You just gotta do things. There was unfinished business with the Plimsouls and it still seemed like there was a lot of life in it. I just went for it,” says singer/songwriter Peter Case on what he was thinking when he re-formed his new wave garage band nearly 15 years after they had packed it up. So, following a well-received reunion tour and recording session, Case immediately turned around and recorded his sixth and seventh studio albums of roots-oriented, acoustic music (his second and third for the prestigious folk label Vanguard), Full Service No Waiting and Flying Saucer Blues.
The Plimsouls eventually self-released the fruits of their second labor in 1998 as Kool Trash; Case claims the experience with his old bandmates Eddie Muñoz and Dave Pahoa (original drummer Lou Ramirez sat out the reunion and was replaced by Clem Burke) re-energized him. “It kind of revitalized me,” he says. “I was depressed, I guess. I weighed about 40 more pounds, I had this huge beard, I was really angry all the time. I just went through a really bad period. And then I started the Plimsouls and about halfway through it, I'd adjusted and got back into the whole thing. The Plimsouls is like a Dionysian, submit-to-the-force kind of thing. I try to bring as much of that kind of vibe as I can to what I'm doin' now.”
Though the majority of the world was introduced to the Plimsouls via their cameo in the totally '80s cult movie Valley Girl (they got to perform “A Million Miles Away” poolside), by then they'd already released the new wavey Zero Hour EP followed by a self-titled debut in '81. The ramshackle, maximum R&B outfit formed in L.A. in 1980 and had earned a reputation for its sloppy but ultimately white-hot live shows, which had the Plimsouls pulling tunes from British Invasion bands and writing their own songs like “Now” and “How Long Will It Take?” in a similar boy-meets-girl vein. But after four years of playing and touring, and even after finding a measure of success with “A Million Miles Away” from an '83 album for Geffen, Everywhere at Once, the band called it a day. “We were out of our minds in the Plimsouls,” says Case.
Case grew up plucking out songs on guitar by Mississippi John Hurt, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Lightnin' Hopkins, later busking on street corners, working his way across the country. In the mid-'70s he ended up in San Francisco and was discovered by songwriter Jack Lee, who invited Case to join his power-pop combo the Nerves. That led to a move to L.A., the place Case calls home today, and the recording of a rare EP. As a three-piece (Paul Collins was the third) they managed to squeeze out a new wave classic in their short tenure: “Hangin' on the Telephone,” which would get cut later by Blondie. When that band combusted, Case hooked up with the Plimsouls.
From 1984 to '86, the period Case calls his “lost years” after the Plimsouls breakup, he took to busking again. “I'd go into coffeehouses and play. I did a whole string of gigs around the East Coast where I changed my name.” But when he was done with that, he ended up in San Francisco again, perhaps trying to recapture some of that old street corner magic; he holed up in a North Beach residential hotel and woodshedded the songs that would make up part of his 1986 self-titled solo debut and its critically revered follow-up, 1989's The Man With the Blue Postmodern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar; one of the album's most evocative stories, “Entella Hotel,” is a colorful remembrance of the time. The first album's jangly, foot-stompin'- and harmonica-accompanied numbers like “I Shook His Hand,” “Walk in the Woods,” and “Small Town Spree” were inspired by childhood memories. His songwriting was taking a slight turn.
What Case didn't realize was at the time, he was almost single-handedly launching an acoustic music revival among rockheads. “I guess I was one of the first people from the rock world to open it up to the acoustic roots stuff at that point,” he says. “Those years were probably difficult years for a lot of your singer/songwriters. The old audience had dwindled and the new audience hadn't really caught on yet. John Hiatt, T-Bone Burnett, and me — we were a new burst of energy for that music.” It's true that Hiatt and Burnett had started to “unplug” themselves well before it became a program on MTV. “T-Bone became a teacher,” says Case. It was Burnett who helped round up the L.A.-based musicians and session cats (including Hiatt, Roger McGuinn, and Van Dyke Parks) who played on Case's debut album. But Case was pulling his audience from a younger, weaned-on-college-radio crowd; Hiatt's and Burnett's people were mostly '70s-folkie holdovers. Boomers may've not known what to make of Case (who pictured himself in a rumpled, Depression-era suit against a rural backdrop on the cover of his debut), but new music's disciples did. Many would go on to build their own acts based on traditional, Appalachian, and country music, clad in vintage, carrying their own dusty banjo and accordion cases from the pawnshop, but Case was there first, providing the so-called No Depression camp with a model.
