Thursday, November 27, 2008

Full Service No Waiting

According to the liner notes to this 1997 record by Peter Case, “this album was composed on a '60s Smith Corona manual acoustic word processor & a Gibson J-45 at the Shishim Building, Santa Monica, CA.” The Smith Corona, or one like it, turns up in the back cover photo and the photo on the back of the lyric booklet; the Gibson is the one shown in the cover photo at right. In an interview with the Village Voice earlier this year, Case described the circumstances of the record's genesis at greater length:
I was married and there were little kids around, my kids and everything, and I couldn't write so I rented a room from this guy Dark Bob, my friend, like he had a room in this building. I just went to this room and I wrote. I'd get there, and I was so busy all the time that I just was happy to be able to get to it and I would just walk in and the second I got in there I'd just start writing. And I'd write right off the top of my head onto the typewriter. I could hear the music in my head and I would just write and write and write. And I had a script of what I wanted to accomplish there, like what kind of songs I was going to write. And I just did it. I knocked out that whole album like that.
Making good use of that opportunity gives the eleven songs on Full Service No Waiting a special unity and focus. There's plenty of terrific music on Peter's other records, but I think this one comes together as more of a coherent whole than any of them, with the possible exception of his most recent CD, Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John. It's a strongly autobiographical and retrospective record, in which he looks back on old friends, old haunts, and old joys. Some Case fans, particularly the ones who knew him from his days as a member of the Nerves and leader of the Plimsouls, are lukewarm about the record, which uses mostly acoustic instruments and is more consistently “folky” than his earlier work. That's a matter of taste, of course, but there's little doubt that the level of both songwriting and performance on this record is consistently high. Many of these songs, especially “On the Way Downtown” and “Crooked Mile,” have become staples of Peter's live shows.

What follows is an attempt to scratch out a few notes on the songs, supplemented with some of Peter's comments, which, except as noted, are from a section of the Vanguard Records site that is no longer up but that can still be found archived elsewhere. The more I listen to this record — and I've listened to it countless times — the more I hear in it. My hope is that by thinking and writing about it I will find more things in it still. But there's no substitute for the original; if you don't know Full Service No Waiting already, then by all means get hold of a copy and let the music speak for itself.

Spell of Wheels

Of all the songs on the album, the first cut is probably the least typical, at least in subject matter. Telling its story in just a couple of verses, it's as sharply chiseled and compressed as a gem. It concerns a specific incident, real or rumored.
“Spell of Wheels” is a tale of an experience my son Joshua had in the winter of 1991 when he took a trip North from Kansas City. He's been my road manager for a while, and he lives in Austin and plays in a band called Gold. It's the urban myth of the black car — an adventure in the dark labyrinth of the American Midwest. Since I started playing it live, people have started coming up to me with their own similar stories.
Joshua Case shares writing credit on the song, which begins innocently enough:
Kansas City as the first snow of the year begins to fall
she's at a Westport party drunk & leaning against the wall
Skip & Wolf come stomping in someone has a plan
Faceboy goes to fetch his clothes I go to lend a hand
we leave KC at midnight heading north on the interstate
snow is falling hard & fast we're glad to get away
five kids in a beat up car kickin' up their heels
& heading out into the dark
beneath the spell of wheels
beneath the spell of wheels
The arrangement is quiet and unhurried at first, perfect music for starting out on a long car trip: some congas or bongos, a little looping acoustic guitar figure, and a few notes on an electric of some kind (probably Greg Leisz on either lap steel or pedal steel). There's something else in there too, I suspect it's Andrew Williams's harmonium, but the liner notes aren't specific. A couple of minutes in the music suddenly turns darker and more urgent, and the lyrics quickly trace out a harrowing tale of a highway encounter with a strange car and a pointed shotgun. But then, just as we're expecting expect the violent climax, it's all over:
now we're sinkin' low as we can go & waitin' for the blast
Skippie jams down on the brakes that demon car blows past
we pull off on the roadside everybody pulls their knives
the black car keeps on goin' & I guess so do our lives
He wraps it up with a few quick, perfect lines, leaving the listener restored but a bit shaken. Some things you don't easily get out of your mind.
we get to Minnesota spend the winter in monochrome
fall in with small time criminals just like the ones at home
watchin' through the windows for what the night reveals
& waitin' for the spring to come
beneath the spell of wheels
beneath the spell of wheels
After the lyrics are finished the music takes its time coming to an end, giving the story time to sink in. Case plays the harmonica, Leisz's guitar slides slowly up and down like dopplering traffic; then suddenly the tension lifts and there's a shift to (I think) a major chord, but then the last thing you hear is Leisz trailing eerily off.

