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 being in a Broadway backstage. A good night at the Bottom Line equaled “making it in the big town.”

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

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

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

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

There was a full house when I walked the plank, out onto the stage, and put on one of the worst shows of my career. The guitar sounded thin, my voice hurt, the audience was smiling, but seemed remote, and it seemed like I couldn’t close the gap. I felt flat footed and awkward between songs, grabbed the wrong harmonicas, misplaced my capo, and tuned up endlessly. My best jokes fell flat. Somewhere towards the end of the hour on stage my heart sank, and I crashed. Struggling to turn it around, somehow I got an encore, but I knew I’d stepped on it. I fought gravity and lost.

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

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

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

I was always one step from going down. I still am. It’s a habit. But every time I’d lose, no matter how bad, I’d come out to someplace like this, where I’m alone again, and free to face the glory of the world, as the memory of loss fades, and is slowly replaced by a wild sense of hope that I can’t seem to shake. I’ll write a song, find some magic that’ll set everything right, the music that can redeem all the years of the business jive, the wasted years of days of hours of minutes of eternity, that  I’ll sing to melt the ice in my own heart.

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

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

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

“Josh, where are the clothes?”

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

“Let’s get out of here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At first it formed a low cloud cover at the base of the stage, but the fog kept coming, and deepening, rising up my legs and the microphone stand, while I stood in the blue light, wailing like a train whistle on my harmonica, chugging the rhythm, keeping the song going as the whole world began to disappear and the fog swallowed everything in sight. The lights went dim, like moon behind the clouds, and I was alone, lost in a rolling fog-bank.The song finally ended, and I heard applause, away in the distance, from somewhere I couldn’t see. I staggered from the stage and stowed my guitar, then headed out to the bar, as the air began to clear. The Boss was buying a beer for my underage son, and he offered me one as well.

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

6 comments

  1. “Always one step from going down”. Rings very true for those of us still out there plugging away with band after band, in fewer and fewer venues that will book less and less original music in favor of DJs & cover acts. Peter Case is brilliance, period.

    1. Yes! That’s the part that resonated for me the most, too “…free to face the glory of the world, as the memory of loss fades, and is slowly replaced by a wild sense of hope that I can’t seem to shake.” I don’t know what it is that drives me to keep going and never give up in the face of so much punishment, but there it is.

  2. Here’s the line that melts my heart: “[T]he memory of loss fades, and is slowly replaced by a wild sense of hope that I can’t seem to shake.” Sometimes (but not very often), I wonder if my wonder at it all, the always lurking (even in what seem like the worst circumstances) and always resilient sense of hope is misplaced. But I always end up in the same place – knowing that it is that very sense of hope what keeps me, protects me.

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