Peter Case

Music

In Praise of The Incredible String Band

 “Oh, will your magic Christmas tree be shining gently all around?”

                                                       -Chinese White   (Mike Heron)

The String Band weren’t the inspiration, nor the Beatles. I lay the juggernaut straight to Madison Avenue’s Time Magazine. It was late Spring, 1969, the year I turned 15, and got out of the ninth grade. Time made the psychedelic world sound so beautiful, and a lot of us had become filled with anticipation and desire.

My friend Jeff and I were feeling its power, for the first time, in the yard outside his parents  split-level tract home, in the middle class Forest Glen housing development sub-division of Hamburg, New York. I was  lying on the lawn along the side of the house, and my girlfriend, Mary Anne, came riding up the sidewalk on a purple Sting Ray bicycle with a white Banana seat. “The little long haired girl,” one of my pals used to smirk and call her, when she first transferred in from the Jesuit school in Buffalo. Now she was wearing cut-off mod striped shorts, some kind of teenage short sleeve blouse, and her straight brown hair spilled over her back and down both sides of her face. She rode right up to me, across the grass, then stopped and peered at me through tiny wire rim glasses, looking very sad. And she was angry with me.  I was stretched full, flat out on the ground, face toward the sun, and I couldn’t stop laughing. She stayed for a minute or two, but we weren’t communicating, so she rode off, shaking her head. “You always said you wouldn’t do this” she said, right before she split. She looked like she was gonna cry.

Me and Jeff decided to pull ourselves together and began the trundle into town, walking down a long and busy high road called Sunset Drive, then over to Mike Bannister and Jon Duffett’s place, known to all the kids in town as “The Apartment,”  the first and only hippie pad around, where we all used to hang, the grey garage apartment behind a two story house on well-named Pleasant Avenue, a few doors from the old brick school building, right in the center of town.

Bannister and Duffett were my heroes. They were several years older, and had seen the world, surviving on their own terms. It seemed to me like they lived on Mount Olympus. I’d see them walking around the village, in a crowd, with long hair, looking like gypsies, scarves and sashes, and beautiful girls by their sides in likewise colorful clothes, all in rag tag hippie wear, especially Duffett, though Western dapperness was Bannister’s thing,  and with cigarettes dangling from all lips beneath shades. Seeing them was like sighting an outlaw version of the Beatles walk by your house, on their way crosstown for some kicks. Just watching them going by was sort of a high.  I was sitting on my parents steps as they passed, so I got their attention by blowing some train licks on the blues harmonica, and the procession stopped. Hello. We all became friends, and soon found out we listened to the same music.

“Oh Lord, live and learn

I see your face and know you”

                    -(Williamson)

These were the first other Incredible String Band fans I’d met.  Mike Bannister was a true rolling stone, and so was Duffett.  They were 19 and 18, respectively. Mike was a drummer, and looked like a cross between Brian Jones and Eyore. He had played for a while in a popular and loud, local garage band called the Novas, and was a founding member of a rebellious high school gang called the Fountain Club, which really pulled off some insane and locally legendary hijinks. Once, using jump-ropes they tied an abusive gym teacher to the lockers. I loved that story. Mike  also belonged to a dirty-water street-fraternity called ‘Club 69′ who built their own patchwork clubhouse in the woods by the Eighteen Mile Creek,  a shack covered with tar paper complete with beds and a refrigerator for their beer. There was nothing too bright about that place, it was a teenage Punch and Judy show, but Mike had picked up some subtlety since then, and jettisoned that crowd. He had a more thoughtful manner now. Maybe it was Jon’s influence. Jon was a folkie, kind of a young beat-generation type and a teenage wino, a  slim dark haired handsome kid, who had travelled the breadth of the country already, hitching rides, and jumping empty boxcars, all the way [to through ]and from California in 1967. He played an ancient beat[-]up Martin guitar somebody had laid on him, and was a fan of Dylan, Donovan, Van Ronk, and Memphis Slim. I knew and loved all these artists too, and  at 15, tho’ I was a lot younger than him,  and pretty green,  soon after our meeting we  started writing songs together, and performing around the area at basement coffeehouses,  freaked out parties, and even liberal church group meetings.

