Peter Case

As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport

The Tale of the Peter Case lp: I go solo in 1985, taking chances, and “unraveling the mysteries of music”

 

 

 

“If this record doesn’t sell a million copies I quit the business.”

T-Bone Burnett was addressing the visitors to the control room of studio B at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, on a distorted radio shack bullhorn.

It was early Spring 1986, and we were listening to a playback of my first, self-titled solo album, a collection of songs and music that was considered a big departure. The material had begun the journey to vinyl two years before and run into a gauntlet of trouble and interference. Though I’d spent the previous ten years playing in some “perfectly good rock n roll bands,” I was hearing music in a whole new way. It was a personal, musical, and spiritual upheaval.

“Unraveling the mysteries of music.” That’s how I expressed it— “the quest for musical fire,“ after a popular caveman movie that was exhibiting around then. I’d travelled back and forth across the country a lot by this point touring in the bands. More recently I’d been delivering some cars for an agency in LA, making the fast and vast transcontinental drives, and the songs were coming during those jaunts. And I was praying on my knees a couple times a day.

One day, a wag asked in my direction, “What’s the one word that describes your life?”

And I said, “Nevertheless.”

The stories started to happen: On Sunset Boulevard one long afternoon, at the counter in Ben Frank’s, I was killing time, drinking black coffee, chain-smoking Camels, and doing a newspaper crossword puzzle when the lines came in on the ether: “Out past the cemetery down by the willow bend…” I wrote them in the margins of the page.

The lyrics began pouring out faster than I could write. It took shape before I even had time to figure out what it was. I paid my check, left a tip at the counter, picked up the newspaper, still scribbling as the words hit, and made my way across the parking lot to my car, then across the town to my pad.

The tune was nearly complete as I pulled in front of my place. I double-stepped to my front door, opened the lock and got in, grabbed the Hummingbird guitar laying on the couch, spread the scribbled-on Times out in front of me, and sang. “Walk In The Woods” was done in five more minutes. I’d never played anything like it before. It didn’t necessarily sound like a chart hit, but as a song it was undeniable. I felt like I’d broken a code. The arrangement was all there even if I played it solo, and it became the basis for everything I was going to do for a long time.

I kept writing in all sorts of situations, and finally the record was coming together. We went into the studio in early 1985.

Jerry Marotta, was crazy-eyed intense, big, bushy-headed and wired to go, able to turn a four-four beat inside out at the drop of the one, and fascinated with torturing his Linn Drum machine beyond any reasonable limits: He’d open it up with a screwdriver, get into its inner workings and scramble, putting the snare drum chip where the cymbal was supposed to be, the triangle into the kick drum, getting it ringing on all the off-beats, until the groove would be so contorted it was hard to even tell where the “one “ was. Very refreshing.

I demonstrated to Marotta my lick for “Three Days Straight” and he came up with an insane driving groove on the Linn, then the two of us went into the main room at Sunset Sound and recorded the song, with Jerry playing the full drum kit along to the Linn, really rocking it, while I played and sang. The playback blew us away. His brother Rick Marotta, popped in to visit, listened to a minute of the tortured Linn drum part, the manic groove all tied in knots, and said, “I’m telling Mom!” That’s Victoria Williams on harmony with me, and Warren “Tornado” Klein on tamboura. That instrument always makes a profound effect wherever its placed. After this session we snuck into the tape locker, and for laughs, overdubbed tamboura on all of the tracks on Marshall Crenshaw’s soon to be mixed new album. It sounded great but I don’t think he used any of it.

“Small Town Spree” was an intimate solo recording that Van Dyke Parks came in and transformed, writing and conducting the string arrangement. I got to hear my harmonica solo in front of a string quartet. Thanks, Van Dyke!

Mike Campbell came in brandishing a giant swordscape of twang over another song finalized on caffeine at the Ben Frank’s counter, back before coffee was delivered by a Brinks truck. “Satellite Beach” was composed on one of those cross-country drive-away trips that ended at a vacant motel over-looking Cape Kennedy. Challenger was on the launching pad.

Jim Keltner I’d met a party, and invited to the studio the next day. “Pair Of Brown Eyes” is the result. Elvis Costello had sung the song for me during a party one night in T-Bone’s room at the Le Mondrian Hotel, and then asked permission from the Pogues for me to record it, as their version wasn’t out yet. Besides Keltner, the band on this track is Van Dyke Parks on organ, T-Bone on acoustic guitar, David Miner on bass, and Roger McGuinn on the Rickenbacker 12-string.

Keltner also played the huge sounding drum kit on “Old Blue Car,” at Capitol Studios, with Fred Tackett on guitar, and Jerry Scheff on bass. Someone produced a case of beer, put it out into the middle of the studio floor, and the producer kind of danced around it, conducting while the rest of us played. That’s a live take. Steve Berlin commented with a laugh, “Guess you don’t care if you get any harmonica sessions.”

T-Bone himself may possibly be the Sergeant Bilko of rock ‘n’ roll. Who else would convert the control room into a gamblers paradise where we watched the horse tracks at Hollywood Park & Santa Ana on retractable screens with the bookie on the phone line too? Who else but a Bilko would covert the faders on a Neve soundboard so it become a roulette wheel, with all of us laying bets, until the instant the Geffen A & R staff showed up at the door and all this madness disappeared with a wave and a blink. “Yes sir, no sir, of course, of course” was the code in the moment, but the second they departed the screens appeared, and it was back to the races.

