Peter Case

On Songwriting

Dream On, Peter Case (Interview by Middle Mojo Magazine)

Peter Case left home when he was 16, taught himself to play country blues on the streets of San Francisco, and was in a couple of signal L.A. rock bands: The Nerves and the Plimsouls . For the last 25 years Case has worked as a singer-songwriter, building a lauded catalog of songs and a reputation as a musician’s musician. Springsteen and Prine and Ely are fans. Sir George Martin tapped him to play Beatles songs at the Hollywood Bowl. He returned from open heart surgery with 2010′s Wig!, a pummeling collection of blues, punk, and garage rock. We talked after a house concert he played at Boston luthier Yukon Stubblebine’s home.

Q: Before I turned my tape recorder on you were talking about arthritis.

A: Yeah. One of the things you take for granted when you’re younger is how many aspects of your creativity are physical. My problem is in my thumb, and everything I do comes through my thumb. I play guitar, I play piano, I write, I drive, I type, and I experience a lot of pain. Lately I know that there’s a price to pay for sitting down and playing piano, and it does hang me up. I’ll sit down at the piano and say “this better be good, I hope this is worth doing, because this is going to cause me pain.” The idea that “this better be good” is very non-productive. In fact it’s totally ruinous.

Q: What else has changed?

A: Songwriting’s a lot different than it was when I was younger and there are so many factors it’s hard to put your finger on. When you’re young, songs come to you. They come fast and it’s like getting hit by lightning. It would be quite a while until another one came or maybe another would come right away, but it always seemed kind of out of control. I didn’t have a writing discipline. I knew nothing about discipline. My life was very chaotic. I was pulling the pieces together of a very kind of shattered scene as a kid and I was on the run for a while.

Q: When did you start writing songs?

A: When I was a kid living with my parents I was writing songs regularly. Bands were playing them, older guys, and when I left, at 16, I didn’t start writing again for a number of years. I wanted to be writing. I wrote words and I played music but it took years before they turned into songs again.

Q: Why is that?

A: I was constantly hustling to make a living and I became very unfocused.  But I learned how to play blues during that period, how to sing and play old songs.

Q: What happened to make you start writing again?

A: Here’s what happened. Stop me if it’s not interesting. I started having these dreams and songwriters would come to me in the dreams. I had this one dream where I skipped out of high school and went to a record store and I’m going through a record rack. John Lennon’s in there, and he’s right at the next record rack. I see this record called Hothouse Madmen by the Sergeants, and it looks really good to me, and John Lennon goes, don’t listen to that. You shouldn’t listen to that record. And I said, it looks really interesting to me. I want to hear it. Then he disappears and they put on the record in the record store in my dream and it’s this incredible song I’ve never heard before. And then I wake up and I write the song and it’s called “Hothouse Madmen.”

Q: That’s extraordinary. Did you record it?

A: Well, I was in this band, the Nerves, and I started playing the song and I start singing the words and the other guys didn’t understand them. They didn’t want to play it. They had control of the band and they voted it down. They told me, if you write a lyric that would fit in with the band we’ll definitely do the song. I tried to rewrite “Hothouse Madmen” so the Nerves could play it. I wrote version after version of it and hated them all. I was going crazy from doing that. So I would skip out of school, in a manner of speaking, to write other songs. I wrote basically the whole early Plimsouls repertoire trying to write “Hothouse Madmen” and not succeeding. I never did get that song. Strangely enough the music for it became the first song on my first record. T Bone Burnett wrote the lyric for it.

Q: What’s the takeaway lesson?

A: The problem with songwriting is you can’t force it. So the song I was trying to force never came through for me but it pushed me into something else. That’s the lesson, that you need to apply yourself to things that don’t cramp your style. I think we all know that a dream is some form of revelation, and it happens so much faster and more completely than in the conscious mind. The conscious mind is like a cripple. The conscious mind is very slow. If you start doing dream analysis, which I’ve done, there’s all this information in the dreams, and when you start recognizing and adding these symbols up, it’s incredible. Songwriting is a form of dreaming, a form of dreaming that you let happen.