Their place was quite small, and seemed even smaller when it was packed with stoned kids making out and listening to records, the usual story in 1969 and ’70. I spent some of the most formative hours of my youth in that pad, in various attitudes and mental states, and while some of those hours went by in a second, others seemed to last an eternity. The local police had the place under surveillance, and shakedowns were common, along with the occasional full sheriff’s raid.

“‘Whatever you think, it’s more than that”‘ 

                         -Job’s Tears (Williamson)

Mike Heron and Robin Williamson were Scottish, from Edinburgh. They looked like gypsy time wanderers from the the 19th century, and played exotic musical instruments no one in rock had ever seen before. They were called the Incredible String Band and every record had a different line up. They’d started out playing Uncle Dave Macon and Carter Family songs, and immediately began to create their own style. After their first album was released the trio became a duo, as legend has it, after their banjo-man made a trip to Afghanistan and disappeared for 10 years. One of the guitarists, Robin Williamson also vanished—took his advance money and, with his girlfriend Licorice, set off for Morocco. He came back months later playing an instrument he’d found there called the Gimbri, a fiddle with a mystically insinuating whine and they used it all over the next records, as well as the sitar and tablas from India, the Arabian oud, the Irish pennywhistle, thumb pianos from Nigeria, and good old funky guitars played in tunings, with banjos and harmonicas grounding and rounding out the sound. Robin, who described himself as feeling at the time more like a “Celtic Barge” than a bard, as they packed this boatload of weird sound makers around the world on tour, was a virtuoso Irish pennywhistler, and a top-drawer a cappella balladeer in the traditional Scottish fashion. He had perfect pitch and a unworldly voice, capable of soaring leaping or spinning on a driven nail. He spoke more than a few languages fluently, and told stories that’d make a bear hold his breath. His partner Mike was a psychedelicized Beat Combo refugee, and together they were magical because they were fearless, and had a great appreciation of chance events. They were courting ancient wisdom, unravelling the mysteries of music, and shooting high dice with pop music and epic poetry, something Bob Dylan recognized and mentioned at the time.

-Bob Dylan quote in Sing Out:

Q: Do you think [The Beatles] are more British or International?

They’re British I suppose, but you can’t say they’ve carried on with their poetic legacy, whereas the Incredible String Band who wrote this “October Song”…that was quite good.

Q: As a finished song–or did it reach you?

As a finished song it’s quite good.

It was their aspirations that characterize their music as something  that could soon be called ‘progressive’ in other quarters, though it was a word they never used. They were on a higher, more creative track than nearly anything else in music, and were shattering audiences reliance and expectation on the common forms of song. Verse bridge chorus went bye bye… form was directed purely by content, and, in other words, they did what ever they  felt like doing whenever they felt like doing it! And it was powerful good.

Already a big chart hit in the UK, with their third LP, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, they were introduced to American teenagers by the writers of Hit Parader Magazine, which, way back in the 1960’s, was probably the first great rock magazine ever, delving deep into music way off the beaten track,( and I’ve been waiting in vain for years to see  reprints.) Their pictures showed them to be charismatic and intense looking attractive “stars” in their own way… they were completely different from anything  else on the scene, and, I’d say, completely original (within what we know are the limits of that word.)

All of the mad music was in pursuit of something high and strange and I think it can be pretty well defined in this description of Emmanuel Swedenborg, “the wonderful  Restorer of the long lost Secret”  (from a book I  read recently about William Blake):

“‘there were ancient truths to be revealed, …  that which for many Ages has been lost to the World…’ And what was this long lost secret? It is the opening of the gate. It is the sure knowledge that nature and the material world are the vessels of eternity.” (1)   

 Ok, maybe I was so ripped I didn’t know what they were talking about.

