Born in 1952 in Hamburg, NY; son of teachers; married Victoria Williams (a singer and songwriter), 1985 (divorced); married Dianne Sherry (a writer and actress). Education: Attended State University of New York at Buffalo. Addresses: Record company--Vanguard Records, 1299 Ocean Ave., Ste. 800, Santa Monica, CA 90401.
The labels singer, songwriter, and musician are those most often ascribed to Peter Case. But they do not begin to describe the man who has touched so many hearts with songs written from the unconscious. He told Tom Campbell of the Los Angeles Reader, "I don't try to come up with just what my message will be. I could write a song that had all of my views in it, but it wouldn't resonate or move like a real song. But there are certain songs ... they come from the subconscious or something. I don't know what it is. One song like that was 'A Million Miles Away.' It seemed to express something to a whole lot of people."
Peter Case grew up in western New York State. When he was ten, he got his first guitar. From then on the guitar was his chief interest, though this avocation did not prevent him from getting into trouble. He told Campbell, "I was getting into a wild crowd of people, and we got into some dangerous stuff. I moved out of my parents' when I was fifteen, quit going to school, took a lot of drugs. I destroyed my ego before I even had one." Case was driven from the classroom by, of all things, the poet T. S. Eliot. He explained to Rob Tannenbaum of Rolling Stone, "The teacher was up there reading T. S. Eliot's 'The Hollow Men' in this monotone. The poem just really upset me. I broke out in a cold sweat, got up and walked out of class." Being the son of two teachers, though, he eventually earned his high school equivalency diploma and later enrolled in classes at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Then, in the middle of a blizzard, Case packed up his guitar and bought a bus ticket to Chicago. Within a few days he was in San Francisco. "Really, I got in way too deep, way too young," he told Campbell. "When I left Buffalo, I wasn't intending to go to California to be a street musician. I was just heading for California. I had a guitar with me.... I wasn't here (San Francisco) very long when I realized that I could play my guitar on street corners and make enough money to get by." It was a fine living as long as the summer lasted, but the winters were miserable. "I remember being with a bunch of guys. It was raining out, so we--a bunch of street musicians--moved into one hotel room and put all our money together to buy a bag of potato chips." It was a difficult time for Case, who concentrated mainly on getting from one day to the next. His only desire was to play and sing, but he had never thought of music as a career.
In the mid-1970s Case became part of the now legendary San Francisco punk trio the Nerves. He played bass, sang, and wrote songs like "When You Find Out," which has since become an impossible-to-find single. In 1978, after touring with punk rabble-rousers the Ramones and such bands as the Germs, Mink De Ville, and the Weirdos, the Nerves broke up and Peter Case moved to Hollywood, where he wrote songs and painted houses for a year.
In 1980 Case formed the Plimsouls and released an EP that earned the band a major-label record deal. But the record was not adequately promoted and sold poorly; the band and label soon parted company. The Plimsouls subsequently recorded the now-renowned single "A Million Miles Away," which was featured in the popular film Valley Girl. The band then signed to Geffen Records, on which they released the 1983 album Everywhere at Once, featuring their already famous single. But the group disbanded in the summer of 1984.
Case began traveling as a solo acoustic artist, playing his own songs in bars, coffeehouses, and various other venues from Maine to Montana and Vancouver Island to the Gulf of Mexico. He toured as the opening act for singer-songwriter Jackson Browne. And in 1986 he signed to Geffen Records as a solo artist and released his self-titled debut album. The record received exceedingly favorable reviews, and Case began to touch people with his story-songs about the broken dreams of America.
In 1989 his follow-up album, The Man With the Blue Postmodern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar, was released to even stronger reviews. Once again Case was able to connect with his audience, singing about his feelings for "losers in a society built exclusively for winners." It finished the year on a number of Top 10 lists and established him as an important songwriter.
Case's 1992 release, Six Pack of Love, was a mix of acoustic and hard-edged material, something of a departure from the more stripped-down and folkish sound he had favored in his solo career to that point. With his first two albums he had wanted to get his listeners' attention, well aware that Plimsouls fans were perhaps more concerned with a rocking soundtrack for their parties than with the perceptiveness of his lyrics. With Six Pack, though, he had moved beyond that narrow concern, telling Jon Matsumoto of Musician, "It's not really the business of the performer what the people do. Your job (as a performer/musician) is to dig deep and move the place."
His 1994 release, Peter Case Sings Like Hell, started out as an outgrowth of his fan club's newsletter, Travelin' Light. He recorded the album on a two-track recorder and distributed the primitive result himself on Travelin' Light Records, selling it at his shows. On his way to the Troubadours of Folk Festival in Los Angeles, a representative of folk label Vanguard Records gave him her card. Subsequently, Vanguard called Case to offer him a distribution deal. He was delighted to give the record the opportunity to reach a wider audience.
Peter Case may always be known for his live performances, distinguished as they are by dynamic guitar-playing and his spontaneous spirit. But ultimately, his songwriting will be what best represents him. "Music is my expression, it's my career, and it's what I do for laughs," he told the Los Angeles Reader's Campbell. "I'll go see other musicians, and it's a great source of inspiration for me. It makes sense in its own simple way. It's been a whole path for me."
by Charlie Katagiri
Peter Case's Career
Worked as a street musician, San Francisco, CA; member of band the Nerves, 1976-78; worked as housepainter, Los Angeles, CA; member of band the Plimsouls, 1980-84; with band, released single "A Million Miles Away" and album Everywhere at Once, Geffen, 1983; signed with Geffen as solo artist and released Peter Case, 1986.
- Selective Works
- Peter Case, Geffen, 1986.
- The Man With the Blue Postmodern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar, Geffen, 1989.
- Six Pack of Love, Geffen, 1992.
- Peter Case Sings Like Hell, Vanguard, 1994.
- With the Plimsouls Zero Hour (EP), Beat, 1980.
- The Plimsouls, Planet/Elektra, 1981.
- Everywhere at Once, Geffen, 1983.
- One Night in America, 1988.
- With the Nerves Nerves (EP), 1976.
- The Nerves, 1986.
- DiMartino, Dave, Singer-Songwriters, Billboard Books, 1994.
- Robbins, Ira A., Trouser Press Record Guide, 4th Edition, Collier Books, 1991.
- Periodicals Bakersfield Californian, April 29, 1994.
- Billboard, July 15, 1989; April 9, 1994.
- Capital Times, May 1994.
- Cash Box, June 24, 1989.
- Creem, October 1980.
- Detroit News, April 23, 1994.
- Frets, November 1987.
- L.A. Village View, April 15, 1994.
- Los Angeles Reader, March 11, 1994.
- Musician, April 1992.
- Now Magazine, May 5, 1994.
- People, June 8, 1992.
- Rolling Stone, October 23, 1986; June 2, 1994.
- Welcomat, April 27, 1994.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Vanguard Records press material, 1994.