It was the last night of recording and all through the studio no one was stirring their drinks; they were pouring ‘em down like they were trying to put out a fire. Or maybe it was just me. I’m not sure. I do know Mr. Burnett’s pal Sam Waterston was out in the studio, positioned on a microphone, orating in a very sonorous voice, over the track of “Satellite Beach.” God knows what kind of a text, it was T’s idea. It seemed absurd and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Pray For Rain

In Los Angeles every day’s brilliant & blue
The sun shining brighter than a worn out shoe
Hands on an old piano—pen to a sheet
Awaiting the lyric that sails down the street
Tea when you’re thirsty—booze in the fridge
Power in numbers but I ain’t got the didge
Where’d everyone go? the bands disappeared
Premature start on that old age they feared

Curly, Larry & the Edge had the top down today
Nobody’s walking on Malibu Bay
Who am I kidding—as I nervously jink?
Throw down the empties & scour the sink
I hadn’t yet realized what’s known to be true:
The best way to get’ em’s when they comin’ at you
I was stirring the pot tossing cards in a hat
Air unpredictable—had it down pat
& some that show up aren’t the ones you expect
But you take down the message long distance collect

SO—the record company sat on it for nine months, and it seemed at one point it would never be released. We said “well some artists just hang their paintings in their own yards” which was comforting and depressing both. And it seemed like that would be it, but…

Nevertheless! It came out. T-Bone never quit the business but the record found its audience, and I still sing these songs whenever I perform on the road. People are always telling me about the impact the record had on them, and thirty years later I’m still proud of every cut.

Always remember, your giants have thick, tough skin.

Now let’s see you do it!

[ BTW this CD is available from http://omnivorerecordings.com/music/peter-case/ remastered with many groovy bonus tracks from the sessions, and new photos by Greg Allen]

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Willie Dixon

I met and collaborated with the absolutely great Willie Dixon–a thrill!–when his songs were administered by Bug Music—he listened to one of my piano demos over at the Bug office, and had me over to work at his house in Glendale, a little cottage really, a very small place for such a definitive musical giant;  his publishing suit against Led Zeppelin for “Whole Lotta Love” hadn’t been decided yet; word on that Bug hoped would be coming soon.

He reclined in a large leather upholstered chair in his office,leaning back and peering through bifocals, scratching away at lyrics in pencil on a little pad, with one leg swung up over the armrest, and the other foot firmly on the floor. A parlor grand piano was situated in the middle of the adjacent room, by the front door, in sight of his armchair and he’d ask me to sit down at the keys and pound out infinite repetitions of the two-handed blues groove to the song while he composed lyrics, all based on rhymes for smoke. We’d do that for a spell, then I’d come in and we’d discuss music and life.

“Everybody’s got to have their own style” he intoned with the voce of a mystic. “Sometimes the name of the style, the song, and the artist are all the same thing–identical–Bo Diddley. When I first met Chuck Berry he didn’t have a style. One afternoon he came in playing the old country and western song Ida Red, but he had it going a new way, and I told him ‘keep doing that so you don’t forget it while I set up the microphones; and that was Maybelline.”

“You gotta have your own style—,”  he starts rummaging over the articles atop a shelf in the back of the office— “I got a style over here for somebody,“ and he comes up with two harmonicas, silver in his huge grip, handing one to me and commanding to just “play.”  He assumed I could, so I did, playing a blues in cross-harp, what they call “second position,” the key of G on a C harp, while he lifts the other harmonica up to his mouth and starts wailing a strange  lick, very eerie and keening.

It was the first I’d ever seen or heard of a minor harmonica.“Major against minor,”  he explained, “that’s a style for somebody.”

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The Plimsouls At The Starwood (1980)

Some nights, alone in my pad, I’d soar through the early hours of the morning, drunk and stoned, working on songs. A feeling of exultation would come over me, as if all the pain and trouble I’d caused were forever in the past, and, now guided by my genius, combined with my personal power and innate capacity for good fortune, I could conquer the world. I felt warm, safe, protected, in the arms of the gods.

I’d pass out as the sun came up, waking up a few hours later in the miserable condition I called a “hang-beyond.”  My head would feel like a dirty glass bowl with fishes swimming around in the murk, and I’d be shaking, sick, terrified, and unable to even get back in bed and sleep it off. I’d be in a cold sweat, and sometimes then the phone would ring and it would be a manager, or an interview, or people at the record company wondering why I’d missed the meeting over there.

Somehow I’d get through it and make the next gig, to have the laugh of being with the band, then the joy of pouring my heart out on stage in front of mobs of people reveling in the fantastic-ness and excitement of all the noise and soul. Then be home again late, dreaming big dreams in the middle of the night, writing songs and throwin’ ’em away, wishing I was on the other side of the universe. Some of the gigs were great, but I felt as if I were operating behind enemy lines. I began to get stage fright.

It started like this, one night at the Starwood, one of our favorite clubs. There we are, Plimsouls, top of the card in front of a 1000 peeps, 100 degrees, and my anxiety level is building towards the first set for some reason, and before we go on I start really pouring down the screwdrivers, but it isn’t working. Beers are lined up on my amp, for insurance, but it’s not enough.

My shoes feel wet, loose, hard on my feet. My clothes all of a sudden don’t fit. My hands are cold, the guitar strings cut into my fingers, right to the bone. I’m up on the stairs above the stage, in the dark, looking out at the rowdy crowd, the place is going nuts, ready to blow, energy is climbing up my backbone, I have the butterflies, bad, like my guts are turning to water.

I want to run. Hit the alley. Drink beer with some winos out of a paper sack. But our manager, Danny is behind me there, on the landing. He knows I’m nervous, just says, “It’s gonna be great.” I try to act like that helps. “Yeah.” But half of me feels like I’m going to be executed, and the other half is trying to pretend that it’s all just goodrockin’ fun.

Down the stairs and into the mouth of it. I feel weak, but I’m coming on bold. The crowd is cheering, Louie’s behind his kit now, blam de blam, pish pish blop! Eddie’s guitar is a piledriver. I’m fiddling with my dials. Someone’s calling out our names, kids looking up, lit by the stage lights, boys and girls, the M.C. yells “Plimmmmmsoooouls!” and we’re off into the first song, the lights come up, and I go blind with the freight train bearing down on me.

