Possibly 4th Street #13: Peter Case


This is #13 of Rob Trucks’s “Possibly 4th Street” expositions, a column in which he invites musicians he likes to perform live and impromptu somewhere in New York City. Peruse the rest of them here. — The SOC gaffer

Peter Case plays the Living Room, Saturday, May 17, 154 Ludlow Street, New York.

Pretend you don’t see the Grammy-nominated busker.

Possibly 4th Street

Episode 13, Part One
Peter Case
Text and photos by Rob Trucks

Just barely into a late autumn, early Sunday, New York City afternoon, 53-year-old Peter Case has pretty much come full circle.

By age 14, Case had already plotted his life’s songwriting path. But Buffalo is no place for buskers (too damn cold ALL THE TIME), so Case quit high school, went west and performed on the streets of San Francisco. Karl Malden and Michael Douglas weren’t there, but Allen Ginsberg was.

“Him and Orlovsky,” Case says, “They would come out. I used to play right across from City Lights every night. I used to sleep in City Lights. They let me sleep upstairs. I’d read books and I’d sleep and like I’d wake up and go out and play when it got dark out.”

These early street singing exploits are faithfully rendered in Case’s recently published book, As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport. But eventually the self-sufficient troubadour traded San Francisco for Los Angeles, acoustic for electric. He played in the Nerves (their single “Hanging on the Telephone” was later covered by Blondie) and the Plimsouls (best known for “A Million Miles Away,” three and a half minutes of power pop bliss found on the Valley Girl soundtrack), but Case has been on his own— again—for over twenty years now.

Today, after a short set for Dave Marsh’s live morning radio show for Sirius, Case is still in midtown. And obviously tired, if not exhausted. You can tell by his shuffle. And so we put the kibosh on our planned expedition out to Williamsburg in favor of a quick slice at Famous Ray’s or Original Ray’s or Original Famous Ray’s and a busking session in front of a Starbuck’s at 47th and Broadway.

This is also where one of the doubledecker bus lines stops to pick up its troupe of treadmill tourists. A captive audience, it would appear. ut they, as well as more excitable excursionists travelling to and from their nearby expensive hotel rooms, ignore the blues-belting Case.

It is a calculated move. AVOID the bone-weary busker. DO NOT make eye contact. As in, these tourists are going OUT OF THEIR WAY not to notice the Grammy-nominated (his latest, Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John, was up for Best Traditional Folk album, but lost to Levon Helm’s Dirt Farmer) singer-songwriter.

Peter’s older now and, at least for today, noticeably more fatigued. It’s warmer of course, and more crowded, but on this corner is a man and his guitar and some songs that no one, in this setting, on this day, cares to stop and hear.

In that sense it’s a lot like Buffalo, almost forty years before.

Possibly 4th Street
Episode 13, Part 2
Say Hi
by Rob Trucks

Peter Case

We’re all in the Americana family now:
Case was once nuptially entwined with singer-songwriter Victoria Williams who later married former Jayhawk Mark Olson

One thing Peter Case has never done:
“I never played professional football.”

Something he’s done once and one time only:
“I wrote a song once with Willie Dixon, and we didn’t finish it and I never got a chance to come back and finish it. I went to his house and hung out. It was a bright moment.”

The name of a book he’s read at least twice:
“Oh God, I have to read books twice or I don’t remember them. Dante. The Inferno. I’ve read that three times.”

Do you own a rake?

So, you busked just last Christmas . . .
“The last time I went and played on the street was, over Christmas I went out and played, with my friend Buddy Zapata. He’s like a blues player out there (California), and we went over to Pasadena, just out on like the big main drag out there. It was like a million people out and we played for hours. We had little amplifiers. I was playing like a Harmony guitar through this little amp that Buddy had, and we were just playing all blues material. We hung around and played for a while and people were throwing money at us.”

What was the impetus?
“I hate to tell you what the impetus was [Laughs]. But it just seemed like a good idea.”

