Epistolary Rex, The Sharp Hunger for Letters: Conversations with Peter Case

A poetic series of ruminations between a journalist and his subject, a folk-hero rebel rocker, who celebrate years of friendship by exploring the rocky, jolting, and quasi-spiritual experiences that shaped both of their lives.

Excerpted from Epistolary Rex by © Peter Case and David Ensminger, published Sept. 2011. Copyright © LOTD Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission of LOTD Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Over ten years ago, my wife and I stumbled towards the manicured lawns of a suburb stretching southwest out of Houston’s megalopolis to a bookstore in search of Peter Case, where I said "hello" as he flipped through Louvin Brothers CDs. Since then, I have interviewed him several times for publications, like Left of the Dial and Thirsty Ear, and written about him at length for the Houston Press and here on PopMatters.

Twice Grammy-nominated, he merges exquisite songwriting with a deeply burrowed conscience, a quick-witted knowledge of history and lore, and a keen taste for literature of all stripes, from the Bible and Rimbaud to Northrop Frye and Luc Sante. As an unrepentant rock 'n' roller whose bands the Nerves and Plimsouls bridged black musical terrain with punk urgency, he paved the path for generations.

Our shared interests in outsider artists, Beatnik writers, and visionaries propelled us to write a spontaneous ‘instant novel’ culled directly from email exchanges in July.

As Peter writes, we were “inspired by hero Allen Ginsberg’s letters with his peers, and other documents of the once-upon-a-time counter-culture, in this day (and night) of materialist madness and right wing surges world-wide, while the people of the earth suffer. Visions, dreams, childhood memories, tales of the street, surrealist echoes of the horrors and bliss of the daily quo-tidian, along with off-the-cuff songs, word pictures of forgotten people and places, whispers of deep longings and other candid revelations ...”

Here is a taste from the book due out in mid-September. The informality and intimate style is part of an epistolary tradition.

David Ensminger writes:

The Ramones, The Nerves, 1977…

I feel odd, being the baby brother to all that night prowlin,' rock 'n' roll hollerin,' off-the-cuff visions in America still fueled (tho now in Guitar Hero fantasy wish fulfillment) in part by Kerouac's dream of asphalt all-night kicks...

But now the roads are sideswiped by immense commerce and box stores, baseball diamonds and park benches are paid for by corporate schemes in the heartland, even in the swagger of cosmopolitan metropolis midnights.

Being a kid brother when the Ramones and Nerves hit Poison Apple on the highway a stone's throw from my cookie cutter ranch house, where Michael and Laura picked rocks from the old farmland, so Dad could plant the veldt green oasis he dreamed of years earlier in the Missouri trailer park, where grandpa held court.

You unrolled the songs in tense hectic two minute rock'n'roll haikus, compressed history of Chuck Berry and girlpop and the Kinks coil maybe, some new kind of punk thing still in genesis stage, being born on the spot, the Ramones waiting to point the van down the flat gray highway to the next gig where kids would tear holes in their jeans to become Joey's fabled army.

I prepped for school down at Ralston, the humdrum redbrick asylum of boredom, where I studied guns from World War II at the library and devoured the Hardy Boys and monster matinees from mock-macabre television host Son of Svengoolie's outer reach.

Teachers yelled at me for cutting chunks out of my hair instead of making the clay turn into fine forms. Teachers yelled at me for kissing the cheek of a girl, sideswiping her with the slight skin of Aphrodite. Teachers yelled at me for not saying the pledge of allegiance in 4th grade, standing in the corner, smelling the old paint and winter muck.

A bald teacher sent kids into the one-acre nature conservatory, where the bees bumbled, kids dashed and darted, and he attempted to induce us into transcendental meditation as others played rough 'n' ready football.

I thank all those teachers who yelled, who tried to pry us apart long enough for a tiny vision Xeroxed from Thoreau's pond, those who let me pen the biography of Johnny Rotten, because anger is an energy that became my engine of ingenuity.

I sent the Rotten collage to my brother, who placed it on the old refrigerator in Chicago's sour side, where bums pissed in his window during the night, pooling like petrol in the kitchen.

He put me in punk clothes, guided me unharmed through Cabrini Green on a bus as Bauhaus housing project hallways ricocheted with gunfire. We wound up in Grant Park, fountains dark and mysterious as huge spiders.

