Celebrity favorite, legendary songwriter Peter Case descends on little Alternative Cafe in Seaside.
Thursday, June 16, 2011
In 2009, Peter Case underwent emergency open-heart surgery. Uninsured, the 57-year-old singer-songwriter emerged alive, but with hospital bills totaling six figures.
What ensued in the aftermath shows how respected Case is as a musician and a person: An impressive assembly of well-known musicians, artists and personalities – including Richard Thompson, T-Bone Burnett and Monty Python’s Eric Idle, among many – put together a string of three benefit shows and a foundation to offset his medical costs.
“People in music,” Case says, “take care of their own.”
Then again, Case has always attracted a decorated fan base with his raw, blue-collar lyrics, endearing affection for the working man and a love for music that deploys a purity that extends beyond the importance of fortune and fame. Bruce Springsteen has attended his concerts and even cited Case in a 1989 Rolling Stone interview as the songwriter he was listening to most at the time.
“It’s a struggle, but you just keep working,” Case says. “In the past, you’d have huge sales turn into huge piles of money. [Today] musicians are like troubadours trying to keep it together one day at a time and surviving by their wits.”
Case – playing Friday at the Alternative Café in Seaside, a plus-sized coup for the petite venue – has been doing precisely that for many years. In the late ’70s, after a stint as a San Francisco street performer, he made waves with the Nerves. Later, his pop-punk outfit the Plimsouls experienced success when a bunch of their tunes were featured in the Nicolas Cage flick Valley Girl. But it wasn’t until 1986, when Case began to sprout a solo career, that his true songwriting genius started to bear juicy prose like, “Barefeet poppin’ on a pinewood floor, a tumblerush of desert flowers side the door/ Her music box is pretty with the piebald stripes, dust mote diamonds in a shaft of light” and “On the raggly wooded outskirts of the city/ where the ancient elevators store the grain/ and the long lake boats that used to haul the metal/ are in the dock and rusting with the rain.”
Like Tom Waits and Springsteen, Case has a seemingly effortless ability to create a sense of place in his songs.
According to Case, he evolves that feel with a less-is-more ethic.
“The whole trick with songwriting is to say as much as you can with the least amount,” Case said in a 2000 Southwest Roots Music interview. “Songs have to live up to the land of song and the world of song.”
It is also inspired by the ballad power of old-school blues. In 1971, Case spent the last $3 he had in his pocket to see Lightnin’ Hopkins play a show in Boston – and the legendary bluesman’s influence is evident in both Case’s gritty guitar work and muffled singing style.
In a video called After Hours on Pico Blvd., Case walks the Los Angeles streets with his guitar and sings tunes from his Grammy-nominated album, Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John. His words capture the area, which is home to a few heavy-drinking bars, liquor stores and the legendary McCabe’s Guitar Shop: “He 14 dressed in his fathers hat, even grew a little mustache just like that/ Told the crazy lady at the corner shop, I’ll take a pack of Camels and a bottle of Schnapps.”
Case says that the Los Angeles captured in the video, and many times in his other lyrics, has changed drastically over the years, especially in the music scene.
“There used to be a lot of support from the surrounding area that would come out to the gigs, and the gigs were championed by the newspaper and radio stations in a big way. They really fostered the local scene,” he says. “Now, it’s not so much like that. Back then, bands like X, the Blasters and the Go-Gos, would pack all the clubs. They were all really different and all had followings. Now, I don’t see bands coming up getting that kind of following in Hollywood. The scene is shattered.”
But Case keeps on trucking, doing the thing he believes in most. His recently released The Case Files is a collection of unreleased demos and live tracks that Case personally gathered. The 12-track LP of rarities features covers of Dylan’s “Black Crow Blues” and the Stones’ “Good Times, Bad Times,” alongside Case originals like “Ballad of the Minimum Wage.”
“There’s an acoustic side and an electric side and it plays like an album, not just a random collection,” Case says.
Case’s creativity isn’t limited to music: In 2007, he released a memoir, As Far As You Can Get Without a Passport, which includes a forward by X frontman, John Doe.
“These are stories I’ve been carrying in my head for a long time,” he says. “When the time was right to set them down, they just poured out.”
And recently, the Renaissance man started a blog, though he’s not completely sold on the online writing thing.
“On one hand I like [blogging] ’cause it got me really writing a lot and it’s fun to communicate with fans,” Case says. “It’s sort of a shame that the Internet has made it so people don’t get paid to write anymore. But you win some and you lose some.”
When asked about the current state of music, Case is nonplussed. “I’m not that thrilled about the indie rock thing,” he says. “I haven’t really heard anyone new that has piqued my curiosity.”
Good thing Case will continue piquing ours.
PETER CASE plays 8pm Friday, June 17, at the Alternative Cafe, 1230 Fremont Blvd., Seaside. $25. 583-0913.