A massive surge of pure electricity courses up my solar plexus; I’m so high all of a sudden, my breath is short and fast, knees weak, shit I’m singing fucking flat! My mouth is kissing the mike ball, I can smell its filth, my mouth is dry, pitching up and the music is fast white noise. I’m huge now; the world has vanished in the white haze, my body is immense, a house, but I’m trapped, can’t get free, a piece of lightning metal sculpture, I’m caught by the nose, by the balls, by my whole life, I turn and wheel back to the drummer, then jerk to the mic where I keep up my leg backward as I sing, still bursting with stage fright, so I’m doing anything I can to elude the spell, making willful mistakes to break the predictability. I’m in hell, shaken, trying to rock my way through it.

We play the tag on “Shaky City,” and go into the second song while the audience happily, insanely roars. Drums rolling, tom toms and maracas, and I’m trying to get some quick beer. We all kick it in.

“Smashing rocks in the burning sun.” Mymouth is open and a stream of red neon comes out. A loud voice is screaming at me from a few feet away, and I’m lost in a tunnel of brilliant light, alone at center stage, I can’t see nobody, just this pitch I’m tossing in. Louie’s drums are all that hold me, though, and while the spotlight roves I see the faces at my feet: kids, friends, eyes and mouths, fists; they love it, but they’re all caught just like me.

My strength’s returning, my voice is a strip of wet black rubber now, and I disappear into it, sending it out, it’s bouncing all over the very back of the room, now to the kids on the stairway. The fear flows away, and I’m left with the size, I’m King Kong on top of the Empire, with the girl in my fist and snapping at planes, now on stiff legs like Frankenstein, colliding with Eddie back at the amps, screaming at the top of my lungs off-mic at Davido who just looks over and laughs at me, then walks away. The crowd is boiling, surging back and forth, people look up, out of control and calm eyes, and somebody I haven’t seen for ten years is in the front row wearing shades and grinning up at me.

Elvis now, King Creole, it’s a laugh as Eddie solos, a roller coaster and we’re riding it, slowly now, between songs, up at the top of the scaffold, about to drop.

Later, the dressing room is a crowded subway train at rush hour. Everyone’s sloshing a drink, got their arm around somebody; it’s a cocktail party and I’m the guest of honor, so I slip out, make down the hall, out the back and down the metal staircase, push through the exiting crowd in the parking lot, past the huge line of people waiting for the doors to open on our second show, but no one spies me as I cross the boulevard, enter the corner liquor store and score a quart of Mickey’s Big Mouth Malt Liquor. Then, taking the green bottle out in a brown sack, I cross back over Santa Monica, and after a quick glance at the pre-show chaos, I traipse on past to the corner, a nondescript office building, where I cut into an alley between it and the place behind. There I find several other dark forms propped on the concrete, against the wall, hooded, working on bottles. I plop down, and unscrew my lid, the smell hits me first, like barf, but better. I take a deep drink.

Soon, I’m more relaxed, almost ready for the second show, so I get up, nod a “take it easy” to the guys, and leg it back to the joint. Now it’s packed again, more packed than before; they got EVERYBODY in. I make it up to the dressing room, now cleared out, and “where you been, man?” everybody’s yelling at me, “it’s show time!” and this one set goes off crazier and smoother than ever.

Finally, at the end of the night, everybody’s gone, and I’m the last to leave the dressing room. I’m going home the same way I got there, sneaker power. With the boom box on my shoulder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles light the way.

What lonesome thoughts and dreams on this homeward roll? I can’t say at all. Sad?  Yes, I know, and angry, too, also a bit elevated from the night, but on the verge of weeping over whatever happened between me and whoever it was up there after the show. “My Girl Is Gone,” “Bad Girl,” “The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage.” Somehow I walk right past my apartment building, and “I’ll Try Something New” is playing over and over again: Smokey knows. I’m walking aimlessly down Franklin Ave, by the red brick walls on Cahuenga, in the tailights now, as I nearly fall down on a curb; the street is cobblestone, and for a second I forget where I am, and I’m back in Buffalo, over by the train tracks, tears are in my eyes, I’m crying for Smokey, for me, for all my old friends, for all the ones who tried so hard, so many times, and went down…when a hood who’s been following me comes up and pulls a knife, I can barely see through the blur, but I’m pissed, “fuck off, motherfucker!” I wail at the top of what’s left of my voice, and he vanishes, just like that.

I wake up on Saturday with an aching head. We’re back at the Starwood tonight. I roll out of bed and put on some morning music.

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Early Plimsouls

The Big Phone Call

The Breakways broke up, and I painted houses for a year, working for our old road manager, Ron, and making about 5 bucks an hour. The whole time I kept writing, playing and trying to meet musicians I could start a band with. It took a while. The Plimsouls started January 1, 1979, three of us backing up a blind singer and guitarist named “Doc” Holliday at a joint in El Monte California called The Place.  It was three nights a week, five sets a night, and we did it for a few months, ’til the boss came in sober one night, I got fired, and the rest of the band quit.

At that point we moved into the Hollywood club scene, immediately got a fanatic following, and cut a record, “Zero Hour,” for an independent label from Long Beach, Beat Records. Radio picked that one up, and we started breaking attendance records at the local clubs.

I was relaxing one afternoon in my rundown fourth floor Hollywood hotbox apartment. The Plimsouls had formed on the first day of the year, and were already becoming a popular club draw in town.

The phone rings: a woman’s voice: “May I speak to Peter Case of the Plimsouls?”

“You got him.”

“Can you meet with Abe Somers in his office in Century City, tomorrow at 11am?”

“I’ll be there,” I said and hung up.

I knew that Abe Somers was the most powerful music business lawyer in LA. I knew that because I’d just seen his name in the LA Times: “The Ten Most Powerful Men In The Music Business.” Abe’s name was at the top of the list.

I felt a combination of nerves, exhilaration, and anger. It’s great that a guy like this is  calling; he must want something. That could mean good news for me and the band. But the fucking nerve of these guys just having a secretary call up like that and deliver the request like it’s Cinderella or something. “Oh well maybe we’ll get to make a decent sounding record,” was how I put it to myself.

