Peter Case

As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport

Rosie’s Cabaret

We said goodbye to Bruce Springsteen and headed out to spend a weird night in a funky motel, right across from the beach. There was a lot of late night action in the parking lot, but it was nothing to get involved in. It was one of those “cover me, I’m going out for cigarettes” kind of places. In the lobby the night clerk was behind six inches of bullet proof glass. I went down to ask him for some towels and he about jumped a mile when I came in, kinda spun around, looking all sweaty and nervous, like I’d busted him doing something nasty, but I couldn’t see what it was. The chain lock on the door in our room had been kicked off and replaced about ten times. The repairs on the door where the wood had been ripped off made a ladder-like design up and down the jamb, and there was an intense stench of death coming from the dumpster right outside, but no one to tell about it, so we just went to sleep.

As soon as we woke up in the morning, we cleared out of our room and went straight over to the oceanside, and it felt great to be breathing the fresh air and looking into the blue wave-capped distance, even if we were still wearing matching shirts. We walked around, got some coffee, sat on a bench by one of those tourist telescopes, watching the clouds blow by, for a while, and then hit the trail again.

When you think of New Jersey, who thinks of a wild, rural setting? The image in my mind was of Newark as the only North American industrial area that was bombed by the Germans in World War II. But, we followed our directions from the agency, and they took us to see a whole other aspect of the state. We drove for a couple hours and found ourselves way out in the country, passing through dark woods, lush green fields of farm land, and occasional little towns.

It was well past the dinner hour when we began to close in on our destination. The street name was right, but the numbers? We were way off. We kept driving, turned around a couple of times, and finally came to the little village where the map told us the club was located. We drove right past it the first time, performed a “swoop and pounce” maneuver, parked and shut off the rod, and checked the joint out.

We knew nothing about the club, except that John Hammond Jr. had played there once. It didn’t look like much, just a little wooden building with pink weather tiling, and a sign over the door, shaped like a pig in silhouette, and the lettering Rosie’s Cabaret, and in smaller letters at the bottom: Dining & Entertainment.

The owner’s name was Chris, and at first he seemed an odd, myopic sort of fellow, about my age, with a modified bowl haircut, great thick lenses in his round wire rims, and a quiet, businesslike manner. He didn’t have much to say to us, in fact didn’t engage us at all, except to ask for a hand once, as he moved tables and arranged chairs in the tiny club.

He had the world’s smallest PA, but when I brought out my guitar, plugged in and turned it on, Josh got it sounding great in about 10 seconds and two flicks of the wrist. The sound was full, warm, and responsive. Even though I was beat, I suddenly woke up and felt like playing. It just sounded so good in there.

After sound check, I asked him about the lodgings, which the hotel had agreed in the contract to provide, and he said we’d take care of it after the show. I said fine. I wondered out loud who would come to see me out in these boondocks, and Richard assured me the show was “sold out,” even though it was scheduled to begin in half an hour and all the tables and seats were still empty.

About 15 minutes before the show, the screen door to the street opened, and a line of people with reservations began to pour into the place. Mostly couples of people my age, but the extremely elderly and the latest punk rock generation were represented at a few tables as well.

The place was packed out and noisy, but when I started to play, the audience shut right up, and you could tell they were listening. I could feel ’em hanging on every note. When I was trying to crack wise between songs, they laughed hard, and when I’d play a guitar solo they applauded in the middle of the song. You know it’s going good when people cheer in the middle of things!

I was playing songs I hadn’t done in years, things like Ian Tyson’s “Summer Wages” and “Horse And Crow,” blues and folk numbers I’d thought I’d forgotten since my street-singing days. I even made up an instrumental for a break song, a fast unison guitar-and-harmonica jam sort of based on an old-time song I’d heard and loved,  “Train On The Island.”

When I got done with the first set, they gave me a strong round of cheers, and Richard and some young waiters and waitresses began to serve dinner and wine. Everybody was eating and conversing and the place was loud with the ring of silverware on plates, the clink of glass, and relaxed but enthusiastic talk. The whole scene was very encouraging.

The second set went even better than the first. It was one of those gigs you go on the road for, small but sort of magical, the kind that make you glad you’re a musician, that you stuck with it. It was really fun. I played some encores for them, and they gave me a long standing ovation at the end, then finally a “walking ovation,” as they all disappeared back into the New Jersey night, and I could hear groups of them singing the last song together as they walked away in the dark, “Cool… Clear…. Water.”

Richard straightened out the place, stowed everything spic and span and ship shape. The wait staff cleared out and it was just us. Richard settled up with the pay straight away, handing me a few hundred bucks, which I counted out.

“So wheres the hotel?” I asked, and he said,

“Well, there’s no hotel.”

And I said, “I thought you guys had me covered.”

And he said, “Well, the musicians usually stay at my house.”

I said, “Is that what John Hammond Junior did?”

And he said, “Well no, he stayed at a bed and breakfast nearby, but it’s too late to get you in there now.”

And so we made the decision to follow him out to his place, which he said wasn’t too far, and crash there.

Cool.  So he got in his pickup out front, and we pulled around behind him in the hot rod, and he took off and we followed.

We got down the main road for about 10 minutes, then took a left onto another road, which headed away from the towns, in fact, a little ways down the second road we weren’t seeing any house lights anymore, just cornfields under the moon, corn for miles. We took another turn onto a very small two lane side road, and after driving that for a few remote miles, we started to get a little antsy. It was really dark and lonely out there, no other cars in either direction, just the floating islands of light ahead from the pickup’s headlamps, and the little moving circle of light from ours.

“What if he’s taking us out here to kill us?” asked Josh, his face lit by the green dashboard, his eyes rolling towards me in the dark, and for a second I feel a slight chill all over my body. We both laughed too loudly: “Ha! Ha! Ha!” Then let it trail off.

The pickup was pulled over now to the left side of the road. Richard hopped out to open an ancient wood and wire gate, and then he pulled his truck onto the dirt road behind it, cutting into a dark wooded area. We followed him in, then stopped as he ran back again to lock the gate behind us. He was way up ahead now; we were just trying to keep an eye on his taillights. We drove for another five minutes, back and in, winding through trees, the road deeply rutted, us trying to keep up.

“I’m sure it’s okay,” I mumbled, and then suddenly we were in a large clear area, surrounded by trees, very dark except for the sliver of moonlight, the sky crazy with stars, and nothin’. I was trying to get my bearings.

Chris stopped, shut off his car and came over; we shut down, and then I made out the shape of a very large house against the night sky, a huge darkened farm house, not a light on in the place, and Chris set off towards it, gesturing for us to follow him. So I grabbed the Gibson in its case out of the back seat, Josh grabbed his bag and we went over and up some steps, apparently to the backdoor of the house.

He lets us in, and we were standing in the pitch-black room, some sort of anteroom or hall. We bumbled ahead in the dark; it was very quiet for a moment, then we heard the sound of feet, a rustling on the floor, as of something running, many somethings, very large, strange, moving in the dark, coming at us. “ARGGHHHHHHHH!”  We were paralyzed.

Chris hit a switch, the lights came on, and we were in an ordinary American farmhouse kitchen, that was entirely filled with pigs. Little pigs, big pigs, running around the room, squealing; all were very excited to see Richard, who was greeting each and every one.

“Hello Winfield! Jimmy! Oh Rosie, there you are. We have visitors! Don’t be afraid, they’re very nice people!” And then to us, as he plopped down into a wooden chair by the table with a tiny pig on his lap, “They’re cleaner than cats and smarter than dogs. They’re nearly as smart as humans!” The pigs swarmed around his feet and under the table, hidden by the red checked table cloth, grunting and making other odd humming sounds, breathing hard, all very fast and wiggly, demanding our host’s full attention. “Oh Jerry Lee!” he called, and a medium size pig scampered up. “You guys did your show tonight. Would you like to see Jerry Lee do his? Come on Jerry Lee, it’s showtime!”

