By Eleni P. Austin
If you came of age in the latter half of the 20th century, chances are, you discovered most of the music you love on the radio. Whether it was Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Stones, the Osmonds and the Jackson 5, Queen or Supertramp, all your favorite songs were readily available with just a flick of the dial.
Back then, disc jockeys played a huge part in shaping the sounds you heard. Alan Freed is credited as the first jock to play Rock N’ Roll. Throughout that era, regional DJs were venerated as demi-gods. In Los Angeles there were myriad radio personalities that cultivated their own followings. KHJ, known as “Boss Radio” in the ‘60s, had the “The Real Don Steele,” KRKD had Dick “Huggy Boy” Hugg and KMPC had Gary Owens.
In the ‘70s, Sunset Strip Bon Vivant Rodney Bingenheimer began a 41 (!) year tenure at KROQ as Rodney On The Roq. He introduced everyone from the Sex Pistols and Ramones to Oasis and Coldplay to Angelenos yearning for Punk Rock and Alternative music. Meanwhile, over at KPFK 90, Roz and Howard Larman created the “Folkscene” program in 1970.
Their Passion for American and Folk music provided a small but vital showcase for venerable artists like Joan Baez, Loudon Wainwright and Pete Seeger as well as up-and-coming performers, (who sometimes straddled the line between Rock, Folk and Country), like Dave Alvin, Peter Case, Lucinda Williams and Dwight Yoakam.
Peter Case was a perfect candidate for the Folkscene imprimatur. Born in Buffalo, New York in 1954, he grew up in nearby Hamburg. Early on his older, teenage sisters exposed him to the forbidden pleasures of Rock N’ Roll. As a kid, he saved his green stamps, and bought a Mickey Mouse ukulele. He also learned piano and harmonica, writing his first song at age 10.
Naturally, Elvis, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones blew his mind, he gravitated toward guitar and sax and cycled through a series of bands during his adolescence. But those influences sent him down a musical rabbit hole and he began to explore the Blues. Mississippi John Hurt became a touchstone and at 16 he hitchhiked to Boston to see Lightnin’ Hopkins perform.
Peter quit high school, (later earning a G.E.D.), and continued honing his skills in a plethora of Garage and bar bands. To paraphrase Lou Reed, he “hitchhiked his way across the U.S.A.,”landing in San Francisco in 1973. Falling in with a group of street musicians, he earned his keep by busking on street corners.
During this era, San Francisco (much like Los Angeles) was experiencing musical growing pains. The Summer Of Love had given way to Fern bars and louche discotheques. The rumbling of Punk rebellion was just beginning to make some noise. By 1976, Peter had hooked up with Jack Lee and Paul Collins and the trio formed the Nerves. A proto-Power Pop/Punk Band, they moved to L.A. where the scene was truly exploding.
The Nerves recorded a self-released EP and hit the road, opening for the Ramones. But three talented front-men had trouble co-existing as a band, by 1978 they had broken up. Although their reign was brief, they left a permanent legacy, Blondie covered their “Hangin’ On The Telephone” song. Written by Jack Lee, it opened the New Wave band’s breakthrough Parallel Lines record, which shot to #1 in the U.K. and #9 in the U.S.
Following the Nerves, Peter and Paul formed the Breakaways, but they imploded almost immediately, Paul went on to front his own Paul Collins Beat. On his own, Peter connected with drummer Louie Ramirez and bassist David Pahoa and began playing shows around L.A. as the Tone Dogs. They signed to tiny Beat Records and began making an EP. Once Eddie Munoz joined the line-up on guitar, they changed their name to the Plimsouls.
The Plimsouls’ sound offered a fusion of Peter’s myriad influences; British Invasion, R&B, Roots Rock, Folk and Blues. The band became local sensations in L.A., anointed by Rodney Bingenheimer, their music went into heavy rotation on KROQ. Signed to Planet Records (an imprint of Elektra), their self-titled debut was released in 1981 to critical acclaim and local approbation. It should have topped the charts, but shoddy distribution hampered world dominance.