And, on the first day of Summer, as me and my friend Jeff walked along the road shoulder, deep-breathing poisonous exhaust fumes and nearly getting run down by trucks, I was mesmerized by the sight of the flowers at the side of the road, all red blue and yellow, glowing brighter than neon signs. And the trees were breathing, waving above us, the green leaves swirling in a mass, inhaling and exhaling as we walked by below. And the lyrics to these songs kept playing in my head.

“For rulers like to lay down laws, 

And rebels like to break them, 

And the poor priests like to walk in chains, 

And God likes to forsake them”

                     -October Song, (Robin Williamson)

But by the end of that Summer, I was pretty much out of my mind. I began to experience a lot of problems. Somehow I’d lost my depth perception. It was just gone one day. I could be overcome at any time by strange feelings and huge terrors. And I felt like I was emotionally ripped open all the time, not angry or anything simple like that, but more like ablaze in my chest, and a rollercoaster feeling in the pit of my stomach. My heart hurt from just contemplating the quotidian details of life.  All feelings were extremely intense. The fact and idea of death was making me sick. I was in despair, and not just a little bit. I felt like my tongue was hanging out, black. It was then that a seemingly wise and older friend, who was all of 23 years ancient, and had just come back from far away, and a college down South, suggested that I was having a spiritual awakening, and all my mad symptoms were a good sign. I’d never thought of that! He said that people who went through spells like I was having were often destined to be truly religious people. Not like organized religion, he said.  He said my sub-conscious was kicking off the fetters of my repressive up-bringing, the look-but-don’t-touch, absurd and lonesome dues and don’ts of my schooling, and suggested that I read, for companionable knowledge and entertainment, the 18th century English poet William Blake. So I started to do just that, and found it helped, and even though I couldn’t understand vast sections of it, I kept feeling drawn in. The poetry was exciting at times, and also could be very soothing. And Wee Tam and The Big Huge by the ISB was on the crummy old record player in the corner of the joint, and it was on A LOT.

I dropped out of the tenth grade that Fall. By then, I could barely function, even amongst the freaks. When I first heard the String Band’s “Changing Horses”  LP it was on a trip to the country with friends. They were taking turns walking me about out in the gardens, and then we returned to the house and listened to this record, the ISB, now a four piece on the cover, with their girlfriends Licorice and Rose, all singing a goofy psychedelic boogie woogie about a pig named Big Ted.

I lost track of them after that, and for while in the 70’s.   Life got better for me, after it got worse, but it took long time, and I didn’t even hear of them again for several years.

“… if you let the pigs decide it,

They will put you in the sty.”

                         “No Sleep Blues (Williamson)

As it turned out, the ISB and the popular culture developed in opposite directions– the String Band were literate, melodic, and insanely inventive. Heron, coming from a beat-combo background, was the tunesmith who crafted most of the catchiest  songs, while Robin Williamson’s best numbers were like spells. All the arrangements were magical and floating, at times spinning upside down,  and often springing loose like a mad music box, with two guitars carooming off each other, while pennywhistles dixielanded insane counterpoint, and backwards  grooves were pounded out on bongos, congas and woodblocks,  until the whole thing seemed to deny gravity. And Robin’s mastery of his voice and language were no joke, however hippy-dippy they appear at first 21st century perusal.

They were Incredible alright, wowing and charming audiences in the UK and across the US. And they were aspirational, seeing themselves as the first purveyors of what would become known as world music, as wells as lyrics composed along the lines first laid down  by the Beats, a philosophy summed up in the idea “First thought, best thought,” a concept later popularied by Allen Ginsberg and Chogyam Trungpa.

Said Robin in an interview:

“It Struck me that you could write a spontaneous, free- form lyric, a  la Jack Kerouac. And then you could link it up with spontaneous free form music, drawn from the various regions of the world.”

