Peter Case

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Tell The Boss I’m Sick

In New York City, the club was the Bottom Line, over near Washington Square Park.

At The Bottom Line, dressing rooms were small, but the mirrors were ringed by bulbous white lights, like you would imagine seeing in a Broadway backstage. The Bottom Line equals “making it in the big town.”

The Village Voice gave my show a pick, New York magazine raved about the new album, the writers were out front, even the reviewer from the New York Times. All the DJs were there from Fordham University, and KNBC.

Paul from The Nerves showed up, with a Rolling Stone photographer in tow, and we had our picture taken together.  The members of R.E.M., in town to make a record, were seated at a front table.

A representative from the New York Musicians Union showed up and came backstage with his date for the night, so she could meet me. I could hear the murmur of the crowd building in the house.

I needed to go out there, connect, and blow the place away. Or rather, my career needed it. Maybe I’d finally be recognized, The endless scuffling would come to an end, I’d get respect from my peers, and be able to meet my bills. I could stop putting myself through psychological torture. I’d experience a new freedom, a new happiness and no longer wish to shut the door on the past, and LOVE would be running like freshwater in a clear mountain brook. I’d be working with my heroes, travelling at ease, the songs would keep flowing, and I’d attain fingertip control of my own brilliance. The big questions would be answered. I’d ‘make it.’

There was a nearly full house when I walked the plank, out onto the stage, and put on a terrible show, one of the worst of my career. The guitar sounded thin, my voice hurt, the audience was smiling, but remote. I made foolish mistakes, and was self-conscious in a new, terrible way, flat footed, awkward between songs, grabbing the wrong harmonicas, misplacing my capo, and tuning up endlessly. I sang my songs but the jokes fell flat. Somewhere towards the end of the hour on stage my heart sank, and I crashed. Struggling to turn it around, somehow I got an encore, but I knew I’d stepped on it. I fought gravity and lost.

That was it. The audience split. Backstage a pal of mine came along, making fun of one of my songs in an exaggerated baby voice, in front of a crowd of “well-wisher’s.” It was a joke, I guess.  I saw my weakness in a stark light. I felt ashamed. But it was funny, too.  I had to laugh. So I had a bad show, so what? You have to go on.

Later that night, Josh and I wandered the empty streets of midtown Manhattan, telling stories, looking in store windows at stuff we couldn’t afford,  and watching the steam rising from the grates of the street,. We stopped at the all night bodegas , drank cokes and smelled the smells, the flowers, the fish, the garbage, the smoke from cigarettes, dug the great atmosphere in New York, as the newspaper trucks made their rounds, and we talked, trying to deal with the distance between us, the years I’d left him, and our closeness now, It was like talking to a mirror sometimes, the way he looked just like me, only younger, more wounded, maybe, but smarter, too, less absurdly ambitious. And we had the same mannerisms, used the identical tones of voice, suffered the same anxiety.

There were big differences too. I had the drive to sing in these joints for a thousand years, no matter what the weather. He had other ideas, in areas I knew nearly nothing about. But he had to deal with the gigs too, when he was with me, and I know it wasn’t easy for a kid that age.

I was always one step from going down. I still am. It’s a habit. But every time I’d lose, no matter how bad, I’d come out to someplace like this, where I’m alone again, and free to face the glory of the world, as the memory of the shame fades, and is slowly replaced by that wild sense of hope that I can’t seem to shake. I’m gonna write the song, that magic melody that’ll set everything right, that’ll redeem all the years of jive, the wasted years of days of hours of minutes of eternity. The song where I’ll learn what it’s about and what it’s for, the song I’ll sing that’ll melt my own heart, let everyone feel what it’s like to be loved.

We went back to our cramped hotel room, with the two beds along opposite walls, and we lay in the dark talking until we woke up.

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I went to go pick up the “hot rod,” a blue rented Dodge Charger, from a nearby parking garage, and I asked Josh to keep an eye on the clothes, which were all hanging on a luggage cart out on the sidewalk by the front door, and wait there until I got back. A few minutes later, I got back with the car, pulling up behind some taxis, to the spot where Josh stood on the sidewalk. He opened the back door and threw his tape bag and the guitar back there.

