Tongue-tied in the Face of Life: A Conversation with Peter Case – The Power of Song
Welcome to The Power of Song, Episode 2, our new podcast celebrating songwriting and the songwriters who do it. For this show there would be few better guests than the great Peter Case, a songwriter who started great and yet keeps expanding. As does his legacy.
Peter, like his pal John Prine and other genius songwriters, started writing quite amazing, brilliant and tuneful songs right from the start. First in his band The Nerves, then with his band The Plimsouls (most famous for “A Million Miles Away) and then ever since on his solo journey. And like Prine, the greatness of Peter Case has been something which has been expanding incrementally over the years of perpetual great songwriting. Lest anyone still presume wrongly the great songs were some fluke, here is 30 years of seriously solid songwriting of all kinds to show you what’s true.
Along those lines of preserving and celebrating the legacy of great songwriters, it’s heartening to know that the great director Fred Parnes has teamed up with songwriter-producer Chris Seefried to make a documentary about Peter, which has been in the works for several years. Fred is a serious music lover, as affirmed by his beautiful movie about The Persuasions, Spread The Word. No doubt this will be a great film, and expand further this songwriter’s legacy of powerful, inspirational and never-boring songs.
We did this interview back in May of 2019, a few weeks after his great 65th birthday concert at McCabe’s in Santa Monica (which Fred and his crew filmed for the movie.)
The first time I ever interviewed Peter was back in the previous century, more than three decades ago. Which doesn’t seem possible, as that’s a big chunk of time, and yet it seems like no time has passed. Since then we’ve had many more of these conversations (which I wisely recorded) about songwriting, music, art and all related issues. Which includes everything. As Tom Waits said, anything at all a songwriter absorbs he will someday secrete.
Yet every time, even if we speak for two solid hours, as we did during this interview we never reach the bottom of the well. Because it’s an endless conversation. Because, like all seriously great songwriters, he’s serious about songwriting. But never has he concluded he’s figured the thing out. Quite the opposite. But he’s forever fascinated by the process, and by different strategies and routes, or as we call it here – ways of tricking yourself into writing songs. Which, in itself, is both serious and a joke. Asked if he always falls for the trick, he said no. Which is when he has to invent a new trick.
And though he puts himself down for not yet cracking this code, it’s in that very journey that he’s written amazing songs through the years, songs which do everything songs can do. He tells stories, he lifts our hearts and he shows us this world now in a way only a master songwriter can do. Had he figured the thing out 30 years ago, it seems he’d never have written all these great songs. Because it’s all founded on the exploration itself: what he will find that he can bring back. It’s not about expressing what he thinks at all. It’s about realizing what the song is saying.
“You’ve got to keep going,” he said, “ until you get to some place where it’s surprising you. See, I like to have a song that surprises me, and tells me something I don’t know. I don’t want it just to be what I think already, because I already know that.”
That’s the essence of a true artist: to always be striving to reach beyond one’s own grasp. Not to express one’s own understanding, but to use the exploration of making art as a means of expanding understanding.
The brilliant psychologist-author Jordan Peterson, writing about art and artists, expressed this very truth:
““The artist shouldn’t be able exactly to say what he or she is doing,” said Peterson. “If you can say what you’re doing, you’re not producing art. Art bears the same relation to culture that the dream does to mental stability. Your dream doesn’t say what it’s about, it just is. The dream is something that extends you beyond where you already are…”
That’s one aspect of many covered in our conversation, which you can listen to in our second episode of The Power of Song.
But first a few other highlights from the expansively compelling Mr. Case:
PETER CASE: Being a songwriter, if you’re not famous or if you’re not exquisitely successful, you have to go through a certain amount of heavy lifting just to even show up at the starting gate.
I’ve heard that if you have great fame, for example, that there’s a sense of weightlessness. .. because you don’t have to convince yourself. The world is doing the heavy lifting on a lot of things.
There’s something the matter with me, because there’s a whole side to my mind and my life that I don’t have access to even now. I’m kind of tongue-tied in the face of life…
My dad, he used to go, “What do you have to say for yourself?” Because I got in trouble when I was a kid… I went off the track.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” And cause of the atmosphere there, I didn’t have a lot to say for myself… I started writing poetry when I was a kid and songs on things. And I began to get this feeling that I would know what I think, and I would know what I felt when I wrote the song. Like I wouldn’t really know what I was doing until I wrote it. And I’m still like that. And so that’s never changed.
And if I go through periods where I don’t write, I really do become kind of alienated from myself. There’s something I lose. It’s like I lose the trail. And so I write all the time, not even songs anymore. I’m kind of a scribbler, and I got notebooks and I write all this stuff.
Somebody said that music enables you to feel things that you don’t know you feel till you hear it in the music. If you listen to “Blue in Green,” by Bill Evans and Miles Davis and Coltrane, he has these chords.,..They used to tell you in school that happy songs are major key. So what is Bill Evans’ music saying? And it’s this mixture of emotions and all these different kinds of chords. And it reminds you of things that you could almost hardly talk about. But then when he says it with those chords, it’s really revealing. That’s what I mean, I suppose.”