Form followed content, so, wherever you dropped the needle on  the record, you’d be lost for a time, and similar to later progressive groups like Pink Floyd or KIng Crimson, you had no choice but to follow the melodic bread crumb trail out of the enchanted sound forest. And it was wonderful.

But the one thing String Band didn’t have was the BIG BEAT, the hard and fat Dionysian noise on the two and four with the passionate screaming voices  and noodling electric guitar solos–the evolutionary development in sound that came to dominate all rock and pop music at that moment, and for the next several decades.

America was being submerged in violence, both on its streets and from it[‘]s foreign policy, Great Britain was going along for the ride,  and even the gentlest citizens on both sides of the water were losing their attention span. Did that have something to do with the evolution of the people’s tastes? The U.S. was being led by a man who was busy telling the world he wasn’t a crook. The Beat was King, and the  drugs and sounds kept getting heavier.

As Bob Dylan had noticed several years before, the ISB had a true poet in Robin, who could tell you of the world close to your  nose in rhymes that led you to see it in a fresh way. Robin could prophesize, telling the present and the future with mythological eyes, but if the public wanted words, they demanded their singers be confessional.   And as the sixties hit the end of its road, all the heros died or disappeared, most either shot by assailants with three names, or choking to death while on pain killers. And it was hard for the culture to recognize their poets when words were used all day, everyday, across the radio, television, and in the newspapers, to confuse the populace about its actions products and programs.

“Now there comes a time to every man

When he must turn his back on the crowd

                          -Log Cabin Home In The Sky (Heron)

But I loved the Incredible String Band anyway, because they went so far the other way, away from the common fixations on celebrity, away from music as sex tonic, away from teenage rock and roll problems, or even the Beatle’s Taxman-type rock-star anxiety musings, and they blazed their own trail, into dreams, to strange hidden valleys of countryside and memory, to isolated hilltop villages, in the gaps between mountain tops,  to places where they were bringing their own music, and poetry, and pursuing the quest they felt couldn’t wait, the one for God, while all the time remaining a couple of Scottish wise guys with an outlaw attitude. The String Band enacted a true rejection of the culture,  were actual full-service rebels, and always did things at their own speed, in their own style. They had an original sound, and their own voices.  Their songs were pitched lighter and lower than what anyone else was or is doing, and much of what we’re used to, far away from the usual bump and grind of the rock of any period. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good bump and grind. But I learned to dig these guys early and it stuck with me. They were psychedelic Woody Guthries, Blakean men of the people, and in fact Wee Tam concludes with a tune Woody popularized: on the end of the song/suite called Ducks On A Pond, they bust into a rousing version of “Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore,”  and its not precious, but nuts, with stomping feet, caterwauling voices, an overblown harmonica, raucous…. and comparable to Woody and Leadbelly’s  rockin’ team-up with Sonny Terry and Cisco Houston on the Stinson sessions.  

There are problems, railroad gates you got to jump if you want to dig them, traces of precious cuteness, excesses of the diminuative, the little clouds, little hedgehogs, and caterpillars for cousins. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer may be the worst song the Beatles ever recorded, but the ISB have a couple as bad as that in their ouevre.

But basically,  a couple rambling ragamuffin folk singing  guitar players from Scotland introduced what’s now called World music into Pop. While doing this they broke nearly every rule of musical arrangement while somehow maintaining a rootedness in the music that kept it plugged into the earth, to true feeling, spaced but somehow with a foot in traditional forms. They exploded folk music while somehow keeping it alive far beyond its time.