I painted for the first time in his dank front basement room, terrible jolted messes, heap-mounds of smelly paint. Mom sent along Dinty Moore Beef Stew; he heated it on the clanky stove, in the can. I read chapter after chapter of The Once and Future King at the table, as the others went dead sleepy.

In the car, a homemade tape of London Calling whirled as my sister drove us to ice cream on the waterfront. After she left, I stayed one more night, wanting my brother to fill the void in my life, the brother who tumbled out of the house when I was nine, only to return with peroxide hair and smoke-fouled hand gripping punk LPs.

Punk rock came to me like secret language of the living, a truth tonic, like a soothsayer in tangled two chords, like a golden oldie tune dynamited, like a bold endless rush of saccharine, like a new skin, inviting me in, like a creed and ethos waiting for me to figure them out.

It was the only door that opened and didn't feature the band director's wormy eye, the softball coach's beer belly, the basketball coach's insurance schtick, or the teachers' limp lessons.

It held me like a baby brother, ready for the wolves...

I was bitten, I was bugged, I was kicking back at the slack. The music fused into my spleen. The true escape and redemption burst just a beat away. Later, on the drum kit I could pummel the nervous system of the state, one slender splintered stick at a time.

I wish I could sell Marshall McCluhan by the pound at the local grocery store, down in the overlit aisles, next to shrinkwrapped Green Giant tomatoes at Target, where the red dot sees everything.

Got a bum leg of love, got jilted by the economic infrastructure of American laissez faire spending sprees, got jobless paranoia, got erection problems, got two kids and no future but in paradise of low-end luxury, take some McCluhan man.

If they snuck up to me to figure the McCluhan produce, I'd lean in their ear, a bit musty and kink-haired, whispering down deep, "Get yr fix now. No more cute-rate discounts. No more bird-brain. No more robot life. Think. Dispel. Decontrol."

Undo those backward flights into backwash memories meant to keep you fixated on then when now is screaming.

We cruised the dirty backside of Galveston yesterday, where the boat welders boil in the heat next to the flat gray-green water, where the quarry rocks mumble. The Ruts played "Babylon's Burning" in the CD player, storks massed and dove into water warm as a bath tub, plumbers and painters disappeared behind Victorian fences, and stores sold us cupcakes with five inches of frosting, heavy and white as a softball.

We pulled up next to a daycare I thought was empty: crusty paint, homemade all around, faded bright colors, storefront blues. Starting to aim my camera at the naive art that constituted their signage, I saw the kids pressed against the lower window dusty panes, eyeballing me with mistaken glee. Was I their displaced daddy?

This is where the kids go ... this is where the day ends, in the heatstroke draft coming in from the gulf, in the shadow of smeared doors.

The island that has no record stores. The island where Ramblin’ Jack still hits the club where the roaches spin from underneath tacked faded flyers, drunk on old glue. Where the B-52s turn the rebuilt Opera House into a love shack, into a private Idaho, into a new wave volcano, even as hurricane emptied stores lurk.

As a kid, instead of Punch and Judy, I had Davey and Goliath, 6AM every Saturday morning, free by myself in front of the TV, don't bother me. I gotta feel normal for half an hour, after all-night insomnia, sleeping in the shag-carpeted hallway, petrified of the cicada buzzing on window and the gong of tall wooden clock.

Leave me alone. I'd head to the backyard, fake Civil War gun ready and willing in my hands, ready for dirt bike stretches of beaten patches of forest. Big holes where the one-eyed freaks supposedly lived, next to the field of clover, next to the pits where we buried torn fragments of porn, next to drainage pipes where we melted our action figures with WD-40 blazes, where we watched the broken hearted man scurry down the gravel in his pissed-off car, hit a ditch, and propel in the air like a dying two ton beetle.

The great dane across the street, snapping at my mutt of a dog, scurrying, yanking the iron pole outta the ground in fury. The dead guy in the garage across the street, gas curlicuing around his limp body. The neighbor dad holding off cops with a hunting rifle, kids fleeing across our backyard. The hot air balloon catapulting to the ground behind mom and dad’s garden, where they tried to grow Georgia peanuts and corn, misshapen carrots and beans.

Where the transformer blew up in a humungous cough, the dog ditched under the bent fence line, and I stared at the neighbor's bikini. Playing Run DMC on the green chunk of furniture with the plastic LP player: "It's like that, and that's the way it is...”

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