Jerry Lee hopped up on a stool. Chris reached under the table and pulled out a huge pair of red sunglasses and a little toy piano. He put the glasses on the pig, set the piano on the table, and as Chris started singing “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” Jerry Lee started bangin’ the piano, eight to the bar, in a real rough style, but really pretty good, for a pig. Chris was excited now, sweating, wide awake, energized. The pigs were all rockin’ n rolling. I was sitting over by the piano, but Josh had gone over to the door, sitting on a wooden bench there, with a big porker on his lap.

“Dad, come here, check this out!” Every time he would reach over and touch the pig with his hand, the pig would immediately vibrate and hum. It was like completing an electrical circuit. Josh would take his hand away and the hum would stop. “Uhhhhh. Uhhhhh.” Josh tried the shave-and-a-haircut-bo-diddley-beat, touching the pig’s backs in time. “Uh Uh-uh uh-Uh! Uh uh-uh UH!”

Everybody settled down a bit down after that. Chris told he’d been a touring musician for years, and had only recently retired and opened the restaurant. But he wanted to pass on some encouragement to me.

“Peter, you should go tour Europe, they want the real thing over there, they’d love you…”

After a while it sort of seemed like everybody’d had a lot of fun, and had a good talk,  and it was time to go sleep, so Chris headed off to another part of the house to get things ready, while Josh tried some Morse code on the back of the “hummer,” and I just sort of idly looked around.

The room we were in was a chaos of pigs, pots, pans, and assorted useful junk, most of it old.

I poked around there a minute or two, and then sort of thought of looking for a phone to call the West Coast and see if I could reach any of my other peeps out there, but I couldn’t find one. I went around the corner and through a door to a little office. It was just a little larger than a closet really, with a dark wood floor, and a desk piled with papers pushed up against the wall, and a lot of random seeming items lying around. In spite of the clutter, the room was oddly empty, didn’t seem like it was used much. I couldn’t find a phone. Josh came in too. The door closed into the room, and behind it was a little bulletin board Josh was checking it out.

“Dad, come here and look at this.” He was talking in a whisper all of a sudden.

The bulletin board was empty except for one faded, curling, yellow newspaper clipping from a small hometown paper in the Midwest. The headline was about a man acquitted in a trial, in a city far away. There was a picture of the man, hard to make out. He was sort of a medium build, had a bowl haircut, and was wearing glasses. He looked a little like Chris, but not exactly, and Chris wasn’t his name. The story told how the man had been acquitted, found completely innocent, though circumstantial evidence had pointed to his guilt.  I couldn’t really figure out what the crime had been. We were standing there kind of silently mesmerized, when Chris’s head popped around the door, and interrupted our snooping. “All right then. Follow me, guys. I’ve got your rooms ready.”

We followed him up the stairs to the two guest rooms, which were situated, for some reason, at opposite ends of the second floor. The rooms were typical American farmhouse: brass beds, overhead fans, wild life pictures on the walls—bird and flower prints—historical portraits, dusty, massively overstuffed mattresses and pillows.

Chris left me in mine, and then went off to show Josh his. I felt agitated, and had been trying to go to sleep for a while, when the door quietly opened and someone was tip-toeing in through the dark.

It was Josh.

“A pig just tried to get into my room!”

When we woke up in the morning, the world was shining again, but Chris was gone and so were the pigs. We went down stairs and found this note on the kitchen table:

“Pete and Josh,

Thanks for the great gig guys. Hope you had a wonderful night. Help yourself to breakfast. Bacon’s on the stove.

best, Chris”

But the next show was up in Boston, so we split.

New Jersey club owner and musician CT Tucker with his pig Winfield.
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Regarding The Plimsouls, Chuck Berry and Alan Freed


I needed some dough bad, so I told our manager Danny Hollyway I was ready to do a publishing deal. He set a meeting up with the wigs over at A&M Publishing. I wasn’t too keen on going, but Danny told me I better if I wanted to do the business, so I said okay.

It was a morning meeting, and I wasn’t in the greatest shape. I was psychedelically hungover. I had an urge to cancel the meeting, but instead, I tried to pull myself together. I got up and put my shades on, and went outside to wait for Danny to show up. We always rode to these things in his car, and I was in no condition to drive.

In the meeting I shook hands with a couple guys. One, a serious man in an elegant suit, youngish looking, but with well-cut grey hair, seemed to be in charge. As we were introduced, I felt nervous and started to have an almost out-of-body anxiety experience, a real existential crisis that I was trying to keep a lid on. The old short term memory was out of order or something, so the names were gone from my mind the moment were introduced, as if they’d been written on the air in disappearing ink. I could hardly sit still to follow the conversation. This was how it was at most of the band’s business meetings during this time: I had difficulty getting my head around it.

I don’t know why but somehow the conversation got on to Chuck Berry. This got my attention and I jumped in: “Chuck Berry got ripped off man. What the fuck was ALAN FREED doin’ with his name on “Maybelline”? That’s bullshit, man! Payola! Rockola! Freed ripped Berry’s royalties in exchange for radio play. That’s a federal offence, but does anybody give a shit?!” I just raved on and on: I loved Chuck Berry, saw him as a great lyrical genius, and this thing galled me. “Freed ain’t no songwriter. I don’t buy that whole thing about him. ‘Father Of Rock n Roll.’ He didn’t invent that term. He was a dj that put his name on people’s tunes; he shoulda been ashamed. Alan Freed was a parasite!” I finally ran out of gas and went silent. I was a little out of breath, riled up. The other men all sat there motionless. I could hear traffic out on the street. The man with the brush-cut grey hair looked up at me and spoke. “Alan Freed was my father.”

Maybe I wasn’t hearing right. I looked down at the name plate on his desk. It said “Lance Freed.”

I can’t remember what was said next, it’s like someone turned the volume off, and we were all just looking at each other. But me and Hollyway got out of there quick, and to this day I’ve never made a publishing deal. It just never works out, so I’ve kept my publishing. Not that I couldn’t have used the dough!

One Night in America (1981)
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Tell The Boss I’m Sick

 

In New York City, the club was the Bottom Line, over near Washington Square Park.

At The Bottom Line, dressing rooms were small, but the mirrors were ringed by bulbous white lights, like you would imagine being in a Broadway backstage. A good night at the Bottom Line equaled “making it in the big town.”

The Village Voice gave my show a pick, New York magazine raved about the new album, the writers were out front, even the reviewer from the New York Times. All the DJs were there from Fordham University, and KNBC.

Paul from The Nerves showed up, with a Rolling Stone photographer in tow, and  wanted to get our picture taken together.  The members of R.E.M., in town to make a record, were seated at a front table.

A representative from the New York Musicians Union showed up and came backstage with his date for the night, so she could meet me. I could hear the murmur of the crowd building in the house.

I needed to go out there, connect, and blow the place away. Or rather, my career needed it. I’d finally be recognized, the endless scuffling would come to an end, I’d get respect from my peers, and be able to meet my bills. My wife would stop with the psychological torture. I’d experience a new freedom, a new happiness and no longer wish to shut the door on the past, and LOVE would be running like freshwater in a clear mountain brook. I’d be working with my heroes, travelling at ease, the songs would keep flowing, and I’d attain fingertip control of my own brilliance. The big questions would be answered. I’d ‘make it.’

There was a full house when I walked the plank, out onto the stage, and put on one of the worst shows of my career. The guitar sounded thin, my voice hurt, the audience was smiling, but seemed remote, and it seemed like I couldn’t close the gap. I felt flat footed and awkward between songs, grabbed the wrong harmonicas, misplaced my capo, and tuned up endlessly. My best jokes fell flat. Somewhere towards the end of the hour on stage my heart sank, and I crashed. Struggling to turn it around, somehow I got an encore, but I knew I’d stepped on it. I fought gravity and lost.

That was it. The audience split. Backstage a pal of mine came along, making fun of one of my songs in an exaggerated baby voice, in front of a crowd of “well-wisher’s.” It was a joke, I guess.  I saw my weakness in a stark light. I was downhearted for a quarter of an hour, but it was funny, too.  I had to laugh. So I had a bad show, so what? You have to go on.