On the Way Downtown

After that brilliant but disturbing opening, the next cut is a welcome relief, and in a way “On the Way Downtown” is really where Full Service No Waiting, as a set of interconnected songs, begins thematically. It's the first of several songs in which Peter looks back from early middle age at his younger self and at the same time takes stock of where he is now (or where he was c. 1997). In at least three of those songs (this one, “See Through Eyes,” and “Still Playin'”) he does so specifically in reference to his own musical apprenticeship busking and hanging out with the like-minded.
“On The Way Downtown” was inspired by a trip back to my hometown; it's a song of contemporary survival and of connecting the past up with the present. With Eric Rigler's uilleann pipes and Don Heffington's jaw harp and bodhran, we have a combination of Mississippi John Hurt and Celtic music: celtabilly — country blues crossed with Celtic. They're kind of two rivers that run through my songs.
The song begins with a repeated droned beat on a single acoustic guitar note. In live performances I've heard Peter extend this intro for several bars beyond the album version; it's probably a useful trick for beginning a gig until the audience settles in and listens up. Then the guitar traces out the melody of the verse once before the lyrics begin. It's one of Peter's most instantly recognizable riffs, even-paced, big-hearted, neatly tied off with a flourish, rooted in the coffee house guitar styles of the 1960s (which of course drew on the work of earlier generations of players). There's a similar (but darker) riff underlying “Drunkard's Harmony,” and yet another in “Still Playin'.” The song begins with the daily grind of present circumstance, but soon turns to places where the past, as Faulkner said, isn't even past:
how many times have I washed my face
combed my hair & left this place?
felt the shiver in my chest when I hit the door
the promise of something here worth living for?

had a fight with the woman that had my kids
can't get along with anyone what if I did?
I'm going back to the corner where we used to meet
when our dreams were young & the nights were sweet

I'm going out tonight goin' way downtown
where my friends who died still hang around
see what's shakin' as the leaves turn brown
the seasons been & gone
another one's comin' on
& I'm on my way downtown
Three decades melt away and Case is back at a moment of musical revelation, described in more or less spiritual terms:
well it was thirty years ago in the setting sun
& 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

in the Palace Theater hall later on that night
there were miracles in store but not a soul in sight
pay phone ringing didn't seem so strange
anything could happen everything could change
Then he's in the present again, reflecting wryly on changes and getting older. The lyrics are about as vivid, precise, and evocative as any you'll hear in popular music; they're both vernacular and elevated, seamlessly, at the same time. It doesn't necessary strike you while you're listening, but it's hard to say, without taking the song apart, what's chorus and what's bridge; there's always a little twist to heighten interest, but in the end it all winds up on the refrain.
we used to gather here flirt & laugh
now all my dreams are cut in half
now the girls are smokin' cigarettes & chewin' gum
they just get scared when they see me come

way downtown the corners moved
the sandstone slabs are worn & grooved
turning black in the first drops of rain
you can smell the earth & sky again

hear the rattle of the leaves the locusts call
underneath the elms by the school yard wall
summers over & the fields are tall
a seasons been & gone
another one's coming on
& I'm on my way downtown
This is, I think, one of Peter's most popular songs with audiences, and I suspect one of his own favorites as well. I've heard him live three times and he's included it in his set each time. I don't blame him one bit.

