Peter Case Still Practicing "Conscious Continual Compassion"
Peter Case: "How can you have democracy when everything's secret?"
Photo by David Ensminger
Thrice Grammy-nominated Peter Case (the Nerves/Plimsouls) is more than a pithy icon of the punk generation who helped foster the first wave of musical insurrection in both San Francisco and Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. He's also a deeply committed writer of songs, memoirs and poems, whose sinewy, spontaneous work draws upon deeply mined worlds ranging from Woody Guthrie and Beat Generation legends to progressive Latin writer Roberto Bolano, bluesman Big Joe Williams and visionary poet William Blake. He is like a sponge, effortlessly soaking up a diverse array of sources.
Road-testing his fresh-faced work for a new album, Hwy 62, Case is scouring the States this fall, stirring up potent bits of his catalog, too, while revealing his newest concerns. In addition, Case has just released Subterranean Hum, a collection of poetry co-written with yours truly. Rocks Off caught up with Case in San Francisco, where he resides near the ocean in a 100-year-old building surrounded by records galore.
Rocks Off: One of your favorite quotes from Jack Kerouac is "Conscious continual compassion." Has that been a constant ethos throughout your songwriting career? I think of your classic characters like Poor Old Tom. Peter Case: I tell a lot of stories with my music, but it's not always MY story. It's people's untold stories I find interesting -- people buried by circumstance -- struggling with life, sometimes even turning it around.
You became a young adult in a time steeped in historic moments like Watergate. Did the death of [longtime Washington Post editor] Ben Bradlee make you take stock of that generation of political news reporting? Your own songwriting and blog often seem torn right from headlines and issues of the day. I grew up in a time when the government's grip on the news was a little bit looser and coverage of events wasn't quite so tainted by the constant need for "balance" and other non-truth considerations. As long as "whistle-blowers" are being prosecuted like they are now, the big stories will be buried or twisted. How can you have democracy when everything's secret? Democracy needs to be based on people knowing the facts, so they can have a real opinion. That's not happening now; it's all twisted celebrity news.
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That said, my songs are not really "torn from the headlines." I'm trying to make something more moving than that would be. If you write political songs, they wear out quickly...
Speaking of that, recently you experimented with William Burroughs style cut-ups in your blog too; would ever consider that a method for songwriting -- why or why not? That's one technique for getting in touch with the subconscious, but there's a lot of ways to let things happen. The idea is to get in the frame of my mind where new things are happening in the songs...something like "cut-ups" seems to be happening in my mind all the time. It seems like a natural thing.
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I know the Chilean writer Roberto Bolano has deeply impacted you these last few years. What makes his writing so poignant to you? He's inspiring in a way similar to Kerouac. He has an outsider's view and a great eye. But he's made me aware of a viewpoint from outside the USA, a Latin American and South American viewpoint, and a dynamic voice of poverty and justice. Plus, he's very funny, a great storyteller. And he was born the same year I was.
Your late-summer Kickstarter campaign for your thirteenth record, to be called Hwy 62, seems like an enormous success. First, why did you choose the DIY path, and what call you tell me about the songs that might show up on it? Well, people have always told me I've done my best work as an indie: the Nerves' Hanging On the Telephone EP, The Plimsouls' Zero Hour and A Million Miles Away EPs, [solo albums] Sings Like Hell and later Thank You St. Jude, so I thought I'd take another DIY shot. I'm free. I can breathe!
You once described a project to do some field recordings across the country of artists that you find appealing: who would be on the radar for such a proposed project? Oh man, well I can't give up my secret scouting report! And I'm in pretty deep myself, so it would be a while before I could do that. But there is some great talented people out there that are unknown or forgotten, and I get to see them in my travels, so I'd like to do something about it.
Peter Case performs 9:30 p.m. Thursday at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk.
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