Later that night, Josh and I wandered the empty streets of midtown Manhattan, telling stories, looking in store windows at stuff we couldn’t afford,  and watching the steam rising from the grates of the street,. We stopped at the all night bodegas , drank cokes and smelled the smells, the flowers, the fish, the garbage, the smoke from cigarettes, dug the great atmosphere in New York, as the newspaper trucks made their rounds, and we talked, trying to deal with the distance between us, the years I’d left him, and our closeness now, it was like talking to a mirror sometimes, the way he looked just like me, only younger, more wounded than I was, maybe, but smarter, too, less absurdly ambitious. And we had the same mannerisms, used the identical tones of voice, suffered the same anxiety.

There were big differences too. I had the drive to sing in these joints for a thousand years, no matter what the weather. He had other ideas, in areas I knew nearly nothing about, he loved science, and already had an encyclopedic mind. But he had to deal with the gigs too, when he was with me, and I know it wasn’t easy for a kid that age.

I was always one step from going down. I still am. It’s a habit. But every time I’d lose, no matter how bad, I’d come out to someplace like this, where I’m alone again, and free to face the glory of the world, as the memory of loss fades, and is slowly replaced by a wild sense of hope that I can’t seem to shake. I’ll write a song, find some magic that’ll set everything right, the music that can redeem all the years of the business jive, the wasted years of days of hours of minutes of eternity, that  I’ll sing to melt the ice in my own heart.

We went back to our cramped hotel room, with the two beds along opposite walls, and we lay in the dark talking until we woke up.

*                              *                                            *                                            *

I went to go pick up the “hot rod,” a blue rented Dodge, from a nearby parking garage, and I asked Josh to keep an eye on the clothes, which were all hanging on a luggage cart out on the sidewalk by the front door, and wait there until I got back. A few minutes later, I got back with the car, pulling up behind some taxis, to the spot where Josh stood on the sidewalk. He opened the back door and threw his tape bag and the guitar back there.

“What ‘ dya say we go get a slice before we blow town?”

“Josh, where are the clothes?”

He spun around a couple of times, looked up, looked back down, walked inside and around the lobby, came back out shaking his head. We both looked up and down the busy street. He’d turned his back on the clothes for a moment and they were gone, vanished up the boulevard without a trace, probably in another state already. Another lesson in New York City.

“Let’s get out of here.”

We navigated our way through traffic, heading crosstown. The next gig was somewhere in New Jersey, and I’d be playing in last night’s sweaty rangly-tanglys, which for some reason, I still had on. We’d lost everything we’d brought for the tour.

Through the tunnel, over a bridge, down the turnpike, then turning off towards the beach towns. We’d passed that stretch of New Jersey, by the Newark Airport that always makes me think of Jimmy Hoffa, and guys wearing concrete boots.  It’s the edge of the city, the urban wilds, the toxic swamp-zone, with Manhattan in the distance, further away than it looks. On our right, jets were taking off and climbing at intense angles, and on our left, vacant bad lands of post industrial waste, covered with poisonous water and reeds.

We drove out to a town called Longbranch, New Jersey. Longbranch is a hard hit, bombed out beach town, one stop north of Asbury Park. We passed a lot of knocked down buildings and many vacant lots. The club was a super-funky rock box called Marz American Style, and was right across from the beach, looking out on the Atlantic Ocean. We got there about 5 o’clock, and knocked, and the sound guy came and unlocked the door for us, letting us into the dark and empty club for our mic check.

It didn’t take long to get the guitar sounding right, so, with sound check finished, we walked across the road to the little tourist beach shop, looking for some shirts to replace the dirty ones we had on. Alas, all they had left were two identical black tee’s, with a picture of a pink starfish on each one, but I bought them and we put ’em on right there, and walked back over to the club.

We crossed the street and entered the club, and saw a guy leaning back against the bar in the dark. That was the moment, in our matching father-and-son pink seashell t-shirts, that we met Bruce Springsteen.

He wanted to talk. “I really dug your first album” he said. “I even phoned Van Dyke Parks, ’cause I was thinking about working with him. I liked what he did on ‘Small Town Spree.’ We didn’t end up working together, but we became friends.”

“Are you getting the Plimsouls back together?” he asked me.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” I told him. “We played a benefit a few months back, and it was like we’d never stopped, the sound and feeling were back immediately. It really surprised me.” He told me he was gonna get the E Street band together again. I decided to kid him a little.

“I’m from Buffalo, man, been on the road, and seen just about everywhere in America, but this little stretch of beach towns in New Jersey is about the strangest, most foreign place I’ve been to in this whole country. Hard to believe it’s only fifty miles from New York City, the Jersey Shore is about as far from New York as you can get. ”

He laughed and said, “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell people for years!”

We chatted for a while, as the club lights were turned on, and soon it started getting to be time for the show. Some of Bruce’s friends showed up in a small group, including his wife, and they went down and started drinking beers at the bar on the other side of the room. More people came in and I got ready to go on.

I played my set for the seventy five or so people in the joint. Towards the end, as I was going into “Walk In The Woods,” the club owner came up on the back of the stage, hit a button, and a wispy jet of smoke-like thick mist began squirting from a hose. He had a manual attachment for it, and was walking around the front of the stage, spraying more fog here and there. It almost looked like he was fumigating the place.

At first it formed a low cloud cover at the base of the stage, but the fog kept coming, and deepening, rising up my legs and the microphone stand, while I stood in the blue light, wailing like a train whistle on my harmonica, chugging the rhythm, keeping the song going as the whole world began to disappear and the fog swallowed everything in sight. The lights went dim, like moon behind the clouds, and I was alone, lost in a rolling fog-bank.The song finally ended, and I heard applause, away in the distance, from somewhere I couldn’t see. I staggered from the stage and stowed my guitar, then headed out to the bar, as the air began to clear. The Boss was buying a beer for my underage son, and he offered me one as well.

He was laughing. “Hey Peter, those were some great effects you had going there, man. Really dug the production of your show…”

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King Kong Management

We recorded “Hanging On The Telephone,” “When You Find Out,” and two other songs at a studio in San Francisco’s Chinatown, then put it out on a 45 rpm record on our own label, and it was a little record with a big hole. We sold about five copies in the first month. The great radio station KSAN played “Hangin’,” “When You Find Out,”  and “Working Too Hard” on New Year’s Eve.  Then we moved to Los Angeles, driving that cold night down Highway 101, and arriving in L.A. on the morning of the first day of the new year, 1977.

 

Desperately wanting to get things going, our drummer Paul went out every day, going around Hollywood, trying to hustle up some business, and after a few days,  he told us a manager wanted us to meet. The guy’s name was Raymond Albert.

Albert had a tiny little office in a decrepit old fire trap of a building off of Hollywood Boulevard, near the Cahuenga Newstand. There was barely enough floor space in there for all four of us to crowd in. He sat behind his desk, a fortyish man with short brown hair and a chin-strap beard, wearing a khaki safari jacket over his large upper frame. He spoke in a deep voice, seemed very strong, and gave off the impression of a subdued or capped energy.

We talked for about 10 minutes in his office. He loved the record, just loved it, really thought something could happen, if we were willing to take his advice. We asked about the dozens of boxes stuffed with Gorilla toys, lined up and stacked along the walls, and he enthusiastically told us about his latest project. He had put a record out, on his own little label, a novelty single: “Oh! Kong” or something like that, capitalizing on the year’s big re-make of the King Kong movie. It was going to be huge.

He asked if we were hungry, and then, at his suggestion, the meeting adjourned down the stairs and through the alley to the Two Guys From Italy restaurant next-door.

We got a booth in the dark back room at Two Guys, and the meeting continued. Albert ordered a couple pizzas and pitchers of beer. He wanted to know: “Are any of you guys married?” We ate and drank, talked nonsense about the music world. Albert had some theories and talked big. He ordered a lot more beer, and we drank all he ordered.

