Peter Case

As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport

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 seeing in a Broadway backstage. The Bottom Line equals “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 we had 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. Maybe 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. I could stop putting myself through 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 nearly full house when I walked the plank, out onto the stage, and put on a terrible show, one of the worst of my career. The guitar sounded thin, my voice hurt, the audience was smiling, but remote. I made foolish mistakes, and was self-conscious in a new, terrible way, flat footed, awkward between songs, grabbing the wrong harmonicas, misplacing my capo, and tuning up endlessly. I sang my songs but the 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 felt ashamed. 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, 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. 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 the shame fades, and is slowly replaced by that wild sense of hope that I can’t seem to shake. I’m gonna write the song, that magic melody that’ll set everything right, that’ll redeem all the years of jive, the wasted years of days of hours of minutes of eternity. The song where I’ll learn what it’s about and what it’s for, the song I’ll sing that’ll melt my own heart, let everyone feel what it’s like to be loved.

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.

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I went to go pick up the “hot rod,” a blue rented Dodge Charger, 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 in the whole country, and about as far from New York City as you can get. It’s hard to believe it’s only fifty miles away.”

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 he was walking around the front of the stage, spraying more fog here and there.

At first it formed a low cloud cover at the base of the stage, kind of like an early morning out by the riverbank, 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. The lights were dim, like the moon behind clouds, and I was alone, lost in a fog-bank.The song finally ended, and I heard applause, light and distant, from somewhere far off in the night. 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.

Bruce 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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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 Leave Me Hanging On The Telephone

 

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

I was living in San Francisco’s North Beach, and on 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 every night, 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,” and 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. His ideas and enthusiasm were charismatic. At least I thought so. Soon I began to see 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 of 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, it all has to be right, powerful.’

There was a big street music thing going on in San Francisco. And if the songs were great, when 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 saxophone, 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 discuss those other guys, still, there was something about what he was saying. I was intrigued, this was the invitation to an adventure. And he was by far the most talented songwriter I’d met in California so far. There was some real magic in those tunes, something I knew was 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 unintelligible, 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 the acoustic, and played percussion, and as the day went on, the session got more 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. I saw 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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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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About Jokerman by Bob Dylan. I wrote this 15 years ago…

Let’s see, it was October 1983 and I was still in the Plimsouls, but we had come in from the road, and had wound down, and I was just knocking about, living alone in a tiny pad up in Laurel Canyon (in the same cottage the Melvins eventually moved into, after I split). I  was writing songs for what was gonna be my first solo LP, and felt like I was on the moon, ’cause I was living at night, isolated, kinda living in my dreams & musical ideas, and I didn’t have to show up anywhere or for anything, it was woodshed time.

It was a good time, I was 29 years old, freed up for the first time from a lot of things that had been bugging me.

So I picked up the new Dylan LP at Tower on Sunset, and took it straight back home, and threw it on, and was completely transfixed by “Jokerman.”

The first thing that got me about it was the Sly and Robbie groove, unlike anything I’d heard before: it’s not rock or reggae either, but something new, very open. As usual with a Dylan record you hear every word. He delivers that very clearly.

On first listen the song hits you with a strong sense of life, of what it’s like to be alive in the world at that moment, a sense of NOW. The complexity, color, seductive sensual lure, sense of danger, of freedom, of possibility that one feels in the world, call it the Modern World, is all communicated so vividly, that the flash of recognition I felt upon hearing it, EVEN THOUGH I HAD NO REASONABLE IDEA WHAT HE WAS ON ABOUT, gave me a rush of Companionship. So that’s the first thing about the art of his songwriting, he wins you with the representation of what it’s really like to be alive. And you feel that before you understand it.

I think “Like A Rolling Stone” did that for its time. And the song “Dignity” hit me with that kind of force, when I first heard it on the radio, and had to pull the car over. And it’s a hugely exciting thing.

I’m not sure to this day that I could say I understand the song really. But I find it really moving.