I guess I told a couple people about the meeting, but I went alone. I was suspicious, I wanted to have freedom of movement, I didn’t want to get stuck in there if it got stinky.

I drove my trusty ride across town, a baby blue ’64 Ford Galaxy, thatI’d bought for four hundred dollars from Louie, our drummer’s dad, Manny Ramirez, who had a shoe repair place out in Paramount. I found the address of my destination in Century City. It was a twenty five floor tower, so I parked my car in the garage and took the elevator up to the top floor, to the offices of Somers, Etcetera & Etcetera: Attorneys At Law. !

I was immediately shown by the fashionable and pretty young receptionist, back into Abe’s office. Abe was standing behind his desk, smiling at me. We shook hands. The gal brought me a glass of water that I’d asked for, and left the room. Before she left, Abe said: “Rachel, please hold all of my calls.”

Abe was still smiling at me. I was in a chair in front of his desk. Behind him, and all around us, were huge plate glass windows, offering a view of the entire Los Angeles area, from the ocean to the Santa Monica Mountains, and beyond. For a second I was afraid I was gonna jump through the window and try to fly away, but the feeling passed.

“I understand you are really quite the songwriter and performer,” he said, or some nonsense like that. “Some people I work with are very interested in your future.”

Just then the phone rang, and Abe looked irritated, hesitated, then picked it up.

“Rachel, I thought I told you to hold my calls…Oh…Okay. But just for a second…Yes, put him on…Hello, Prince Rupert! How are you doing? Look, I’ve got the million for Mick. Tell him it’s all taken care of, will you? Great… you’ll have to excuse me now, I’m in a very important meeting, I can’t chat… Okay…best to you and Mick, great, we’ll talk soon.”

He put down the phone and smiled graciously. “Excuse me, Peter. I’m sorry for that interruption. Now, please, tell me about yourself.”

That was my least favorite conversational opener back in those days. They all seemed to go at it like that, these big wigs, trying to put you on the spot. I’d been on the run, lived on the street, been involved with a lot of this, that and the other thing, and opening up with older, high-toned strangers made me nervous. I was struggling to pull some words together, something inane about ”Me and the band are just waiting for the right opportunity, “ some inane jive like that. I was sweating, uptight, and felt at a complete disadvantage.

The phone rang again, and Abe jerked around angrily, picked up the phone and shouted “Rachel! What the devil is it? I thought I told you to hold my calls! I’m in a very important meeting! Who? Well for God’s sake, can’t he call back later? What? He did? Well, okay, tell him just for a second, though. Yes, put him through. . .Hello? Mayor Bradley?  I’m going to have to kick your ass on this stadium deal! I’m in a very important meeting and I can’t talk right now, but I’m not happy with the way this thing is going. Okay? We’ll have to work this out later. I’ve got to go.I’m in the middle of something. I’ll have to speak with you later.”

He hung up and returned his gaze to me. “Sorry, Peter. Where were we?”

The upshot of the meeting with Abe was that he was representing a record producer named Joe Wissert. Joe wanted to sign the Plimsouls to Colombia and produce the record. Could I bring the whole band back tomorrow, and meet with them  there at the office? Joe would come by, and we’d get things rolling.

Okay. I brought the band, which was me, Louie, and Davido, back the next day. Abe had Rachel hold his calls, and I wondered to myself who it was gonna be this time: Maybe Jimmy Carter was gonna call from the White House for some advice about the Hostage Situation or something, but no, things took another quick turn.

The band shook hands with Abe, exchanged pleasantries, shifted uneasily in the silence, as Abe smiled at us.

“So Lou, Louie Ramirez. What does your father do for a living, Lou?”

“He owns a shoe repair shop in Paramount,” Lou answered.

“Well, how would you like to buy him a whole chain of shoe repair shops?”

Louie said he thought that would be great. Abe said, well work with me and you’ll be able to do that in no time. Dave was quiet. Lou was impressed. I was ready to leave.

We meet with Joe, who it turned out had never even seen the band play. He’d heard us on the radio and read about us in the LA Times. I wasn’t so knocked out by his studio resume, even though he’d produced Boz Scaggs’ trillion selling album Silk Degrees. There was nothing so rock ’n roll about that.

I’m thinking, Joe seems like a nice guy, but his lawyer is bringing us into the deal. That seems like a conflict of interest right there. Abe says he’ll represent us, but that would be like having no representation at all, if anything goes wrong with Joe.”

Abe was going to prepare the deal. We were supposed to leave and go home and think it about it. It just smelled like a big corporate rip off to me, where the bands gets chewed up and spit out, the records tank, and the careers are ruined. I had my eyes out for this stuff. I wasn’t buying.

Lou’s dad was sure gonna be glad to open that chain, if anybody ever heard from us again after we signed this deal. I can’t remember what he used to entice the rest of us. I wasn’t listening anymore. Sorry, Louie. It wasn’t gonna be that easy. On our way out of the office past Rachel, I borrowed her pen and a piece of paper and scrawled: “Thanks But No Thanks: The Plimsouls.” I handed the paper to her and said, “Please pass this note into Abe for me.”

And that’s how I handled the opportunity that came with The Big Phonecall.

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The Nerves, 1973-74

‘Don’t leave me hangin’ on the telephone…’

I was in my spot in front of the Swiss American Hotel one night in 1973, playing the 13th Floor Elevators song ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me, ‘ when I noticed this skinny white guy, about my age, leaning against the no parking sign, smoking a cigarette, watching me. He had short curly hair, wore old blue jeans, white deck sneakers, and a blue/green wooly sweater. At first look, he didn’t really fit in with the scruffy Broadway outlaw scene. I watched as he walked off, and I saw when he came back later, with a big German Shepherd on a short leash, and stopped to listen again.

The next evening he passed by, walking, with a pretty, long haired woman, up a few doors to the Condor Club. She was wearing the full length type of overcoat that all the Condor dancers favored wearing to and from work, and after she pushed through the curtains and disappeared into the club, the guy came back, and listened to me play some more. He was definitely checking me out.

