lovers, heroes and villains, characters in situations that, although they're plucked from Case's individual experience, have universal appeal.
"I've learned to create the songs and not to mess with them very much," Case explains. "I want them to be alive and in the present."
While in his 20s, the Hamburg, N.Y. native moved west and busked on the streets of San Francisco — another source of inspiration for the personalities who populate his songs. Case then joined the Nerves, an L.A. power trio whose "Hanging on the Telephone" became a hit for Blondie. In the early '80s, Case then formed the Plimsouls, where he penned the effervescent, hook-filled gems like "Zero Hour" and "A Million Miles Away."
The Plimsouls disbanded in 1983, and Case went solo. Raw, basic, with literary undercurrents, Case's music contradicted the synth-heavy, Flock of Seagulls wasteland that characterized much of that decade. Nevertheless, Geffen Records signed Case, where he released several records. But in true major-label fashion, Geffen didn't know how to promote the singer-songwriter (it was probably too busy pushing those dreadful Elton John albums); yet the label held Case hostage to his contract.
Case finally extricated himself, and in a case of serendipity, met someone from the revered folk imprint, Vanguard, on a bus en route to a folk festival. "It was the first time I had a home for my music," noted Case, who has issued four discs on the label. "The reason I went solo is to try to inject the possibilities and love for what you're doing in the present, rather than defer them. I'm always trying to reach in for the juice."
Flying Saucer Blues is awash with the primordial ooze of American roots music: the bluesy shuffle of "Cool Drink of Water, and "Two Heroes," the gorgeous folk pacings of "Blue Distance," which features Greg Leisz on pedal steel guitar; the dark pop of "Something Happens."
Case's new record is due in August; it will feature him on guitar, slide guitar, and piano, plus his tried-and-true trio of drummer Sandy Chila, bassist David Jackson, and multi-instrumentalist and producer Andrew Williams.
Puzzlingly, Case's following remains more underground than mainstream. "People come up to me and say, 'Why haven't I heard of you?'" Case says, chuckling. "When I was a kid, I heard those ramblin' blues guys like Robert Johnson. I emulated those kinds of people. Here I'm in my 40s and I'm a completely underground singer myself. It's a good place to be, in a way. You can catch people by surprise; it fits with the message of the music."
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Thursday, April 4
1719 Blanco Road
Discography of Peter Case:
The Man With the Blue Post-Modern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar;
Six-Pack of Love;
Sings Like Hell;
Full Service No Waiting;
Flying Saucer Blues
With the Plimsouls:
Everywhere at Once;
The Plimsouls Plus;
Hard-to-find, but worth the search: Zero Hour EP, The Plimsouls, One Night in America
With the Nerves:
The Nerves, also a self-titled EP, now out-of-print