Q: You’re a storyteller. Do stories present themselves in dreamlike fashion, too, or is there a more workmanlike aspect to writing lyrics?

A: Stories started adding up for me in 1985, mostly about things that happened when I was much younger in a period of my life that I never really worked out. The songs just came. Some of them, I wouldn’t even know what they were about when I first wrote them. And then I would realize, oh my god. You can’t just make up a story. For me, I want to feel some kind of authority from a story. I’m interested in discovering things and I use songwriting as a way to know my mind and to know myself. When I was little my father would get mad at me and yell at me and ask, what do you have to say for yourself? And I never had anything to say for myself. I would just sit there. He had a stuttering problem himself and he was passing it along to me, where I couldn’t talk and I couldn’t express myself. So songwriting is a way of stacking the deck so that you can say your best things. You find a way to say the most profound thing you can say. That’s why I love songwriting. When they ask me what I have to say for myself I don’t know. I still don’t know. I find things in songs that I don’t know.

Q: Do you have rituals? Has your approach to songwriting changed over the years?

A: I’ve had to change it every time I make a record. I can’t do it the same way twice. For some reason I have to always reinvent a new way to make songs, and that’s the impetus for writing songs. It’s weird. When I was in the Plimsouls I bought this boom box and took it on the road with me. I would set it up in my motel room and get my guitar and start rocking and wait until something happened. Then when I went solo, for the first solo record, me and T Bone Burnett were living together down in Texas and I was writing in the living room and I would sit there all day and write he’d come in at night and I’d sing what I had written to him. I’d read stuff, think about stuff, play other old songs. Then I got into this thing where I got this pen, this weird pen that wrote really tiny, and I wrote this whole other album in tiny little letters. I was drinking a lot of coffee and write these really concise lyrics. It was all written tiny in these notebooks. It seemed to me like every word was important. The next record I wrote with other people because after Blue Guitar I got married and we had children and all of a sudden I had no peace of mind anymore and no place to work. The publisher called up and said go write with other people so I wrote the record with Billy Swan, Fontaine Brown, John Prine, Tonio K, Tom Russell. It was communal writing. People generally think it’s my worst record and there’s a lot of different reasons for that, not just the writing process. I was distracted. Having children was super demanding. That’s when I started doing the dream thing.

Q: What exactly do you mean by the dream thing?

A: When you’re writing songs, sometimes you don’t really work on the songs. You try to get yourself more in the moment, more in tune with your dreams, less distracted. You put away all the books and stuff, whatever it takes. You try to work on yourself, you know? And maybe you try to be more articulate with people, and you try to be nicer to people, you try to do different things so that you’re in a better state of mind. You have to work on yourself. You don’t work on the songs. I mean, you do work on the songs, but the most important thing is to get yourself in a frame of mind, which could involve doing things differently in your life. You have to be living on the up, to the best of your ability dealing with things. You have to take chances, to feel alive. You have to be aggressive with yourself, to push yourself out on a limb. You have to do things that make you feel excited.

Q: Is it second nature now, getting yourself into that frame of mind, or does it get harder? You sound very alive on the new songs.

A: I agree that my songwriting does seem like it’s still alive, and one of the reasons is that I have not been successful monetarily. Every year starts out and the question is how are we going to get through this fucking year. And at the end of the year it’s, oh my god how’s it going to work? It’s a constant thing. But the nice part of that is it keeps you in touch with something really alive. It’s the world’s condition, you know? My heroes are blues singers and poets, Allen Ginsberg and Lightning Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. Those people taught me something, and what they taught me was that what you want to be, you already are. You can be everything you want to be right now. You’re it. You’re living it, you’re making it right now. John Lee Hooker didn’t need a hit record. Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell, they went out and made incredible music all the time and nobody knew them from Adam. I love Allen Ginsberg.