I took a break, bummed a smoke, and started talking to him. He loved Roky Erikson’s wild harp on the end of ‘Miss Me.’ I was surprised he knew Roky’s name. Me & Johnny had been the worlds prime interpreters of the Elevator’s music, we played their songs everynight, and talked about them endlessly. Anyhow, the guy said his name was Jack, that he was a songwriter, came from Alaska, and dug the music I was doing. He was putting a band together. I went back and picked up my guitar and played ‘Friday On My Mind,’ ‘Secret Weapon’ and ‘Sunnyland Moan’… made a couple bucks.

He asked me ‘How much, on the average, do you make out here a night?’ and I lied and said ‘ fifty bucks.’ He lied and said ‘I’ll pay you double that if you join my band,’ and that was the beginning of it.

He invited me up the street with him, to share a joint.

Sure. I packed up my Yamaki and we headed up Broadway past the strip clubs, to Stockton Street. We took a right and walked another half block, up to where a white Ford Country Squire wagon was parked on the curb. he unlocked it, we got in, he lit up and we smoked.

I got real high. Maybe ’cause I hadn’t eaten all day, but as we were sitting there watching the traffic on the street, I felt like an alien, the SF street so foreign… the light, the sky, the pigeons, all seemed so chaotic. Life is so strange.

‘How you gonna make it?’ he asked me.

A deep question… I felt like I was in the bottom of a hole the size of  the Grand Canyon, and Jack had leaned over and yelled it down to me from a great height.

‘Huh? What do you mean, make it? I am making it’ I answered.

‘No… how are you going to make it in music? You know, make records, get famous and rich… play concerts around the world? You know what I mean: How are you going to make it?’

I’d never thought of that before, it had never even occurred to me as a serious subject. I was playing music for a living already, wasn’t I? I mean, vaguely, as something that could happen in the distant future, a big career in rock and roll? Maybe. Derek and I had talked about it, but had never got anywhere. Johnny was running from the law, so he wasn’t interested. I had kinda figured I wanted to be like my heroes, a nomadic blues singer, or some kind of wandering minstrel.

I had nothing to say for myself.

Jack asked if he could borrow the guitar so I got it out and passed it to him, and he started to sing, sitting right there, all cramped behind the steering wheel, turned my way. It was a loud fast one, that he’d written himself, and his face turned crimson as he sang: ‘Don’t leave me hangin’ on the telephone! Don’t leave me hangin’ on the telephone!.’

Impressive. But I wasn’t really moved. So he played another one, and turned an even brighter shade of red. This one was ‘I’m a new man living in wide world! I’m a new man, living in a wide world.’ It had a driving beat and a great melody. I got caught on the hook. This one got me. A wide world, that was my dream. Starting a new life, a million miles away from my past. Yes…

I told him I’d think about it.

He split, and I walked the streets of North Beach. Man, I had better get busy..

By the next time we ran into each other on Broadway, Jack had worked up a secret plan to make it to the top right off the street. His ideas and enthusiasm were charismatic. At least I thought so. A lot people weren’t so taken with him. He talked fast, with a sort of Northwestern twang, and it was obvious to me: he was going to make a dent in the wall of the worlds indifference. he was a couple years older than me, and though he seemed to have come up on the outside life like I did, he was ahead of me in a lot of ways. He was his own Lennon, McCartney, and Brian Epstein all boiled into one dreaming loudmouth:

‘We’ll make it right off the street! San Francisco is our Liverpool. This street music scene will be our cavern club. We’ll use amps, man… battrey operated. Pat’s got one, a Mike Matthews Freedom Amp! We can take the whole band out to where the people are. Play outside on the Wharf during lunch hours. School kids  and secretaries will come out, it’ll be a sensation, we’ll cause riots. Herb Caen will have to cover it. But the whole thing has to be…. undeniable! The songs, the guitars, the clothes, the whole thing has to be right… powerful.’

There was a big street music thing going on… his songs were great…   if you really thought about it, with a little imagination, it did seem possible.

He wanted the band to wear short hair, long hair was hippie, old style. He said the electric guitar should sound like a saxaphone: he was tired of all the guitar noodling that was in vogue in 70’s ‘progressive’ rock. He hated hard rock, heavy metal, and progressive, and he mocked it all.

‘Music’s been dead since the 60’s, but it comes back again every ten years,’ he said.

I wasn’t so sure. He challenged me:

‘What’s any good. then?’

The Stone’s Exile… I answered… The Band… Bob Dylan… Blues…

‘The Stones were great when they had Brian Jones, man, and when Jagger and Richards were still writing great songs. They’re past it! That blues stuff is tired, man… it’s been done.”

He wouldn’t even discuss those other guys… still, there was something about what he was saying. I was intrigued, it sounded like an adventure. And he was by far the most talented songwriter I’d met in California so far… there was some magic in those tunes…. hard to come by.

The first Nerves rehearsal was a gas, more like a party. It was in someone’s  apartment on Sutter Street. Pat Speed, the rush freak, was there to blow harp,  and Sitka Pat, the street musician that frequently played out in front of the Swiss, played lead guitar. It turned out he had grown up with Jack in Alaska. An old black blues singer named Koko made the scene. He always played a harmonica taped to the broomhandle  neck of a washtub bass that he thumped in crazy rockin’ jump time. Koko was a big drinker, had lost all his teeth, and sounded like Sonny Boy Williamson. I think Rush invited him, Guitar Pat invited Rush. Jack invited me, though it wasn’t clear what my role was supposed to be. i didn’t have an electric guitar or amp, just my Yamaki. Jack wanted me there, so I went, ’cause I was curious, drawn… this band thing was fascinating in it’s possibilities. I pulled it out and rocked along in another dimension.

Jack and Sitka Pat got their arrangement of Hanging On The Telephone down, while Pat Speed vibrated, twitched, commented through his high velocity mustache, and generally irritated Jack, every so often even blowing a little harp. Koko rocked, drank wine, and his speech got more and more unintelligable…his patois was so thick in the first place, and after awhile no one could understand a word he said but Pat Speed, who held great lively  conversations with him.