Ninety minutes or so later we were all drunk, and the restaurant was starting to empty out. Albert picked up the tab, then pulled his briefcase out from under the table. Funny, I hadn’t noticed he had that with him before. He opened it up, and pulled out some paper and set it in front of me. “It’s a very simple contract, you’ll need to sign it now so I can get on with things for you,”

I tried to focus on the typewritten page in front of me. We weren’t expecting this. It made me very uneasy.

” Go ahead, take some time and read it,” he said, “or if you want, I’ll explain it. This is a standard management contract, the same contract that everyone in the business uses.”

“Raymond, It says here the term is for 10 years. That seems like a really long time,”  I said.

“That’s the industry standard.”  Raymond assured me. “And once the record’s a hit, time will be flying by.”

I looked around the table at my partners. Paul and Jack were looking down at their copies, reading. Everybody looked wasted, rumpled, bemused.

“Raymond, I don’t think we can sign this, it gives you fifty percent of the songwriting royalties for ten years.”

“It’s commonplace procedure, you guys. The usual rate. I need to be protected too. I’m gonna make you guys into big stars. I need to get something, a piece of the pie. And remember, one hundred percent of nothing is nothing. You gotta give something up if you want to make it to the top.”

Paul caved in. “He’s right. I think we should sign.”

“I can’t sign this,” I said, though I felt like I might be blowing my big chance.

The table went silent. Raymond was getting angry now. “You mean to tell me you guys get me out here, I buy you pizzas and beer, and now you’re not gonna sign the contract! You’ve gotta be kidding me! Sign that contract!” He was really getting worked up.

“I might be drunk but I’m not gonna sign this crap,” I said.

Paul was dismayed, but we hung together, and finally, over Raymond Albert’s ever more intense objections, we split. And that’s how the Nerves handled their first big opportunity in the music business.

 

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Trip to Lightnin’, 1971

The latest lineup of Pig Nation moved into an old house out by Lake Erie, with six bedrooms, a fireplace, a porch, and a main room big enough to play ball in. It was situated in a remote and seedy wooded compound called Idlewood, and from the bluffs overlooking the lake we could see the steel mills of Lackawanna  blowing sulfurous smoke into the cinereal gray sky, merely a few miles of polluted shoreline away to the North. The leader of an infamous motorcycle gang and his old lady lived across the street from us, and often threw gargantuan outlaw parties on the island below, which we could hear on the breeze late at night, but outside of that the neighborhood was quiet.

In our house there were six guys, splitting two hundred dollars a month, and we could never make the rent. Then the first big winter storm hit and the back-to- the-land people, who were living in sleeping bags around campfires in the woods outside of town, began arriving at our door, begging to come in out of the cold, and we said okay to sixteen of them, boys and girls, and now we had twenty-two people in a house made for six, twenty-three if you count the dude someone picked up hitch-hiking, and at this point we began to suffer from cabin fever in there, and with the Buffalo weather and the distance from town, what had been a workable and even idyllic situation for all was starting to get strained. Twenty three divided by six bedrooms, that’s approximately three point eight-three hippies a room, and we still couldn’t make the rent.

At first I’d been thriving, beating for hours on the old piano in the main room, teaching myself to play boogie-woogie, blues and honky tonk,  and my girlfriend from down in town, Julie, who I was nearly crazy about, would come out and stay sometimes, when her Dad was gone all week driving semi-trucks, but all my roommates started calling her “the Painted Woman,” and anyways, she never spoke, I’m not sure why. I’d ask “what can I do?” and she’d just look at me. I was hopelessly bad at sex and romance, and we weren’t really getting anywhere. The ping pong table in the middle of the house was going constantly with people working on their game, and everyone was stoned. Dinner every night was rice and beans. Being the youngest in the house, I was usually pressed into KP duty, and I began having to do the laundry too, over at the bikers place. But one day the oldest guy began thinking he was a religious leader, and became obsessed with converting the rest of us to his vision. He started going naked and calling everyone en masse up to his quarters to see God…

And I thought “man, I gotta get the fuck out of here!”

There’d been a storm in the night.

It was early in the morning and I’d decided to leave. No one else was awake yet. Stepping lightly through the house, I didn’t want to rouse the sleepers and have to face their questions. I wanted to get as far away from this place as I could, right away, blizzard or not. Out the door onto the gravel and ice, the cold air bit my nose, the wind punched my lungs, and the world was muted, still  in darkness.

The  pines were covered with snow, the bridge was buried, even the tiny sparrows flittering in the trees had little piles of snow on their heads. When I reached the highway,  I waited, watched and shivered, then stuck out my thumb as the first set of headlights approached through the wind and cold, wet snow. I ran to the car and jumped in, out of breath, took off my gloves, and held my hands to the dashboard heater. The radio was playing rock and roll, it was like arriving late to a party. The driver was a guy in his 30’s, mustache, short hair, nervous, probably doin’ a sales route.

“Goin’ to Syracuse,” he said as he pulled out into the flow.

“Me too!” I answered.

The country rolled by as we got on the New York Thruway, a road I’d travelled on a lot of times.  This was the first time I’d ever taken the road alone. While he fooled with the radio dial, I turned to the right and stared off through the window at the power lines and electrical towers that were marching in our direction like an invasion of giant robots, back across the grey frozen landscape to the horizon.

I got dropped off in Syracuse by the university, on the hippie-student strip.

I met two friendly and attractive young college girls, in a record shop and they invited me to their apartment near campus. Once there they brandished an item that I’d never seen before, and told me it was called a “bong.”

We fooled around with that for a while. To make sure this story doesn’t get too long, I’ll just say, I got out of the hospital a couple days later.

It was a weekday morning, the air outside was cold, but the storm had passed. The sun was shining in a clear blue sky, the diamond ice on the ground glittered, and I thumbed a ride with a carload of kids that took me all the way to Albany.

The girl in the front passenger seat asked where I was going and I answered

“Boston.”

“Oh really? That’s a long ways. Do you have friends or family there?”

“Well, my grandfather was a train conductor out of Worcester, but he’s gone now. I’m just going to have a look.”

They dropped me off on the last Albany exit,  a major Thruway interchange with toll booths and lots of cars speeding both ways.

The weather was getting worse again. I immediately started trying to hitch a ride. Another traveler, a guy a few years older than me, was up ahead, workin’ the same flow of cars.  I wandered up and spoke with him. He was trying to get up near Boston as well. We talked for a while; he  said he was going home. We had a couple laughs about the weather, then split up again. Who wanted to pick up two riders?

Standing out there in the cold for an hour, I started getting a little nervous. A thousand cars must’ve gone by, and no one even looked. The flurries swirled and swarmed. I turned around and the sun was gone, it had just disappeared. The sky was getting dark, I could feel the temperature falling, as the snow began to squall. It was turning into a blizzard, and still no ride.

Headlights were halos in the wall of white; cars emerged from the ground-level clouds into the foreground, and zoomed past, my plight raising not even a quick look from the drivers.They kept whooshing by, hundreds of thousands of  ’em, the car-wheels spinning and kicking up slush. Spotlights at the blue thruway toll booths ahead revealed more traffic coming off the Thruway than going on, and the storm looked to be on top of us now.

The other hitch-hiker came over and said that after hanging here so long not getting a lift, he figured it might be time to surrender. I watched his back as he walked to the toll station, went into a phone booth, and dialed. Ten minutes later a checkered taxi pulled over and he ran for it.

“My parents sent me a plane ticket home,” he called. “Good luck!”

The cab pulled out on the Thruway interchange and disappeared, with him in back.I left my spot at the on-ramp and began to walk into Albany, hoping to find some shelter for the night. After a while a city bus came by and I flagged it down. There were no other passengers; I paid and sat down on one of the sideways benches, looking over the driver’s shoulders into the night as the bus lurched, roared and slammed its way up a hill.