But following the high of Blue Guitar, he experienced a period of what he calls “artistic confusion.” Feeling label pressure to record an album with the commercial potential to match the critical acclaim of its predecessor, the ill-fated Six-Pack of Love turned out to be Case's final album for Geffen in 1992. The combination of record company interference, un-simpatico producer Mitchell Froom, and material conceived under duress netted an overblown, melody-free, sonic disaster. Around the same time, his marriage to singer/songwriter Victoria Williams also dissolved. He took a break, got remarried, started a family, and as things were turning around, he did the one thing he's always done when he's found himself in trouble: turned to folk music. This time, he recorded spare folk songs, just him and guitar, in producer Marvin Etzioni's living room. Sings Like Hell was a take-no-prisoners, self-released 1993 album of traditional songs and personal favorites.
“I just played songs I'd loved through the years,” he says. “Lakes of the Ponchartrain,” “Rovin' Gambler,” and Jesse Winchester's “How 'Bout You” all fit well into Case's bag. The covers album brought him to the attention of Vanguard, which eventually rereleased it as well as 1995's Torn Again, 1998's Full Service No Waiting, and the latest, Flying Saucer Blues. “When Full Service came out, it was the record I'd wanted to make for a long time and I finally got to it. I wrote all the lyrics to that album in one big burst,” he says. “The day I was finished with that record, I started working on the next one. I was out at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, visiting some older people in the family, and I ended up at a Pentecostal church. There was a band of guys playing, all in their 60s and they all had rockabilly haircuts but they were playing in a band at a Pentecostal church and they were really weird! You just don't ever hear anybody playing like that and I started talking to these guys and it turned out they had been rockabilly and they used to play at this place called the Flying Saucer in Cape Girardeau. So I started working on a piece about this band and this place and these people and it went on and on into a whole lot of different songs and areas but I ended up shelving that whole thing and writing a whole other batch of songs.”
Bridging the divide between his train-whistle harmonica, chuga-chuga finger-picking style and his love of rock 'n' roll, Case pulled in the music vets and friends he'd used on previous albums like guitarist Greg Leisz, percussionist Don Heffington, bassist David Jackson, and producer Andrew Williams — all players who can handle anything thrown at them. “It's the first time I ever made two records in a row with the same group of people,” he says. “Every record I've done, it's been rebuilding completely. Especially when I was on Geffen, they'd fire the A&R people, then they'd fire the producer, then they'd tell you to write 30 more songs and they'd make it impossible to move ahead. These guys are cool. They knew how to make the record; it wasn't like reinventing the wheel again.”
There's his usual brand of incisive folk rock on “Paradise Etc” and “Black Dirt & Clay,” songs in which Case continues to ponder his past — from East Coast kid to California musician and seeker. There's only one of his signature long narrative pieces, “Two Heroes.” The folk-blues-boogie-with-horns “Cool Drink o' Water,” the smoky cabaret number “Lost in Your Eyes,” and the old-fashioned Mexican folk melody of the spiritually motivated “Cold Trail Blues” all add deeper shades to his acoustic-based music.
“The secret to songwriting to me, the only one anyone can be let in on, is that you have to create your own whole world of songs, sing your own songs, and be completely dedicated to writing your songs — whether they are good or bad or commercial or people hate 'em,” he says. “I'm starting to see that after 10 or 12 albums, there's a thread through all the things I do. The same temperatures run through all of it, the same kinds of concerns and stuff. The first song on the first Plimsouls album, “Lost Time,' was a song about the past and I was like 22 or something. Hitting a plane where songs exist, especially if you're in prison or in a situation where you're stuck in a room or in a place and there's an avenue of freedom through the song, that's always really appealed to me. I was really flipping out when I was a kid and music was such a life raft — the guitar and singing especially. I clung to it for my life, really. And I learned everything from it. It's just like a means for me to keep sane. For a million people it's like that.”