Peter Case Calls The Doctor
With a new piano-driven album coming out, the former Plimsoul looks to the future
Singer-songwriter Peter Case vividly recalls how music gave him (and others) solace when he was stuck at home in San Francisco during the pandemic’s early days.
“At first I had incredible claustrophobia, like, ‘What am I going to do? I’m going crazy in this room,’” he explains. “And then I started playing piano all the time. It was so much fun. I started out playing blues and gospel and learning different old songs. Then somewhere in there, my own songs started to come to me.
“It was so strange and silent out there: the city was dead quiet. Really spooky and shocking,” he continues. “But the piano is in my front room, aiming out onto the street, and every once in a while somebody walking by would say, ‘Are you the guy that plays the piano in there? I like that one you’re playing.’”
The intimate, wistful songs he wrote then can now gain a much wider audience because Case is releasing them on his latest solo album, Doctor Moan (out on March 31 via Sunset Blvd. Records).
Throughout his five-decade career, Case’s music has explored a wide range of genres, including exuberant jangly rock, traditional blues, punk and introspective Americana – but Doctor Moan is his first piano-driven album, and Case says it’s about time. “It’s really something I always wanted to do, and I just never was able to do it. I always loved playing piano. It was one of my first instruments when I was a kid,” he says.
Accomplishing this goal took some of the sting out of the massive European tour he’d had to cancel when the pandemic lockdown began. Looking back, he feels grateful that he was able to put that enforced break from performing to such good use.
“Writing a record, sometimes you don’t get to finish everything before you have to go back out on the road,” he says. “So I would have ideas in notebooks and stuffed in pockets of my jackets and in my guitar cases, but I wasn’t finishing things. And so actually having a couple of years at home gave me a chance to start finishing and recording all in one shot. I haven’t done that in years, so it was really fun.”
Though Case can clearly trace these songs’ origins, defining what he’s saying in the poetic, sometimes abstract lyrics is a far murkier matter.
“Songs come intuitionally, so I didn’t really set out to say anything in particular; it was sort of a feeling,” he says. “Different things would pop into my head to write, and I would just go with them. A couple of them, I played them over and over, and it was almost like a meditation or a spell. I try to get the words so they say something to me, and say something that I’m interested in, [but] lot of times, it’s not something I really understand before I say it. I think I sometimes write songs to find things out myself.”
This ambiguity even extends to the album title, Doctor Moan: “I think there is a meaning to it, but it might spoil it for people if I unpack it right now,” he says. “Maybe it will become more apparent as time goes on, a little bit.”
Case was only 11 years old, growing up in near in Hamburg, New York (near Buffalo) when he took his first stab at songwriting – “It was called, ‘Stay Away from Me, I’m No Good for You’; it was a really stupid song,” he says with a laugh – but even then, music transfixed and mystified him: “I always knew, right from the very beginning, that [being a musician] was what I was going to do. I don’t really know how or why I knew. But I didn’t care.”
Despite his parents’ strong objections, he dropped out of school and started playing in bands when he was only 15 years old. They performed anywhere they could around Buffalo: “Dances, fire halls, all these weird gigs.”
All the while, Case continued writing songs, trying to emulate his idols. “I loved Bob Dylan, and then there was people like Hank Williams. And I liked different weird old poets [such as] T.S. Eliot. My big sister told me about Jack Kerouac, and I super got into that.”
Like the lead characters in Kerouac’s classic countercultural novel On the Road, Case left his old life behind when he was still a teenager, setting off for San Francisco with only a few possessions (including, crucially, a guitar).
“One of the things about being a musician is, I was free to do anything I wanted to because I wasn’t afraid of being completely broke for long periods of time,” Case says, “and so I lived on the street and was kind of homeless for a while, or living in an abandoned truck in the junkyard. It wasn’t bad. I’d go out on the street corner and play [my guitar] and make enough money to buy a pork bun at the Chinese restaurant. I never worried about it.”
Still, he admits, “There were periods when there was no food or money. The worst I remember it ever got was, it was a rainy period, and I was starving to death. I went into a place called The Doggie Diner and said, ‘I’ll mop the floor for a hamburger.’”
Despite such dire circumstances, he never quit believing that he was on the right path. “For me, it was following my calling, or following the light. So I never felt like it would have been easier to do anything else.”
Case relocated to L.A. and played in various bands, which was another huge learning experience: “It was back in the day where there’d be these bars and you’d play five sets a night, so I spent a lot of time doing that. You get good doing that,” he says.
In 1974, he started playing bass with a group called The Nerves, who specialized in catchy two-minute songs. They got good enough that The Ramones brought them along as the opening act for their Rocket to Russia tour. Another break came when Blondie did a cover version of one of their songs, “Hangin’ on the Telephone.” The Nerves broke up in 1978, though they’ve developed a sizeable cult following since then.
Then Case started another band, The Plimsouls, who specialized in euphoric, jangly rock. They had a hit with “A Million Miles Away,” which was featured in the hit 1983 film Valley Girl, and remains the best-known song in Case’s discography to this day. He says he doesn’t mind continuing to play it in his live shows forty years later (or any of his other earlier material): “I still feel connected to the songs that have become popular.”
After The Plimsouls, Case started a solo career, releasing more than a dozen albums so far. Even now, he says he’s still learning from his experiences as he goes along. “It’s been a whole process of unraveling these strings of music over the years,” he says.
As he looks back on his long and varied career, Case says he feel gratified that he has always listened to his gut instinct about being a musician, even though it can be a difficult and unpredictable career.
“I was talking to my dad one time. He was like, ‘I always thought you were crazy to drop out of school. But now I look at the guys that stayed home and did everything they were supposed to do, and a lot of them don’t have any security, either. And so you were probably right. You made your own way.’” Case pauses, then adds, “The way society turned out, there wasn’t that much security anyhow. Now, everybody’s precarious.”
He’s also happy with his life in San Francisco, where he returned about ten years ago. “I like being home. I live with my wife and I have a dog. I read books and hang out. It’s great. It’s a whole way of life that I actually really like,” he says. “But I have to go back out on the road because that’s what I do. I haven’t gone this long since I was a kid without being on the road. “
That next tour will begin in April, and Case says he looks forward to playing his songs, old and new, for live audiences once again. “Sometimes you’re singing a song and you can feel it going out to people and connecting with them. I feel really fortunate to have been able to play music because people have such a positive attitude toward it. It’s a real gift to be able to do it.”
Rock & Roll Globe is honored to premiere the video for the latest single off Doctor Moan, “Have You Ever Been In Trouble?,” today on the site. Watch below.
VIDEO: Peter Case “Have You Ever Been In Trouble?”
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