At the time.
“Yeah. I mean, I used to play on the street for a living, you know. And being an independent artist in the current atmosphere, you know, it’s never that far away. It’s good to have a line of work to fall back on.”

Did you busk in Buffalo before you left? Because you left at a pretty young age.
“No, there’s no busking in Buffalo. I played on the street, but I mean I just played on the street because I didn’t have a place to stay. But we never thought we were busking. I didn’t busk until I got to San Francisco.”

Did you start busking right away?
“I worked a couple odd jobs. I was the office boy at a sex magazine for a while, and then I got a job remodeling a guy’s apartment, like a rich business man. And then I was starting to meet people out on the street and he came back to the apartment I was remodeling. It was a second apartment. It had like Warhols and stuff in it. I had a bunch of people in there like drinking wine and playing guitar and he threw us all out. And that day I went out and played on the street for real for the first time.”

Were you pretty much done with busking by the time you moved to Los Angeles?
“Oh yeah. The last time I really busked for real was July 4th, 1976.”

And “busking for real” means busking because you need the money?
“Because you’re dead broke and it’s a great way to make money. I mean I did it steadily ’73, ’74, ’75, right up in there. But at that point in ’76, my band The Nerves was starting to take off. I think we were waiting to get the singles back of ‘Hanging on the Telephone,’ and when we got that back we just moved to L.A. and I didn’t busk again.

“I mean, I might’ve busked. We were pretty desperate at different times. Like I know we were stranded on the Nerves tour. We went out as the opening act for the Ramones in ’77, but we couldn’t make it back. We didn’t have enough money to get back, and I think I might’ve played on some street corners. I know I did other things for bread because those were crazy times.
“When my first solo record came out I played on the street in Denver at one point. You know, one thing playing on the street gave me was like a sense of comfort in public. You know, a certain sense. I mean, it’s not like it’s the easiest thing in the world, but it just gave me some sort of feeling. I guess I always felt sort of like at home on the street. It was always something about the way I felt about life. It was like the street was a place. It was like my living room, you know. And it really became that, as I sang on the street a lot, every night, on and on and on and on, that I just felt really comfortable to go out and just start singing, make a fool of myself on the street corner.”

When you’re writing an album, are you looking for a tone in the way that, say, Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town maintains a tone? Or is it more, These are the last twelve songs that I wrote?
“Neither really. Like for this album I wrote lots of songs. I wrote a lot of songs in different periods, so there was a lot of different kinds of material. And then we could’ve gone different ways with what the tone of the record would’ve been, but I decided that I wanted to record solo and do it like that, and then, you know, select the songs out of the whole group.

“I don’t really tend to write albums that much. I’ve done it a couple of times. I worked with Steve Earle a little bit in the ‘80s, just trying to write stuff and hang out and talking a lot, and his thing was, ‘Peter, I just write albums, man. I just don’t fool around writing songs.’ He’s very focused and professional. But a lot of times I get the songs I write, like they just come into me, and sometimes they don’t have anything to do with something I’m really going to perform right away. It’s just somehow the pressure changes in the room, in my head as I feel this thing. It’s a feeling and then you write the song and it comes out, and it might not be very useful to you, but you’ve written it. You’re trying to keep your flow going, you know. So I write a lot of things that I don’t even record, you know, just goofy songs and all sorts of stuff. But once or twice I did write a whole album, and I didn’t do it with a tone in mind, but like the tone kind of just comes out of your body, you know, and how you feel.

“You’re touching the guitar in a certain way and you’re trying to approach it a certain kind of way and you’re feeling things a certain kind of way and then, you know, you start to get something back from doing it. And then you do start editing it so that you’re going in the direction you want to go, that you feel like is the right idea. But, you know, a lot of it is intuitional. It’s very variable, you know, from moment to moment.