Let Me Fall

I don't have anything terribly profound to say about this one. It's not a bad song by any means, but of all the cuts on the album it's the one that's never quite gotten under my skin.
“Let Me Fall” is a story about a girl who has to make a big decision about falling in love and letting everything come down. I was born above Niagara Falls, and if you fall into the river, you can get carried away. In Buffalo, you have this idea of being swept away by the river.
The song starts out with a quick chugging guitar rhythm, then a harp break, before the lyrics begin. It's a kind of uptempo blues serenade, a seduction song, in that respect maybe distantly akin to “Ice Water” from Peter's first solo record. There's no real verse and chorus, just the three-word refrain, but Peter sings the third and last stanzas a little differently, giving them more urgency. The best lines are in the final stanza:
your friends are outside waiting
'neath the light of a thousand stars
come with me while the dew is falling
out to where the campfires are
let me fall let me fall
let me fall
The percussion and Lili Haydn's fiddle give the song its drive and drama; at one or two points there's a suggestion of a bit of Sgt. Pepperish countermelody on the fiddle. The harp comes back in at the end to lead the band out.

Green Blanket (Part 1)

Peter's written several songs about street people (see “Poor Old Tom” and “Underneath the Stars”), but this one turns out to be a surprisingly cheerful waltz. It's a recollection of San Francisco in the '70s. From the Vanguard notes:
Green blankets are the blankets that used to be given away free to homeless people in California. I lived in a junkyard near San Francisco Bay. I was a young acid casualty. I'll never forget wandering the streets and seeing the golden glow pour from people's living room windows. This experience has colored my work. But instead of just decrying the miseries of the homeless, in this song I'm trying to show another side of it.
It's hard to say exactly what's verse and what's chorus in this song, but the opening lines serve for a refrain:
out on the street it isn't so bad
or all that it's cracked up to be
some are half crazy others plain stupid
some there just want to be free
some there just want to be free
Most of the song is relaxed and pleasant enough, but the real payload comes at the end of the first verse, with its sudden flash of color and tribute to the joys of oblivion:
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
Then, just when it seems like the song is cycling back for another verse, an unexpected bridge continues the thought:
someplace where no one will tell me a lie
block all the exits lock up the sky
they get too close & I tell 'em goodbye
before they tell me why …
The line in the second verse about people sleeping in “cars up on blocks” is from first-hand experience:
I moved into the junkyard. It was right on the bay in Sausalito, a muddy patch of land jutting out into the water, a quarter mile past the last houseboat pier, way behind the Heliport. … There were a dozen or more abandoned trucks, some up on blocks. … I moved into an abandoned yellow school bus, back up the strand. (As Far As You Can Get Without a Passport)
The arrangement is relatively simple and straightforward. The drummer (Sandy Chila) beats time to the waltz, there's a bit of fiddle and what sounds like a tenor guitar or a guitar capoed up high in addition to Peter's own instrument. At the end of the first chorus, and once or twice after that, there's a little eight-bar descending pattern that reminds me a bit of Joni Mitchell's guitar work on the title track of For the Roses.

As far as I know there was never a “Green Blanket (Part 2).” From what I gather he doesn't seem to play this one much anymore.

Honey Child

I have a soft spot for this one. When I first started listening to Full Service No Waiting, nine or ten years ago, I used to have to make occasional Sunday afternoon trips on business to a writer's center in a train station on the lower Hudson. I took the CD along in the car once or twice and had a good chance to air it out and get to know it on the drive down and back, and this was the first song that really grabbed me and made me reach for the replay button. The line about “runnin' by the river” seemed apropos as I drove away with the sun setting over the Hudson.
I was stealin' 'neath the moonlight
and her watch dog let me by
when I spied her by the fountain
well it made me want to cry
'neath a golden halo
blue eyes sweet and kind
reachin' through the dayglo
with all the love I'd ever find

honey ain't no sweeter
clover ain't so wild
runnin' by the river
she's my sweeter than honey child
It's almost certainly a coincidence, given the utter obscurity of the material, but as it happens the third line in the first stanza above can be found verbatim in a “profane love song” said to have been intoned by the Jewish mystic Sabbatai Zevi, as quoted in Harry C. Schnur's Mystic Rebels. Is it my imagination, or is there an affinity in spirit as well in the following lines?:
I was climbing up the mountain
I was coming down the hill,
When I spied her by the fountain,
Melisselda of Castile.

