Sleepy John awakes...
“Mixed up kid is here to join the crowd
The ones who only fit where they’re not allowed
You’re out on the streets and feelin’ blue
With a hole in your soul that the wind blows through”
Peter Case. What can be said of this man? A thinking man’s song writer who’s spent his life in awe of Bob Dylan who is actually on equal footing IMHO, but with a much better sense of melody. Never heard of him? Google his name and you’ll come up with quite a bit: singer/guitar player (The Nerves & Plimsouls), song writer (LONG list of band and solo work), producer (another long list including a brilliant tribute to Mississippi John Hurt that if you don’t owna copy your dumb), author (he’s penned an autobiography that he’s releasing in stages), poet (pretty much everything the guy says, plays, writes, thinks, etc… has poetic purpose), and the list goes on and on.
I first heard the guy during my period of blues music discovery in the mid/late 80's. A pal of mine worked in NYC and would blow into one of the scads of record stores that existed back then and purchase ANYTHING that even smelled like the blues. Pete’s self titled solo album debut has a picture of him as a young lad seated, wearing a suit far too big for him, playing his guitar sporting a Fedora with various harmonicas and notebooks spilled on a table in front of him. My buddy picked it up without ever listening to it and brought it straight to my place for its inaugural spin on the turntable. What we heard wasn’t the trad blues we were expected based on the cover art, but something equaling important. The two of us listened to the whole record in virtual silence like the inmates of Shawshank Prison when Andy Dufrane played that aria over the loudspeakers of the recreation yard. I’ve bought every single thing he’s ever touched since including his recent Yep Roc Records release “Let’s Us Now Praise Sleepy John”.
What do we know? Well, he quit his band, dropped out of High School in a small town in upstate New York near Buffalo in the early seventies, and wandered out to San Francisco where on every corner he’d heard their was promise of salvation, an attentive audience, and enough spare change being thrown around that some of it was bound to end up in a guitar case positioned at his feet. He lived on the streets and in junk yards, took drug addled trips to foreign lands and far off cities, met a million people, while dragging an old acoustic six string in the event he needed a cup of coffee. He was in San Francisco when an edgier style of music began to emerge and ended up thrashing around with The Nerves banging out primordial California punk rock. That didn’t take long to end, and shortly there after he beat it down to L.A. where he ended up fronting the Plimsoul’s. Not much time passed before his first recording contract was put in front of him. That didn’t last long either and right as he was heading back out into the dark night, Geffen signed him as a solo act.
“All those nights they hit rock bottom
The songs they sang well we forgot’em
They played guitar with shaky hands
Guitar strung up with rubberbands
Do you want a man of steal?
Or do you want a man that’s real?
Tried their hands at a thousand things
Now they’re only made of steel when they’re on steel strings…”
His first two solo records (produced by T Bone Burnett) are pieces of sheer genius. He claims to have little recollection of the sessions himself having been so overwhelmed by the whole big label thing and working with someone like T Bone, but the friggin’ songs man!!! As a dedicated reader of his blog, he tells a very funny, if not depressing, story of a meeting with none other than David Geffen himself that pretty much solidifies and confirms everything that is wrong with the record business today. He made one more album with Geffen “Six Pack of Love” and they cut him loose. Pete dropped out of sight.
“Far from the fields, the bright lights, and the boulevards
In this empty room a guitar makes a band
Our last conversation still echoes on bare walls
Like a child’s painting of everything we planned
We keep the secrets hidden deep inside
Hidden love, forbidden love and all the tears we cried
Though I loved you for a long time it can’t be denied
Someone sees the dreams we hide
Someone sees the dreams we hide”
A couple of years later, I was flipping through CD’s at a Five Points record store when I was delighted to come across Pete’s first Vanguard release “Peter Case Sings Like Hell”. WHY HADN’T ANYBODY TOLD ME?! Whew! It had only been out for a couple of months, I hadn’t missed anything. Gone was the slick production and all-star cast of session guys of the Geffen records days, replaced by nothing more than the man himself, his guitar, and harmonica for the most part. A watershed moment for his career. He never needed anything more after that and most everything he’s recorded since is as sparse a production as “Sings Like Hell”.
“Tennessee boy joined the US Navy in nineteen-fifty he was seventeen
Quiet kid who’d never seen the ocean his momma died his first trip at sea
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 arrested in the Oakland jail”
Throughout the years, Pete has been a student of the long gone art of street blues and his eagle like eye for signs of art and life have only grown sharper and when the guy just wants to have fun and rock out, he just puts the Plimsoul’s back together and hits the road for a month or two (by far one of the most under rated bands ever). He’s a bit crankier now, war and the passage of time will do that, but he can still turn out melody better than he ever has.
I guess I could have told you more about the specific tracks on specific albums, and then instructed you to go out and get Pete’s new album. Instead I’ll leave with this: Living this life without knowing Peter Case’s art is like going to the Louvre and passing up the paintings to go to the gift shop.