“When I was born I had no head

My eye was single and my body was full of light”

                       -Douglas Traherne Harding (Heron)

I saw them soon after my arrival on the west coast in 1973.  I was on the run from my disastrous teenage life in New York,  had said goodbye to my pals Banister and Duffet,  and made the bus-and-train journey to California myself. I was at the start of a bold new Western Adventure, the one I’m still on. And there they were, the week I got into town,  playing at San Francisco’s elegant Palace Of Fine Arts, to a more than half-empty theater. I was surprised to see they were electric, now, with bass and drums, but found the show to be dynamic, and Robin and new ISB member Malcolm spoke at length between songs, and were very funny, talking spontaneously about America and the coast they’d travelled the length of just the day before. One hilarious rant was a satire of Los Angeles all-night television, including an impression of “Movies ’til Dawn” sponsor, cowpoke- turned-used-car-salesman par excellence,  Cal Worthington, walking ‘his dog Spot’ (an elephant) through the lot. This was followed by a rocking fiddle reel version of ‘Black Jack Davy” and when I heard that I knew they were still great.

So the next day, I went to a record shop and purchased the new album, “No Ruinous Feud”  took it back to the house where I was staying, played it about twice, and completely lost interest. It wasn’t terrible or anything, but the magic from the night before couldn’t be found in the grooves, nor the songs.

18 years later, I saw Robin play for a full house at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, one of the great folk clubs in the world. He played celtic harp and guitar, sang and told stories, and was brilliant throughout. He had completely turned into the magician-poet he’d always evoked.  I met him upstairs after the show. I had a baby asleep on my shoulder, and Robin said, after taking a good look: “You have a very beautiful daughter there.” He was wearing red converse low tops. I went out and bought a pair.

Dedicated to the memory of friends Jon Duffett,  1952-2011,  Michael Bannister,1951-2008, Story Bannister, 1993-2015, and Mary Anne Shifferli, 1954-1974. 

(1) from Blake: A Biography, by Peter Ackroyd 

 

This piece originally appeared in 2013, in the anthology Yes Is The Answer, published by Rare Bird Books.

More »

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

And I said, “Nevertheless.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pray For Rain

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

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

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

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

Always remember, your giants have thick, tough skin.

Now let’s see you do it!

[ BTW this CD is available from Omnivore Recordings, remastered with many groovy bonus tracks from the sessions, and new photos by Greg Allen]
More »

Bumble Bee (from Blues for Vets CD)

This is the Memphis Minnie blues, from the HWY 62 sessions at Sheldon Gombergs’s Carriage House Studio, in Los Angeles, performed on a guitar Ben Harper had just laid on me, a perfect replica of Lead Belly’s Stella 12-string. Bumble Bee was the first song I played on it.

This song is Track 1 on a CD of blues, by Buffalo musicians, released to help homeless veterans in the Western New York area. Here is a link if you’d like to receive a copy, and help out a very good cause:

https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/buffaloblues

 

  • June 14 Blues 4 Vets Peter Case Buffalo Blues Benefit Band ft. Dave Constantino, Grace Lougen, David Michael Miller & more   5pm on at Larkin Square, Buffalo, NY
More »

A homeless veteran’s story (Buffalo benefit announcement)

POOR OLD TOM

A Tennessee boy joined the US navy

In nineteen-fifty he was seventeen

A quiet kid who’d never seen the ocean

His mama died his first trip at sea

He learned to work and he learned to whistle

He learned to gamble and he learned to fight

He learned to suck a bottle and go out whorin’

Somehow he learned to stagger in at night

 

Poor old Tom he don’t know

Why his teeth’s gotta rattle shiver and shake

The night wind’s free to blow wherever it pleases

Tom’s free to walk to the cold day break

 

Poor old Tom he’s tellin’ it all

His thoughts are roarin’ like a waterfall

He never cared about money and there’s no doubt

He never had much money to care about

Typhoons and calms on the great Pacific

Proud to be serving the USA

He worked hard on board and he got promoted

He got VD but it went away

 

Poor old Tom he ain’t right

He went out in San Francisco on a Saturday night

Sunday morning his ship set sail

Tom was resting in the Oakland jail

 

Now it’s thirty-fiveyears since his incarceration

On a morals charge the words he said to me

From the brig on Treasure Island to the institution

They treated his depression with shock therapy

 

Poor old Tom he don’t know

He’s got trouble a callin’ he’s history

At the drop of a coin he’ll start to ramble

How the whole damn thing’s a mystery

 

His eyes bulge out as we talk on the corner

Eight turns on the gurney  they held him down

One morning they wheeled him to another building

A surgery room with doctors standing’ round

He cried Lord help me as they put him under &

He sailed away on an ether sea

Ever since that day all he does is wonder

Did the surgeons perform a lobotomy?