The lines about ships, mist, snakes, glowing eyes, all were like kindling and I went up in flames when he hit “freedom just around the corner for you — but with the truth so far off what good will it do?”

That’s what I mean about him reflecting the true complexity of being alive, instead of the party line, which would be something like,  ‘”Gotta get free!” or ‘”I’m free — but with freedom comes responsiblility.” You know, “freedom good!”

I was in a period of my life when I felt a bit of freedom, but the nagging thoughts about the validity of what I was doing were unexpressed, kinda murkily swimming about in my mind, then PRESTO! Dylan’s said it, and I’m pushed into a new dimension of thought. All of this I just felt though on that first listen.

“So swiftly the sun sets in the sky…” yeah especially if like me you’re getting up in the afternoon and turning night into day, “You rise up and say goodbye to no one.” Check.

“Shedding off one more layer of skin, staying one step ahead of the persecutor within.” He does it again with this one, shedding off skin, sounds good, that’s what I was trying to do, reinvent myself, renew my musical vision, evade the weights and mistakes of my past. “One step ahead of the persecutor.” It was like he was reading my mind, I’d been guilty for my impulse to ditch the band and go solo, though it seemed necessary from a purely artistic point of view. So, those lines hit me too, and grilled me. As they would anybody I think, who was actively going through the kind of changes life threw on individuals at that time, which is still THIS TIME, by the way. The struggle of freedom, guilt, knowledge, power, foolishness that we all experience.

It’s a good song; there’s just so much in it. It seems alive, almost.

The chorus is so stripped down, it’s more tricky. “Jokerman,” that’s him singing about himself, and maybe about Jesus in verse three, and maybe about the silence of God at the end. But it’s also anybody, the Fool, jokers, trying to get serious, by that I mean, living with their eyes open, not “asleep neath the stars with a small dog licking your face” an image of a childish, maybe foolish sort, but also attractive in a way, hmm. The nightingale’s tune, it’s been pointed out that that’s like Keat’s Nightingale, the muse, or Imagination, flying high by the moon, that is, almost in the dark, moony, lunar, almost lunatic inspiration, like the subconscious, or unconscious (I mix them up!) which it always seems like Dylan relies on. For example, he always used to insist the songs come “through him” and the creation of his early work had to do with “power and dominion over the spirits.”

Is that clear at all? It does seem like he is singing, at least in part about himself. And it’s relevant to you and me, to the degree you want to apply it.

There’s a great difference between his best work and his other stuff. “Jokerman” is one of his great songs, right in there with the best of the early work, and the best of the ’70s. “Neighborhood Bully” doesn’t have this kind of impact, whatever you think of its message. “Man Of Peace,” likewise. I think “Union Sundown” is a great piece of work, but as a song lyric, though it’s good, maybe someone else could have written it, he merely covers the subject. Another song like that, from a later album, is “Everything’s Broken” from O Mercy. It’s strong, complete, but not necessarily “Dylan-esque,” in that it’s not communicating that super-vivid and 360 degree sense of life, of what it’s like to be alive at that moment. And when you hear the songs that have that quality, it’s like a mirror, or a trick window, you almost feel as if you’re looking through reality, getting a glimpse “behind the screen” and that’s what makes it so valuable.

So some of it is cold, detached, etc. but people need to hear his great stuff. His Greatest Hits, Vol 3 is pretty powerful, for that reason.

If you don’t get Bob Dylan, you don’t get much, in my opinion. Complaints about his voice are a sure sign of ignorance of music and history. It’s not really a matter of taste. It’s a matter of mind or not. I know as time goes on it may be harder for younger people to get in on. But it’s worth trying to find the door in, a whole universe opens up.

A lot of it is down to words. Can you relate to another mind, as related in language. Beyond the either/ors of binary choice. Dem or Republican? Hot/Not? Young/Old? Yes/No on this or that.

Bob Dylan uses roots music to tell his story, his way. That’s what I try to do as well. But you have to know your limits. Dylan is the best at that, he’s got that “bullshit- detector” that lots of people talk about. It better be real or forget about it.