When I was a kid in San Francisco I had this group called the Frozen Chosen, we’d play on the street across from City Lights, and Ginsberg started coming out. He’d come over to the corner with us and say, hey guys, you mind if I sit in? He never introduced himself, but we knew who he was. We’d say, sure man. He’d say, can you do some country blues? We’d go yeah. So we’d play blues and he’d make up songs on the corner and sing to people going by. It’s 1974. Sailors and hookers and tourists and kids are going by and nobody ever stopped but he would make up these incredible songs. If you have that real love of a thing it drives you through it. I love words and I love poetry and I love blues music and I love rock and roll and I love it so much that maybe I could survive getting a million bucks for it. I know Bob Dylan did. He made it through. Some people do and some don’t.

Q: What made you start playing music?

A: I had a lot of problems and music was a solution to me, maybe on a level of the boy who couldn’t stop washing himself. I went through a period that I describe in my book a little bit where I lost my depth perception and nothing seemed real. It was a really trippy period that brought a lot of anxiety. Music was a solution to a lot of different problems I had.

Q: Is it still?

A: Yeah. Absolutely. As you get older, though, you get a few other solutions, you know? I’ve had different things in my life that have really helped me. I don’t put the same weight on music that I used to and in a way it’s been better. I’m still on the road all the time but, without getting too corny about it, I’ve got different things that people do to soothe themselves. Meditation, or whatever you want to call it. As you get older you find things like that. I was against it for a long time, but it has helped me.

Q: Does meditation help with songwriting?

A: Not necessarily. It helps with comfort.

Q: What were your ambitions when you were younger? Have they changed?

A: Ambition is hard to explain. I was taught that it’s not good if it’s for yourself. Ambition is for the music, for the songs, to make this beautiful thing that you can give to people or that you can leave. I remember I saw Lightning Hopkins in Boston in ’70, I had run away from home and was travelling around the country hitchhiking and I spent my last $3.50 seeing Lightning in Cambridge. It was so magical. It was such a powerful example of a person expressing himself. I felt the same way about Ginsberg, Art Blakey, sometimes people you’ve never even heard of but you just walk into a club. That’s what I feel like I’m trying to do, is to bring music into the world like that, where it lives in people and they remember it gives them some sort of comfort. Not comfort, but a beauty that makes life worth living. That’s the way I look at it. That’s the ambition. To create things that are beautiful or good and also are of value as you go along, to other people and to yourself.

Q: Value can be hard to quantify. And it seems like the pressure of measuring up would at some point start to feel like a real burden.

A: I don’t know if everything needs to be of value. For me it’s a creativity killer if I’ve got to prove the value all the time. I made this record, Full Service No Waiting, when my kids were starting school, and I had to be home to deal with that stuff. The kids would go to school and I rented this tiny room and I put a desk and a guitar in there and every day after the kids went to school I went straight to this room. I had a Smith Corona and I sketched out the whole album, what it was gonna be, starting with the first word of the first song, and I just typed the whole record and heard the music in my head. I sat there every day from, like, 10 to 3, and I thought it was some of the best music I’ve ever done. It ended up being 40 pages of legal typewriter paper, a big sheath of the stuff in tiny type. I would write the rhymes off the top of my head and create these rhythms, and a lot of lines didn’t make it but I kept going forward. I didn’t throw anything out. It’s an interesting work of art of its own. I’d go home to take care of the kids and I’d pick up the guitar and sometimes the song I heard in my head that day, I’d just sing through the whole thing. That would be it. That would be the music. I really enjoyed making that record.

Q: Where did you go from there? You said you make every record a different way.

A: Writing the next record I tried to do the same thing and it totally sucked.. It didn’t work. I had to try something different, so I wrote it on the run. You’ve got to trick yourself. You’ve got to get away from the rational mind. You’ve got to be thrown into some kind of new situation.

Q: Do you tell that to students in your songwriting classes? Does that advice apply to beginners?

A: I do, but they don’t necessarily get it. We’re at a more basic level. They’re not dealing on that level.

Q: Can songwriting really be taught?

A: Yes and no. You can help people that are songwriters. You can help them over their problems. But everybody in the culture seems to write songs. Everybody is a musician. The two things that are prevalent in modern life are advertising and music.  Music is the central activity people are involved in besides being receptacles for advertising.

Q: You had major heart surgery last year. How does illness and mortality figure into your music?

