One of the most well-respected singer/songwriters of his generation, Peter Case is an artist whose eclectic body of work embraces rock & roll, contemporary folk, blues, and a number of points in between. As a songwriter, Case has shown himself to be a master storyteller with a special understanding of underdogs and lost souls, and his direct, passionate style as a singer and guitarist has served him well in both electric and acoustic contexts.
Case was born in Buffalo, New York on April 5, 1954. He had two older sisters who were big music fans, and he grew up listening to the rock & roll and R&B records they collected. While Case's mother got him a ukulele when he was four years old, he didn't begin taking music seriously until he heard the Beatles and Bob Dylan in the mid-'60s. In 1965, Case wrote his first song, "Stay Away," and in 1967, he discovered the blues through a Mississippi John Hurt album he checked out from the local library. After completing ninth grade, Case dropped out of school to focus on music full-time (he later received a GED). After playing with blues and rock bands in Buffalo, Case made his way to San Francisco in 1973, where he became a street performer; footage of Case busking during this period can be seen in Bert Deivert's documentary film Nightshift. The early stirrings of punk and new wave in California reawakened Case's passion for rock & roll, and with Paul Collins and Jack Lee he formed the Nerves, a band that played lean but tuneful and energetic pop music. Years before the D.I.Y. ethic was common, the Nerves recorded and self-released a four-song EP in 1976. (One of the EP's tunes, "Hanging on the Telephone," was later covered by Blondie.) In early 1977, the Nerves relocated to Los Angeles, and in addition to playing local clubs, they booked a low-budget nationwide tour, while Case also promoted punk shows in L.A. (and convinced the Weirdos to play their first show before they found a drummer). In 1978, the Nerves split up, and Case and Collins briefly played as the Breakaways, but within a year, Case had moved on and started a new band. Also featuring Eddie Muñoz, Dave Pahoa, and Louie Ramirez, the Plimsouls fused garage rock, upbeat pop, energetic British Invasion sounds, and vintage Rhythm & Blues. The band's powerful live shows soon made them the talk of the California club scene, and in 1981, the Plimsouls released a self-financed EP, Zero Hour. Local airplay and the buzz over the band's gigs led to the group landing a deal with Planet Records, a new label founded by producer Richard Perry. The Plimsouls' self-titled debut, released in 1981, got enthusiastic reviews, but poor promotion hampered sales, and the band was soon dropped. However, the Plimsouls' fortunes changed when they released an independent single of a new tune, "A Million Miles Away." The song received heavy airplay in Los Angeles and was celebrated as an instant power pop classic. (The band was also recruited to play the song in the movie Valley Girl.) The success of "A Million Miles Away" led to a second major-label deal, with Geffen Records, and the band's second album, Everywhere at Once, was released in 1983, featuring a re-recorded version of "A Million Miles Away." Geffen put more promotional muscle behind the album, but it failed to make a major impact on the charts, and by the end of 1983, the Plimsouls called it quits.
In the wake of the band's breakup, Case briefly played in an ad hoc group known as the Incredibly Strung Out Band (featuring Lucinda Williams collaborator Gurf Morlix, and Case's then-wife, singer/songwriter Victoria Williams) as he began exploring new themes in his songwriting. Case also experienced a spiritual rebirth, which dovetailed with the evolution of his songwriting, and in 1986 he went into the studio with producer T-Bone Burnett to cut his self-titled solo debut for Geffen Records. Peter Case quickly became a favorite with critics, and in The New York Times, Robert Palmer named it the best album of 1986. 1989 saw the release of Case's second solo effort, The Man with the Blue Post-Modern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar, another favorite with critics that doubled down on the first album's portraits of people overlooked by society. Blue Guitar once again earned positive press but didn't expand Case's audience, and working with producer Mitchell Froom, he aimed for a more contemporary sound on 1992's Six Pack of Love. A track from the album, "Dream About You," gained enough airplay to rise to number 16 on the Modern Rock Charts, but sales still fell short of expectations, and it was Case's last album for Geffen.
In early 2007, Case published his memoirs, As Far as You Can Get Without a Passport, excerpts of which originally appeared on his blog. The same year, Case released his first album for Yep Roc Records, Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John; the album, which featured a guest appearance by Richard Thompson, received a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Folk Album. In 2009, Case received a health scare when a medical checkup led to the musician having emergency heart surgery. Like many musicians, Case didn't have health insurance, and his hospital stay left him with a serious debt. Several of Case's friends and colleagues — including T-Bone Burnett, Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, and Joe Henry — performed benefit shows to help pay his debts, and Case arranged for the release of several archival albums of material by the Nerves and the Plimsouls, as well as a collection of solo outtakes and rarities, The Case Files. Case said that looking back to his rock & roll years made him eager to play fast and loud again, and in 2010, he was well enough to record Wig!, a lively and passionate set recorded in a mere three days.
In 2012, Case and Paul Collins set out on a joint tour in which they played music from the Nerves, the Breakaways, the Plimsouls, and Collins' later band the Beat. However, after three weeks on the road, musical and personal differences came to a head and Collins left the tour, with Case saying in a social media post, "the Nerves didn't work out in the Seventies and they couldn't now." Case put his focus back on acoustic music for his 2015 album, HWY 62, which featured guitar work from Ben Harper. It was Case's first album for Omnivore Recordings, which brought out an expanded edition of his solo debut in time for its 30th anniversary in 2016. The following year, Omnivore brought out another collection from the Case archives; On the Way Downtown featured live-in-the-studio recordings from Case's appearances on the KPFK-FM radio show Folk Scene in 1998 and 2000. ~ Mark Deming