I grew up in a house when blues and jazz and early rock and roll were just coming out, and the records were comstantly being played on our record player, and my sister and her friends (who were all about the same age as Dylan) were attempting to play the music,too, on piano and other instruments. And that ’50s music was all blues-based, or country. And then there was Elvis, who I experienced as a three year old. And he had the feeling on the Sun Records, and the early RCA, and I just soaked it up, but also the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Link Wray (the first HEAVY guitar) Richie Valens, Fats Domino, the great Little Richard and Jerry Lee on TV shows like Bandstand, and all of that is blues.

Then Dylan and the Stones, Beatles too, and I followed the streams and first heard Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Carl Perkins, and Buddy Holly.  I just loved all of that so much. And it got deeper from there, Howlin’ Wolf, and Robert Johnson, McTell, Gary Davis, etc.  I just loved it and listened endlessly. And kept TRYING to play and sing it, and I HATED what I sounded like at 17, 18 years old, so young and white and reedy. It was EMBARRASSING.

The story of all this is in my book, As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport, which I’ve been posting bit by bit for the last few months.

Somewhere in there it all opened up to me, but you still gotta keep a sense of humor, and the bulllshit detector trained on yourself, so look out!

And then you gotta work to be YOURSELF,  to sing through the influences.

I think I need to write a part two of this!

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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 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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Joey And Chris And A Million Miles Away

[above: Chris and Joey] [earliest version of A Million Miles Away, from 1981 tour]

 

 

I ‘d met Joey Alkes and Chris Fradkin at  just the right time, the same week the Plimsouls began playing in the Hollywood clubs. We’d hit it off immediately.

I ‘d always wanted to be a Brill Building songwriter,  like Otis Blackwell, Doc Pomus, or Carol King,  who were adept at composing three minute rock ’n roll symphonies on demand.  I felt Joey and Chris were my ticket to that dream, to that kind of fun. And we always had a blast writing songs.

I’d get up in the morning, get some coffee and head straight over to Joey’s. Chris would show up, and we’d get right into making up songs, trying anything and everything out, looking for a real idea.

Joey’s from Brooklyn, was a few years older than me and Chris, had been in the army, was a published poet, too, but  his specialty was great song hooks.

Chris had studied music, and played guitar and piano. He’d been music director for a wild band Joey had managed in Denver, and always had a lot to say about grooves and arrangements.

Chris and I would sing and play riffs or chords on our guitars, me still banging on the Yamaki deluxe, that same guitar I’d been banging’ on for years. We’d work for hours without stopping, sometimes making up several songs in a session. It was fun, a lot of laughs, tough sometimes if you thought you had something and the other guys gave it the thumbs down.

But the great thing about writing with Joey and Chris was the camaraderie, and that came through in the music. I wrote a different kind of song with them than I did alone.

Joey  lived in one of those Hollywood pads where the apartments circled a pool. Even on the sunniest day, we never sat by the pool, but we sort of looked at it through the windows as we gathered around his kitchen table and worked. Joey didn’t play an instrument, but he’d be singing choruses and horn parts—just making sounds, that added to the general feeling.

We knocked out a load of songs over there. “Now,” “Lost Time,” “Hush Hush,” were all on the first Plimsouls album. “Hypnotized,” the first song we wrote, was featured on our debut e.p.. Writing became nearly my favorite thing to do, and whenever the ‘souls were back from the road I’d go over. Sometimes it would be like a party; we’d buy beers and bottles of wine, or whiskey, get high, and keep writing. Sometimes we’d get too messed up and have to adjourn to the next day. But we just kept writing songs. It was so much fun, walking in with nothing and coming out with a song a few hours later. When we got one, we’d put it down on the boom box, making a cassette I could take with me. I’d go learn it with the band. And then, when everybody got to it, wow, that was the best feeling.

