As a kid, Peter Case played for years at the Hamburg, New York, Unitarian church, before dropping out of school at 15 and running away to the West Coast. Since then, he's been a party to nearly every rock movement of the last 30 years. He was a homeless busker singing on the streets of San Francisco; he wrote a new wave anthem, "Hanging on the Telephone," that was covered by Blondie; his band, the Nerves, put 28,000 miles on a Ford LTD station wagon opening for the Ramones. A few years later, in 1982, he was in Los Angeles fronting a band called the Plimsouls, authors of the frenetic power-pop love song "A Million Miles Away." Case and his band even performed the tune themselves in the teen romance flick Valley Girl.
Then, far faster than it arrived, the fame evaporated, and Case returned to the acoustic guitar -- an ex-rocker with a passion for folk and the blues.
"This is what I was called to do," says Case. "Somewhere in the middle of the Plimsouls, I started writing these story songs, and I started to get back to Mississippi John Hurt. When the band thing ended, I had an apartment, I got a Gibson Hummingbird acoustic guitar and it all started coming back to me."
Still, it hasn't been easy, fingerpicking his way back to the modest flicker of fame he enjoyed all too briefly. Case's re-emergence in 1984 left the fans of his Byrds-inspired rock and pop material confused, and for years his label, Geffen, barely promoted him. No one knew quite what to do with the guy who threw away the skinny ties and granny sunglasses to be an anti-hipster troubadour in a loose-fitting jacket. In some ways, Case was as confused as his handlers: It wasn't until 1994, when he turned up on Vanguard Records with a collection of bluesy antiques called Peter Case Sings Like Hell, that he was making music that was comfortable to him.
"I started over again," he says. "But I chose this stuff, and it was musically my love. The Plimsouls songs were like telegrams -- 'million miles away,' stop, 'nothing that can bring you back today,' stop. It's cool, and I love that kind of music, but it's not what I have to do. I love the communication and the contact with the audience when I play the acoustic guitar. The songs tell stories, and though sometimes you feel naked, you can feel the whole room when you play."
That sort of focus is exactly what his sixth and latest solo album, Full Service No Waiting, packs. Written entirely on a '60s-era Smith Corona typewriter (a "manual acoustic word processor," as Case puts it) and a Gibson J-45 in Santa Monica, it is easily Case's most subdued, stripped-down collection of original songs yet. It's also his most personal.
On "See Through Eyes," Case meditates on lost youth like a post-modern Proust: "We laughed and threw it away / Now what I would do / For another pair of see-through eyes." Case's narrator in "On the Way Downtown" returns to his old haunts to reconnect with a past when "anything could happen, anything could change." "Crooked Mile" delivers straight autobiographical details over some furious blues fingerpicking. "Beautiful Grind" is a detailed ode to the positive rigors of family life coming from Case the husband and father. Throughout Full Service, the artist sprinkles in just the right amount of sentiment with a distinct lack of schmaltz.
"It's stories, but with rhythm and intensity," Case says. "The songs are my movies, and they get projected out onto the screen of the people -- songs of love, life and death."
Enriched with rootsy splashes of dobro, harmonica, fiddle and harmonium, Full Service is a vibrant piece of work, its songs Case's best in years, outdistancing earlier idiomatic ballads about ramblers and rogues. "Older than I ever thought I'd be," he sings on "Still Playing," finally seeming like a man comfortable with his calling. And while the music is firmly traditional, this time it's substance over style.
"It's more in line with what I was doing before the bands," says Case. "I love the blues, and country and Celtic music. I think we created something new with this record and put a new twist on it."
With a career as long and varied as Case's, there will always be fans who crave songs from one of his previous phases. And, in his own way, Case has tried to please everyone. In recent years, he's even re-formed the Plimsouls, who continue to tour periodically with the help of Blondie's Clem Burke on drums. For now, though, Case is content to focus on himself.
"My career was always two things," he explains. "[As a kid] I would play at the Unitarian church, and then run across town to play with a garage-rock band. I consider myself now to be both, like a rock and roll folksinger. I've played every kind of gig and club there is, and I can hold my own in any situation, partly because I can be loud when I have to. I'm like a solo four-piece band -- guitar, harp, vocal and stomping foot."
Peter Case performs Saturday, May 9, at Anderson Fair, 2007 Grant. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10. For info, call 528-8576.
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