“What ‘ dya say we go get a slice before we blow town?”

“Josh, where are the clothes?”

He spun around a couple of times, looked up, looked back down, walked inside and around the lobby, came back out shaking his head. We both looked up and down the busy street. He’d turned his back on the clothes for a moment and they were gone, vanished up the boulevard without a trace, probably in another state already. Another lesson in New York City.

“Let’s get out of here.”

We navigated our way through traffic, heading crosstown. The next gig was somewhere in New Jersey, and I’d be playing in last night’s sweaty rangly-tanglys, which for some reason, I still had on. We’d lost everything we’d brought for the tour.

Through the tunnel, over a bridge, down the turnpike, then turning off towards the beach towns. We’d passed that stretch of New Jersey, by the Newark Airport that always makes me think of Jimmy Hoffa, and guys wearing concrete boots.  It’s the edge of the city, the urban wilds, the toxic swamp-zone, with Manhattan in the distance, further away than it looks. On our right, jets were taking off and climbing at intense angles, and on our left, vacant bad lands of post industrial waste, covered with poisonous water and reeds.

We drove out to a town called Longbranch, New Jersey. Longbranch is a hard hit, bombed out beach town, one stop north of Asbury Park. We passed a lot of knocked down buildings and many vacant lots. The club was a super-funky rock box called Marz American Style, and was right across from the beach, looking out on the Atlantic Ocean. We got there about 5 o’clock, and knocked, and the sound guy came and unlocked the door for us, letting us into the dark and empty club for our mic check.

It didn’t take long to get the guitar sounding right, so, with sound check finished, we walked across the road to the little tourist beach shop, looking for some shirts to replace the dirty ones we had on. Alas, all they had left were two identical black tee’s, with a picture of a pink starfish on each one, but I bought them and we put ’em on right there, and walked back over to the club.

We crossed the street and entered the club, and saw a guy leaning back against the bar in the dark. That was the moment, in our matching father-and-son pink seashell t-shirts, that we met Bruce Springsteen.

He wanted to talk. “I really dug your first album” he said. “I even phoned Van Dyke Parks, ’cause I was thinking about working with him. I liked what he did on ‘Small Town Spree.’ We didn’t end up working together, but we became friends.”

“Are you getting the Plimsouls back together?” he asked me.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” I told him. “We played a benefit a few months back, and it was like we’d never stopped, the sound and feeling were back immediately. It really surprised me.” He told me he was gonna get the E Street band together again. I decided to kid him a little.

“I’m from Buffalo, man, been on the road, and seen just about everywhere in America, but this little stretch of beach towns in New Jersey is about the strangest, most foreign place I’ve been in the whole country, and about as far from New York City as you can get. It’s hard to believe it’s only fifty miles away.”

He laughed and said, “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell people for years!”

We chatted for a while, as the club lights were turned on, and soon it started getting to be time for the show. Some of Bruce’s friends showed up in a small group, including his wife, and they went down and started drinking beers at the bar on the other side of the room. More people came in and I got ready to go on.

I played my set for the seventy five or so people in the joint. Towards the end, as I was going into “Walk In The Woods,” the club owner came up on the back of the stage, hit a button, and a wispy jet of smoke-like thick mist began squirting from a hose. He had a manual attachment for it, and he was walking around the front of the stage, spraying more fog here and there.

At first it formed a low cloud cover at the base of the stage, kind of like an early morning out by the riverbank, but the fog kept coming, and deepening, rising up my legs and the microphone stand, while I stood in the blue light, wailing like a train whistle on my harmonica, chugging the rhythm, keeping the song going as the whole world began to disappear and the fog swallowed everything. The lights were dim, like the moon behind clouds, and I was alone, lost in a fog-bank.The song finally ended, and I heard applause, light and distant, from somewhere far off in the night. I staggered from the stage and stowed my guitar, then headed out to the bar, as the air began to clear. The Boss was buying a beer for my underage son, and he offered me one as

well.

Bruce was laughing. “Hey Peter, those were some great effects you had going there, man. Really dug the production of your show!”

4 comments

  1. Great read. My wife and I really enjoyed your show in St. Louis the other night.
    It was nice meeting you, and thanks for signing my guitar. Best wishes from Paul.

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