Meanwhile it seemed like every gig the band played was bigger than the one before it. The EP had been a hit on local radio, especially a song I’d written on my own, called “Zero Hour.”  Like Rodney Bingenheimer, KROQ’s great punk rock dj liked to say, “IT’S ALL HAPPENING!” And there was pressure to come up with a powerful song to lead off the next record.

One night Chris and I went out to see the Germs play a gig at the Starwood. The place was going nuts. Punks were climbing up the walls to the balcony and diving off head first, back into the crowd. We watched it from the back for a while, then decided to work on a song.

We drove to Barney’s Beanery, a horrible bar and restaurant a mile or so up the road. We sat in a booth in the back, and Chris ate dinner, while I drank a beer and scribbled lyrics on a scrap of paper. We talked about the words, and each kicked in some lines. I was remembering something from a long time back and the feeling was pouring into the song. I’d been having an affair with a girl I really thought a lot of, and that had just broken off. Something of my childhood was in it too. A lyric was taking shape based on all of this. We wrote the second verse and a bridge but still had no title or chorus.

We got out of the restaurant and drove the five minutes over to Joey’s. He rang us in the front door of his building and met us outside his door.  His wife Esther was asleep. I went in and grabbed the cheap acoustic 12 string I’d left behind the table and came back out playing. The whole song came to life as I sang the lyrics. I played the guitar riffs between the lines the way Chris and I had laid them out that afternoon, and the build up of the bridge. It was all coming together in a rush. But what’s the title, where’s the chorus? I told Joey I wasn’t sure, then somehow  Joey nailed the chorus, just like that. “I’m a million miles away” and I threw on the tag “and there’s nothing left to bring me back today,” and we had another one.

We taped it on cassette, adding it to the other two songs we’d done that day, and that was it. We forgot all about it for a while.

 

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A Walk In The Woods At Ben Frank’s.

I’d left the band. I was disorganized in that cottage up there in the canyon, living alone, banging on the piano I’d rented, with records scattered all over the couch and floor, and notebooks too. All I did was write and demo songs. There was never anything in the refrigerator except beer. On the shelf were boxes and boxes of sake. And I powered down coffee like mad when I wasn’t drinking beer or wine, sake or brandy. Not being much of a cook, I took all my meals out, down on Sunset Boulevard usually, at one of the places down there. My two favorites were Ben Franks’s twenty-four hour diner, and the famous natural food restaurant The Source, where I could pretend I was doing great things for my health.

One night I was sitting in a booth at the Source, picking at an avocado, beet, and bean sprout salad, when I realized Muhammad Ali was seated at the very next table, in discussion with a number of men. I listened in, couldn’t help it, and from what I could pick up, straining my ears as best I could, the guys were from the Olympic Committee, doing their best to convince the Champ to host the Olympic Boxing that was coming up in LA later in the Summer. I was trying to be cool, and not let on I was eavesdropping, but I nearly fell out of my seat when I heard Ali tell them, “I threw my medals in the river.” He was turning them down, and they were beseeching him. His no was solid, no matter how they begged, and finally he got up to walk out, right past my table. He was big as life, looking very strong, totally cool, and he winked at me as he walked out.

Another time I was up at Ben Frank’s restaurant in the small hours of the morning, sitting at the counter drinking cup after cup of the bad coffee they served there. David Bowie was just a few seats down from me at the counter, wearing a khaki coloured jacket, drinking the coffee too, leaning on his elbows and absently chain smoking, looking off into the imaginary distance. No one else seemed to notice him there, or seemed to care. That’s the way it was in Hollywood, it still had a few surprises left in it back then.