As she bathed in milk-white splendour,
Scorn she flashed with eyes of steel
But her coral lips were tender
Proud infanta of Castille
But here's something really interesting: the name Melisselda (also spelled Meliselda and Melisenda) sounds like a variant of Melissa, which means, in Greek — honey bee. Except that, according to one online source, Melisenda is in fact:
from the Old German name Amalasuintha ("strong work"), which had first evolved in[to] Malasintha among the Lombards and Burgundians. It is therefore a cognate of the modern name Millicent. Melisenda was the name of a daughter of Charlemagne.
The same character, incidentally, shows up in Chapter XXVI of Part II of Don Quijote, as part of a puppet show, under the name of Melisendra. There's a beautiful tone to the acoustic guitar part on this song. The best place to hear it is at the beginning, before the other instruments jump in; it sounds like a guitar capoed up high, but I'm not sure. Its syncopated rhythm is deceptively simple sounding. Peter does his own backing vocals, as he does to great effect throughout the album. This is probably the most danceable tune on the record.

See Through Eyes

Another retrospective song, featuring some great dobro licks by Greg Leisz and some of Peter's most soulful singing. In his words:
“See Through Eyes” are what you've got before you begin to doubt everything you know. I need another pair.
It's a wistful look back at old times spent hanging with friends and making music:
aw man it was great
if you had to be there
we were pulling the songs
out of thin air
played 'em & laughed
threw 'em away
just passing by well I decided to stay
through the black nights & the high times
YES was always on the tip of our tongues
praise was rising like smoke
our flags were flyin' we were constantly broke
we were young & so were the jokes
we had nothin' but time for trouble
& a river that rolled
gold between our see through eyes
now what would I do
for another pair of see through eyes?
what could I give
for another pair of see through eyes?
The upper-case YES is no typo; it's a shouted affirmation, expressing what the Czech novelist Milan Kundera has dubbed "a categorical agreement with being." Of course it can't last forever
so this whole world explodes
I can't tell you why
its got something to do
with a couple of lies
we stopped a moment
lasting a year
next time I looked 'round there was nobody near
yeah we all disappear now it's been a long time
since we took the chance to speak our hearts & minds for a while
& that start of surprise knocked us off our feet
the tide began to rise on the river that rolled
gold between our see through eyes
now what would I do
for another pair of see through eyes?
what could I give
for another pair of see through eyes?
(I've emended the line beginning “since we took” slightly, as a couple of words seem to have been skipped in the printed lyrics.)

In just about every song on this record there's a point where an already memorable song suddenly takes a leap to a higher level and becomes pretty much irresistible; in this case it's from the words “on the river that rolled” to the end of the verse. If you don't dig Peter Case at that point it's hopeless. The song is impassioned and easygoing at the same time, and reminds me a bit of some of my favorite lines from the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade:
Your shoulders are holding up the world
and it's lighter than a child's hand
No, it's not easy getting that feeling back.

There's a brief tip of the hat to bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins in the second verse. A Case favorite, Lightnin' also makes an appearance in “Ain't Gonna Worry No More” from Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John. Diane Sherry Case shares the songwriting credit on this track.

Until the Next Time

A bright, gentle, nicely observed song that will strike a chord with anybody who can remember back to having an adolescent thing for a girl they thought just maybe one day might work out.
“Until The Next Time” is about falling in love with someone or something that's somewhere in the world, but very extremely distant. A dream.
You can smell the autumn air in these lyrics:
empty street end of the day
kickin' red leaves while the children play
smoky sky got me thinkin' of you
almost wishin' I'd never seen that blue

I'm tryin' to keep my feet
until the next time the race starts
close to the finish line
& down in my heart
I know this could be the start of something
& I know I'm gonna wait until the next time
There are some neat little rhythmic things in the song: the way the three final down beats fall in “icicles hangin' from my eyes ears nose,” the switch from quarter-notes to eight-notes in the bridge, and the delicate little syncopation of what I think is Andrew Williams's guitar behind the verses. My favorite lines are in the final verse:
empty heart you came & you went
beware the magic object & the magic event
hitched a ride slidin' on the back of a car
christmas lights shinin' on a water tower star
Sometimes I think that Greg Leisz's solo after the bridge maybe goes on a few bars too long, but overall the dobro is pretty indispensable to the mood.