A: Hard to say. I really don’t know yet. I do know that I’ve never had my head in the sand about dying or anything but it definitely brought that to the forefront. Especially for a few hours in there at one point. And then I had a lot of time to think. I took some time off.

Q: Do you think Wig‘s immediacy and raw energy came out of that experience?

A: I think so. It’s funny. When I first came out of the hospital I was on drugs, you know. Somebody pointed out to me that I’m on morphine, and I’m listening to jazz. We’ve gone full circle here, you know? I’m sitting down at the piano and I’m stoned and playing these really weird chords, these weird jazz chords. I was listening to Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles, all these ex -junkies. I was just hanging out. Finally I’m like an old man, in one place on the couch. And I started to hear music. Literally I heard this music that I wanted to play and wanted to hear. Sometimes it gets real visceral, you know?

Q: You went through a transformation from pop guy to rootsy singer-songwriter.

A: When I joined the Nerves I turned my back on a lot of the things I’d been working on, the country blues that I’d learned how to play. I started playing electric bass and playing in these rock and roll bands. You know, I loved rock and roll, I really did, and it was a very creative period for me, but I also had turned my back on a whole side of my personality. I rediscovered it when I went solo after the Plimsouls.

Q: Have your powers as a songwriter increased over time? Have you lost things along the way?

A: Dave Alvin said to me that it gets a lot harder, because you’ve already written a lot of songs, and your new songs have to be better than the old songs, or somehow occupy a space that the old songs don’t occupy. I wrote “Two Angels” and I’m not going to write another “Two Angels.” I only felt the one, you know?

Q: People do it all the time. Not everyone places the value on pressing forward.

A: Well, I want to. I keep on feeling that this next one could really be something, you know?

Q: What do you mean by something?

A: I really want to make something that has a life of its own and is surprising, and is beautiful, and that I discover things in. When I was a little kid listening to music my mom would come in and say, does that send you? I’m trying to create that. I don’t know. You’re living in a world with Bob Dylan, such a heavy artist. He’s like Keats or Milton for our time. More so even than Ginsburg. Much more so. Most people don’t come close to that in their songwriting. And we all have to live with that.

Q: Do you think about relevance and your place in the culture? Does it impact your work?

A: Oh yeah. It hurts. It’s really difficult. Nobody cares about half of what you’re doing but you’ve got to feel like you’re doing something. I think gigs like this tonight, they’re important, though you don’t really see how, exactly. It’s often hard to see the present. That’s the art that Bob Dylan has: the ability not to see the future but the present, for what it is. The present isn’t really what’s advertised as the present. The present is this thing that’s being born every day. It’s not in the magazines, you know. I’ve had a couple of friends die in the past few years and it’s been really profound to experience what their deaths and their lives meant to me. You remember moments differently than you experienced them at the time. You go through a little of that and you see how valuable things are. The culture is a one-way ticket to nowhere, if you ask me.

Q: You put the Plimsouls back together in the mid-90s. Why did you want to reunite the band and did you get what you wanted?

A: The band was something I put a lot a lot of energy into creating. The Plimsouls projected rock and roll in an incredibly believable way and it’s a very rare thing to have that. We did it ’cause we could, you know? And I feel like it was a valuable thing at the time. Now we’re kind of at the end of it again, after ten years of being together again, maybe more. Fifteen. It’s sort of sad. We’ve had problems, but it was good, and it kept me younger in a way, too, to remember that. You know music gets in your body. Rhythm gets in your body. Maybe it got a little cerebral and I came back to the Plimsouls to tap into this thing that gave me another burst of youth, in a way.

Q: What is it about youth, or the qualities we associate with youth, that brings so much to bear on creativity?