 

Poor old Tom this story’s true

He’s got nothin’ to show, no one to show it too

The word for him is nevertheless

He fought for freedom, never took a free breath

 

Now the radios blare nusak and  musak

Diseases are cured every day

The worst disease in the world is to be unwanted,

To be used up and cast away

So as we make our way towards our destinations
Fortunes are still made with flesh and blood
Progress and love got nothing in common
Jesus healed a blind man’s eyes with mud

Poor old Tom he don’t know
Why his teeth’s gotta rattle, shiver and shake
The night wind’s free to blow wherever it pleases
Tom’s free to walk ’til the cold day break

 

from the 1989 album The Man with the Blue, post-modern, fragmented, neo-traditionalist Guitar    on Geffen Records, with David Hidalgo on violin.

 

available at iTunes

 

Blues 4 Vets Benefit Show

Larkin Square

Buffalo, NY June 14!

with the band!

 

The Man With the Blue Post-Modern, Fragmented, Neo-Traditionalist Guitar (1989)

 

 

More »

Dangerous Book (Plimsouls with Clem Burke) ( & a few words about my Bookstore Education, thanks to Acappella Books!)

Kool Trash (1998)

When I was a kid I read for hours in the local bookstores, working my way through the Hardy Boys detective series, then moving on to Ian Fleming’s secret service novels. I didn’t understand anything about detectives or spies, so it was strictly fill-in-the-blanks, piecing together a picture of the world from bookrack to bookrack, unguided, racing through the set-ups to the death-defying sex scenes.

I loved the nearest branch of the public library too, ever since the Friday night when I was six, in 1960: My pal Pete Damon and I had our first sleepover and brought five or six picture books about bugs back to the house to study by flashlight, all night in bed. That’s still one of the best times I ever had in my life, it was so much fun, reading about walking sticks, and praying mantises, sharing the pictures of anthills and beehives. Life seemed huge, friendly, ancient, inexhaustible.

But the reading experience at Ulbrich’s Books at the local suburban plaza, was different. They had popular titles, the latest things, like The Sport Of Judo by Kiyoshi Kobayashi and Harold Sharp. Me and Pete poured over that and eventually brought it home, learning to throw each other all over the yard, using Advanced Foot Sweeps, and the Major Outer Rear Drop Throw. That was 1965, when I was 10. I still have my copy of that summertime obsession.

Another big bookstore discovery, perhaps the most important, was in February, 1966, when a Dell paperback called Folk-Rock: the Bob Dylan Story, by Sy and Barbara Ribakove,  appeared one day on the same rack that held James Bond and Mike Hammer. “The First! The one and only!” shouted the cover in a red balloon. I purchased a copy for 50 cents. The book began with a list of all the times Dylan ran away from home, and told the story of his first flight, to Chicago, when he was ten.

“Destiny appeared in the form of a weathered Negro street singer strumming a guitar. Bob, awed, couldn’t pull himself away. ‘I went up to him and began accompanying him on spoons—I used to play the spoons when I was little.’ …Before the police corralled him and took him home to his parents, Bob spent three months tagging after the street player and his friends, one of whom gave him the priceless gift of an old guitar.”  Man, that’s better than Pinocchio.

As I got into my teenage years, I found and read Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, a book that still carries a message for me. Norman Mailer’s Why Are We In Vietnam?  amazed me because the story was of a teenage genius named DJ, along on his father’s demented hunting expedition to Alaska. The novels that spoke to me the most were Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey. It seemed like you could base your whole life on those. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island Of the Mind, and Leonard Cohen’s The Spice-box Of Earth inspired me to make my own poetry.  William Blake became important to my survival, and as life got more psychedelic, I had my portable copy. All of these eye-opening texts came my way at Ulbrich’s Books. I spent hours perusing books in the store, but the owners were patient, and never once threw me out.