Crooked Mile

Starting when I was a teenager, I hitchhiked all over the place. I used to take twenty bucks and my guitar and go out and stick out my thumb. I'd take the first ride and I'd go where it went. Then I'd stick out my thumb again, and I'd take the next car and go where it went. I'd hitchhike and play places all over the Northeast and West Coast — just checking out the world. The first time I saw Lightnin' Hopkins play was on one of those hitchhiking trips to Cambridge in 1970. I'd go to Toronto, D. C., Boston, NYC, all across New York state. Then I came out to the West Coast and played out in the street everywhere from Portland to Mexico. That's a crooked mile.
The first of two songs on the album that deal with salvation, the other being “Drunkard's Harmony,” which could be regarded as the dark flip side of this one. It's a song that Peter plays often, and one whose title, extended to Who's Gonna Go Your Crooked Mile?, was chosen for the 2004 Vanguard compendium of his work for the label, so clearly it has special significance for him. Its description of the frantic journey of a wayfarer is at least roughly autobiographical:
I left my mother's house at fifteen
with her diamonds & a suit of clothes
set to hitch the first car by
& ride it where it goes
who's gonna go your crooked mile?

I got to New York City
where they looked me up & down
at knife point off Saint Mark's Place
I gave up the crown
who's gonna go your crooked mile?
The chorus, which evokes blues and folksong lyrics, sermons, and I don't know what else, is a rush of pointed — and unanswered — questions:
who's gonna go your crooked mile?
who's gonna haul your load?
who's gonna come out in the dark
& find you on that road?
He drifts across-country and has an encounter with a woman that is summed up in a few quick lines, never to be alluded to again. The questions return, insistently; they overflow the chorus to fill out a verse
out in California
I was spinnin' 'neath blue skies
I fell hard, all for a girl
with raindrops in her eyes
who's gonna go your crooked mile?

now who's gonna hold your lily white hand
who's gonna drive you south?
who's gonna be your mornin' dove
& kiss you on the mouth?
who's gonna go your crooked mile?
Finally he can go no further, then unexpectedly finds redemption:
& when my run was over
I got down on my knees
& I felt the touch of the Holy Ghost
when I said 'Jesus please'
who's gonna go your crooked mile?
The last verse encapsulates a newfound view of his life on earth:
now the mile still runs crooked
the highway's up above
& the only thing I've found that counts
in this world is love
who's gonna go your crooked mile?
I've added an apostrophe in “highway's” that isn't there in the liner notes; I think it's important to an understanding of the song not to have any confusion about what this pivotal line is saying: that the highway — the true way, the place where the only real journey that matters takes place — is up above. The crooked mile — that's down here, and as crooked as ever. But that isn't the road that counts.

It's impossible to talk about this song and not address the issue of Peter's religious faith. It may not be a Bible-waving, literalist, self-righteous faith, and it may only be explicitly manifest in a few of his songs (see “Beyond the Blues” and “Somebrightmorninblues”) but I think it would be a mistake to underestimate it. Its cornerstone is the unwavering, unqualified statement that ends the final verse: "the only thing I've found that counts / in this world is love."

Judging from his songs, Peter seems to take the equation of God with Love very seriously. At the end of another song “Poor Old Tom” from The Man with the Blue Post Modern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar, he concludes the story of a homeless ex-seaman with some unexpected lines:
Now the radios blare newsak and muzak
diseases are cured every day
the worst disease is to be unwanted
to be used up and cast away.

So as we make our way towards our destination
fortunes are still made with flesh and blood
Progress and love got nothin' in common
Jesus healed a blind man's eyes with mud
I don't see Peter's point as necessarily being that progress and love are inevitably incompatible or opposed; it's that they have nothing to do with each other. Love and compassion can be present in the most abject circumstances, and can carry out their labor with the humblest of raw materials. Scientific and economic progress, on the other hand, provide no guarantee of benevolence; cruelty and indifference to suffering did not go out of style with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of modern democracy.

