Peter Case Pries Open His Own Songbook

Peter Case is an authentic American folk-rebel with an underside of punk who has never lost true grit. There’s always something shambolic and slightly gruff, as the outtakes assembled for The Case Files (2011) witness, even when he is strumming sweet impassioned melodies.

Sure, many of his generation have a keen ear for the subtleties and wordplay of writing too, like Dave Alvin and Tom Russell, but Case always seems more persistent, more restless, more chuck-it-all and start from scratch. He’s the perennial outcast in the deluge of Americana music, the lone one who dares recast himself.

This tendency may link to his early years jumping up on stages to shellac a room with blues as a teenager in Buffalo, or the direct-action power-pop insurgency of the Nerves, who scrambled across America in 1977 in a dented car to roomfuls of blank stares. Then Case jettisoned the Plimsouls right as FM radio seemed willing to take them into cruise control land of unlikely hits.

Maybe Case is simply the discontent one, the citizen-singer who never shrinks from the visionary — the one that refuses to accommodate the mediocre and the superficial. That’s why his collection of solo albums over two decades have been required listening for both countercultural bohemians and the well-mannered literati.

Maybe he’s the punk with Bob Dylan and William Blake in his back pocket, or the folk-agitator with a heart of Christ and beatnik sympathies, or the eternally mysterious one, like the neo-Beat poet Harold Norse, who never fit into any easy boxes or categories. Maybe he’s nobody at all, shuffling through songs with a Zen wisdom as moths whir in the night dark as obsidian.

Maybe he’s a San Francisco-minded poet in the shadow of Lawrence Ferlinghetti but linked to Santa Monica and the no-bullshit stirrings of Los Angeles’ underground music scene. Maybe he’s John Fante-meets-John Doe. Or an old world scribe in the mess heap of the digital world.

Case, I argue, is artful and the anarchic: he speaks for the mudsills and the agitated, the weary and browbeaten; the dodgers and the doe-eyed; the prose behind the left-of-center politics; the words in-between the words. He is the intelligent listener, and the one emblazoned with free speech fortitude.

The Case Files opener “(Give Me) One More Mile”, with its raspy, blood-quickened singing and almost garage rock-meets-hoedown delivery, feels urgent and unfeigned. There may be a “diamond beach where the sun never sets”, but the narrator has to survive the asphalt streets on the strip first. His desperation reeks of both prayer and zeal, like an undeterred seeker of dreams that keep slipping beyond his grasp. The narrator’s misgivings, apprehension, and desire boil in the song’s stew.

“Let’s Turn This Thing Around” is littered with the sounds of a rooster, miscellaneous crowd noises, coughs, and bag pipes as the narrator tries to scrape together what’s left of the American conscience in the detritus of the financial system. He wants to restore both democracy and the ideals of Jesus, hence questions the golden chains that keep people manacled.

He offers invective and idealism, like an eyewitness for the revolution that might happen if people turn off their filter systems — apathy, indifference, and ignorance — and tune into the real news. It’s a sober howl, made more powerful by the incidental noises, which are like the urban jungle breathing down his neck.

“Anything (Closing Credits)” is a pared down melodic narrative about “the lies we’ve told” that swirl like smoke above our heads. “Anything that you love will bring you to your knees”, he forewarns listeners, knowing how quickly the heart can survey pain and frustration.

“The End”, a crunching cover of Alejandro Escovedo, is an organ-drenched cascade of guitar swagger. Though it does not veer far from the original in tone or tempo, due to major league Who-style drum pounding and dirt punk guitar interplay, it feels less clean and lithe. Think of it as the grass-stained, scraped knee brother of the original song.

The raw-boned acoustic Rolling Stones classic “Good Times, Bad Times” invokes the battered canvas of lost love. It feels wide open, as if Case is swayin’ lonely and futile in a church, bugged by the hard bites of hard times. In our current overwrought era of plastic perfection, the song feels like a lost museum of analog pigments at work in the soundscape.

“Milk Cow Blues” stems from a sweaty Texas live show in 2005. It is a taunt, terse, and gutbucket stab at Kinks-style blues heroism. His voice rises clear and preternaturally above the walloping bass and slightly shuffling drums, letting Case exhibit some of his raunchy guitarisms that his live shows often catalyze.

Found on the compilation Verb Vol. I (2006), “Kokomo Prayer Vigil” is an intense, dizzying, abrasive bit of spoken word, aimed at “Red Bull hick routines… angry voices on the radio” and preachers getting parishioners riled up on election eve. There’s also border patrol jackboots and super-sized candy populating the song as well. This is the problematic America that Case examines with determined, undimmed eyes.

He bemoans the America that rusts in the glare of all-night gas stations, endless billboards, security zone paranoia, and right wing radio gibberish. He embodies the voice, like Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman before him, that seeks to restore America, to bring back the ragged but free America that housed the characters that filled John Dos Passos and Jack Kerouac novels: the unbeaten and the beatific, the book-minded and the sturdy.

“The Ballad of the Minimum Wage” approaches the same subject matter, though with broader strokes, picturing a dysfunctional “democracy”. This one might feel a bit more like a placard than a poem at times, but the skittering guitar and soulful dollops of organ zing like a Tom Waits’ tune, though Case is not nearly as bleary, blaring, and hoarse as Waits. Instead, he is a journalist leveling his eyes at the poor we exploit, the ones who end up in Wal-Mart crushingly satisfied in the leisure society hierarchy.

“Steel Strings No. 1” is an early, soaring piece of Case, who is almost a stargazer compared to the later version of himself. “Do you want a man of steel, or do you want a man that’s real?” he asks like a bard strolling under a fluorescent moon in this demo from 1986. “Trusted Friend” is also lean and light as the narrator tries to separate the “memories from the junk”. It is sincere, inward looking, and honest as any pop song with a twist. “Black Crow Blues”, rendered from the likes of Bob Dylan, lets Case work the piano and harmonica with aplomb, sing with prowling perfection, but the last song is the real kicker.

“Round Trip Stranger Blues” is a heavy take, again, on what’s happened to paradise as the narrator roams with a “one way ticket to nowhere” and “heart of stone”. Anchored by undulating drums, Case offers a murky, atmospheric, and sonically tangled farewell. Rugged, rollicking, and undeterred, the narrator explores the footsteps of ghosts, one-way tickets to nowhere, hearts of stone, and pleas for a helping hand. With thick spiraling guitars and heavy-footed beats, the vibe resembles late Gun Club meets Chicago tar shack blues.

Assembled and organic, these tracks don’t feel like leftovers or spillovers. They offer powerful testaments of how Case can rig-up popular (and not-so-popular) refrains, inject new life, and send them down the street, darker and more penetrating than ever in range and poignancy. He is the maverick, he is the mercurial one, he is the meaningful one steeped in history, not pop platitudes.