Peter Case left home when he was 16, taught himself to play country blues on the streets of San Francisco, and was in a couple of signal L.A. rock bands: the Nerves and the Plimsouls. For the last 25 years Case has worked as a singer-songwriter, building a lauded catalog of songs and a reputation as a musician’s musician. Springsteen and Prine and Ely are fans. Sir George Martin tapped him to play Beatles songs at the Hollywood Bowl. He returned from open heart surgery with 2010′s Wig!, a pummeling collection of blues, punk, and garage rock. We talked after a house concert he played at Boston luthier Yukon Stubblebine’s home.
Q: Before I turned my tape recorder on you were talking about arthritis.
A: Yeah. One of the things you take for granted when you’re younger is how many aspects of your creativity are physical. My problem is in my thumb, and everything I do comes through my thumb. I play guitar, I play piano, I write, I drive, I type, and I experience a lot of pain. Lately I know that there’s a price to pay for sitting down and playing piano, and it does hang me up. I’ll sit down at the piano and say “this better be good, I hope this is worth doing, because this is going to cause me pain.” The idea that “this better be good” is very non-productive. In fact it’s totally ruinous.
Q: What else has changed?
A: Songwriting’s a lot different than it was when I was younger and there are so many factors it’s hard to put your finger on. When you’re young, songs come to you. They come fast and it’s like getting hit by lightning. It would be quite a while until another one came or maybe another would come right away, but it always seemed kind of out of control. I didn’t have a writing discipline. I knew nothing about discipline. My life was very chaotic. I was pulling the pieces together of a very kind of shattered scene as a kid and I was on the run for a while.
Q: When did you start writing songs?
A: When I was a kid living with my parents I was writing songs regularly. Bands were playing them, older guys, and when I left, at 16, I didn’t start writing again for a number of years. I wanted to be writing. I wrote words and I played music but it took years before they turned into songs again.
Q: Why is that?
A: I was constantly hustling to make a living and I became very unfocused. But I learned how to play blues during that period, how to sing and play old songs.
Q: What happened to make you start writing again?
A: Here’s what happened. Stop me if it’s not interesting. I started having these dreams and songwriters would come to me in the dreams. I had this one dream where I skipped out of high school and went to a record store and I’m going through a record rack. John Lennon’s in there, and he’s right at the next record rack. I see this record called Hothouse Madmen by the Sergeants, and it looks really good to me, and John Lennon goes, don’t listen to that. You shouldn’t listen to that record. And I said, it looks really interesting to me. I want to hear it. Then he disappears and they put on the record in the record store in my dream and it’s this incredible song I’ve never heard before. And then I wake up and I write the song and it’s called “Hothouse Madmen.”
Q: That’s extraordinary. Did you record it?
A: Well, I was in this band, the Nerves, and I started playing the song and I start singing the words and the other guys didn’t understand them. They didn’t want to play it. They had control of the band and they voted it down. They told me, if you write a lyric that would fit in with the band we’ll definitely do the song. I tried to rewrite “Hothouse Madmen” so the Nerves could play it. I wrote version after version of it and hated them all. I was going crazy from doing that. So I would skip out of school, in a manner of speaking, to write other songs. I wrote basically the whole early Plimsouls repertoire trying to write “Hothouse Madmen” and not succeeding. I never did get that song. Strangely enough the music for it became the first song on my first record. T Bone Burnett wrote the lyric for it.
Q: What’s the takeaway lesson?
A: The problem with songwriting is you can’t force it. So the song I was trying to force never came through for me but it pushed me into something else. That’s the lesson, that you need to apply yourself to things that don’t cramp your style. I think we all know that a dream is some form of revelation, and it happens so much faster and more completely than in the conscious mind. The conscious mind is like a cripple. The conscious mind is very slow. If you start doing dream analysis, which I’ve done, there’s all this information in the dreams, and when you start recognizing and adding these symbols up, it’s incredible. Songwriting is a form of dreaming, a form of dreaming that you let happen.
Q: You’re a storyteller. Do stories present themselves in dreamlike fashion, too, or is there a more workmanlike aspect to writing lyrics?
A: Stories started adding up for me in 1985, mostly about things that happened when I was much younger in a period of my life that I never really worked out. The songs just came. Some of them, I wouldn’t even know what they were about when I first wrote them. And then I would realize, oh my god. You can’t just make up a story. For me, I want to feel some kind of authority from a story. I’m interested in discovering things and I use songwriting as a way to know my mind and to know myself. When I was little my father would get mad at me and yell at me and ask, what do you have to say for yourself? And I never had anything to say for myself. I would just sit there. He had a stuttering problem himself and he was passing it along to me, where I couldn’t talk and I couldn’t express myself. So songwriting is a way of stacking the deck so that you can say your best things. You find a way to say the most profound thing you can say. That’s why I love songwriting. When they ask me what I have to say for myself I don’t know. I still don’t know. I find things in songs that I don’t know.