A Case of Nerves: An Interview with Peter Case

The Nerves
One Way Ticket

The last time Peter Case toured with the Nerves was in the summer of 1977, when Case, singer Jack Lee and drummer Paul Collins piled into a station wagon for a grueling eight-week campaign across North America. Armed with a self-released EP of some of the greatest power-pop songs ever recorded, the Nerves stunned audiences with tight, frenetic performances of sugar-coated aggression. Supporting acts as disparate as the Ramones and Eddie Money, the Nerves in ’77 were a complete anomaly. Their songs were fast and tough enough to be considered punk, yet their jangly Rickenbacker sound and Beatles-esque harmonies hinted at something beyond that, something closer to a pure adoration of rock and roll that was far too earnest for punk’s disaffected pose.

Weighed down by interpersonal problems and dazed by a nonstop work ethic, the band wouldn’t survive that tour. Just three years into a now-legendary career, the members went separate ways, with Case and Collins switching instruments and reuniting for a while as the Breakaways, then re-splitting to form the Plimsouls and the Beat, respectively. Blondie got ahold of the Nerves’ “Hangin’ on the Telephone” and took it to Number Five on the UK charts, but it failed to benefit the song’s originators much. Both Case and Collins had some success in their post-Nerve careers, with the Plimsouls scoring a top-100 hit with “A Million Miles Away” and the Beat contributing the Caddyshack soundtrack.

Case went completely solo in the mid-‘80s, resulting in a series of heartfelt albums that veered from raw garage rock to experimental pop to sweet, Socal country and harp-yowling blues. He’s been nominated for three grammies — once for the song “Old Blue Car” and twice for Best Traditional Folk Album.

But somehow the inertia created by the Nerves never dissipated, and the legions of fans they cultivated in their early years continued to grow. With an expanded version of the original Nerves EP released in 2008, the time seemed right for a reunion tour. Although band founder Jack Lee was uninterested in reliving the adventure, Collins and Case were game. They booked the tour, loaded the van, and proceeded to rip through North America again in Spring 2012, playing shows that, by all accounts, brought back the energy and purity of those heady days of ’77.

Then it all fell apart again. On March 21, Peter Case and band left Paul Collins in St. Louis, leaving the Nerves in the rear view mirror once again, this time probably for good. PopMatters caught up with Case on the road somewhere in Pennsylvania, as he was finishing the tour without Collins. He didn’t offer details of the split and professed no hard feelings, but some things, he said, never change…

“The whole Peter Case/Paul Collins thing, it did explode, just like the Nerves did in the ‘70s. We got through 25 shows or something like that — they were all good shows, it’s just there were a lot of problems. I can’t sit here and cry about it. It was great while it lasted. It was just super difficult.

Me and Paul, we had a problem back in the ‘70s, and we had another one this time ya know? Just the way it goes. It was terrible what happened — I never left anyone on the road in my career, and I’ve been with the rowdiest people you can imagine.”

Did you feel a sense of déjà vu?

Yeah, in a way I did. Some people, man, something goes down once in their life and they never go back, and I went back because the Nerves were ahead of their time and there’s a lot of good will toward the Nerves and there’s a real art to doing what the Nerves did — and the Plimsouls and those other bands too — which was create rock and roll that’s really memorable and not gimmicky of any particular time. We stopped the other day in Clearlake, Iowa, where Buddy Holly played his last show, and it was really good to see that. There’s pictures of him playing drums for Dion – you can see how much fun they’re having. That Buddy Holly material is timeless material and it was the model for what we were doing in the Nerves and the Plimsouls. There’s an art to doing that, and that was the idea, to come out and play those songs. You can come out and play that stuff and it’s not dated at all. People talk about disposable pop and all that, but we never thought of it that way — rock and roll is for all time. That’s still the way I see it.

It seems like your songs are so finally crafted. Do you work on them forever?

I’ll tell you what it is, man — you write a lot, you get in shape, and the whole level of the craft goes up. I work on them a little bit but, I don’t sit there and work on them forever. Some of them just come instantaneously. Other ones you have to work on. I just keep writing and doing different things, trying to come up with things that surprise me, things that I care about enough to sing.

A lot of young people now, it’s really interesting to see how they orient themselves toward music. It’s different than when I started out in the early ‘60s, playing guitar and singing, there was the ‘50s to look back on and that was it. Now there’s decades and decades of music to figure out.