I grew up, said goodbye to my pals, and got out of that town a few years later. I remember reading Ed Sanders’ book The  Family, before I split. It was a terrifying vision of California, and Charles Manson.  At the time,The Greening Of America was a sensation as well, though I never bought it, just glanced into it. And Future Shock. Well, everybody was living that one.

Despite Sanders’ warnings, I landed in San Francisco at 18 years old and began living a precarious existence as a wandering street singer for several years, no doubt inspired by my reading about Bob Dylan’s nonexistent friend.

My bookstore of choice in San Francisco was City Lights, an iconic landmark even then. I knew it was Ferlinghetti’s shop, and had read much of the poetry he’d published by Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and others. I’d see him coming and going about his business, as I played on the busy corner across the street.

During the day, if traffic was too slow on the sidewalks to bother playing, or if it was cold or raining, I’d go into City Lights, downstairs into the basement, pick a book out from the shelves, pull up a chair, and read for hours.  The Travels of Marco Polo introduced my imagination to the magic, mystery and beauty of the East—what a story! Charles Dickens, and his street characters in Oliver Twist captivated me, with tales of running away into city-wide adventure. I bought Hunter Thompson’s satire of ’70s America, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas and read it straight through, sitting all night at the counter in Hunt’s Donuts at Mission and 20th.

My next trip back to City Lights, I climbed the stairway above the front counter cash register and in the quiet room up there, devoured  Harlan Ellison’s  I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream. But my bible at the time was Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. The tales of Doc the marine biologist, and Mack, the king of the bums, mythically reflected the adventures I was having in San Francisco.  All of these books were spellbinders, opening up in vivid ways ideas of life beyond the world I knew.

Back downstairs, in the philosophy section, I was reading Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good And Evil, which left me dumbfounded. What the hell? I would have loved to go beyond that duality, but I didn’t get it. I was struggling, but enjoyed the aphorisms anyway. Martin Buber’s I & Thou—which I was led to believe by a writer named Stephen Pickering had been one of Dylan’s favorites—was about the quest for God. I reached, tried to understand, didn’t get so far. But it was fascinating. I was willing to know more, and that was a start. Not “getting it” was sometimes a major piece of my bookstore education, as I tried to come to terms with concepts that were beyond me. Anyway, I spent a lot of time in there, sometimes even nodded off, but the City Lights staff never pushed me out.

After joining a rock and roll band, I moved to Los Angeles in ’76. My favorite bookstore down there eventually became Dutton’s, where I became friends with a poet, the late Scott Wannberg, and once again spent a lot of afternoons hanging out reading, and talking, though I didn’t quite have the time for that I’d had before.

I’m back in San Francisco now,  after years of living in Southern California, and I’m happy to report that City Lights is booming. With online book sales and high rents shutting down bookstores almost daily, that is quite an accomplishment. I still make a pilgrimage there, going up to the poetry room, which is, without wanting to get too saccharine about it, like a visit to a sanctuary, a peaceful spot where life can be appreciated and contemplated, and important and beautiful voices can be heard.

I went there for the 60th anniversary of the store, walked upstairs, and there was the man himself, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 94 years old, pouring champagne for well-wishers and enjoying the day. I had a copy of his new book Time Of Useful Consciousness and I asked him if he would please autograph it. I took the opportunity to thank him for the poetry, as well as the store, for allowing me to read my way through it, in the ’70s.

“I used to go up in that room above the front door, and read. I was homeless at the time, and I want to thank you for your hospitality. Sometimes I’d even fall asleep up there. You and the staff were always so kind. I feel like I got a lot of my education here.”

“Ah yes”  he replied, “That was the science fiction room.”