The next session was across the bay, in a black residential neighborhood on the  Oakland/ Berkeley line. WE met in the garage  behind the house of the drummer Bobby Freeman’s Condor Club band. he was a great drummer, but he’d never played anything like ‘Hangin’ On the Telephone.’  This was the first day of  the new dispensation, the first blast of the new music that would be coming from everywhere in a few years.. Something new was being born that day in that garage…

We were all smoked up to the moon… Jack was on bass, Sitka Pat played loud electric lead through the Matthews amp… Pat Speed was nowhere to be seen, guess he hadn’t made the cut. I banged on acoustic, percussion, and as the day went on I was progressively farther from the center of the action, but it was intense.

Jack sat in a chair facing the drummer and shouting at him, trying to get this guy who was used to 50’s R&B and strip house  show band rock grooves, to play a fast and driving straight  eighth note groove, without fills, or anything fancy. Everytime the guy tried to tart it up, Jack yelled over the electric blare. It was ‘yeah… yeah…. YEAH! … NO!  on and on. Jack turned red and the whole thing kept going.

It was the assault of the new: loud, driving, a catchy song, but intense and screaming. Nothing had ever sounded like this.

I knew it was great, that I was the witness at a birth, and I  was bored at the same time. It was Jack’s scene… he didn’t care what anyone else did or thought. I got restless and went outside, looking around the area for something to do, while I waited for a ride back to the city with Pat and Jack. I played my guitar. I was still looking for it.

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As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport: Chapter 5

5) Green Street

Dorian lived upstairs from the Green Street Mortuary, in North Beach. He was caretaker over there, cleaning up around the bodies downstairs, late nights and early mornings. The rest of the time he was blowing mouth harp out on Broadway, with the likes of me and Jimmy, or practicing alone, sitting on his bed, upstairs over the death chapel, truly lost in the blues.

He’d come to the states from Australia, and his skin was a whiter shade of paste, but he took his blues music very seriously.  He was “living the blues,”  and that was the sole purpose of his journey. Dorian loved Little Walter, Big Walter, Sonny Boy Williamsons1 and 2, Jimmy Reed, and Sonny Terry, and he had  a huge collection of homemade blues cassettes, so we’d listen to the music in great marathon sessions, digging it, and talking about it, trying to cop the licks and the feel. He had a lot of things I’d never heard of before, like Lazy Lester’s Excello sides: those sweet Louisiana blues were a revelation to me, so rocking yet melodic.

The living quarters above the funeral home were bare bones. Dorian had a room with a bed, and he shared a bath and kitchen with several other boarders, including an Irish-American cabdriver named Mike, and an old toothless original beatnik named Louis, who sold codeine number 4’s for 50 cents a piece to kids like me.

There was a spare room over the mortuary, and I moved in, with Dorian’s okay. It was completely empty, with just some carpet on the floor and big bay windows with no curtains that looked out on the street. No one seemed to mind when I came back every night and crashed on the floor. Dorian had even given me a key.

Jimmy came over, knew a good thing when he saw it, and immediately split. He was back within the hour, carrying all his junk in a cardboard box. He’d been kicked out of his other place. The price was right at Dorian’s, so he moved in too. Jimmy was the same age as me, and had only recently taken up the guitar, but he was an amazingly quick study. He could get his head and hands around some very complicated patterns. The only thing he couldn’t do was make ’em sound like music. He’d be all over the place, out of tune and out of time, but it was still impressive. We’d been learning by osmosis, watching North Beach music heroes  Mike Wilhelm and Tom Hobson, soaking up the blues and ragtime finger picking thing and Jimmy’d even spent some time at Jorma’s going over the stuff. I knew a little about it, could play “Payday,” “Red River,” and a couple other things, having locked into John Hurt and Lightnin’ Hopkins records before I even dropped out of high school. I’d seen Dave Van Ronk perform outdoors in the snow in 1970 at Buffalo State, the first time I’d ever got high on dope, and that’d made a big impression. I’d even seen Lightnin’ play in Boston, during the winter of 1971,  when I was over there on that hitch-hiking adventure. Anyhow, Jimmy and I  sat up in the mortuary and worked on whatever song he’d just learned over at Wilhelm’s pad, where he was a frequent visitor: Blind Blake’s “That’ll Never Happen No More.”Mance Lipscomb’s “Charlie James.”  Robert Johnson’s “Traveling Riverside Blues.”The Reverend Gary Davis’ ”I Belong to the Band.” Then we’d go out at night and watch Mike play and talk to him about it, sometimes even sitting in with him at the Coffee Gallery. And all of this was the best part of the 1973-74 winter.

Jimmy called everyone ”pal,”and was street smart in sort of a dim-lit way. He’d heard all the reigning hipsters spin their tales, knew their disclaimers, the retorts, the slippery verbal repertoire of the full time musicians and street addicts he’d grown up around. His parents had both died, and he’d been raised by his big brother Jerry, who played bass in some well known West Coast rock bands, so Jimmy was known and tolerated, even welcomed in, by the local rockers. It was a little brother situation. He had a homemade tattoo from his spell in Juvenile Hall, that said “Mom” in sloppy blue letters. He liked to brag that he was a hothead, a badass fighter,but he seemed pretty mild most of the time. I liked him.

I’d made a bunch of money in a couple lucky sessions on the street, and loaned Jimmy a hundred bucks. He’d spent it on percadan and skunk weed, and now both of us were dead broke. It’d been pouring rain for days, no hope of letting up, so the busking income was completely cut off, and we were going hungry.

Jimmy said he had a Social Security check coming, so, when I found out he was going to walk to City Hall and pick it up, I decided to go with him, knowing that was the only way to make sure I’d get paid back.

We left our guitars stashed in the upstairs room and headed out.