Their profile was raised exponentially when they were featured performing in the trenchant teen comedy “Valley Girl.” The movie offered an ‘80s twist on Shakespeare’s “Romeo And Juliet” (or “West Side Story”), only this time the warring factions were Hollywood Punks vs. San Fernando Valley “Vals.”
One of the songs played that in the film, “A Million Miles Away,” had already been a huge hit in Los Angeles, and placement in “Valley Girl” paved the way for exposure on MTV. Their second long-player, released through Geffen Records, came out in 1983. Although it was another adroit collection, commercially, it failed to break new ground. By this time, Peter was ready to move on. He briefly formed the Incredibly Strung Out Band with his first wife, ( high desert music legend,) Victoria Williams, but they never released an album.
After the Plimsouls officially called it quits, Peter made a conscious effort to return to his Folk-Rock roots. His self-titled debut arrived in 1986, featuring production from T-Bone Burnett. Stripped down and introspective, it garnered great reviews. Finally, the music industry took notice and he received his first Grammy nomination. His next album, 1989’s The Man With The Post Modern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar, was even more spare and evocative. Credited with sparking a back-to-basics unplugged movement, Peter took a hard left and released his harder rockin’ third effort, Six Pack Of Love in 1992.
Cutting ties with Geffen Records, he signed with Folk stalwart Vanguard in 1994 and re-charged his batteries by recording Sings Like Hell. The record offered his take on favorite traditional and modern Folk songs. Torn Again, a collection of new songs arrived the following year.
By the turn of century Peter had carved out a niche as something of a hardcore troubadour. He released three solo efforts, Full-Service, No Waiting, Flying Saucer Blues and Bee-Line, in 1998, 2000 and 2002, respectively. All three were produced by Andrew Williams and walked a knife’s edge between Folk and Rock. He also reunited in 1998 with the Plimsouls, that musical homecoming resulted in the wonderfully underrated Kool Trash album. In 2002, he received another Grammy nomination for his thoughtful production on the Mississipi John Hurt tribute album, Avalon Blues.
As the 21st century moved forward, Peter released his ninth solo effort, Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John, garnering a third Grammy nod. He authored As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport, a memoir that covered his childhood through his arrival in San Francisco. His progress was momentarily slowed by double-bypass heart surgery in 2009. But he bounced back in 2010, with the Wig album, a welcome return to his Garage beginnings.
In 2012 He briefly reunited with Paul Collins collaborating on a tour that had the pair rotating Nerves, Breakaways, Plimsouls, Paul Collins Beat and solo material with a backing band. But old resentments resurfaced and the tour collapsed three weeks in. Paul abandoning ship and Peter finished the tour alone with the band. Three years later, he released his 11th solo album, the wonderful Hwy 62.
Now Omnivore Recordings has partnered with the folks at Folkscene to release an archival effort, On The Way Downtown. The record spotlights two live, on-air sets Peter recorded for Roz and Howard Larman In 1998 and 2000. The 1998 set features a full band, led by producer/multi-instrumentalist/longtime pal Andrew Williams on guitar and harmony vocals, Sandy Chila on drums, the legendary Greg Leisz ( Dave Alvin, k.d. lang, Matthew Sweet), adding guitar and Lap steel, Don Heffington (Emmylou Harris, Lone Justice) on percussion and Peter’s old Punk Rock compadre (Plugz, Cruzados) Tony Marsico on bass.
The first set opens with the one-two punch of “Spell Of Wheels” and “On The Way Downtown.” Rippling guitar chords, pulsating percussion and a thumpy beat propels “Spell…”. Rich and evocative language recalls a youthful road trip; “five kids in a beat up car, kickin’ up their heels,” that starts in vibrant Kansas City concludes in monochrome Minnesota.
The title track blends spidery acoustic notes, plangent electric guitar, bowed bass, lap steel shadings, boinging jaw-harp and a kick drum rhythm. The lyrics were inspired by a trip to his hometown that finds him haunted by old ghosts and missed opportunities. Here Peter ruminates about what could have been; “Well it was 30 years ago in the setting sun and I was walkin’ down union street, I started to run/Down into a cellar where the music screamed, I guess it hit me harder than I ever dreamed.”