I was studying songwriting, trying to catch a ride to the next level, looking to tap secret power, pouring over the Song Of Solomon in the Old Testament, Robert Browning, the complete Hank Williams catalogue, and the ABC of Reading by Ezra Pound. EP laid it down as “dichten = condensare,” poetry as concentrated verbal expression. To condense. Highly charged language was the goal. Every word, every note is important to the whole. Whenever I saw the word poetry I read the word “songs.” I was consciously trying to expand my mind on the subject. I had a box set of Lotte Lenya singing the Brecht-Weill songs from Three Penny Opera and Mahogany, and I followed the lyrics in print in German and English. I was developing a love for condensed, colorful , concrete language. The best songs told their story by referencing the world of people and things directly, vividly evoking the senses. Dylan’s records reflected all of this in a big way. And I was digging Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, plus all the pre-war blues, and somewhere in there I was still working on the lessons I’d learned as a street singer, as one of the Nerves. I was brewing up a hybrid.

I’d work on songs alone up at my pad for days, then flip and need to go out and make contact with friends. I never really dated anyone, didn’t call it that anyhow. Cathy turned me on to the Love ‘Forever Changes’ album one night. I couldn’t get that out of my head.

I was sitting at the counter in Ben Frank’s one afternoon, drinking black coffee and doing the crossword puzzle in a newspaper, when the lines came to me. I wrote “out past the cemetery down by the willow bend,” in the margins of the paper. I was thinking of my hometown Hamburg New York, the old graveyard I used to walk through, above the winding Eighteen Mile Creek. “Half a mile from the railroad track.” That easily fit into the picture. “Last seen together these two lovers hand in hand…took a walk in the woods and they come back.” I wrote all of this in pen on the margins of the paper. The lyrics were pouring out in rhythm as fast as I could write.

Out past the cemetary, down by the willow bend

Half a mile from the railroad track

Last seen together, these two lovers hand in hand

They took a walk in the woods and they never come back

They took a walk in the woods and they never come back

 

Metal from the radio, it rang out through the fields

Just when they thought they’d found the track

Through a patch of four leaf clover that vanished in thin air

They took a walk in the woods and they never come back

They took a walk in the woods and they never come back

 

Never before in history has this town been so up in arms

You never heard such misery as those bloodhounds ‘cross the farms

Between God and the police they were protected from all harm

Until they walked in the woods and they never come back

They took a walk in the woods and they never come back

They never come back

They never come back

 

Sirens wailed emergency, no evidence was removed

You never heard such theories, but none of them could be proved

For the missing children, no conscience could be soothed

They took a walk in the woods and they never come back

 

Well,that was fifteen years ago,I guess we’ve come a long, long way

I never heard the end of it, you know, I couldn’t stay

When I’m not stuck for time or money, I still wonder ’bout that day

I took a walk in the woods and I never come back

I took a walk in the woods and I never come back

I never come back

I never come back

I took a walk in the woods and I never come back

I was thinking about my home town that I’d left for good ten years earlier. I was thinking about specific places there, and particular people, but the whole song took shape before I even had time to figure out the meaning. It just arrived. I paid my check and left a tip at the counter, picked up the newspaper, and still scribbling as the words hit me, I made my way across the parking lot to my car (a red ’69 Barracuda ragtop with hounds tooth interior) and I got in, putting the paper on the passenger seat. I started it up and drove East on Sunset, took a left on Laurel, and continued on up to Kirkwood, all the time getting lines for the second bridge.

I had most of the song as I pulled up in front of my place. I ran up the steps opened the door, and grabbed the Gibson Hummingbird laying on the couch. I sat down, spread the newspaper in front of me, and began to strum. I played an F#m chord, picking up the first finger and replacing to create a bass line in a rolling rhythm on the bottom string. I pretty much sang the whole thing right then, first time through. I had the words, and the music just came. I’d never played anything like it before.

 

My first solo album is available in an expanded cd edition with many bonus songs at http://omnivorerecordings.com/music/peter-case/

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From The Goodwill to Rip City

Allen

The Frozen Chosen were playing every night on the corner of Broadway and Columbus, across from City Lights books, and Allen Ginsberg started coming out. We spotted him walking across the street towards us, he stepped right up and said “Hey guys, I’m Allen. Mind if I sit in?” We knew who he was, and said “sure.”  He said “Can you play some country blues?”  And we said yeah and went into a blues, and he started making up a song right there on the corner, singing to the people passing by. It was sailors and hookers and tourists and kids and nobody ever stopped but he made up these incredible songs. They’d go on and on, and were funny and moving, goofy and angry at the same time. The best one had a refrain of “Stay Away From The White House” and it was a commentary  on the Nixon scandals, barbed, surrealistic and hilarious. And he was out there performing with the guys on the bottom of the musical totem pole in San Francisco at the time, the Frozen Chosen, probably the least respected group in a fifty mile radius. But he hung with us and was a huge inspiration.

