I was born in Buffalo, New York in 1954, the youngest child in a family with two teenage sisters. The house was filled with music: Rock ‘n’ roll, Rhythm & Blues, jazz and folk; Elvis, the Everly Brothers, Ray Charles, and as the Sixties got underway, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and that gang.
As a little kid I played piano, ukulele, and harmonica; I took up saxophone in school, began playing guitar in 1965, and wrote my first song, “Stay Away.” I continued writing songs and playing in rock ‘n roll combos at dances in the area while listening to Dylan and the Rolling Stones and following the roots of their country, blues, and early rock ‘n’ roll origins. In 1968 I started playing coffeehouses while also continuing to perform with dance bands: this went on for a number of years.
At the beginning of my 16th year, I left home, moved in with musicians, and began to travel – New York, Washington, Boston – still listening to music and playing, learning from the musicians I met along the way.
In 1973, I left Buffalo in a blizzard on a midnight bus heading west. That spring in San Francisco I became a street musician, playing solo and busking with different players, including blues and rock ‘n’ roll hero, Mike Wilhelm of the Charlatans, and folk guitarist Tom Hobson. I was the main subject of a film that year, Night Shift, about SF street music, directed by Bert Deivert. I wrote about this period in detail in my book, As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport, which tells the story of a street-singing trip from Northern California to Mexico.
After beginning a collaboration with Jack Lee, a songwriter who’d just landed in California from Alaska, the Nerves were born in late 1974. The following year, Paul Collins joined the band; we played locally and recorded the “Hanging on the Telephone” EP, which was released in 1976. On the first day of 1977, the band relocated to Los Angeles and began performing and promoting LA’s first punk rock shows – including Hollywood’s Punk Rock Invasion featuring the the Weirdos, the Zeros, the Dils, and the Germs in their debut appearances. The Nerves were the first independent unsigned band to go on a national independent tour of the USA (plus Toronto) in the spring and summer of 1977. Playing our own brand of stripped-down, driving, melodic teenage rock’n’roll, touring with the Ramones, and sharing bills with Devo, Pere Ubu, and Mink DeVille during the first wave of American punk, we returned to LA to perform at the newly opened Masque. After racking up 28,000 miles on our Ford LTD, in early 1978, after playing one final show at the Whisky a Go Go, we broke up to pursue different directions.
That year I woodshedded, wrote songs, and put together the Plimsouls. We debuted January 1, 1979 in El Monte, CA and picked up where the Nerves left off adding maximum R&B and folk rock influences to the mix. Once we made our Hollywood debut on June 11, 1979, we immediately attracted a following. The Zero Hour EP was released on Long Beach’s Beat label and became a local hit on KROQ ‘s Rodney Bingenheimer show; then came the recording contract with Richard Perry’s Planet/Elektra label. Picking up fans from coast to coast, we toured nationally throughout 1981. We recorded the independent single, “A Million Miles Away” in the winter of that year and it was released in 1982 on the band’s own Shaky City label, in conjunction with Greg Shaw’s Bomp Records. The song was our biggest hit: a national college radio smash and international power pop/garage band classic. The Everywhere At Once album was released by Geffen Records in early 1983 and the band developed strong followings in Atlanta and Detroit, and throughout Texas and California, establishing a reputation for dynamic and wild live shows. We played our last gig on January 1, 1985.
The Nerves and the Plimsouls were always about putting songwriting first, and by 1983, my songs started reaching new places. Story songs started to come to me and I began to rediscover my roots as a musician. I moved to Texas and finished writing the Peter Case album which we began recording in Fort Worth with T Bone Burnett, then soon moved to LA and finished with Jerry Marotta, Van Dyke Parks, Roger McGuinn and others at Sunset Sound. I’ve been told the album had a big impact on musicians and listeners around the country – the opening salvo of a new singer-songwriter movement that would become known as Americana – and I was the first songwriter of my generation of musicians to turn from rock toward an acoustic sound. New York Times critic Robert Palmer called it the best album of 1986 and it got a five-star review in Rolling Stone; we toured extensively in the US with Jackson Browne and throughout Europe with a band. We received a Grammy nomination for the song, “Old Blue Car.”