A: It’s unbridled, uncynical energy. A freshness of life, you know? You have it when you’re young and it goes away. When you’re young, every room you’re in is so intense. Every person you talk to and everyone you meet, it could go anywhere. Anything could happen. With the Plimsouls you’d get this burst of energy and it would seem like something magical could happen, like you could walk through walls or something, just for a little while, you know, you would feel those walls come down. You’d feel once again like you were in this place that was very fresh. It’s hard to describe, really, but that’s sort of the role of music. I think it’s what people want from music. That’s what art does. It makes you feel the impact of being alive. Music allows you to feel things that are so big you can’t feel them until you hear the music. When you’re young, emotions come through your body. You feel them. And I think people shut them off because they’re painful. Plus they’ll get you in trouble, you know? Everything changes when you get older. I’m old now, man. I’m 56. I’ve been on the road a long time. These days I wonder, you can’t help it when you go on the road, am I going to make it through this tour? After the heart thing and all this stuff, you wonder, you know? There’s a lot of different aspects of being older that are weird.

Q: Are there good aspects?

A: Some of them are great. When you turn around 40 you get a bird’s eye view of life. I understand things that I never understood when I was a kid, man. I see people and situations and I know exactly what’s going on.

Q: Does that make you a better or a deeper artist?

A: I don’t know. Only if you can figure out a way to use it. You have to get at it somehow. And that’s the whole trick about art, you know? You got to keep going to that place. You’ve got to be willing to go out on a limb. That’s the trick.

Q: How do you get to that place?

A: I don’t know. Keep going. Hit the road. Have a heart meltdown. Nearly die. Keep doing rock and roll. Have no money.


Interview by Joan Anderman:



One Comment by Wayne Haught

  • Great, Great, Great interview with Peter. His songwriting wisdom is always worth spending time with. I especially like the part where he says that whatever it is you want to be you are already it! Also that Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell made great music without anybody much knowing who they were or that they existed even. Never thought about it that way before, but now that I am I like it.
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Hendrix, The Poet


to David Ensminger, for Joe Carter:

In response to your question: “What do I believe are the poetic qualities of Hendrix’s lyrics?”

First of all, he created memorable, and dynamic original phrases of speech, blazing lines that stick in your head forever. I think he had more of these in three or four albums than the Beatles, for example, made in their whole run:

“‘ ’scuse me while I kiss the sky!” (from purple haze)

” I know what I want but I just don’t know/ how to go about gettin’ it” (from manic depression)

“will it burn me if I touch the sun?”   (from love or confusion)

‘there ain’t no life nowhere!”   and

“”i don’t live today/ maybe tomorrow, I just can’t say” (from I don’t live today)

‘let me stand next to your fire’  and

‘move over, rover, and let Jimi take over!”  (from fire)

castles made of sand/ fall in the sea/ eventually  (from castles made of sand)

“aw shucks/ if my daddy could see me now’   (from up from the skies)

”if all the hippies cut off all their hair/ i don’t care/ I don’t care”  and

“if six turned out to be nine/ I don’t mind/ I don’t mind
’cause I’ve got my own world to live through
and I ain’t gonna copy you”            (from if 6 was 9)

’she’s walkin’ through the clouds/ with a circus smile/ running wild’   (from little wing)

This just touches the surface, off the top of my head.

These are great powerful, forever memorable and meaningful original phrases, with a rhythm and punch present, in the best American tradition, which often has a punchline-type diction, and often lands with an accent of sound and meaning on the last word of the phrase. It’s the “American Sound” and Hendrix has his own version of it, big-time.

2) Secondly, he used the poets tools. Jimi was a natural poet. But, I think he was helped in his quest to write great songs by studying strong sources, that themselves were tapped into poetic tradition.  These would be:

A) Exceptional soul music songsmiths like Curtis Mayfield, Otis Redding, James Brown, and Don Covay.  From these he learned how to form the premise of a song around a powerful, but simple idea, with a catchiness, and simplicity of phrasing. The imagery in these writers work is reflected in JH’s songs  like ‘Remember”  ’You Got Me Floating” ‘Little Miss Lover’.  Is it poetic? I believe this type of writing at it’s best IS. Also, he knew Chuck Berry and Little Richard, both for the great SOUND of their words, and for their INNOVATION. Chuck Berry is a chronicler of American Culture and in his way, Hendrix was too, (though of a more psychedelic era.) Little Richard spoke in tongues “a wop bop a loo bop a wop bop bop” (from tutti frutti)  Hendrix excelled at this, in all of the above examples and many others.