 

Me and Danny were ambling across town the next day after that first session and he pulled up in his VW van, driven by his partner Peter Orlovsky.  We said “Hi we were going to the Goodwill” and he said  “Hop in,” and they drove us over.

He turned around and asked, “So what do you guys do out there to keep your voices together on the street”

“Whiskey helps” said Danny. Allen said “Dylan told me he uses a mix of honey and lemon when he gets raspy.”

Me and Danny just looked at each other. This guy knows Dylan, just dropped his name. We thought that was pretty cool.

Danny decided to stay around, see where the Ginsberg thing went. I decided to make a trip up to Portland, Oregon. I just wanted a change of scene.

 

 

Anton 

I got out on highway 101 the morning after jamming with Ginsberg, and start trying to hitch a ride.

The first car that went by was a hippie in a Valiant. It stopped and I jumped in. He took me quite a couple hours North. I was happy and relieved to be moving, anticipating the trip, with no idea of what to expect.

He stopped and let me out at the first Ukiah exit and headed into the town, as I crossed over the highway to the ramp and stuck my thumb out again at the approaching cars.

This time I was stuck out there for hours. There was plenty of traffic but nobody wanted to stop. Some even rolled down the car windows and shouted at me, others flipped the bird. Finally a car pulled over, but as I ran up to get in, it drove off as the passengers in the rear seats laughed at me. After a while, a carload of high schoolers even drove by blasting a full moon at me out their backseat window.

I was starting to get the creeps from Ukiah.  Hours passed, my paranoia started  to run, and I began to consider my options. I wasn’t excited about walking into town, but sitting out there on the shoulder wasn’t getting me anywhere. I felt stuck.

The sunlight was hot and shining, in the high afternoon, and the air tickled my nasal passages, with that Northern California bouquet of pine sap, gully dust, and the faint trace of marijuana scent—not so much a smell as a bite up the nose—accompanied by a windy sort of high.

I was about to give up and admit I was stranded, when a yellow Mercedes pulled over on the shoulder. The driver was a fair and long haired, attractive woman in her early 30’s.In the passenger seat sat a fairly large, middle aged, bald headed man with a goatee, looking to be conservatively dressed, with an intense expression about his face and eyes.

The guy rolled down the window and asked me where I was going.

“Portland,” I told him, and he said, “Hop in. We’ll take you all the way.”

What luck. I jumped in the backseat, throwing my guitar and duffel onto the seat next to me, and we took off.

The car got up to speed. We rode along for a few minutes, then the man twisted around towards me. “I have a little game I like to play, when I’m first getting to know people. Do you mind if I read your palm?”

I offered up my hand, and he pulled it to him.

“Hmmm… hmmm” A few moments passed. “When you were young, you seem to have had an encounter of some sort with a very poisonous snake.”

“I didn’t.”

“Funny, the lines are very clear. I think you did.”

“No, nothing of that sort at all. I guess your clairvoyance has let you down,” I cheeked.

After that, I watched out the window and kept my mouth shut. I was glad I’d finally gotten a ride, and right to where I was going.

We pulled over in a grove overlooking the sea from a slight bluff, and all got out of the car for a smoke and stretch break. I lit up one of mine and leaned against the car by the back passenger side door. The sun was sinking and we still had a longway to go. We hadn’t even crossed into Oregon yet.

The man and woman had been discussing the object of their trip, but I couldn’t make much sense of it or even follow the conversation, but there seemed to be some sort of tension between them.

The man walked around the front of the car and stepped back towards me.