One other, tangential, point about the lyrics. I don't know what to make of the implication that the narrator of this song (not to identify him with Peter, for the moment) stole his mother's diamonds, other than the fact that it makes a great line. It's interesting, though, to compare “Crooked Mile” with Freedy Johnston's “Gone Like the Water,” another song (also possibly autobiographical), about a young man arriving in New York City:
An old suitcase she'll never miss
Leather coat he used to wear
Thinking tough, looking tired
With Mama's money and Daddy's ring

He's gone like the water down to NYC
Sleeping on the 8:02 along this river, running down
He's gone like the water down the depot drain
Disappearing in the city
The songs have little in common otherwise, and certainly Freedy's has no “spiritual” side, but in both songs the appropriation of “borrowed” accessories serves to underline both where the subject has come from and how much he has separated himself from his parents' world. Inheritances — intentional or otherwise — connect us to the past, but they are also things that we “take away from” our parents' world when we leave it behind.

As far as I can tell Peter plays alone on this one, which he does nowhere else on Full Service No Waiting. There's hardly any need (or room) for another instrument, as the bravura guitar arrangement provides all the drama you could want. The singing is particularly inspired as well. In live performances I've heard Peter let the guitar fall quiet at the end and finish the song with a half-sung, half-spoken final “who's gonna go your crooked mile?” You don't necessarily have to agree with the implied answer — that God or Jesus will go it — to appreciate the seriousness and urgency of the question.

Beautiful Grind

Is there a better and truer song about married life? And has Peter Case ever written a more romantic — not to mention erotic — song? His own comment is brief:
“Beautiful Grind” is one of my favorites on the record; it's another song about contemporary survival, and I love Greg Leisz's pedal steel on this one.
Like “On the Way Downtown,” this is a song about taking stock, about coming to grips with the inextricable joys and burdens of growing older and finding yourself entwined with other people who depend on you and also give you a reason to keep going when things gets tough. One of the things that impresses me about “Beautiful Grind” is how the opening verse switches seamlessly from past to present not once but twice. In doing so it manages to portray two distinct stages in the story of a relationship at the same time:
seven years ago we were friends at first
started off slow developed a thirst
one hot night the thunderhead burst
the flood rushed us away

now there's daily bread & love for real
dirt & pain & wounds to heal
first time I kissed you by the steering wheel
I knew our time had come

& there's work to do & children who
need our love & time
I see you there & you give me the sign
I feel the current in my heart
I only see you when the lightnin' strikes
it's a beautiful grind
a beautiful grind
The neatest transition is between the two parts of the second stanza, where the kiss is a sudden shift back to the past. I've always assumed that everything after that was in the present again, but it occurs to me now that the lines beginning “I see you there …” could easily be in both past and present, especially if you connect the “thunderhead” of the first stanza with the “lightnin'” at the end, which doesn't seem unreasonable.

There's a similar transition, by the way, in “Poor Old Tom,” Peter's song about a homeless ex-seaman who may have undergone an involuntary lobotomy years before. Neatly paralleling the man's wandering thoughts, at one point the scene switches, without warning, from the conversation Case is having with him to Tom's own recollections of events long past:
Now his eyes bulge out as we talk on the corner
He turns on the gurney they held him down
'Till one morning they wheeled him to another building
A surgery room with doctors standing 'round
Leisz really is very good here. The arrangement is uptempo and pretty straightforward; it's just Peter's picking, steady support from the rhythm section, and Leisz, who is almost always playing something but never gets in the way.

Drunkard's Harmony

If the pun can be forgiven, this is the most sobering song on the album, the one in which Case inverts the story of redemption sketched out in “Crooked Mile” to capture the state of mind of someone whose spiritual hunger — spiritual thirst, if you will — has brought them to the abyss. Except that the abyss is described in terms that sound strikingly like grace. Peter's own comment is blunt: “'Drunkard's Harmony' is about the spiritual side of being shit-faced drunk.” The lyrics are among his best.