It was a long way across San Francisco, over to Polk Street, through the Broadway Tunnel, and even farther, South, to City Hall. We trudged in the rain,  and the cold, stomachs gnawing, but hopeful, already spending the money in our heads: We’d have a big meal over at Steve’s Restaurant on Sixth Street, maybe score a bag of grass, and get some Heinekens—that’s what Jimmy is rappin’ about: his scene, the good life. A couple of comic books, and he’d be set to go on home to the mortuary and kick back.

Didn’t sound so bad to me, either.

After the cross-town trek, Jimmy and I finally got over to City Hall, entered off Polk Street and walked into the great, domed, wide open lobby, with its marble floors and giant pillars. It sounded like an indoor swimming pool, the murmur of voices echoing, as little groups of people in business dress stood about in the civic space and chatted, conferred, confabulated.

I was wearing a pair of greenish, black-striped denim-like bell-bottoms, high water style, loose fitting, with a faded blue cut-off sweatshirt, and a red and black, hunters-plaid winter overcoat with big buttons that fastened with loops. My shoes were worn, brown Hush Puppy desert boots, several sizes too large , and my feet moved around inside; I had to literally tie them on. All of this couture was courtesy of the hand-me-down, free street economy, except the jacket, which was purchased as a precaution against winter, for the price of one dollar at the Salvation Army Store. My hair was down to my shoulders, a tangled mane that hadn’t seen a brush for over a year. Jimmy looked a little slicker than me, but not much. His hair was riding in sort of a distorted Afro-Cuban formation, he had on a black lightweight man’s jacket, a grey gym t-shirt, blue jeans, and a pair of black Keds. It all might’ve looked alright if it hadn’t been his sole motif for the last month. I felt conspicuous, like we were a couple of wet dogs, coming in from the rain. I don’t think Jimmy was too worried about it though—he just wanted his money; he needed to get his hands on that check.

We made a beeline straight for the Treasury Department, which was all the way to the back and left of the lobby. We walked through the double glass doors, and it was like a bank inside, with rows of clerks behind windows, and, in back of them, numerous workers at desks piled high with official documents and accounting books.

We waited in line, absently watching the others ahead of us all hassling with the man, but I didn’t think too much about it. I was just happy, dreamily anticipating the life-enhancing feel of some new silver and green in my cash pocket.

Jimmy got to the head of the line and immediately there was a problem.

“Sorry sir,” said the man behind the glass, “we don’t have the release form for your check yet; it hasn’t come in from Otis Street. They have to clear it over there and send it in.”

“There must be some mistake!” said’  Jimmy. “They told me it was ready, that everything was taken care of.”

“Sorry, sir. Please step aside. Next!”

Jimmy had to step away from the window. I was dumbfounded. What did it mean?

“Look, man, he’s wrong; this guy’s full of shit. My worker told me this morning on the phone, everything is supposed to be cool, but, you know what? It’s not that far, let’s just walk over to Otis Street and see her. I’m sure she can get it together.”

So we headed back out into Civic Center, under low clouds, wet from grey drizzle and the splash of passing busses and cars. I felt the cold breeze whipping up underneath my clothes, getting its icy fingers all over me. It was enough to make me wish I still owned some fruit-of-the-looms.

In that kind of cold you have to just put your head down and fade away as you go. We worked our way down Polk, walking past Market and out Mission; we didn’t say much, ’cause there wasn’t much to say. It was grim, that’s all, and we wanted to make it ASAP, ’cause there was still time to get the check today, before closing.

The building on Otis looked like the last brick outpost on the frontlines of a siege. Here were the Welfare, Foodstamp, Social Security and ATD offices. People were jammed in like clowns in a phone booth; the hallways were cold, dark, and lit with fluorescent brown light that made everyone and everything appear distant. Jimmy’s worker’s name was Janis, and she was just a few years older than us. You could tell with one look as she passed by, that Janis was hopelessly buried under an insane caseload, totally overworked, beseeched 9-5, five days a week, by the most troubled and poverty stricken people imaginable. She looked nice, but stressed.

Jimmy took a number and we waited.

We watched the minute hand of the clock run a slow lap before Janis was ready to see Jimmy. There was about forty-five minutes of the work day left, and the traffic in the building was starting to thin out, when she appeared at her door and waved us both in.

Her office was tiny, just a cubicle.  Jimmy sat down and started to explain the situation; he was actually tearful, and I was surprised to see him like that. He usually tried to come off as a tough guy. It almost looked like he was gonna start crying, as he told her how the man withheldhis check. She was very sympathetic, warm, nodding her head; you could tell she really was concerned for him.

“Go back to City Hall,” she said, “and by the time you get over there, I’ll have it taken care of; you’ll get the check. It’s just a mistake. I’ll let them know.”

Cool. So we hit the exit, retraced our frozen footsteps, back down Mission, over Van Ness, across Market, on to Polk Street, and into City Hall. We made straight for the Treasury and waited in line again. There were just a few customers ahead of us, and soon we were back at the man’s window, with just moments to spare.

He took a look at his ledger, or whatever it was, and peered back up at Jimmy through his thick horn rims: “Sorry, Sir, the paper work on this hasn’t come through; I can’t release the check without the correct paperwork.”

“There must be a mistake!”wailed Jimmy. “Didn’t they tell you? We’re starving! We’ve been trying to get this check since this morning! Please, just call over to Otis. They’ll straighten it all out!”

He was breaking down, shaking.

“I’m sorry sir, there’s nothing I can do,” the man said, as he closed his window and walked away, leaving us there.

Jimmy was furious, and I could tell he was on the edge of completely losing it, his eyes bugging out, his whole body was trembling, but somehow he got himself under control.

I was disappointed, but numb.

It was a long, wet, cold, dark, empty, and quiet walk back to the Mortuary. It seemed like it took hours, since we were so low on energy from hunger. My head was pounding, the world just had transformed into a droning torture chamber. We needed food, and on top of it, I was bored. What a fucked up day!

“Oh well, it’s bound to get straightened out by tomorrow,” said Jimmy.

