Though he's been a solo folkie for more than 20 years — much longer than his stint in California's new wave-punk scene — some people still aren't sure what to make of him.
Will folk fans, for example, appreciate his early punk aesthetic, which was not interested in the Sex Pistols' stylized anarchism but rather in a genuine, minimalist response to arena-rock bloat? Will grown new wavers care to trace the root of the Plimsouls' garage soul back to the Beatles and the Stones, who themselves owe a heap of thanks to deceased American bluesmen? Or will the acoustic crowd and the punk set remain separated by contextual fencing, with Case meaning different things on either side?
The fact that Case's early groups broached the late-'70s, early-'80s mainstream leaves his first public incarnation in nostalgic amber. Blondie scored a hit with the Nerves' "Hanging on the Telephone," and the Plimsouls made a cameo appearance playing "A Million Miles Away" in the 1983 movie Valley Girl, starring a floppy-haired Nicolas Cage.
Then when Case cut loose Americana-style in the mid-'80s, it was hardly obvious that loads of his contemporaries — such as fellow founding punkers Alejandro Escovedo and John Doe — would eventually follow suit. Meanwhile, Case's quietly remarkable solo career has led to collaborations with the likes of T-Bone Burnett, Ry Cooder, John Prine and Victoria Williams (Case's ex-wife). His most recent LP, 2007's stripped-down, acoustic-guitar-and-vox-only affair, Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John, lost out to Levon Helm's Dirt Farmer for a "Best Traditional Folk" Grammy.
When it comes to explaining the difference between the two eras of his career in music, Case proceeds with caution.
"Sometimes I'm not sure whether the Plimsouls thing, as part of my bio, has really helped me that much with making a new audience," he says. "Because I don't think people really understood what the Plimsouls were, either. A lot of people thought of us as a new-wave band and all this kind of stuff, but really the Plimsouls were just a rock-and-roll group. And, you know, the meaning of that seems kind of hard to get across.
"So sometimes it's better if you are just one thing and you just stay with it. But unfortunately, or fortunately, that's not who I am. Ever since I was a kid, I played rock and roll and acoustic."
Case certainly started out as a kid. And he honed his chops on the street. As he writes in last year's memoir, As Far As You Can Get Without a Passport, he dropped out of high school in upstate New York, got on a bus and started busking on the streets of San Francisco at the age of 18. Many artists dip their toes into street performance, but for Case, the practice reads like a full-on ideology. His book lovingly describes the art of getting tourists' attention, the importance of vocal projection through traffic noise, and the heavens and hells of vagrancy.
"I was completely committed to music," Case says. "I didn't really work straight jobs or anything else. I just played. And I lived on the street and lived for free, just about, and made 10 to 20 bucks a day, just to eat. I used to live like that, and it enabled me to play music maybe eight or nine hours a day, and that's how I got good at it."
Now that he teaches songwriting classes, does he recommend busking to his students?
"Not really. It was something that worked for me," he answers. "If it's in your blood, you know? I've got one guy in my class who goes out and does it, but you have to be sort of rugged to want to take that path."
Named for John Estes, one of Case's favorite bluesmen, Sleepy John plays like a love letter to a career of performing on the run. Case's perfectly battered, pop-veteran voice rings clear against his propulsive guitar work. Songs like "Underneath the Stars," "Just Hangin' On" and "The Open Road Song" humanize the lives of often-invisible Americans — the homeless and unemployed, people we protect ourselves from with words like drunk, lazy and bum. Case doesn't romanticize them, or the road, lightly but with the wisdom of having been there for four decades.
"I've lived a lot of different ways on the other side of American life," he says. "I've traveled this country four directions, a million miles, under-the-radar travel, man, playing for people in bars. I feel like I've lived a singer's life, man. If there are troubadours, I'm one."
Though he still tours regularly with the Plimsouls ("They're like the old gang," he says), he's never satisfied to rest in a picture from the past. His old and new fans might envision two different faces on the same man, but the best way to see Peter Case may be as someone with the rare courage to dedicate his life, at all costs, to his music.
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