No one else got on, and we rode all the way to the end of the route: State University at Albany. In a hollow voice the driver muttered, “this is it,” as the door swung open.  I stepped onto the street, and the bus lumbered away leaving me standing there, floating in a giant, haunted empty space, a dark plaza of vacant modern campus architecture.

Lit by flood lamps in the snow, the buildings looked like something dreamt up by Albert Speer for the Third Reich, and the university was a ghost ship; everyone was gone. It was the semester break.

But the snow kept coming, and I needed to move.

The next bus to town pulled into view and it was the last. Once again, I was the only passenger. I asked the driver, a middle-aged black man, who seemed ready for anything in his heavy parka and Russian-style hat with ear flaps, and he said there was a shelter downtown. He stopped a few blocks away and gave me directions.

I said thanks, stepped off and his bus roared away.

I was in downtown Albany, its streets lined with old brick buildings, and the snowplows hadn’t even come through yet. There was no one in sight. I walked and after a while I found it, a storefront next door to a church. The door was unlocked, and I entered. It was warm inside, where a lady and man were toiling about getting ready to leave. I’d just made it, they told me, come on in.

I looked at the posters on the walls. Apparently, the place did quadruple service as a shelter for transients, a suicide hotline, a community resources switchboard, and as the home for the Downtown Albany Free Medical Clinic. There were no other clients, or customers, victims, whatever the hell I was.

The rooms were furnished with junk chairs, an old low wooden table, and ancient asbestos floor tiles in faded primary colors. Piles of toys in the corner waited for the preschool that met there. On the wall hung a plaque with a serenity prayer on it, the same prayer I’d seen displayed at my Uncle Jim’s house.

The people were friendly and relaxed, but they asked a lot of questions, and I lied about everything including my name,“Davis Clifford,” my age “eighteen,”  my purpose for the trip,“visiting family in Boston,”  and they were perfectly satisfied with the answers I gave. I was shown into a room with a couple of cots, and I put my things down, lay back on a pillow, pulled the green blanket over, and crashed.I woke early the next morning ready to leave.

The people were talking excitedly about the big snowfall setting some kind of a record. The front window was so frosted I couldn’t really see, but from the way they shivered and shook and stomped the snow off their boots I got the idea.

I put on my coat and steeled myself for the freeze, said goodbye to the kind people of the Albany Downtown Switchboard and Shelter, and headed out through frosted doors into the morning. The sun was out and blinding, and the streets were filled with shining ice; the sky was clean blue, the storm had passed but everything was buried under great heaps of white.  Cars were skidding along the street; the little one-man snowplows were coming through, clearing the sidewalks. It had really been a big storm.

Following directions back to the highway, and walking slowly, slipping on the ice, the cold air burned my face,  and my toes already ached from the cold. When I passed a public library, an ancient brick building on a hillside lot set back from the street, I gave up; without thinking much, and went in.

There were only a couple of people there.

An old bird, probably retired, with bushy eyebrows, sitting at a table scowling at a copy of Popular Mechanics, and  a middle-aged lady librarian in a sweater and skirt; she wore glasses and her grey hair was pinned up in a bun on top of her head. She smiled at me as I passed her desk. I saw carved-on tables, a worn out floor; I could smell the old books, a dry musty odor, not unpleasant. The tables and chairs, the carpets and the floors, even the pictures on the wall were brownish and worn.

In the back room where the phonograph records were kept I saw a little music listening booth with glass windows, equipped with a turntable. Records were kept in a bin along the wall: I went down on my knees to read the lettering on the worn out album cover spines. Hidden in there amongst ratty copies of Victory At Sea, Sing Along With Mitch, and Sounds of the Brazilian Rain Forest, was one record that caught my eye and made my heart jump: a Skip James LP, in a blue sleeve with a photo on the front of a black man in a loud yellow shirt rockin’ on a blond Gibson guitar.

This was it.

I continued to flip through the records and pulled two others: The Cisco Special by folksinger Cisco Houston,  and  Ramblin’ Jack Elliot Sings the Songs Of Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers. I took the three albums in hand and stepped to the listening booth. Something about the situation I was in made me uniquely ready to listen. I dropped the needle onto the first tones of Skip James’ “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues.”  The guitar was low, flat-toned and buzzing. The ghosting voice was high and almost disembodied, “If I could ever get up offa this killin’ floor…”  It was the sound of America, my home, as the foreign country I knew it to be. A soul was peeping out the window of eyes and seeing the strangeness of the world. I knew Skip James was a Mississippi born blues singer, but I knew absolutely nothing else about his life or his music; I’d never heard anyone speak about him or even mention his name before, but the sound of that record hit me hard and was so fresh, I was unprepared.  I got turned on, and burned like a tungsten bulb. I played that song over and over again.

Ramblin’ Jack and Cisco were a different story, wise guys of another stripe. “Dead Or Alive” by Ramblin’ Jack was an hilarious outlaw blues. “The sheriff wrote me a letter: ‘come down and see me, boy, dead or alive.’ Jack had a touching way of making the law sound foolish. He swallowed the words then spat’em out, and it cracked me up.

The first cut on the Cisco Houston LP was a rousing, old fashioned  boogie-woogie country tune about how “all I ever did was shoot a deputy down” and how, then, “I got ninety nine years on the hard rock pile.”  “This has sure been a lesson to me!”  is the last line, a ridiculous wrap up…a great record!

Mocking the trouble, their bad luck, the straight uptown world, all phoniness and hassles, right to its face, Cisco and Ramblin’ Jack were thumbing their noses at the law and living large and free in the face of insurmountable opposition. “It’s a hard road, dead or alive.” Nothing would ever get you down if you laughed at law and life and made it rock like Cisco Houston or Rambling’ Jack do on “The Badman Ballad” or “Dead or Alive.”

Or make a record as powerful and wailin’ as Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues, with nothin’ but a guitar and your voice. I never got over it.  I was never the same after hearing Jack Eliott, Skip James, and Cisco Houston the day of the blizzard in the Albany Public Library.

Perfect snow on the Massachusetts turnpike, after-the-storm calmness. White dusted over white pines and stone ledges of the road, cut through shale stone hillsides. Got a ride in a Lincoln with an old man, in a black suit, frail, he might’ve been fifty years old, soft spoken, the car was quiet, no radio and going all the way.

“Where you going?”

“Boston”

“Me too!”

Through Stockbridge, past Worcester, watching the snow-covered countryside, the distant hills and mountains, towns wheeling by on each side of the road, I was breathing deep. In the aftermath of the storm, it felt like a Sunday. Time was bright and quiet for a while in that old man’s car, and everything was okay.

It was exciting to be going somewhere new, Boston, and when we got there the city burst all over me. On its teeming streets and miles of stone and wood, I was overwhelmed. The old man dropped me off in a place he called the Combat Zone, which was one-way in full tilt, sidewalks jammed with workers, men and women in long dark wool coats, steam rising from beneath the street, and car exhausts puffing from the cold blocked traffic.

Boston was cranking with the energy of a million edgy people. I ran down into the subway and found my way to Cambridge, coming up from the underground to wander the busy streets by Harvard University. The area surrounding the school was just as busy as downtown Boston, but vibrating at a different pitch, girls of approximately my age, and guys with long hair and sideburns, waving gloves of kid leather, peering through wire-rimmed glasses, wearing blue jeans, boots, colorful parkas and ponchos, fancy scarves, stylish black motorcycle jackets, wool hats with beanies, and steam rising in clouds from their chatter. Arm and arm they came, across Harvard Yard, bound together in youth and privilege, on their way to studies, bundled up and trundling past the most wasted street-people I’d ever seen.

Banks of snow lined the curbs and covered the sidewalks. It was mid-afternoon and, blizzard or not, the city of Cambridge was bustling. No one noticed me at all as I wandered up and down Massachusetts Avenue.

