Forgotten Albums: Peter Case, “The Man with the Blue postmodern fragmented neo-traditionalist Guitar”

So I think the story goes this way, not that it’s all that.

Around June 87, Marshall Crenshaw comes out with his fourth album Mary Jean & 9 Others. Huge Crenshaw fan that I am, I probably buy it the day it comes out. I like it pretty well but don’t think it’s anywhere as good as his previous effort, Downtown. A few months later, I’m over the Champaign Public Library, where I know they carry a subscription to Stereo Review. The October 87 issue reviews Mary Jean. Steve Simels is a big MC promoter, but he’s not too impressed with the effort this time: “Only an odd cover, Peter Case’s ‘Steel Strings,’ makes any impression at all.”

I’ve seen Case’s eponymous debut album, which came out about a year earlier, on display at Record Service. I now do a little digging, read good things, and soon make a purchase. It’s very, very good, and I even think I prefer the original version of “Steel Strings.” At this point I’m not aware of Case’s history with the Nerves and the Plimsouls, but this disk definitely puts him on my radar (where he winds up staying for around fifteen years).

Fast forward to the early summer of 89. Now I’m cruising the Urbana Free Library, thumbing through their CD collection, and I espy Case’s second album, which had come out mid-April and has a crazy-long title. I check it out and ask my officemate Paul to put it on tape for me. It’s not as immediately winsome as Peter Case, but there are plenty of tracks that come to grow on me. The musicianship is decidedly fab: David Lindley and Jim Keltner play on several tracks, as well as David Hidalgo of Los Lobos. Now thirty years on, I get the chance to talk up some of these tunes.

Leading off is “Charlie James.” The liner notes credit authorship to “Traditional,” which certainly feels applicable. A tiny bit of research on YouTube took me to a version by Texas bluesman Mance Lipscomb.

 

My college had a four-week May Term at the end of the academic year. My first year I took a topics class in literature focusing on short fiction. We spent one chunk reading several stories by Anton Chekhov. I’m pretty certain we covered Chekhov’s gun principle in that segment of the class, and it stuck; I was reminded of it when I saw a production of The Three Sisters, put on by the drama folks at the University of Kentucky a year or so later.

All of this came back to me again when I first heard Blue…Guitar‘s nominal single “Put Down the Gun,” a plea to a friend to calm down. Case definitely had read his Chekhov (even sticking his reference in the third verse).

 

When we were packing for my sabbatical year in upstate New York in 2004, I included a couple hundred CDs to play on the boombox we would use for a stereo. One of them was Blue…Guitar. (I’d bought a copy at Record Swap shortly before I left C-U. If I’m reading the sticker correctly, looks like it showed up there in April 92, which means I got it around the time Case’s third solo disk Six Pack of Love was released.) One fall evening, maybe around the time Ben was about to turn four, Martha was out somewhere and I stuck this on. The fourth track, a Cajun-influenced number called “Travellin’ Light,” comes on, Ben and I bounce around a little to it, but then he asks what the song is about. Maybe he’d caught the phrase “mixed-up kid” from the lyrics? I don’t remember now exactly how I put it–something about a young man who was wandering around without a home–but Ben was horrified. His face scrunched up and he started crying. Seeing that moment of empathy from one’s offspring, especially one so young…touching.

 

But track 5 is the piece on the album most likely to make me cry. Poor Old Tom had joined the Navy just about the time that Kelly and Sinatra were living it up in On the Town, but Tom never got the chance to trip the light fantastic. I’d love to know if Case had met someone like this, a homeless vet who’d been jailed and institutionalized, chewed up and thrown away. Regardless, it’s masterful; in June 2017, Case did a benefit for folks like Tom in his home turf of upstate New York.

 

I don’t have anything to say about “Two Angels” except that it’s a pretty ballad with Benmont Tench playing organ and it might be worth three minutes of your time today.

 

The penultimate song, “This Town’s a Riot,” showed up in a mix tape post three weeks ago. You can find it here if you like.

I was fortunate to see Case in concert once. James and I took him in at a bar near UK’s campus in early June 2000. He was touring in support of his most recent release Flying Saucer Blues (one of my favorites). It was just Case on guitar and an accompanist on violin. A true showman, he definitely knew how to play the crowd. I don’t remember much of the playlist now, but I feel certain he played Blue…Guitar‘s closing track, “Hidden Love.” This one might be in my all-time Peter Case Top 10; it wound up on another of my mix tapes somewhere along the way.

 

When he turned solo, Case left the rock and pop of his earlier days behind and concentrated on folk and blues (I generally like his folk-oriented stuff much more). Guess he wound up being a cult favorite of sorts, but I’m happy to be a member.

 

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