Give me an example of a record that you wrote as an album.
Full Service No Waiting. On Full Service, you know, I was married and there were little kids around, my kids and everything, and I couldn’t write so I rented a room from this guy Dark Bob, my friend, like he had a room in this building. I just went to this room and I wrote. I’d get there, and I was so busy all the time that I just was happy to be able to get to it and I would just walk in and the second I got in there I’d just start writing. And I’d write right off the top of my head onto the typewriter. I could hear the music in my head and I would just write and write and write. And I had a script of what I wanted to accomplish there, like what kind of songs I was going to write. And I just did it. I knocked out that whole album like that. And then I came back, trying to do it again, and I got about halfway into it and all of a sudden I felt self-conscious. You know, it was a diminishing return, and then I just gave up on that completely.

“And now, on this latest record (Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John), I wrote in the middle of the night. I would fall asleep and then wake up at like three in the morning and the songs would come to me and I was in that little kind of feeling you get when you’ve been asleep and kind of like your defenses are down and then all of a sudden like weird things are occurring to you and stuff. So I wrote the book and the album in that kind of state, but lately I haven’t been waking up in the middle of the night. Something else will probably happen.”

You’re waking up at three o’clock in the morning as if your body’s telling you, “This is what you need to do.”
“Yeah, I would just wake up some nights and have a song to write. A lot of nights. I wrote a lot of songs like that. It was a really disturbing period, you know. It was when the war was breaking out in Iraq and Darfur and all that stuff was going on. All sorts of stuff. I feel like it’s in the ether, you know? It wakes you up sometimes in the middle of the night. Like sometimes you wonder why you woke up. It’s probably because some horrendous shit’s going down somewhere.”

I know that you usually write very quickly, but is there a particular song you’ve recorded that took a long time to get right?
“There’s some songs I’ve labored over, but I can’t remember ever really getting hung up on one that turned into a good song.”

Good enough to record?
“Good enough to want to sing. To keep singing. Like you get to a point like you play it once and you get burnt out on it. The whole trick is to find a song you want to sing, you know.”

That’s the higher standard.
“If you don’t have a song that you feel good about sitting in front of people, looking them in the eye and singing, you just have to keep going. But there’s been songs that I’ve labored over.

“Like there’s a song called “Spell of Wheels” on Full Service. I wrote that with my son Joshua. And that song was about a trip that he’d taken, and so I was writing about something that he’d done, sort of showing him how like you could write a song based on real life, you know.

“It took a long time. We had like an endless song. Here’s the weirdest part. I started that song when I was 19 in ’73, when I was on a car trip of my own. And then I finished it 19 years later when he was 19. And it was about his car trip. So I wrote the chorus and then the verse and the story of the song came from his story. But the theme of the song was from my thing, and it came together. So that’s probably the longest thing I ever worked was 19 years [laughs].”

Do songwriters have a greater capacity for feeling than non-writers?
“No, I don’t think so. Everybody in the world’s got an incredible story. And like, everybody in the world is an authentic something. And everybody in the world’s got an incredible story. They live on this planet that flies, you know, millions of miles above . . . . There’s nothing . . . Everybody’s in the danger zone and, you know, everybody’s born, everybody dies. It’s an incredible situation and so everybody feels it, but the songwriter is the person who finds the story. And I know how to tell the story and I know how to use words. And that’s just what I do. I have a drive to do that. It’s like my inborn drive.”

Well, it’s not just a drive. It’s a gift as well.
“And I have a gift to do it too. And like I don’t know where exactly that comes from. It is a gift. I have certain gifts, like everybody else does, and I have gifts in songwriting. Other songwriters have different gifts. But like my gifts are my gifts. I come from a family that tells stories and I come from people that love words. I myself have like a real love of speech and the sounds of speech and things like that. I’ve always been into it. It’s just always attracted me. I also have the drive to play music and perform. But I don’t think I feel life more seriously than like that football player on TV right over there.”

One way to look at it as a gift is that you’re good at what you want to do.
“It could be a gift or a curse. It depends on how your life turns out. It just is who you are. Like everybody’s got different gifts, and different things happen in life. You know, you end up doing things you never thought you’d do and stuff.”

