Peter Case

As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport

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


“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?”


“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:



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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I write a song for The Nerves in my sleep…

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 Day the Plimsouls Got The Big Phonecall

The Big Phone Call

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

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

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

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

“You got him.”

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

“I’ll be there,” I said and hung up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5) Green Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Didn’t sound so bad to me, either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jimmy took a number and we waited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was breaking down, shaking.

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

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

I was disappointed, but numb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It turned out to be a mental institution.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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