I needed a place to crash and the afternoon was getting on. One of the elders at the Pig Nation house had advised me, “If you ever need a place to crash, just find somebody with ‘the look’ in their eye and ask them. We’re a secret society.”  I spied about and spotted a strange looking man, with wild, black, mad scientist hair, red face, a beard, thick glasses, and a very mature demeanor.  He had “the look” I was sure. I asked him if he knew of place I could go, and he said “Cmon’, follow me,” and we went down a couple of side streets and up a garbage can alley, in the side door of a three story building, climbed a long flight of stairs and entered into a large open loft space, filled with newspaper and print shop paraphernalia.  He showed me to a cot in an alcove, surrounded by a desk and some bookshelves, then shrugged and told me to make myself comfortable. He said “ You can stay, but you’ll have to leave early.”

I asked how come.

He said “See that poster over there, with the picture of a ship on it?”

I turned and saw it, yeah.

“Tomorrow we’re going to levitate that ship around the world.”

He was in some new organization called Scientology. I’d never heard of it, but all of a sudden I remembered I had to do something out on the street.

“I’ll be right back.” I dashed out and continued wandering.

 

In the early evening I approached a theater with an open ticket booth and a few people entering. There was a sign out front:

“LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS

TONIGHT! IN PERSON

8PM  General Admission $2.50”

Oh my God! I felt a shock of excitement; I could hardly believe it. I started going through my pockets to see if I still had enough money to get in. I had exactly 3 dollars left, so I paid through the slot in the window to the box office guy, and got two quarters and a ticket pushed back at me. I nearly ran inside.

The theater was already dark and the show was beginning. There he was, sittin’up there in the big spotlight, rockin’ on a steel stringed guitar, Lightnin’ Hopkins playing the blues, Mount Rushmore with a pompadour and shades.

I floated up into the balcony, on a sea of darkness, while the freight train spotlight on the star, and the sound he made, had me instantly hypnotized. He was wearing a suit, the shades were shining, and his hair crested his skull like the prow of a ship. He sang “Mighty Crazy” and “Wonder Why.” Then he told a long story of Mister Charlie’s rolling mill burning down, and when I was lost, blown away, didn’t know what I was seeing, he sang “The Trouble Blues.” “

“Trouble trouble trouble is all in the world I see” and tho’ I’d heard a couple of his records before, and loved them, I never got it until I heard this.

“I ran away from home but no one tried to fetch me back/ that was a long old time ago/held all I owned in a paper sack/ a long cold time fo’ sho’.”

“Poverty knocked and left his card/ said call me when your daddy dies/The good times are way off now/ I  see ‘em everytime I close my eyes.”

I was hungry when I left the show. I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone, but walked straight down the street and into the Hayes-Bickford Cafeteria, where I got a tray, joined the line and helped myself to some chile con carne and hot rolls, and a for desert a slice of pie, then took a table in the corner and enjoyed it all at my leisure. About halfway through the pie, I remembered that I was broke. When I was done I stood up and ambled toward the front, saw the attendant catch a load of me, and as soon as I pushed through the door and made it to the sidewalk, I turned left and took off running with the guy chasing me right behind. I flew down the steps of the subway, jumped the turnstile, and was lucky to find the train just loading on the platform. I caught it as it was pulling out, and rode it all the way out to Logan Airport where I spent the night sleeping in the American Airlines travel lounge. I didn’t even notice the crowds or flight announcements, until I woke up in the middle of  everything the next morning and went back to town.

I decided to go home then. I got to the turnpike on-ramp and the first vehicle that stopped was a semi-truck sixteen wheeler. I raced up and climbed aboard, said “I’m going to Buffalo,” and the driver, a young Irish looking fellow, nodded, said “Get in I’m goin’ all the way,”  and after all that fooling around and chicanery to get to Boston, it was one clean ride back, eight hours with the sun out in a blue sky  shining into the cab, melting the snowy fields and icicles off the barn roofs, and me and the driver telling stories and having some laughs. I played him some blues on the guitar, and we  listened to country music on the radio as we barreled west, and then for a while I stayed lost and buried in my thoughts, he in his, and then, after many mesmerized hours we got back to Buffalo that night.

We weren’t too far out of town when he asked me “where in Buffalo you going?” and I said “on Route 5 out in Lakeview” and he said “I’m going right by there I’ll take you to your door,” and man, I felt like it was a true legendary return, with the truck pulling in to Idlewood and carrying me right up to our green house, and me jumping out onto the running board with my guitar and hopping down as the driver gave me two long deafening blasts from his horn that rang through the night,  thenyelling “Take it easy, man!” as he drove away.

So I went into the house expecting a hero’s welcome, there they all were, and no one had even noticed I’d been gone.

 

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The Nerves Live At The The Cow Palace

The Nerves played the Daryl Starbird Hot Rod Show at the Cow Palace in early 1976.

The place was huge, it was one of our first gigs, and we were anxious, even though nobody was paying any attention to us—they were all there for the cars. But Daryl Starbird himself gave the introduction to the crowd, in a loud, clear voice, over the PA, heard throughout the hall, “Ladies and Gentlemen, now, on our main stage, I’m proud to present, for your listening pleasure, THE NERDS!”

I just about fainted. The other guys were looking at me like they were going to kick my ass. “C’mon man!” hissed Jack, “didn’t you spell it for him?”

We always had to spell it. Maybe I forgot. Oh well. We went out and played a set, and no one listened. We put everything we had into it.

When we were done, Jack and Paul cornered me, and said: “You gotta go straighten him out on the name before we play the next set. Get goin’! And make sure you spell it for him!”

So I headed out, across the main floor, past all his beautiful award-winning custom hot rods, his famous bubble-topped” Predicta” “the Futurista,” and the “Cosmic Ray,” through the Cow Palace, to the lobby, up an elevator, through security, talking my way past officials from the show, finally—about—15 minutes later—arriving in a room at the top of the Cow Palace, a very private, exclusive, quiet, office type room, where two men  were engaged in a deep conversation. One of them was Daryl Starbird, the famous custom car cult hero. I just stood there, a few feet away from them, until finally they stopped talking and Starbird  turned to me” “What can I do for you?” he asked. He seemed kind of pissed that I’d interrupted him.

“Mr Starbird, when you introduced us on the main stage, you said we were ‘The Nerds.’ That’s not the name of the band. It’s The Nerves. N-E-R-V-E-S. Nerves. The Nerves.” I finished and just stood there looking at him. He looked at me. “N-E-R-V-E-S,” I repeated.

“Okay, Okay, I got it.” And he waved me out of the room.

I went back out and made the trek, 15 minutes, down the stairs and elevator, through the lobby, past the hot rods in the main hall, through the security to the backstage.

“Did’ja tell him?” asked Paul.

Yeah, man. So the Nerves hung out for an hour or more, whatever it was until our next show. It seemed like a long wait. We were cracking jokes, bitchin’ about how stupid everything was, making fun of it, smoking, and just generally doin’ our thing and killing time. After a while we tuned up, me and Jack arguing about the pitch for a spell, and then it was time for us to go on, finally. We were nervous, again, and there were a lot more people in the hall. It looked like might we actually have a good-sized audience for this one.

We stood by the side of the stage, waiting, and finally we hear Daryl Starbird’s voice very concise and clear over loudspeaker, introducing us to everyone in the arena: “Ladies and Gentlemen: I’m proud to present, for your rock ’n’roll listening pleasure, from San Francisco, three great guys, THE WORMS!”

 

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Don’t Let Me Down

 

 

Jimmy and I worked it out so we didn’t have to go home. He told his parents he was staying at my house, and my folks were under the impression I was over at his, so everything was cool, we both got out for the night. We made straight for Jon and Mike’s garage apartment on Pleasant Avenue, all ready to go psychedelic.