Back at the funeral parlor, the guys were pretty cool. Dorian was strangely reserved; either he was distracted or plain didn’t care. Louie and Mike the Cab fronted us a couple of bucks, and we made it down the block to Coit Liquor, where we bought some beer nuts, and a little package of Philadelphia cream cheese, all of which we devoured in about 30 seconds, sitting in the doorway of the pad.

Exhausted, we just slept on the floor of the front room in our clothes.

The  next morning it was raining again. First thing, we headed out the door right into it, and back all the way, through the tunnel, down the avenues, across the town, to the offices on Otis.

This time we didn’t have to wait so long. Janis was sorry and said the man had it wrong; he should have released the check, but she promised to take care of it herself, to make sure that everything was cool.

She sent us back, with a release form to show the man.

Before we left, Jimmy turned and looked at Janis, and announced in a dead serious, even toned voice:  “If I don’t get that check today, you’re gonna read about what happens in the newspaper.”

Paperwork in hand, we went back to the Treasury, and through to the front of the long line. I felt as if I was watching from a distance; it seemed like a dream.

Jimmy got to the front andspoke to the man in the glasses. He was still unwilling to release the check.

“But I have the release form right here1” said Jimmy.

“Sorry, Sir” said the man in a nasal, unctuous tone. “The form lacks the correct signatures; it needs to be signed by the case-worker and the section administrator. I’m sorry, Sir, but I can’t release the check.”

“You sonofabitch!” shouted Jimmy, and he started shaking, crying, losing control of himself.

“Sorry, Sir! Sorry Sir!” the man cried.

Then Jimmy reached through the window and placed his right hand behind the man’s head, while with his other hand her reached up and began smooching the release forms in the mans face.

I’ll show you ‘Sorry Sir,’ you motherfucker! You see these forms? Take a closer look!” And with that Jimmy scrubbed away with the paper, wiping it all around in the man’s face, knocking the guys glasses off.

“Jimmy, stop!” I shouted.  I could see the security guard coming for us from the doorway. He had his billy-club out.

The “sorry sir” man was trying to twist away from Jimmy, and he had his hands under the counter, feeling around, trying to hit the Treasury’s emergency alarm button, while all the time getting the face treatment.

I pulled Jimmy away from the guy, but then the cop got a grip on him. Jimmy was crying and shouting “I want my check,” and I was burbling at the cop: “It’s all a misunderstanding; he didn’t do anything! We’ll leave. Let him go!” But hewasn’t gonna let Jimmy go; he thought this was a robbery in progress or something.

I got in between him and Jimmy, and Jimmy broke away and started running. The cop chased him, then turned suddenly and came at me, so I took off too, running full tilt through the vaulted lobby for the front door.

A couple men in suits, who’d been standing at the other end of the floor, reading newspapers, threw their papers down and started running towards us, shouting. Undercover treasury cops, were coming out of the crowd, from all over.  They thought we were crooks. I saw another couple T-men coming from the other side of the lobby, and I just started running for my life.

They were trying to cut me off at the door, and I really started moving fast. Jimmy’d already made it out the door and into the street. I was burning, going faster than I’ve ever gone, and I came  right out of my Hush Puppies, so I just kept going in my socks, eluding one of the Treasury cops, ’til I made it to the street myself, and hung a right. There was Jimmy up ahead, running his ass off, too.

The cops were right behind us, a bunch of ’em, yelling “stop or we’ll shoot!”, but I couldn’t stop; I didn’t have it in me. I was too fucking scared. I just had to get away from these guys and this whole ridiculous situation before it killed me.

We ran and ran, a couple of blocks, Jimmy right ahead, the gang of cops coming up behind waving guns and yelling. It looked like we we’re gonna get away, but as we cutthrough a gas station, a black limousine pulled up at about a hundred miles an hour, right across my path, and slammed on the brakes. Two burly undercover cops in black suits and shades, jumped out and grabbed me, the one behind me twisting my arm up hard against my back, then slamming me down across the hood of their car,  the other cop handcuffing me as they mashed my face into the steel.

“It’s all a misunderstanding…”  I started going for that one, but I gave it up. These guys didn’t hear a thing. It was like I was an animal or something. It seemed as if they wanted to take me somewhere and kill me. That was the vibe.

Another black car pulled up and cut Jimmy off the same way.  Two other cops handcuffed him, and then they led both of us straight across a little alley and into a building that just happened to be right there.

It turned out to be a mental institution.

The cops spoke to a white coated man behind the desk, who nodded, and seconds later we were led to a cell, thrown in still handcuffed, and the door was slammed shut.

The cell was tiny, dark, and empty, so we sat on the floor with our hands behind our backs and waited.

————–

We sat on the concrete, in the dark, handcuffed. Every so often someone opened the grate on the cell door and looked in, and Jimmy would start to beg: “Please! Help! It’s all a mistake! Let us out of here! Please help us!”—crying as he pleaded, but the window would slam shut again, and it was plain that no one was listening.

I was clear eyes, shut down, observing.There was nothing to do but wait. It was cold in the cell, and I was shoeless and wet. Jimmy and I didn’t speak; there was nothing to say.

It was hours later when the door finally swung back. Two blue uniform city cops, one a black man and the other white, stood looking at us. The white cop gruffly asked us some questions, then they stepped back out again and the door was shut again.

A few minutes later the door opened again, and the black cop came in and told us to rise. He removed our handcuffs. Then he said: “You can go.”

I was dizzy, dazed, shocked by the light, and so glad to be out of there I felt like I was gonna fly. It was the end of the day.  A light drizzle was coming down, as we walked up the alley and back to Polk.As soon as we got around the corner we started laughing and swearing, recounting the chase.

I wanted to see if my missing Hush Puppies were still lying in the street in front of City Hall. Sure enough, there was one of’ ‘em in the gutter right out front. I put it on and then, a few feet away I found the other.We started back, walking home for a third time, broke and hungry, ragged and dirty, too. And sort of happy, full of light, glad to be free.

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