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.