By Eleni P. Austin
“We had big plans laid out in red, for walking on water and raising the dead, whatever happened to the summertime? Whatever happened to that gang of mine?” That’s Peter Case waxing nostalgic on “That Gang of Mine,” a song from his new record, Doctor Moan.
Although he’s probably best known as the frontman and primary songwriter for The Plimsouls, Peter case has managed to carve out a thriving solo career that’s lasted nearly 40 years.
Born in 1954, he grew up in Hamburg, New York. Older sisters introduced him to the intoxicating sounds of early Rock & Roll and he was hooked. His first instrument was a Mickey Mouse Ukulele purchased with green stamps.
Elvis Presley and The Beatles were early touchstones, but his young mind was blown when he discovered Bob Dylan and Mississippi John Hurt. When he was 16, he hitchhiked to Boston to see Lightnin’ Hopkins and the die was cast. He decided to pursue a career in music. Quitting school, he cycled through a series of local bands. Eventually, he ended up in San Francisco. Initially, he earned his keep by busking with other street musicians.
San Francisco in the mid ‘70s was still the wild west, loaded with possibilities. Punk Rock rebellion began to foment. By 1974, Peter had connected with Paul Collins and Jack Lee and formed The Nerves. A Proto-Power Pop/Punk three-piece, they made a name for themselves gigging around the Bay Area before relocating to Los Angeles.
The Nerves recorded an EP and toured as an opening act for The Ramones. But three talented frontmen had trouble co-existing in the tight confines of a band, by 1978, they’d called it quits. Even though their tenure was short-lived, they ended up influencing countless bands. A couple of years after their demise, Blondie cut a version of the Jack Lee composition, “Hangin’ On The Telephone,” and it became a huge hit.
Peter and Paul Collins briefly rallied as The Breakaways, but soon enough, Peter was on his own again. He quickly recruited drummer Louis Ramirez and bassist David Pahoa and they began gigging around L.A. as The Tone-Dogs. With the addition of guitarist Eddie Munoz, all the pieces of the puzzle came together and The Plimsouls were born.
All of Peter’s earliest influences, primitive Rock & Roll, British Invasion sounds, Folk Rock, R&B, Roots music, Power Pop, Punk and Blues synthesized to create The Plimsouls’ signature sound. They quickly made a name for themselves and cultivated a passionate following playing every Punk club and dive bar in town.
From 1980 to 1984, The Plimsouls released an EP, a self-titled debut and a second long-player, Everywhere At Once. In a perfect world, all three efforts should have skyrocketed up the charts, but they kind of got lost in the shuffle. Luckily, they scored a respectable hit single, “A Million Miles Away.” Their profile was raised exponentially when they played and performed as themselves in the surprisingly sharp and funny teen film, Valley Girl, which featured a young Nicolas Cage in his first starring role.
Despite rave reviews and a legion of devoted fans, Peter was getting restless. The Plimsouls quietly called it quits and he embarked on a solo career. Enlisting T-Bone Burnett to produce, his eponymous debut arrived in 1986. The music industry finally took notice and he received his first Grammy nomination.
Over the last 37 years, he’s released a string of excellent solo albums, including The Man With The Blue Post-Modern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar, Six-Pack Of Love, Sings Like Hell, Torn Again, Full Service, No Waiting, Flying Saucer Blues, Thank You, St. Jude, Beeline, Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John Estes and Wig!
He also managed to reunite with The Plimsouls in 1998, which resulted in their underrated fourth effort, Kool Trash. A couple years later he produced Avalon Blues, a various artist tribute to Blues hero Mississippi John Hurt, which earned him another Grammy nomination. In 2007, he wrote an autobiography of sorts, As Far as You Can Get Without A Passport. It covered his childhood, his teenage hitchhiking adventures up through his arrival in San Francisco. He was briefly sidelined by a 2009 heart surgery, but he rebounded. Three years later, he participated in a short-lived tour with Paul Collins. The old bandmates shared the stage, toggling between songs by The Nerves, The Breakaways, The Plimsouls. 2015 saw the release of a new studio album, Hwy 62, followed by On The Way Downtown, a live set culled from a couple of sessions recorded for KPFK’s Folkscene program. Four years later he released a covers collection, The Midnight Broadcast. All of these facts are presented in more pithy and articulate terms in Fred Parnes trenchant upcoming documentary, Peter Case: A Million Miles Away.
Now he returns with his 16th solo long-player. It opens with the one-two punch of “Have You Ever Been In Trouble? and the aforementioned “That Gang Of Mine.” The former opens with ominous piano chords, reedy organ as thumping upright bass notes keep time. Peter’s lanky tenor wraps around lyrics that offer a treatise on moral bankruptcy and spiritual salvation; “Have you ever been abandoned, did you ever run at night? The streets a maze beneath your feet, your heart concealed in fright.” The answer is made plain; “There’s one thing I know for sure is real, the moment you surrender, the wounds begin to heal, here’s your reprieve, ask and you’ll receive.”
The latter opens with a delicate piano fanfare, sanctified organ and knotty upright bass. Peter’s jaunty croon belies homesick lyrics like “There’s a light rain falling on the fields at dark, as our music played low, laughing, joking, blind words spoken, I must admit I was choking in the afterglow, I had to go.” Wistful and introspective, the song is suffused with tenderness and ache as, at last, an emotional epiphany is revealed; “All that’s left are here right now, so there’s no past and no tomorrow, though something sweet’s been left behind, we’re cut loose from the double bind, whatever happened to that gang of mine
Typically, Peter’s output has been guitar-driven, going back to his earliest Nerves and Plimsouls days, as well as his solo career. But here, he’s flipped the script, and these songs rely heavily on piano, as guitar takes a backseat. Since his return to the Bay Area these last years, he began attending the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church. This house of worship is dedicated to the late Jazz giant’s music, as well as racial, social and economic justice. Sitting in with the ensemble on piano inspired him to play the one in his living room. During the pandemic, writing on piano seemed natural and the songs just flowed. But this isn’t your granny’s piano music.
