Tuesday, January 30, 2007

As Far As You Can Get Without a Passport

This chapbook by songwriter Peter Case is the first installment of a promised book-length memoir, a few additional sections of which have been appearing of late on Case's blog.

After an opening chapter that narrates his premature departure from high school in Buffalo in 1970, a departure that may have been precipitated in part by drug-induced hallucinations, Case skips ahead to 1973, when he took a train west, toting a duffel bag and a Gibson guitar, and arrived in San Francisco. With no particular prospects or plan except to make music in the holy city of the psychedelic era, he is soon sleeping in flophouses, hanging out on the street with an assortment of winos, hippies, and buskers, and playing for coins. A black man he never meets again gives him some tips on playing the blues and helps him exchange his Gibson for something more useful on the streets. Case moves into a junkyard along the waterside, spending the nights in an abandoned school bus. Drink is his constant companion. He wakes up one morning, hungover, a bottle 151 proof rum cradled in his arms, and immediately takes a swig. Some days he hangs outside at dive at six AM, waiting for its doors to open so that he can begin his day's drinking.

These pages will seem very familiar to anyone who knows Case's music. Nick the Cop strolls in from the lyrics of “Entella Hotel,” and the whole book could be suitably read to the accompaniment of “Green Blanket (Part One),” from Full Service, No Waiting:
you know I can't tell you
I promised it's secret
besides you don't really care
but the place that I sleep
it's the size of a quarter
it's down 'neath the top of the stairs
& where do you think you're goin' with that?
your little girl's waitin' for sure
I'm numb and I'm cold and I'm so goddamn old
& it's too late tonight for a miracle cure
if this rain keeps on falling it'll wash me away
down through the gutter & out to the bay
where the red & the gold & the silver fish play
that's someplace where no one will find me
someplace where no one will find me
Eventually Case leaves San Francisco for a ragged sojourn into Mexico in the company of his ostensible manager, who at one point barters the singer's sunglasses for a couple of watermelons to slake their thirst. They wind up sleeping on a beach, out of money and almost out of gas, but the book ends on an upbeat note, with Case heading out to the streets of a Mexican town, guitar in hand, feeling that, in spite of their dire straits, something is bound to come along.

John Doe, in his introduction, has it right when he says that As Far As You Can Get Without a Passport displays “simplicity of style and purposeful avoidance of artifice.” He could have added that those qualities can be surprisingly difficult to achieve, and are almost impossible to fake. But it would also be a mistake to underestimate the writing. What could easily have been, in other hands, an awkward, disjointed, self-justifying exercise in nostalgia instead turns out to be a clear-eyed, unsentimental, closely observed recreation of how life on the streets looked and felt to a young man in a crazy time. Not much is said about anything else; family and girlfriends are mentioned only in passing; even what must have been Case's own deeper or darker reflections at the time are mostly left unspoken. We see the world through the eyes of someone who, for all his rough living, was still essentially an innocent, and Case wisely leaves that young man to face the world as he was, without benefit of hindsight.

A lot of people jumped down the rabbit hole in those days, and a good number of them never made it back. Peter Case climbed out. He had the benefit of talent, as well as a bit of luck, but in the end I suspect that what got him through was the one thing that seems to have been constant in his life: a burning need to make music, whether that meant playing blues covers on streetcorners or bashing out rock 'n' roll in a crowded club or traveling the US and beyond playing his own songs. Though it lies outside the scope of these initial chapters, three years after arriving in California he became part of an important if short-lived West Coast punk band, the Nerves. When that broke up he formed his own renowned band, the Plimsouls, then embarked on a successful solo career that continues to this day. He beat the bottle, got religion, had kids, made records, spoke his mind. To his credit, though, he doesn't seem inclined to deplore who he was when he was sleeping rough, drinking hard, and busking for small change.

As Far As You Can Get Without a Passport is published by everthemore books under the For Now imprint, and can be obtained from A Capella Books in Atlanta.

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