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Peter Case: Living Precarity

(Photo by Greg Allen)

(Photo by Greg Allen)

As Far as You Can Get Without a Passport is a very long title for a very short book. The short book’s language is simple and coherent, its pacing and imagery tender and engaging, its author and topic Peter Case, whom you might know from his many years of service as a North American tribal folk blues singer-songwriter (Rolling Stone called his self-titled solo debut on Geffen, in 1986, “a masterpiece”) with a sharp pen and a voice that can blow a vault; or from his mid-’70s pre-punk power-pop trio the Nerves, or as front man of the ’80s rock quartet the Plimsouls, who had a pop-culture hit in 1982 with Case’s “A Million Miles Away.”

But before he could become the Peter Case whom you might know, Case had to drop out of high school in Buffalo at the age of 15 and make his way out to San Francisco, where he lived with little shelter and had many adventures, the recounting of which constitutes this very short book, the first in a series of Case’s memoirs.

“The thing I liked about writing about this particular period,” says Case, “was that it’s not about anything like the Nerves or the Plimsouls. It’s just about being alive, and what it’s like to leap out into life.”

Case explains many things quickly, almost simultaneously, and I do my best to keep up as we sit drinking night-coffee on the otherwise empty stage at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, where he’s performed regularly since 1984. (Recently, between tours, he’s been teaching songwriting classes here, as well.)

Empty room, house lights on.

“I was living in a junkyard in Sausalito,” Case continues. “Right behind the heliport, behind a place called The Open Door, which was a free-soup-kitchen kind of place. The junkyard was the fallback crash site. Most of the time I’d just wander into the city and meet people, and stay with them, sometimes crashing on the beach, crashing on people’s floors . . . every once in a while in the back of a car . . . When it wasn’t good, it was terrible. But it was good a lot, because I just felt so free.”

The book opens with Case’s transition into that freedom — fleeing from Buffalo’s Hamburg High School in January 1970. As the frail and raspy Mrs. Meyers reads to the class from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” Case succumbs to a king-size anxiety attack.

I started to sweat and shake, the projector was slipping, time whooshing past on all sides of the clock. Reality jumped the track. A wave of dread crashed over me, the immense and terrifying feeling of being stranded in Eternity.

Case remains in Buffalo for the next few years, writing songs and playing piano and singing in a band called Pig Nation, struggling to keep his head together.

“I used to feel like there was someone walking with me. Kind of like a watcher, or a witness. And I could almost see — maybe it’s a mild form of schizophrenia; or I don’t know what it is; or maybe it’s just my writer’s eye; I don’t really know what it is, but — it was like I was on this adventure, and there was somebody watching it, and it wasn’t exactly me. I thought I was on the edge of destruction — that I’d just, you know, explode.”

“So when you decided to head west,” I ask, “was it with a sense of . . . there being nothing to lose?”

“On some level, maybe, but I didn’t have that so much. I was just in so much pain, and so confused. I just decided, I gotta get out of here! I’m going to California! I’m going!”

In March 1973, Case heads west by bus to Chicago, then takes the Amtrak Super Chief to the coast, busking in the club car on the way. Arriving at last in San Francisco, he wanders the streets, playing guitar, meeting other musicians, sleeping (almost) at first in a cheap residence hotel on Scott Street.

I move into my tiny room, fall asleep and wake up in the middle of the night, sick as a dog, with a psychedelic fever. I’m hallucinating mathematical formulas . . . This goes on for three days and three nights, and I stay locked in, going completely crazy.

At about midnight on the third day, I’m feeling a little better, carrying a bottle of ginger ale and my guitar, walking east on Lombard Street. A yellow cab pulls up with its service light off. The driver is a tall, thin, pale-skinned, dark-haired hipster dude with a strange look in his eyes.

“Hey man get in. I’ll give you a ride.”

This is Derek, 25 years old, from Brooklyn. He’s just been released from a mental institution in Morocco, and he’s trying to save up some dough while he waits to ship out as a merchant seaman.

. . . Within a few days Derek becomes my first manager.

Derek takes Case to the Coffee Gallery and introduces him to the North Beach folk scene. “I was sleeping on the floor upstairs at City Lights books a lot,” Case recalls. “I couldn’t buy books, but I just sat in there and read all the time. They used to have this winding staircase that went up over the cash register, and I’d get a book and go up there, and they’d let me sleep up there during the day.

“Every day I just woke up and did what I had to do, all day. It was all right in front of me. There were no phone calls being made, no letters being sent. There was the Coffee Gallery, the drunks and blues musicians in there; and the bar on Grand Avenue, and there’d be some guys in there; and the winos on the street and street musicians. That was the whole world. I probably had as much commerce with them then as I do now with all the people I talk to all over the world on the Internet, all in one 20-block North Beach radius.

“I didn’t think I was going to get into the music business. It had never even occurred to me. I just wanted to play music. I just wanted to fuckin’ play and be left alone.”

One of the distinct pleasures of As Far as You Can Get is one of the distinct pleasures of Case’s music: its humility. Case cops no attitude as to his own journey being any more or less important or interesting than anyone else’s. They’re all fascinating; his just happens to be the one he knows best.

The only time I feel alright is when I’m playing this stuff. The rest of the time I’m a wreck.

“And I’m basically still living the same life I was living in the book,” says Case. “I’m just living the grown-up version of it. There’s a new word for the freelance life now — it’s called precarity. And what it refers to is that people who are freelance, they can’t tell if they’re working 24/7, or if they’re unemployed. What we’re up against now is an era where everybody’s time is completely dominated, and everybody’s working for free.”

It’s well past closing time at McCabe’s, and we get a polite reminder to wrap things up. Case picks up the pace and intensity.

“If you could live a comfortable life, making $10 million a year — you probably would! I mean, who wouldn’t? But how much would you give up? Well, some people can’t give that up! It’s just not possible, for lots of people. And for some, somehow, it is. But the fact that there’s such a huge segment of the culture . . . taking advantage of the precarity of everybody else. They work you. So if you go on the Internet now and look for a writer’s gig on Craigslist —”

“— Unfortunately,” I quote the concluding lines of the Craigslist writing-gigs anthem, “there is no compensation.”

No compensation for the writer!” Case almost hollers.

“But a great opportunity for the right person!”

“Yeah,” says Case. “They call that exposure. And I say, Hey man — you can die of exposure.”?

AS FAR AS YOU CAN GET WITHOUT A PASSPORT | By PETER CASE | For Now/Everthemore Books | 51 pages | $10 paperback

Peter Case will read from As Far as You Can Get Without a Passport at Book Soup this Sat., April 21, at 7 p.m.