Take Give Me Five Minutes More, which starts off with a rollicking, Gospel-inflected intro worthy of the late-great Aretha Franklin. Peter launches into an urgent entreaty to plead his case (so to speak); “Give me five minutes more, to answer the question, to find the solution, to look it up, give me five minutes more to explain myself, win or lose, to turn it around.” Halfway in, he bolsters his argument with some wheezy Blues harmonica. During the song’s homestretch, he reiterates his pleas, tongue firmly planted in cheek; “Settle for less, look for proof, expose the lies, to check on the roof, to tell them why, to plug the leak, acknowledge the fool and protect the weak/Give me five minutes more, only five minutes more, to discover the worth, quiet the moan, to inherit the earth and rewrite this song.” The extended instrumental outro, finds piano and harmonica duking it out for dominance, before quietly acquiescing and powering down.
Conversely, “Eyes of Love” feels steeped in, what Bob Dylan once categorized as “that thin, wild mercury sound.” Hushed and contemplative piano notes sidle around quixotic organ runs and timekeeper bass. Lyrics split the difference between spiritual and secular; “I fix my eyes on strangers, lift a song-sweet-stolen from a king, never guess the meaning of kindness, ‘till you turn to me with the eyes of love.” Pretty and poignant, lush but succinct, the instrumentation builds to a celestial crescendo and stops on a dime.
The best tracks here hopscotch across the record, beginning with the first single, “Downtown Nowhere’s Blues.” The buoyant melody and arrangement is dominated by boisterous piano chords and thrumming upright bass. Part character study, part shaggy dog story, the lyrics follow the exploits of “Big T” and her rag-tag coterie of strivers; “Round-The-Clock Diner on a weekday night, Big T and the gang try’na start a fight, political talk-don’t make sense, the crowd around the table and the room get tense, you know we don’t get along, Downtown Nowhere/At the corner on a microdose dose of LSD, she fiddles with the jukebox and her destiny, the walls are moving and the food is dust, one song keeps playing to Big T’s disgust, and you know we don’t get along, Downtown Nowhere.” Although Peter spins a compelling yarn, it’s overshadowed by his coltish piano style, he attacks the ivories with a ferocity and finesse that echoes Miss Nina Simone.
Things take a contemplative turn on “Girl In Love with A Shadow.” Peter adopts a feathery croon that lattices plaintive piano notes, beatific organ and sturdy bass. Haunted by the one that got away, lyrics limn the eternal ache of unrequited love; “Pencil numbers on the wall, that night I must have tried them all, a voice said ‘she’s not around, she’s gone out to the edge of town, to chase a ghost where shadows fall, can’t say if she’s coming back at all’ that girl in love with a shadow/I had no way of keeping track, though I’m still trying to bring her back, through the years that come and go, pulled out in the undertow, that girl’s in love with a shadow, that girl’s in love with a shadow.”
Meanwhile, “Wandering Days” is a cheery sea shanty that leans closer to his Jangle-Pop days. The bare-bones arrangement is pared down to just chiming acoustic guitars and some strategically placed whistling and mellotron. Lyrics chronicle the ebb and flow of life on the open sea; “Across the Northern Bay with the sailors who were rolling the bones, we’d gamble on the quays on our knees, while the fog-whistle moans, the Milky Way ‘round our necks, hammocks swinging on the open decks, in these windblown wondering and our wandering days.”
Finally, the moodily magnificent “Ancient Sunrise” is a downcast ballad that’s a bit of a Big Easy elegy. Jagged piano notes give way to tippy-toe chords and warm arpeggios. This time, Peter’s moanin’ low, as elliptical lyrics seem to skip across time; “In the ancient sunrise, when the world began, for a five-letter woman and a four-letter man, a couple of children caught by surprise, good things can happen, but first you get wise.”
Other interesting tracks include Peter’s expansive take on Black Ivory King (a.k.a. Dave Alexander’s) Depression-era Train saga, “The Flying Crow,” and the painterly instrumental, “4D.” The record closes with the frisky ramble of Brand New Book Of Rules.” Sylvan piano chords simultaneously keeps time and advance the playful melody. The dense and verbose narrative takes a page from Bob Dylan’s playbook. Matching surrealistic imagery that speeds past a shanty town, lands in lower Manhattan before boarding a pleasure yacht. Pointed lyrics take a few swipes at the current divisive political climate; “You lost your taste for hearing truth, got lost in a polling booth, don’t know what you’re talking about, don’t seem to care if you you ever find out/Slur that song, hail to the chief, you can’t afford no more to chew with teeth, leveraged force and power tools taking all apart your book of rules.” Throughout this charming jabberwocky, he finds time to name-check long-tailed monkeys, short-tailed dogs, Shakespeare, The Stones and Kool cigarettes. It’s a rambunctious finish to a lively record.
While Peter handled vocals, piano, harmonica mellotron and guitar himself, he ably abetted Jon Flaugher on base and Chris Joyner on organ. He has been making brilliant music for nearly half a century. So, it’s no surprise that Doctor Moan has the right prescription for these complicated days. Recently, Peter put it best when he said, “These times are more difficult than ever, I make music for the purpose of providing warmth and companionship in a difficult world.” Amen to that.