The cast that night, besides Jimmy and I, included Dennis Bicknell, his girlfriend Donna, and Jon, and they were all older and more experienced in everything than me and Jimmy, who had just taken our final exams for the ninth grade. Bicknell was probably twenty-one or two, Donna, maybe twenty. Jon, I think was eighteen. Dennis was a good cat, kind of a car-guy gone psychedelic, and had just got out of the Navy. He was half-crazy, liked to laugh hysterically and pull outrageous stunts. He’d grown a mustache while he was gone, but his hair hadn’t grown long yet. He smoked a lot of weed, was also big on pills, and enjoyed drinking a bottle of Robitussin every now and again, digging the codeine high. Donna was a tall thin brunette, a hairdresser, quiet, a good kid going outlaw, friendly, good natured. I always felt comfortable around her, we all liked her a lot. She had short cropped hair, was still very fresh-faced and pretty, and wore a beautiful fringe suede jacket that she got from some biker she knew out at the lake, sized way too big for her, giving her kind of a waifish look, in a rough hewn way.

Jon was my friend, a local character already, a dark eyed, denim-clad, gentle but rebellious soul, stubborn to the core. His hair was short because he’d just got it clipped, while serving a week in jail, a few hundred miles away, in Albany. He’d mouthed off to a State Trooper who was shaking him down at the roadside for hitch-hiking. Everybody in town knew he’d run away from home to San Francisco in 1967,  and was there for the big Be-In,  and it’s aftermath. He’d lived in a California commune for months before coming back, hopping freights across the country to Buffalo, intent on getting in his last year of High School, but then he’d dropped out again to go traveling,  in June one week before graduating, and never got the diploma. The teachers just shook their heads. He had his own way of doing things, and though he was only a few years older than me, Jon was someone I looked up to in a big way. We were writing songs together, and starting to play a few gigs.

Everybody there dropped orange sunshine at about 8:30 in the evening, the whole gang except Jon.  I told him what I was doing, and he seemed amused, and said “man you better get some cigarettes!” Jimmy, Jon and I cut through by the old grade school, and walked up to Main Street, to the neighborhood market, as the sun set and the little town revved up in it’s cozy way for another beautiful summer evening. Couples rode by on bicycles, little children played hide and seek in a yard, dodging in and out from behind the giant elm trees that lined the streets. Dogs were running free, playing, too, and some one with a window open was banging out a hymn on an out of tune piano, bright chords floating on the faintly refreshing breeze.

At the store we waited in line behind a crowd of little boys and girls in shorts and t-shirts, buying rainbow taffy, popsicles, jawbreakers and gum. They kept laughing and changing their selections, running all around the store, getting items, and putting them back. I got to the front and asked for a pack of Camel filters and some matches. I was starting to feel strange, a sense of energy was building. I was nervous, filled with anticipation, and a teeny bit of fear. It was like the quiet moments as you climbed to the top of a roller coaster.

On the walk home the sun was nearly gone, painting the houses red, and along the way curtains were still open, the windows and doors giving off the warm and golden living room glows I knew so well, and we could look right into homes and see the family life, people watching their televisions, gathered at dining room tables, or a man sitting alone, in his favorite chair, with a newspaper, under a lamp, smoking a pipe.

Birds settled in their nests, katydids called, some last children were still out yelling, trying to finish one more inning of kickball in the fading light, and soon all I could see was the white stripes of their shirts, floating on the dark air in the vacant lot. A lone dog barked, cars drove slowly by, and the streetlights came on.

Everything was starting to vibrate and shimmer, and a pressure was slowly growing inside of me, like a case of the butterflies but a lot more intense, and I was surprised, as I didn’t think it would happen so soon.

By the time we got back to the apartment I was really feeling it. The others were too. Jimmy was saying goofy things and making stupid faces for Dennis and Donna’s amusement, but I wasn’t talking, I was checking out my walking, starting to feel very strange, preoccupied. They were all talking ’bout something but I wasn’t involved, I didn’t know what they were going on about. I was beginning to feel a very powerful sensation, like being inside my own personal blizzard. The haze cleared up for a second and I saw the others were were gone, except Jon.

‘They went out for awhile, man, we can just stay here and do what ever you want. You ok?’

He was smiling at my gestures, as I tried to talk. I couldn’t seem to put anything into words,’cause the words just wouldn’t hold still.

‘Are you alright, man?’ he asked with a laugh.

‘Let’s go for a walk.’ I managed to get that out. My knees were weak. I felt like I was caught in a wind tunnel. Streaks of light poured down, but the energy was rising up into my head. I was blinded, brightly colored snow was swirling around me.

‘Ok, man’. It took a very longtime to get to the front door of the apartment, about four steps away.

Jon helped me navigate, keeping the humor up, leading me down the driveway. Jimmy, Dennis, and Donna were down the drive, and looked like they were saying something I could barely make out. They’re going somewhere, did I want to go?

Me and Peter are going for a walk. Right, man? Do you want to go for a walk, or leave with Jimmy and those guys? It’s up to you’.

I couldn’t decide, and in a moments confusion, right there in front of the garage, I turned quickly and stepped completely out of my body for a moment, left it standing there as I turned left, towards Jon. Panicking, I jumped right back into it, that was too weird.

I paid no more attention to them as Jon and I walked down the driveway. We turned left on the sidewalk, walking along Pleasant Ave in the dark, and I looked down: we were walking in white flowers, on millions of daisies spread on the ground. I told Jon that my legs didn’t stop at the ground, but continued way down, deep into the earth.

I began laughing, and started running, turning around quickly to watch myself catching up, in a blurry trail, streaking behind me. I could’t stop laughing. It was fun.

Jon seemed a little worried. ‘You alright?’

I was fine, walking through the world of blossoms glowing in the dark, my head a little clearer, the earth breathing, the trees waving, headlights coming down the streets for so long it was like waiting for Christmas.

Back inside, the FM radio was on, tuned to the all night show on WPHD.

The DJ spun the Paul Butterfield Blues Band singing ‘One More Heartache’.

Jimmy, Dennis and Donna came back in. We were all talking at once, trying to tell each other about it. The tag of the Butterfield track came on and I was transfixed. I heard it so clearly I could see him, hear his soul, and I felt like I understood that word for the first time, the singer’s life, the feeling, and the way it came across. Soul. Got it.

The DJ played a Muddy Waters track and I was on my hands and knees, head jammed into the speakers. Then the Doors came on, ‘When The Music’s Over.’ The music got everyone else’s attention at this point. ‘The scream of the butterfly’. ‘We want the world and we want it ….now!.’

Dennis was very excited about this. We all crowded around.

Wow. We want it NOW.

Now.

I didn’t have any idea how much time passed. There was a bright light on, someone was filming. It was Bruce, where’d he come from?

‘Let’s go up to the Host’, suggested Dennis. The local all night diner, the Your Host Restaurant, up at the Village Shopping Center, only a few blocks away. Jon was into it, he wasn’t doing what we’re doing, and he felt hungry. Sounded great to me. Exciting.

We got it together, set out through the door, and started walking, the five of us, a little search party, the night patrol.

I felt like I was on my way to Times Square or something.

We stopped every few steps, to look or laugh at something. Halfway down Pleasant Ave. we noticed a huge old elm. I could see it stretch and breathe, and it felt very alive. A giant’s stalk growing up into the sky. We gathered round the tree, fingering it’s coarse and crumbling bark, smelling it’s musky scent, putting our arms around it’s girth and holding on. I felt the tree’s living presence,  and I sensed that it was aware of mine.

We all loved the tree. We stayed by it for awhile. Even hard guy Bicknell was hugging it, and laughing.

The town felt like a stage set, the houses and business all seemed like facades. All was quiet, no one else seemed to be out, and we could hear the clicking of the traffic lights, changing colors as we crossed.

The shopping center was a giant, empty, grey,  flat concrete field. The stores were dark, there were a few streetlights shining, off at the far end, where a handful of cars were parked outside of ‘The Host’. Slow, soft, and sleepy. We crossed the parking lot laughing and talking quietly.

A sharp squealing noise, then a roar, made us all look up. The world was exploding with light, and screaming with loud engine noise, headlights was bearing down on us, fast, from across the lot. I stood there frozen, as everybody scattered in different directions. I started to run, too, with Jon just a few feet ahead, yelling “Wow, man, someone is trying to run us down!”