He stood right in front of me, and asked “Have you ever seen me before?”

I looked up. He seemed amused.

He was just a couple feet away, looking into my eyes. “Do you recognize me?”

Huh? I didn’t know what he was talking about. “No”

“Shall we tell him who I am?” he asked the woman, slightly turning his head towards her but keeping his eyes on me.

She didn’t say anything but stood away to the side, a few feet behind him.

The air was nearly still, fog smoked up from the blackbark pines, and I looked him in the face again.

“No. I’ve never seen you before in my life.”

“Well my name is Anton Levay” he said. “I’m the author of the Satanic Bible, and  founder of the Church of Satan.”

“Never heard of you,” I lied, feigning indifference. I felt a jolt of adrenaline, and my back began to hurt, my heart raced.

He smiled for a moment then turned and walked around to the driver’s side ofthe car. He opened the door and slipped in behind the wheel. The woman took the other side, and I looked off into the distance for a second, then got in. We were a long way from anywhere. What else could I do?

I’d just seen his picture that week on the racks by the register at City Lights Books, in a creepy, purplish, goofy star trek-esque photo on the cover of his mad book. It had given me the chills: the shaved bald head, the pointed ears and goatee, the arch expression. In person the effect was different, but no less creepy.

I figured he was a psycho, and it was bad luck  being stuck on the outskirts of Nowhere with him. As he drove, they argued, and then he began to speak to me, making eye contact in the rearview mirror. They were going to Vancouver to capture a dead man’s spirit that was haunting or possessing a friend there. Once they caught the spirit, he said  they were going to set it on someone they didn’t like.The process involved spells and other necromantic action, and I couldn’t really follow the story. It was too outrageous.

In a seacoast town on the California/Oregon border, we pulled up at a little rickety,  waterfront bar, on a boardwalk overlooking a small boat harbor. Anton parked and jumped out of the car, saying he was going in for cigarettes, he’d be right back. As soon as he was out of sight the woman turned to me. She was crying.

“I’m so afraid of him!” she blurted. “Something terrible is going to happen.”

“Why don’t we just leave him?” I said in a rush. “Look!  He left the keys in the car. Let’s just ditch him here and go!”

“He’d track us down! He’d get me!”

“C’mon!”

“No!!”

The door of the bar opened and Anton came back down the walk tamping his new pack of smokes. He got back into the now perfectly quiet Mercedes, lit one up, and we continued on our journey.

The sun went down and the world grew even darker. The road climbed into a mountainous wooded area, extremely remote.

Anton drove and spoke to neither of us in particular:

“If something were to happen to someone up here, they wouldn’t find the bodies for weeks.”

I opened up the Barlow pocket knife that I kept in my pocket and stuck a folded up match book in there to use as a handle, in case I had to open the blade up fast.

The road was winding and climbing, the land was pitch-black, and I was anxious as shit. In the dark of the backseat I pretended to be asleep and silently wigged.

I had to open my eyes as I felt the car slowing.Anton pulled off the road at a bend, and stopped on the wideshoulder.

What’s this?

He left the car running, got out in a hurry and walked up the highway in the dark. A minute later I saw headlights coming from the opposite direction. A car came around the turn and drove  straight over on to the shoulder and stopped facing us.  Anton approached the car and after a short, hushed conversation with the driver, he turned and started back towards us.

I was sweating with fear. I thought I”d had it. I was going to be tortured and killed, gutted and used as an offering to the Necromancer.

Anton just got back in and we drove away. Maybe the other car just wanted directions.

In the early hours of the morning, the woman fell asleep, and Levay himself looked very tired. He began to talk in a weary voice about his concerns for his son, who had grown up around  orgies and rites and other insanities, and who he hoped would grow up to be strong and true. The Black Pope began to seem like any other old fuddy middle-aged father, worn from responsibility.

I stayed awake the whole time. We entered Portland and they dropped me off by the school, and drove off into the night to save one life and destroy another.  I never saw either of them again.

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