B) Bob Dylan: a huge and liberating influence on JH,  “Songs can be about anything”.  Dylan was a path to the Beats for Hendrix, using the poetic tools of vivid imagery, alliteration, assonance, dissonance, as well as his art of twisting phrases that Jimi adapted.   Listen to the album “Blonde On Blonde,” to hear all these poetic tools being used. It was reportedly one of Hendrix’s favorites, along with “Highway 61 Revisited.” He learned a lot from these, eventually covering ‘Like A Rolling Stone” in his US debut.   Dylan would say “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken”   which could easily be a Hendrix line.  Colorful mad twists of rhythmic language.

C) The great blues singers and songwriters: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Elmore James, and others.  He topped the imagery in these writers most forceful material, in songs like “Voodoo Child”  ”If 6 was 9″  and others. It’s a strain that runs all through his work. Rhythm conveying emotion, mythic bragging imagery like JH’s “knock down a mountain with the palm of my hand’ etc is from songs like Dixon’s ‘Hoochie Koochie Man’, or Muddy Water’s “Just To Be With You”

And intimate talk like Jimi’s acoustic 12 string version of “Hear My Train A-Coming”  (be sure to watch this on  youtube if you haven’t yet) (a great performance of a great piece, his emotion so close to the surface he nearly cries, common for him but very clear here) (great poetic lines like “I’m gonna buy this town/ and put it in my shoe”)

I think it’s important to recognize how deeply JH studied and played into the tradition he was coming up in. He made sure he knew EVERYTHING about R+B, Blues, and Rock and Roll. He knew the songs, the licks, the grooves, and he knew about what went into making up the WORDS. He played with everybody who was great, and he listened and learned intensely.

I think Wind Cries Mary is one of his best: Mary is his mother (tho’ her name was Lucille) also the Virgin Mary; a feminine deity or principle he looks to for protection.  His sorrow in the wake of events leads him to feel the whole creation is calling out for this missing feminine spirit.

It’s imagery that creates a dimension of feeling that goes beyond normal songwriting: I call that poetic.
After all the jacks are in their boxes
And the clowns have all gone to bed
You can hear happiness staggering on down the street
Footprints dressed in red
And the wind whispers Mary

A broom is drearily sweeping
Up the broken pieces of yesterday’s life
Somewhere a queen is weeping
Somewhere a king has no wife
And the wind, it cries Mary

The traffic lights they turn up blue tomorrow
And shine their emptiness down on my bed
The tiny island sags downstream
‘Cause the life that lived is, is dead
And the wind screams Mary

Will the wind ever remember
The names it has blown in the past
And with his crutch, it’s old age, and it’s wisdom
It whispers no, this will be the last
And the wind cries Mary

I hope this helps you as you consider Jimi Hendrix the poet. I could go on a lot more than this. It’s an interesting subject. Have you see the book Cherokee Mist with so much of his writing in it? I recommend it. Another great one, maybe the best book about Hendrix, is Greg Tate’s “Midnight Lightning.”

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



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

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

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

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

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

And I said, “Nevertheless.”

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Pray For Rain

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

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

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

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

Always remember, your giants have thick, tough skin.

Now let’s see you do it!

[ BTW this CD is available from Omnivore Recordings, remastered with many groovy bonus tracks from the sessions, and new photos by Greg Allen]
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About Jokerman by Bob Dylan. I wrote this 15 years ago…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Joey And Chris And A Million Miles Away

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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A homeless veteran’s story (Buffalo benefit announcement)


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)



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A Walk In The Woods At Ben Frank’s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out past the cemetary, down by the willow bend

Half a mile from the railroad track

Last seen together, these two lovers hand in hand

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

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


Metal from the radio, it rang out through the fields

Just when they thought they’d found the track

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

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

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


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

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

Between God and the police they were protected from all harm

Until they walked in the woods and they never come back

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

They never come back

They never come back


Sirens wailed emergency, no evidence was removed

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

For the missing children, no conscience could be soothed

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


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

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

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

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

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

I never come back

I never come back

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

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

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


My first solo album is available in an expanded cd edition with many bonus songs at

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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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