The track begins with a single long bowed note on David Jackson's double bass. Peter's guitar plays little percussive patterns behind it; then when the bass drops off the guitar lays out the melody, a darker, more anxious variation on the kind of picking style heard in “On the Way Downtown.” The first stanza begins:
raised by wolves beneath the sputnik sky
your best friends were birds & bees
missing child of a missing child
then one day you found the key
I don't know whether the song is meant to be addressed to another person or to Case himself, or even if it matters. The “sputnik sky” reference makes it clear that it's someone of his generation, but the free-spirited “missing child” seems equally akin to both the female figures in “Let Me Fall” and “Honey Child,” and to “Crooked Mile”'s runaway.

In this descent into the netherworld, it is the bottle that takes Virgil's part:
took a first drink full of wind & stars
next one led you to the shore
there you stood with your empty glass
& all you wanted was some more
After these two stanzas the melody changes — let's for simplicity's sake call each of the song's two intricate halves one full verse — and the lyrics offer an idyll of
sweet summer nights
strollin' the diamonds
out to the trestle the first frost of fall
roamin' the fields with your fast companions
& all you could hear was their call
the harmony
broken harmony
drunkard's harmony
“Strollin' the diamonds” is a beautiful phrase, even if I'm not sure what it means (baseball fields in a public park perhaps?). [As for the trestle, it may well be the one Case is shown walking across in Tom Weber's 2011 documentary Troubadour Blues] Notice that the stanza goes from summer to fall; this is more than a one-night bender. The “fast companions” could be friends, but then again maybe not, because as the verse concludes their are more voices calling, and they seem not to belong to this world:
LAUGHTER shining from your eyes
stranger voices harmonize
free from death unbound by time
stay and the spirits will sing
in harmony
drunkard's harmony
The spiritual elevation achieved by means of drink delivers what all mystics seek: transcendence, harmony, union with the divine. (I don't know why the word “laughter” is upper case in the lyrics; it may just be a typographical fluke.)

The second verse returns to earth, resuming the description of the drinker's education begun in the second stanza of the first verse. The reference to “heading west” in the wonderful third and fourth lines suggests Case's own westward migration, but no doubt much more than that is intended:
learned a trick to stop the spinnin'
when you couldn't slake your thirst
kept heading west but you never arrived
somehow your shadow got there first
(And it would be literally true, would it not, that someone walking westward at the same pace as the sun, and with the sun behind him, would be preceded by his shadow all the way out?)

This verse doesn't have a further stanza before the melody changes to the second part, for another vision of comfort and union. Notice that the seasons have continued around:
now the clock stops
it's 3 am forever
under the bridge where the winter turns Spring
safe in the cradle loved & protected
hearin' the voice of the King
in harmony
broken harmony
drunkard's harmony
The praise of the sheltering King is unmistakeably religious in language, even if the object of the praise is not what one usually expects. And then there is one final, perfect stanza, addressed — I think — no longer to the drinker but to the one he (or she) worships:
smash the gifts your servants bear
hear this broken midnight prayer
not height nor depth nor dark despair
can hide from the love that He brings
the harmony
drunkard's harmony
In the first line the “you” of “your servants” must, I think, be the King, the false idol represented by the bottle; the servants, by that logic, would be the drunkards. Their offerings, perhaps, are their very lives, which the King then contemptuously destroys because their only value for him is in the pleasure of destroying them and in the fealty embodied by their tributes. He is an enslaving god, not the true God who liberates the spirit, but for his faithful the intoxicating “harmony” he offers is indistinguishable from what they think they seek from the divine. Has any song ever captured better the sinister allure of addiction?

Peter's guitar and the double bass carry the arrangement, with a powerful harmonica solo between the two verses and another after the second. At the end it's just the bass fades out and the guitar part slows down, then there's a little tinkling bit of percussion, like a swizzle stick being rattled inside a glass.

