Ever since the tumult and turmoil of the late-1960s, when Peter Case was a lean hectic teenager hitching himself to songcraft, he has been searching. Using the naked compass of writing to find his bearings in the world, he followed varied, vivid paths: strident Yippie countercultural rebellion in his band Pig Nation; pared down tunes with proto-punk urges in the Nerves, in which he helped germinate tunes like “Hanging On the Telephone”; and fecund grass-roots American pop with rich melodies and tight Memphis rock’n’roll sway in the Plimsouls.
Then, starting in the mid-1980s, he struck out alone for four decades, earning three Grammy nominations, including Best Traditional Folk Album in 2007, confirming proof of his spirited originality, natural intellect, and ongoing visions. And each gig at Mucky Duck, a yearly stopover for him, including November 19, offers a glimpse into both his workaholic prowess – his ceaseless devotion to the hothouse of songs – and his churning moods, emotive wellspring, and poetic consistency.
Case has witnessed so much, as the social upheaval of the 1960s, when the confines of conformity were torn asunder even in his hometown of Buffalo. Then he immersed himself in San Francisco street performances in the early 1970s in the raucous unit Frozen Chosen. Soon, the decade shifted underfoot, and Case propelled the back-to-basics promise of punk’s musical and lexical drift toward brevity and concision by cutting a single with the Nerves (with singer and guitarist Jack Lee). They toured DIY and starved across the country, where they met the Ramones and Pere Ubu. Plus, Case booked the first gigs in Los Angeles by bands like the insurgent Weirdos.
In the groundbreaking Plimsouls, he wooed listeners with honest, earthy, hip-shaking music (like the indelible "A Million Miles Away” and “Zero Hour”) and witnessed college rock’s passionate but fatal rise and fall. Then came the ebb and flow of contemporary singer-songwriter terrain, including different labels and studio guests, as music norms and fan consumption have rearranged the marketplace, for better and worse.
But Case hangs on to none of the phantom pain, the romantic neuroses of the past, the luring buzz of faded memories. When playing a set, he may tap an old tune by the Plimsouls, or even Jimi Hendrix for that matter, but it’s in the form of a psychic congress with the tune rather than a hollow play-by-numbers. That is, Case pursues a painterly version of the songs — unprecedented re-tooling in one way or another — that unveils the tunes in bent ways.
For instance, “Waterfall” by Hendrix becomes a pointillist rendition, bare and quivering.
Don’t expect a jukebox of hits, or for him to obey the chokehold of fandom. He never caves-in to learned behavior: play this well-remembered nugget once a set, keep ‘em happy, as if blinkered by an assembly line of expectations waiting to be fulfilled. Instead, Case remains off-the-cuff, conversational, full of changing minds and moods, critiquing himself, the world, and the audience in sly asides. And in doing so, he bends a listener’s sense of time and place.
A few years ago, he told an interviewer that songs used to come so fast, like getting hit by lightning, or as the subject of dreams, like “Hothouse Madmen.” Still, the realities of today have not strayed far from those tendencies.
“Songs still either come or they don't, but it's like a radio station on the air, and I'm pretty tuned into the channel when it's on. You gotta listen for the rustle a song makes as it approaches, and get in a place to get it down. And then there's things you do, and some of them are learned, ways of generating more ideas from the original flash. But the flash always has to be there or forget it.”
And while a music writer like me wants to ascribe some traits or methods in order to gather an understanding of how a tunesmith harnesses specificity versus vagueness, or carefully renders storytelling versus relying on empty pop fluff, Case rejects a ‘one size fits all’ model.
“Songs get authority from the sub-conscious. They don't have to be narrative, or anything else, but in a way, every song tells a story, just like every picture. The best, most powerful, juiciest songs are indefinable, they just get you. There are no rules.”
Currently, Case is cutting two albums, including a blues-heavy outing, with crowdsourcing help. Such is the modern conundrum for many songwriters.
In the past, blues singers didn’t rely on smash hit records. Their legacies were not demarcated by sales figures and projections; instead, their cultural influence and inflection points were measured by their impact on cultural zeitgeists, like the pre-and post-World War II eras, the burgeoning folk music revival, the bloodshed and aftermaths of Civil Rights, the birth of countercultural rock’n’roll, etc. Blues music felt authentic, profound, and current.
“I don't think it's in the air the way it was in the Sixties. there was so much blues everywhere then, in jazz, folk, pop, soul, etc. It was cutting edge. Now, due to so many of us infected with it in youth, it’s all around us in a sort of invisible way. It's there, but it’s gone back to the back streets, or something. There's an underground that uses blues, poetry, jazz, folk, the greatest country music, to tell the stories. America telling its own crazy story, looking for a way out of the maze...”
And while he wrote his first solo album with T. Bone Burnett down in Texas, a sense of place does not always permeate his songs. Sometimes, he seeks new situations, ways to lure the mind into new insight, to dig free of his mind rut, or simply push back against stifling rational sensibilities, like the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud.
This stands in contrast to others of his ilk, like former rockabilly-punk Dave Alvin, who sings about Andersonville and the Shenandoah River, as if inheriting the baton from Merle Haggard, who penned tunes about Kern River.
“A sense of place is important to me, or was, but it's changed ... the place is the place in your mind. Or imaginative, like a Shakespeare play set in Bohemia, but there's a seacoast that’s not there in real life. I was obsessed with places in the 1990s, like New Orleans [like when Case sang “Lake Pontchartrain”], Memphis, New York City, Buffalo, Dublin, Paris, Rome … Katmandu, Timbuktu. But it’s all changed now. I'm still in love and fascinated, but it’s different.”
And even though Case has suffered the loss of friends in recent years, and everyone from maverick photographers (Robert Frank) and enlightened Congressmen (Elijah Cummings) to Beat Generation poets (John Giorno) have died too, Case does not wince or wax elegiac. Instead, he is forceful and forward-looking, not letting himself be paralyzed or pitiful.
“Death is meaningless. It doesn't exist. It's life that's eternal. And we're here for each other. But we need to save the planet from our poisons. It’s time to wake up.”
So, at the Mucky Duck, as he softly strides through the ritual dance of his songs, as the muscles go tense in his neck as he hollers and plunges into the narratives, as he interrupts the noiseless shutter of night, recall the great pile of songs that he has produced. Ask him not to make them smooth again for you, but to make them jagged.
Don’t cling to your dusty impressions, or be matter-of-fact about your nostalgia. Join him as he loosens the black box of history and remembers not the perfunctory but the visionary. Feel how he conveys not encrusted, shabby years, but instead no time at all.
In fact, time will be a mirage, his voice will be the pilgrim guide, and you will be in the whorled grain of it all.
Peter Case, with opener Dead Rock West, is scheduled to perform on November 19 at 7:30 p.m. at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, 713-521-0521. For information, call 713-528-5999 or visit www.mcgonigels.com. $25 plus fees.