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.

Sunday, January 21, 2007


We drove along the edge of the reservoir. I looked out across the open water, frozen only here and there in patches along the shore, at the monochrome bare woods on the other side. We passed the abandoned steel trestle of a railway that no longer exists. A few dozen small waterbirds, in uniform black and white, rested in the shallows, heads aligned in the same direction.

We turned off the main road and into a grove of pines, then turned again, ascending against the flow of a small stream that snaked through the woods. A mile or so on I saw the dark hawk rise from the ground and settle on a branch, and, instantly, its pure white companion, an albino redtail, which came to rest on another tree nearby, both just a few yards in from the road.

We pulled over and watched. The white hawk clutched a kill with its talons, bent down to tear off a piece. One of the pair — I couldn't tell which — let out a high-pitched screech, and the other answered with a deeper, more raucous note. We watched them for five minutes or so, until our presence seemed to spook them and they flew off together, but not far, just up the hill a bit on the other side of the road.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Among the Ainu

In his preface to Ainu: Creed and Cult, B. Z. Seligman has this to say about the author:
Neil Gordon Munro was born in Edinburgh in 1863, where he was educated and eventually studied medicine. Soon after qualifying he began to travel in the Far East, first in India and later in Japan. In 1893 he became director of the General Hospital in Yokohama, and, although he returned to Europe occasionally, from that time until his death he made Japan his home. He became interested in Japanese prehistory, and it was during his many visits to Hokkaido towards the end of last century and in the first two decades of this century that he met the Ainu.
The eventual posthumous publication of Munro's work on the Ainu is a bit of a tale in itself. The notes, specimens and photographs he had compiled during his researches were destroyed in the earthquake of 1923. Nine years later, after Munro had resettled more or less permanently to Nibutani in Hokkaido, has house burned down, again destroying all his materials except, this time, his notes on the Ainu, which he was able to rescue. His health and financial situation declined, though he was able to obtain grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Royal Society, and other institutions to continue his work.

Munro compiled a brief documentary film about the Ainu Bear Ceremony, which survives though I have not seen it; much other footage is said to be lost. In 1938 he mailed to Seligman the partial manuscript of a work he planned to eventually publish under the title of Ainu Past and Present. When World War II began Munro remained in Japan, where he died in 1942. Subsequent contact with his Japanese widow after the war led to a few more papers, but not enough to encompass the work as Munro had envisioned it. The surviving manuscript material was published with the assistance of Seligman and of the anthropologist Hitoshi Watanabe, in 1963 by Columbia University Press in the US and Routledge and Kegan Paul in the UK. Its revised title indicates its narrower scope.

Most of the book as published is devoted to the rich religious and ceremonial life of the Ainu. The Ainu were animists in the fullest sense; everything, every plant, animal, every pebble, was possessed by some kind of power or spirit. One class of these were the kamui, a word that apparently is similar in meaning to the kami of Japanese Shinto though whether the words are cognate I don't know. These were deities both great and small; Munro classifies them as follows:
1. Remote and traditional kamui.
2. Familiar or accessible and trustworthy kamui.
3. Subsidiary kamui.
4. Theriomorphic kamui.
5. Spirit helpers and personal kamui.
6. Mischievous and malicious kamui.
7. Kamui of pestilence.
8. Things of unutterable horror.
Notable among this last, ominous sounding class, according to Munro, was a certain caterpillar, known in the Ainu language as ashtoma ikombap. Though evidently harmless, this insect was regarded by the Ainu, young and old, with pathological dread; Munro surmises, for reasons that I don't quite follow, that they associated it with their traditional enemies and conquerors the Japanese.

Ainu: Creed and Cult is illustrated with numerous photographs as well as several drawings. Many of the photos present what was one of the more interesting aspects of Ainu religion, the effigies or offerings know as inau. These were carved sticks, figurative only in a very schematic way but fashioned according to a rigorous symbolism depending on the particular deity they were supposed to represent or to propitiate. Their classification is highly complex. Their meaning might depend on the kind and number of curled shavings that were left dangling by the carver; the shavings themselves, detached, bore their own significance.

The Ainu had no written language of their own, though they apparently had a rich oral literature, some of which has been preserved. Their language, which is an isolate not related to Japanese, now hovers on the verge of extinction, and much of their traditional culture has been lost. To Munro, and a handful of other early anthropologists, we owe an enormous debt for documenting something of the fullness of that unique and ancient culture before it gave way to the modern world.


Twice a day I pass the tiny pond. It can't be more than fifteen yards long and less than that across. There's an island in the middle, just a clump of dirt and grass with a little wooden shelter on top. The two white domesticated ducks are either in the water or on the island or just resting in the bit of lawn between the pond and the fence on the other side. Sometimes they're out of sight when I come by, but even now, in the middle of winter, they're always there again the next day.

The pond hasn't frozen and maybe it won't this year. I don't know what happens if it does, or if a snowstorm comes; will the people from the house at the top of the lawn come down and take the pair inside, or shut them up in an outbuilding somewhere out of sight until the weather improves? I guess I'll find out when it happens. For now the ducks seem content enough with the situation.

Sometimes there are visitors on the pond, a pair of mallards or even three or four. I don't know if ducks have a pecking order like chickens do, but I've never seen any sign that these visits are unwelcome; in fact the mallards rest on the water right alongside their hosts and everyone seems quite calm about it. I suppose that after a while the wild ducks, obeying their own reasons, fly off elsewhere.