Both “Honey Child” and “Let Me Fall” attend to matters of the heart. Razor sharp riffs and flinty harmonica fills frame a rollicking rhythm on “Honey Child.” The lyrics pay homage to the stalwart woman who stands by him even though he’s “down to five kinds of nothin’ and a whole world slipped through my hands, overstayed my welcome here, but I know she understands.”
Stinging electric licks are matched by chugging acoustic fills, piping hot harmonica, rubbery bass and a handclap beat on “Let Me Fall.” Much like Bruce Springsteen’s “Rosalita,” the lyrics sketch out a scenario of youthful rebellion and redemption.
Novelist Thomas Wolfe said “you can’t go home again,” but most of the songs here make a valiant effort to parse the past. “Crooked Mile” starts out with Peter solo and then the rest of the band jump in feet first. Bottleneck riffs lattice over acoustic guitar as economical lyrics unpack his peripatetic ‘20s with a few deft strokes. He fondly recalls his first marriage to Victoria Williams; “Out in California spinnin’ ‘neath blue skies, I fell hard, all for a girl with raindrops in her eyes.” He touches briefly on his spiritual awakening; “I felt the touch of the Holy Ghost when I said ‘Jesus please,’” and concludes “the only thing I’ve found that counts in this world is love.”
Sun-dappled acoustic guitar anchors “Still Playin,” a loose-limbed chronicle of his busking days in San Francisco. He wistfully relives “walkin’ round playin’ guitar in the rain, singin’ on the street as they come and go, killin’ long hours when the crowds are slow/Reachin’ for the high notes as the world runs down the drain.”
“See-Thru Eyes” is equally steeped in nostalgia. Woodsmoke riffs ring around honeyed harmonica, high lonesome lap steel and a tick-tock beat. Although there were hard times, that only made the good times seem sweeter; “praise was rising like smoke, our flags were flyin’ we were constantly broke/We were young and so were the jokes, we had nothin’ but time for trouble.”
The first set closes out with “Until The Next Time,” powered by banjo-riffic electric guitar, jangly acoustic, boomerang bass and a stuttery rhythm. Wry and raucous, the countrified tune offers a droll account of a chance encounter that turns into love; “Just another outcast underneath the overcast, waitin’ on a sunny day, tryin’ to find the words to say/Tryin’ to find a heartbeat underneath my overcoat kind of lost on main street callin’ for a life boat, I know we’ll meet again but I can’t say where or when.”
The second set is spare and stripped down. It features Peter on guitar and harmonica with David Perales on violin and harmony vocals. While the “Full Service…” songs felt like an aural trip down memory lane, most of the tracks here, derived from the Flying Saucer… record, feel more in the moment.
From the sweet and tender encomium of “Something Happens,” to the piquant “Blue Distance,” which seems to pinpoint the moment of pluperfect happiness, to the rustic “Paradise, Etc.” These songs have a lighter feel and a less sardonic edge.
“Walking Home,” which pairs slapdash guitar with tart violin runs, is a musical travelogue from Hattiesburg, Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee. Meanwhile, over staccato violin and fractious guitar, “Coulda Shoulda Woulda” humorously revisits past mistakes; “Coulda shoulda woulda zigged when I zagged, diamonds to dust, riches to rags/ 20/20 hindsight, such a drag…”
Peter reaches back to his first solo record transforming the bluesy stomp of “Icewater” into some speedy Gypsy Jazz. The unreleased and Dylanesque “Beyond The Blues,” also makes the cut. The set also includes a mournful take of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Pay Dirt” and closes with a faithful rendition of Charlie Poole’s “Leaving Home.”
In this era of Spotify and Pandora, radio services that basically customize your playlists through algorithms and cold calculation, discovering new music on accident seems as quaint a practice as churning butter or playing a Victrola. Holdovers like Folkscene and Rodney On The Roq (currently featured on Little Steven Van Zandt’s Sirius radio station), Provide a crucial niche for people who prefer to explore music on their own.
Although Roz and Howard Larman have both passed away, Folkscene remains a weekly radio presence at KFPK thanks to the stewardship of their son, Allen and his wife Kat. On The Way Downtown offers a snapshot of the show and showcases the protean talent of Peter Case. It’s a perfect fit.