The car turned around in the parking lot and came by for another pass, at high speed, gunning right for us.

We made it up to the sidewalk on the other side, as the car jammed by, just missing us. It was coming so fast, we almost got hit. I caught a glimpse of leering faces on the passenger side, hostile eyes watching back at us, a leather jacketed arm out the window, a hand shaking a fist, another face looming larger as they left, burning into my memory. It was a carload of motor heads and hoods, some local gang. Now they were turning around and coming back again.

Carloads of guys acting like this weren’t that unusual here, quite a drag though, and we were pretty shook up.

At the entrance to the Host we saw the green motif through the plate glass, the weary waitresses in their white aprons and hats, the drunken clientele, straight from the bars, trying to sober up on cheeseburgers, or a plate of eggs and bacon before going home to bed. We pushed in  through the glass front door and the whole place stopped eating and stared at us. A Gene Pitney song was playing from the shiny silver jukeboxes on the walls of each booth along the right, and spaced every few feet along the counter, on the left.

I loved those jukeboxes.

The five of us crowded into the third booth from the front. The lights were flashing on my eyes, vibrating. I felt very gritty, everything was moving, the walls were waving, and the waitresses looked like ponies. The carful of guys pulled up out front, and  I could see ’em through the window, their image mixed with our reflection,  as they piled out of their hot rod, and began coming in. They were gonna fuck with us, people were always getting stomped in the Your Host in the middle of the night, it was sort of a regular thing, we’d all heard the stories.

Stay cool. The bunch of ’em, five big tough guys, ugly looking in their mid-20’s maybe, blue jeans and t-shirts, hair slicked back, leather jackets, come straight up to our table and stand, glaring down, crowding over.

The leader looks down at Jon and starts in on ‘If I had a dog ugly as you…’ when Dennis looks up, and his face lights up.

“Big T! It’s me, Dennis…Dennis Bicknell!”

Big T stops, squints, then relaxes, smiles, and laughs. “Dennis, is that you? Shit man, how you doin,’? I didn’t recognize you. How’s your big brother? I haven’t seen him for awhile.”

Everybody cools it at this. Sorry man, didn’t know it was you! Ha ha ha…

I was bumming quarters from everyone as the situation mellowed out.  The jukebox had the Beatles’ new single, it’d just came out and the B-side was my favorite song in the world. I pumped in all my silver and pushed the buttons to play it five times in a row. I was diggin’ the soul, don’t let me down.

 

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The Nerves & a Song from a Record Store in Nodsville

The dream: I’m cutting class from Hamburg High, skippin’ out on school, so I go across the street and into a little record store there on the corner, and start looking through the bin for singles. I come to one that really catches my eye. It’s in a very colorful sleeve, and in wild type the cover reads “‘Hothouse Madman’ by the Sargents.” I want to hear the record, but John Lennon is a few feet away, going through records in another one of the bins, and when he sees me with the Sargents record, he flips out and comes over saying’ I don’t want you to listen to that record.’ I say ‘Well, I want to hear it.’ Lennon says ‘Don’t listen to that record!’ and he tries to take it from me. I resist, and take it over to the counter and the clerk plays it through the store. It’s incredible, an amazing, blaring-red bright rock and roll song, and I love it!

I wake up and jump out of bed, immediately pick up my guitar and learn it, writing the lyrics from the dream down in a pad, right there on the couch. The chords to the song include some I’ve never played before, and they sounds great. The chorus jumps up to a falsetto on ‘HOT-house Madman, hothouse madman.’ I play a guitar solo in the middle of the song, rockin on the low strings. It’s the rockin’est song I’ve ever written, if it can truthfully be be said that I wrote it. I’m not sure, I just know I dig it.

I play it there in front room of the pad, making my girlfriend Elaine listen over and over. She seems to be going for it, and I’m excited and kind of amazed at the nature of the song, and it’s dreamy inspiration. The music is simple, original, seamless, and rocks like crazy. The words are strange, but I feel like I understand them.

‘In the dark I’m waiting, near the break of day, crouching in the bushes, when they come my way.’

I play it for the Nerves later in the day, after rehearsal over at Pat’s. The tune and the chords is going over, but everybody’s having trouble with the words. It freaks ’em out. Hothouse madman? What’s that supposed to mean?

It was always hard to get the Nerves to play my songs. I had to get ‘em by Jack, and he was tough, he’d tear ‘em apart. He liked to edit everything down, and in the process disembowel them if you weren’t careful. He was especially hard on stories, even ruining some of his own. Chopping mercilessly, all in the service of a mad minimalism that almost worked. He had songs where the first verse repeated three times and that was it. Paul ratified everything Jack said, as a sort of right-hand man.. So it was a gauntlet for tunes, and I wanted nothing in the world more than to perform my tunes with the band, but they were rarely allowed through. ‘When You Find Out’ was in. They found it undeniable, I guess, a powerful melody and poignant lyrics over far out chords, including a B flat in A minor, and a major/minor oscillation. Jack worked that one over for hours, alone and obsessed down at the end of the rehearsal room, trying to pry the chords apart, prove that it was somehow put together wrong, but it was tight and finally he gave up, and the band learned it.

On one of the road trips up the state I must have been pressuring him about it, and he told me that if I rewrote the lyrics to ‘Hothouse’, we’d do it, and I said okay, great, and as soon as we got back to Hollywood, I went up into my fourth floor digs on Wilton and started in on the rewrite.

I set up to work on the kitchen table, with a portable typewriter, some bottles of beer, a stack of paper, some notebooks and my guitar. Every night I’d take another crack at Hothouse, knocking off more lyrics to fit the melody, and the hang-up was always the same: the chorus. Nothing seemed to work there, at least not as well as the original. Compared to ‘Hothouse Madman,’ everything else seemed weak, awkward, contrived. Each day as the sun went down I’d sit at the table and try again, there by the open window of summer, listening to the sound of my next door neighbors The Screamers having one massive punk rock bash after another, but I was never really tempted. I felt like I was gonna break the code, if I kept writing, so I stuck with it.

I wrote and wrote, banging away, and never seemed to get any closer. After a while, I started writing other songs to break the boredom. Hothouse was dead stuck, but One Way Ticket just poured out. Everyday Things I wrote on a break from the serious task at hand. I made up nonsense songs, limericks, rock and roll story songs, blues: I was finally getting my writing together without even realizing it. The act of constantly trying to tailor words in rhythm to the melody of ‘Hothouse’ was so difficult as to be impossible, but it was great exercise. After going through that for a few months I felt I could write anything. Anything that is, except a new lyric to ‘Hothouse Madman.’

Years later, the music to ‘Echo Wars, ‘ the leadoff track of my first solo record on Geffen, is based on ‘Hothouse Madman.’ T-Bone Burnett wrote the lyrics.

Here’s the original, straight from dreamland:

In the dark I’m waiting
for the break of day
crouching in the bushes
when they come my way

soon the rose sweet fragrance
tangles with my blood
I wake up when the sprinklers
cover me with mud

theres a vagrant in the garden
they say he means no one no good
I think I better watch out for the

Hothouse Madman

Hothouse Madman

Hothouse Madman

Hothouse Madman

Eat fresh fruit for breakfast
leave the world below
watchdog here in training
he will never know

why he finds fresh footprints
mornings by the pool
leading to the hothouse
doesn’t have a clue

theres a vagrant in the garden
they say he means no one no good
I think I better watch out for the

Hothouse Madman

Hothouse Madman

Hothouse Madman

Hothouse Madman

Life is tasting sweeter
now I’m middle class
living in the suburbs
escaping my past

but listening by their window
I nearly came upset
theres a madman in the backyard
still we haven’t met

theres a vagrant in the garden
they say he means no one no good
I think I better watch out for the

Hothouse Madman

Hothouse Madman

Hothouse Madman

Hothouse Madman

(c 1975, Peter Case, all rights reserved.)

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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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