The next album, 1989’s the man with the blue postmodern fragmented neo-traditionalist guitar, was self-produced with Steven Soles. A collaboration with a number of great musicians including Jim Keltner, Ry Cooder and David Hildago, the songs were about people left in the cold by a society built for winners. I toured nationally with a band and returned to make a final record for Geffen: Six-Pack of Love, produced by Mitchell Froom. “Vanishing Act” and “Dream About You” received significant radio and video play.
On the day I was released from the Geffen contract, I made the album I wanted to make for them with Marvin Etzioni: Peter Case Sings Like Hell, a collection of British folk and American country and blues with all the rough edges left on it. Sings Like Hell became some people’s favorite record of the period. The album was re-mastered and re-released by Vanguard, and I went on to record some of the best-received records of my career.
Torn Again (1995) was a return of the Blue Guitar production team of me, Soles, and Larry Hirsch, with songs that utilized dream imagery and the musicianship of Don Heffington and Greg Leisz. Full Service No Waiting (1998) was a unique-sounding, almost lo-fi record that is a favorite among fans. Flying Saucer Blues (2000), the companion piece to Full Service featured the seven minute racial profiling tour de force, “Two Heroes.” Beeline (2002) was a collection of hard-won love songs with electronic contributions from my son, Joshua. All three albums were produced by my old pal Andrew Williams who sang and played on “A Million Miles Away.”
The Vanguard years were a busy period marked by constant solo touring and a Plimsouls reunion in 1995, culminating in the release of Kool Trash in 1998. I also produced Avalon Blues: The Music of Mississippi John Hurt featuring Taj Mahal, Lucinda Williams, and Beck among others. This tribute to one of my blues heroes was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Folk Album category in 2001. That year I also cut a special project, Thank You St. Jude, with acoustic versions of some of my best known songs. In 2006, I was honored to be the subject of A Case For Case, a three disc set of my songs covered by fellow musicians like Dave Alvin, Chris Smither, James McMurtry, and many others. Many performances from this period of time were captured by filmmaker Tom Weber, for his full length documentary Troubador Blues.
In 2007, I received the Grammy nomination in the Best Traditional Folk category for Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John, produced by Ian Brennan for Yep Roc, and featuring contributions from Richard Thompson, Norm Hamlet (music director of Merle Haggard’s band), and Carlos Guitarlos. Following the economic crisis of 2008, my health crashed and I underwent an emergency surgery. Friends like T Bone, Van Dyke, Stan Ridgway, Dave Alvin, Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, and many more performed benefit shows that helped cover my medical expenses. Not long after the shows, I wrote and recorded the raw, electric blues rock ‘n’ roll record, Wig! with Ron Franklin and DJ Bonebrake, written and recorded in a three-day period.
Somewhere along the way, the Nerves – unbeknownst to any of us -were experiencing a resurgence with a whole new generation of fans. Bootlegs of the band’s early material had been circulating and we decided to make it official with the Alive Natural Sound Recordings reissue of the One Way Ticket EP and the Live at Pirate’s Cove LP. The Plimsouls also reemerged when we issued three well-received live albums: One Night in America (1981), Live, Beg Borrow and Steal (Live at the Whiskey in 1982) and Beach Town Confidential (Live at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, 1983). I consider these releases the most powerful evidence of our recorded legacy. Playing a series of electric shows that year in US with different configurations, the Peter Case Band toured Australia with the Flamin’ Groovies and the Hoodoo Gurus.
In 2012, I moved back to San Francisco and set about making my next record, HWY 62. Featuring guitar wizard Ben Harper and DJ Bonebrake, with songs about the current American conundrum, we recorded at Sheldon Gomberg’s Carriage House and released it through Omnivore Recordings in 2015. I was also happy for the label to reissue my debut solo album in expanded form in 2016. Looking forward to the songs 2017 brings…