 

More »

Every Twenty-four Hours (with Richard Thompson)

Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John (2007)

 

 

 

 

Richard was scheduled to come in and record with me the next day at Village Recorders in Los Angeles . In a panic after realizing I had no song ready, I whipped this one up in my kitchen that night. I really had no idea if the tune would work for us or not until Richard heard it in the studio and gave it the thumbs up. We did three versions, which were all very different, so I picked this one. I asked Richard to sing at the very last moment, and he did a great job. Between takes I mentioned John Williams and Julian Bream and he treated us to an off-the-cuff medley of music from side two their great album “Together!”  Every Twenty-four Hours became an often requested number at my shows, and that phrase often lifts my spirits. Live now, get things done, the whole world turns around every 24.

 

Driving 12 hours after the show

Hit the boarder at dawn and kept going

As the moon crossed my path, I was doing the math

Will I make it? There’s no way of knowing

I should’ve called home ‘fore she went to sleep

I pray the Lord for her soul to keep

Tomorrow will tell who’s been tending the sheep

The world turns every 24 hours

Ah, turns every 24 hours

Ah, it turns every 24 hours

 

Under a bridge in the black squalling rain

I could see then but just for an instant

The wind hauled, the morning roared like a train

And the skyline was lost in the distance

Who moves the furniture? Who hit the light?

Every thing’s changing but nothing seems right

I thought I was smart but that was last night

The world turns every 24 hours

image: http://static.urx.io/units/web/urx-unit-loader.gif

Ah, turns every 24 hours

Ah, turns every 24 hours

Turns every 24 hours

 

So the arrows were down and the way through the town

Was blocked by the flood and a crash site

The cop waved me through but I thought of you

‘Cross ten thousand miles of moonlight

Our life’s opportunity moves with great speed

Pay close attention, it’s not guaranteed

We live in the whirl of wonder and greed

And it turns every 24 hours

Ah, turns every 24 hours

Ah, turns every 24 hours

Ah, turns every 24 hours

Ah, turns every 24 hours

 

This cd can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Let-Now-Praise-Sleepy-John/dp/B000RPCEDE  It was nominated for a Grammy™  and it’s one that I’m very proud of.

 

 

 

 

More »

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/

More »

The Long Good Time

 

 

Mother was doing her ironing

while she listened to Nat King Cole

Teenagers came & went in cars

all tuned to rock’n’roll

Windows were open in the summer heat

Locusts were buzzing out there street

The feelings passed now I can’t recall

How we never thought that we had it all

 

Everything has been erased

that’s the way it goes

First the laughter then the light now they’re all gone

& locked up tight where the cold wind blows

But we’ll all meet again at the end

of The Long Good Time

We’ll all meet again at the end

of The Long Good Time

 

Sweet little flowers called snowdrops

in the backyard with the fresh mint leaves

A cherry tree with a rope to climb

& robins nests under the eaves

My band was playing in the basement

driving folks out of their minds

Mother called down from the top of the steps

“Boys, play that nice song about suicide”

 

Everyone everyplace everything has been erased

that’s the way it goes

First the laughter then the light now they’re all gone

& locked up tight where the cold wind blows

But we’ll all meet again at the end

of The Long Good Time

 

The powers cut, the house is cold

Books are boxed, the furnitures sold

Memories drift, our souls drift too

The world keeps turning

whats it turning to?

 

Me and Pa were circling the table

fighting the war with our fists

Papa said to Mama, “The boy’s insane

there’s a viper in our midst”

Years later we made amends

guess those ribs didn’t hurt no more

You could even say we became good friends

when we saw what we had in store

 

Everything has been erased

That’s the way it goes

First the laughter then the light now they’re all gone

& locked up tight where the cold wind blows

But we’ll all meet again at the end

of The Long Good Time

We’ll all meet again at the end

of The Long Good Time

 

From the lp/cd/digital HWY 62 available from Ominvore Recordings

http://omnivorerecordings.com/music/hwy-62/

 

More »