But you had choices. You could’ve been something besides a songwriter.
“I guess, but you know, starting from the time I was 14 I was really seriously comitted as a songwriter. I dropped out of school at 15, a year before it was legal, left home, moved in with a bunch of musicians, hitchhiked all around, and ended up on the West Coast. And, you know, I could’ve done something else, but it never occurred to me to really want to do anything else. It’s not like I was going to be a lawyer or try Iraq for a few years and if it didn’t work out . . .

“You know, when I started out I didn’t even really think I was going to have a big career. I just wanted to play. I told that to American Songwriter magazine, and the guy, you know, his own comment in there was something like MTV dreams are the same in Hollywood as they are in Buffalo as they are in Nashvegas, you know. And for starts, there wasn’t MTV when I started out. That was not my dream, you know. My dream is a different dream.
“I’m just a writer, you know, a songwriter trying to do my thing, you know, trying to express things real vividly, so I could create some things, like these moments, you know. Like I’m obsessed by time and by the passage of time, and in a sense you almost capture a moment in a song. And if you really capture it right, it continues to live in that moment. It’s like a little movie or a hologram or a memory, you know, that’s right there. Every time you return to it you’re back there. You’re with those people, for example, or you’re saying that thing or you’re seeing this thing. And that’s what I see when I play my gigs, when I play songs. I’m in those different places.

“Right now my powers are different than they were a few years ago. I have this song called ‘Entella Hotel’ on the Blue Guitar record. I was exhausted, kind of the way I am right now, and I went back to this pad I was living at and there was nobody there, and I drank a cup of coffee about midnight and I started writing this song, and I got the first line. The first line was ‘There was no way of telling on the first day in town how far it was from the Greyhound Station to midnight and always.’ And I don’t know why that was the line but that was the line. And then I’m thinking like, ‘What am I going to do with that?’ And all of a sudden I’m like writing this song that has like this insane weird rhyming thing happening, and like it was just this very vivid picture of this place. So I wrote the first verse about that, and I wrote the second verse about the cop that was a real cop, and I just captured the whole thing, you know. Everything in the song was real. I was done with the song and I was like, ‘Wow, that was intense.’ I wrote this song. I went up and I laid in bed. It took me a couple of hours to write that, and then all of a sudden I can’t go to sleep. I’ve got to write the end of the song. I haven’t written the third verse. I don’t even know what it’s going to be. So I go down then the third verse just all comes. And then it was like a very satisfying song because it really captured something I knew in a pretty vivid way. It’s not perfect, but it captured something pretty vividly, you know.”

And you feel really good about it.
“My brother-in-law, who never thought I was much of anything, like he said when heard that he all of a sudden realized I was good, you know.”

You said that decided to become a songwriter at the age of 14. Did something happen that helped you with that decision? Was there a moment?
“I started writing songs when I was 14. And I was writing all sorts of weird 14-year-old poetry. You know, I had a girlfriend with long straight hair. She thought I was great. I’d read her my poetry. It was like ridiculous, you know, and I don’t know what I would get out of that and think that I could it, but a little while later I wrote that song that’s on the new album. When I was 15 I was already writing songs that older people were playing in Buffalo, you know. Like I wrote a song that was a break song for like blues bands in Buffalo and I wrote another song that like older people wanted to hear and that was sort of the first sign. “But earlier than that I decided I was going to do it. I don’t know, you know. I just thought that’s what I wanted to do. I mean, I don’t know if I was just, you know, goofing around. It’s just one thing led to another. I was just really into it. I was serious about it. I don’t know what the moment was, though.

“I do know that like my parents, my mom and dad would say, ‘You can be anything you want to be in life,’ when I was little. So the one thing I wanted to be, they hated. It’s like, ‘You can be anything you want to be except the thing you want to be (laughs). But I just loved it, you know.