Back then you’d have one blues album — I had Muddy Waters’ Best Of on Chess and I listened to it so much I wore it out, but after a while I really knew that music. It wasn’t like listening to 15,000 records and trying to figure it out… Things came in one at a time. The Stones albums, the Beatles albums — it unfolded in a logical way. But when a kid comes to music now, they got a hard disc with 30,000 songs on it. It’s how you orient yourself in the chaos of all the recorded history. Learning one thing in depth is more important than learning a million different things.

Do have any comfort music you go back to for inspiration?

Tons of stuff — a lot of ‘20s and ‘30s blues music. Old jazz, rock and roll. I like the far-out surreal imagery of the old blues, the way the guys played it and the way they lived, the whole thing speaks to me.

What happened in L.A. in the ‘80s when all the sudden this roots music explosion seemed to come out of nowhere — the Knitters, Dave Alvin, Gun Club, etc…

Well, I don’t think it came out of nowhere. I was playing roots music before I was in the Nerves. I was a street musician and I fell in with this guy Mike Wilhelm. He had started the first psychedelic band in San Francisco, they were called the Charlatans. Mike was a mentor to Cyril Jordan, he ended up joining the Flamin’ Groovies… He was my guitar teacher, like a mentor/friend, but I was already into the music. The big difference was that the Nerves narrowed it down to two-minute pop songs, rock and roll, the Buddy Holly thing.

I know the same thing happened to John Doe and Exene (of X) — you become more into the earlier influences once you’ve done the rock n roll thing for a while, and once you connect those dots it deepens the whole thing. It’s a natural step as you get out of your early 20s, but also, that music was in the air when we were children. The older people that were coming out of college then were really into the blues thing — Lightnin’ Hopkins, I saw him play when I was 15, hitchhiked over to Boston… Those guys were around and they were active. It didn’t come from out of nowhere, it just seems like that looking back. It was something that was in our hearts already — you can hear that in X and in the Plimsouls.

How was your solo turn received by people who had just got into new wave or punk and all the sudden you’re back to playing blues?

It’s a good question — when I went solo it seemed like a radical thing to do but I felt like I had to do it because I was really into this new kind of songwriting. Some of the fans went with me and some didn’t. I’ve kind of created a whole new world of fans from the music I do and then it comes together now with the people who come out to see me… It’s all part of the same picture — when I was a kid, Neil Young could play acoustic or come out and just totally rock out with Crazy Horse, it didn’t matter…

Like how back in the day you might have BB King playing with Jefferson Airplane or something…

Right, it was more connected. Now it’s got split up into a thousand different pieces. Me, I’m not a fan of any certain genre. I’m a fan of artists. I like the musician. You know, speak to me — I don’t just like power pop, I like the people who are great at it. It’s the same with blues.

It seems like you follow that bluesman archetype…

Yeah, there’s a certain similarity — I’m on my own, I’m independent. I just kind of make my way. I don’t want to get hung up in the straight world, or any hassles to take me out of my music. In that sense I always did dig that archetype but I know there’s huge differences in my situation. I always really admired those people for being themselves against almost insurmountable odds. Also, there’s an existential freedom to just being a folk singer and going wherever with your guitar. Sometimes with a band, it’s like it gets to be a business…

How is your writing going? You’ve done a couple books…

Oh yeah, I got one book that’s like the whole story, me playing on the streets, going down to Mexico. The next part of it’s all about the Nerves and the Plimsouls and going solo. It’s like a whole adventure. It’s not like the diary of rock star, but like the diary of a person trying to unravel the mysteries of music on the road, not just the touring road, but the road, period. I’m hoping to get it out next year.

Will there be a chapter on the latest developments of the Nerves saga?

There might be. I don’t know — I’ve written a bunch of stuff. I got another book called Epistolary Rex, which is more spontaneous, kind of beat oriented. Maybe it’ll be in a book like that, too.

Do you find that writing longer pieces informs your songwriting or is it just another outlet?

I don’t know, but I really dig it. I never used to write poetry but now I’m doing a little of that.

You don’t consider lyrics and poetry the same thing?

Not really. I’m from Buffalo. I’m more of a meat and potatoes kind of person, never really thought of myself as a poet. Songwriter, yeah. You’re trying to say something in the best possible way so that it stays said. Half the time when I write poetry I end up going back to mine it for song lyrics…

Anything you want to plug?

The Plimsouls’ Beach Town Confidential album is out now — probably the best live stuff the Plimsouls ever recorded. Also check out The Case Files, a collection of my solo stuff.