Still Playin'

And then after that ominous ending the next cut strikes up and it's another of Peter's signature guitar figures (this time backed by David Jackson's accordion) but now we've returned to major chords and happier thoughts to wrap the record up with. Once again he's looking back at younger days spent playing the streets of San Francisco:
we used to call 'em the dirt capades
buskin' on the corner the masquerade
walkin' 'round playin' guitar in the rain
singin' on the street as they come & go
killin' long hours when the crowds are slow
reachin' for the high notes as the world runs down the drain
(I don't know how many times I listened to this song before I noticed that the second through the sixth lines all start the same way, with present participles.) Here's what Peter had to say about the song:
“Still Playin'”: For years, I was a street musician in San Francisco, and this one works into the lyrics a lot of references to songs I used to perform when I was busking: Gene Autry's “Strawberry Roan,” Mance Lipscomb's “Cherry Ball,” Mississippi John Hurt's “Payday,” Lazy Lester's “Jailhouse Wall,” Gus Cannon's “Stealin',” and Reverend Gary Davis's “Cocaine Blues.” And the J-45, of course, is my Gibson guitar.
After the opening stanza the melody varies a bit for a few more lines, then there's what sounds like it's going to be the chorus:
still playin'
judgin' every note I play
only request I heard all night
was 'can you sing far, far away?'
But just when you expect it's going to start over for another verse, the pace picks up and there's yet another variation (this is where the song references get worked in). If you listen carefully it actually is more or less the same as the opening melody, but because of the double-timing it doesn't feel like it. Then there's a longer version of the “chorus,” and only after that does it finally circle back and take up where it began. The song is five minutes long, but because of its spun-out structure there are (depending on how you break it down) arguably only two verses, separated by just a few bars.

The second verse skips ahead to the present — or maybe it's still the past, or maybe it's both — in any case it sounds like we're in the interior of Dark Bob's room as the songs that make up Full Service No Waiting are being written:
& I'm up in a room with a J-45
waitin' on a wire wondrin' how to survive
with a scrap of yellow paper & a broken pen
older than I ever thought I'd be
with more responsibility
& I know I'm bound to stay
& pray & pay & play again
(Those are the printed lyrics, which may be outdated; it sounds like what Peter actually sings is "& I know I'd pay to play again," which falls off the tongue a lot easier.)

Coming where it does, the song brings us up from the depths of “Drunkard's Harmony,” but it also serves as a kind of response to a song like “See Through Eyes,” in which the communal joys of making music with friends seemed to be lost forever. In this concluding song Peter Case portrays himself still surviving, still playin' on into days to come, finding the joy in it, in spite of age and care and family responsibilities. It's an upbeat finish to a record that has covered an astonishing range of emotional and spiritual territory.

Acknowledgment is due to the participants at pcblog for sharing their insights over the last few years. — CK

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


She stood by the sink looking out through the window. It was dusk and a line of crows were passing above the bare trees, all flying in the same direction, heading for their winter roosts in the valley a few miles to the west. They knew where they were going but showed no sign of haste.

The backyard brambles were bare and stiff. The fruit trees had gotten out of control again; she would have to tend to them but not now, later when the worst of winter was over.

Her children were grown, gone. She poured flour into a bowl, scattered in a little sugar, salt, and yeast, then mixed it with a wooden spoon. She took a glass measuring cup and filled it at the tap, then poured the water in, scouring and beating the mixture together with a few efficient strokes. She added more flour, until she could no longer turn it with the spoon. Rolling her sleeves up, she gathered the uneven mass in her hands and worked it until it came together. She spread another bit of flour on a wooden board and began to fold the dough, slowly, strongly, with a practiced touch, adding a little more flour when it began to stick.

She thought about the motions she was making, how they had been performed, with little alteration, for thousands of years, from the time when some woman unknown, somewhere in the Levant or North Africa, had taken flour she had likely querned by hand, coarser and darker flour than this to be sure, and worked it together with a bit of saved and soured dough, then set it aside to let it ferment and rise.

Her own yeast came out of a jar, the flour came from god only knew where, all the ingredients had passed through a complicated nexus of exchange, had been processed, reduced to their most elemental and negotiable state, packaged, transported, sold and re-sold. But as she finished kneading and set a damp cloth over the dough it was no longer a commodity, it had reverted to its ancient identity, beyond all that. It would rise for a while and then she would bake it and eat it on her own, with a little leftover soup she had made two days before.

And she would keep on doing so, for a long time to come.