“I grew up in a family with music. Like my big sister was a real good piano player, jazz stuff, Fats Waller. She played like stride piano, boogie woogie. So I grew up in a house with like kind of like crazy stuff going on and I’ve got it in my body, because you get it in your body from being around people. I think a lot of my blues feeling came from that because ever since I was a cell, you know, there was like blues going on in the house: Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, all that crap. And it just was always on in the house, you know.

Your sister played music but your parents didn’t?
“No, my parents didn’t play it. My sisters played it. My mother liked it. My father didn’t go for that stuff. He liked Dixieland. His big line, like if he dug something, was, ‘That’s hot’ [laughs].”

I’m sure your parents didn’t want you to drop out of school, and they probably didn’t want you to do the songwriter thing because it’s not the most stable of professions. Did they ever come to terms with it? That this was what you were meant to do?
“Yeah, eventually they did. My dad told me before he died, he said he was wrong because he didn’t realize that like all the guys that were on the straight track taking management positions and all this stuff, you know, that they were all getting laid off. I guess this was in the late ‘80s or ‘90s. And all these guys he knew, they had come up and played by all the rules, and they were all getting screwed. And now, of course, we all take it for granted that you don’t work for the same company, but back then it was a shocker. It was a shocker that people would give up that much of their young life and then be looking for a job at 45. And so he said to me, ‘You know, you were right. You did something you love and you can make it work. I take back. You’re right.’ But you know, whatever.

That had to be more meaningful than whatever.
“Yeah, that was a nice thing for him to say.”

I mean, we all want our parents to be proud of us.
“My mother, when she heard my first record, she was not that supportive. Like my first record came out when I was like 22 or something, 23, and her scrapbook on me starts 10 years later when I got a good review from the New York Times. Like Robert Palmer went nuts over my first record. Like went crazy over it. Loved it. That’s page one of the scrapbook. Nothing up to then [laughs].”

But it’s got to feel good to have your dad say, ‘You’re right. You did what you wanted to do.’
“When my dad was dying, he was like on his last days, I spent a lot of time with him. I was with him when he died. At one point, he was going through like heart failure, congestive heart failure. It was like a long run. At one point he said, ‘Get your guitar.’ He wanted me to play this like ‘Coulda Shoulda Woulda’ I wrote. And he wanted me to play it over and over again. So I’m playing this song, this like really goofy song . . . I played it over and over for him. I sat there and played it for him. But my mother, like when I play an emotional song, my mother’ll go, ‘Please stop.’”

The final days with your dad have to be full of those bright moments. Can you write about that or is it off-limits because it’s too close? Have you ever tried to write about it?
“Yeah, I’ve written things about it, but not for public consumption. It hasn’t added up. I mean, I’ve definitely written about it, but I mean I was with him when he died and there’s things about dying, you know. I mean, for one thing, he’s like still your dad. Like he’s still doing things first, you know. I got to be with him while he goes off into the unknown. I mean, it looked like he was seeing something, you know. He was like all of a sudden like . . . It felt really heavy, you know. But you know, what I’m going to do with that, I don’t know.”

It’s not for public consumption because it’s not as good as you want it to be, or because it’s too personal?
“Well, yeah. It’d be public once it gets to a point where like it would add up to something for me. And it’s just not there yet, you know. I don’t try to force it. When things add up to a certain point then I do them and when they don’t I don’t. There’s not sort of a medium area where it’s almost kind of okay. It’s like you know it or you don’t. And I’m not even near having something to write about that. I mean, a lot of people go through it, you know. Like everybody in this society right now has gone through this thing with old parents, you know. So I mean, I want to write about it. Dave Alvin wrote a beautiful song called ‘The Man In The Bed.’ Great song about that whole situation, you know. Great song about it, but for me it hasn’t added up to that yet.”

Peter Case plays the Living Room, Saturday, May 17, 154 Ludlow Street.

photo by Rob Trucks

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 16, 2008

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