“I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose… Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard travelling. I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.”
That quote from Woody Guthrie, and the spirit of purity from which those words and his songs came remind me of Peter Case. To Woody, the airwaves were sacred. A public trust. So songwriters had an obligation to write songs for those airwaves which didn’t bring people down, but the opposite. Songs to lift people up. I remember Peter, back in 1988, talking to me about what he called “sky songs.” Songs which lifted him up when he sang them, and had that effect on others.
Today is the 67th birthday of one of our favorite songwriters – and people – the great Peter Case. He’s one of those guys who keeps writing remarkable songs, year after year. Like John Prine, who was a genius long before the world caught on, Peter’s sky songs have helped so many soar through these years. And more than ever. It’s heartening to see that the appreciation of his legacy of solidly inspired and seriously great songwriting has expanded a lot over the years, as it did for John Prine.
Peter and John were pals, and both shared a real love of song, and gratitude for their songwriting gifts. Together they wrote two songs, “Space Monkey” and “Wonderful 99.” For John Prine to want to co-write a song with another songwriter spoke of John’s esteem for that person’s talent. And also that they were fun to hang out with. John loved songwriting, but not if it wasn’t fun.
Prine was one of a multitude of songwriters to be in awe of Peter Case. It’s one thing to write some great songs in the season of your youth. But to sustain the passion – the love, the care, the diligence – that is what defines a lifelong, serious songwriter. In it for the long haul.
Ben Harper, who is a also a pal of Peter’s – and a collaborator on his most recent album and some live shows – shares this love of Peter Case. While interviewing him a few months ago about his life and his newest album, the beautiful one-man slide-guitar symphony, Winter is for Lovers, we spoke about great new songs to emerge in recent years.
Almost immediately, we were singing in unison about the greatness of Peter’s remarkable “The Long Good Time.” It’s the emotional centerpiece of Highway 62, on which Ben brought his exultant spirit and singular acoustic slide sound. Ben’s a deeply thoughtful and serious songwriter-musician, and as such, forever facing the prime challenges of this art: doing something new within the limitations baked into the song form itself, and something which hasn’t been done the same way before.
lSee: Our interview with Ben Harper.]
“My problem,” he said, “is I just can’t do the same thing twice.”
It’s in that context that he and other songwriters, including this writer, have spent endless hours driving down Peter’s Highway 62 with delight and gratitude. Delight in taking these beautiful, funny and sad human journeys with this wonderfully tuneful storyteller. And gratitude that he – and others – still care this much about songwriting to imbue every song they write with the fullness of their passion and genius.
“I mean,” Ben asked, “how incredible is Peter Case? I mean, come on… Highway 62, I can’t take how good it is. It’s a lesson in songwriting. It’s just a master class.”
Everyone everyplace everything has been erased
That’s the way it goes
First the laughter then the light now they’re all gone
And locked up tight
Where the cold wind blows
But we’ll all meet again at the end
Of The Long Good Time
From “The Long Good Time” by Peter Case
Peter’s a brilliant wordsmith who is gifted at spinning authentic stories in song. But he’s also a serious and sophisticated melodist. And songs need both. “The Long Good Time” exemplfies the perfect words-music marriage. It’s as good as Americana narrative songwriting gets, a beautifully etched little movie about growing up in America, opening on the vividly familial picture of his mother “doing the ironing, listening to Nat King Cole.”
Right there is the essence of the songwriting lesson learned and taught by Leonard Cohen and others: That it’s in the specifics that we find the universal truth. Instead of intentional vagueness so as not to alienate the listener, the songwriter uses the real human details of life, the images and souvenirs of real life we all know. In this way we bring people into the song more closely, and even if it is not their personal specifics, they relate to the humanity of the song, which we all do share.
My mom used to be in the basement ironing too. Handkerchiefs often, belonging to my dad. Does anyone use handkerchiefs or ever iron anymore? He even provides the soundtrack – she is listening to Nat “King” Cole, the music, of her childhood, while he is playing rock & roll. That was the generational dynamic of the 60s. We kids would listen to the Stones, Beatles, Monkees and the rest while my parents still loved Sinatra and Judy Garland.
(I’ll admit that, so intrigued was I by certain details of the songs that I emailed its author for some clarification. In the second verse there’s a mention of his band playing in the basement and making people crazy with their music, when his mom comes down the stairs to request that “song about suicide.” Was it “Suicide Is Painless,” that odd Johnny Mandel hit from M.A.S.H.? No. The song, he informed me, was “Yer Blues,” by John Lennon and The Beatles.)
And that’s just the start of the song. It then poignantly proceeds through stages of his own life. It’s a beautiful lyric which revolves around the title, and the sad but hopeful promise it offers. But it’s the beautiful melody, especially on the chorus, a tune of great ascending momentum, that makes this song soar.
It’s a timelessly beautiful melody, but not sugary or phony. It has a solid folky feel, perfect to set the scene perfectly, etching the timely, specific details before the camera pulls way back for the chorus to give us the timeless view. It is like great movie-making – when the essential life-impacting moment is matched perfectly with a powerfully poignant song. Whether it’s “Moon River,” “As Time Goes By,” or “Mrs. Robinson,” that marriage of beautiful song and vivid momentous memories is undeniably powerful.
I know Peter would bristle at this notion, but it’s beautifully crafted. He said he hates when someone compliments him by saying one of his songs is “well-crafted,” because to him it means he’s crafty in the sneaky sense. As if he intentionally contrived something falsely maudlin to trick the listener into being moved.
And maybe people mean that sometimes when they say it. But it’s not what we mean when it’s applied to one of his songs. His melody doesn’t sound calculated anymore than “Strawberry Fields Forever.” it sounds perfect. (Yet that perfection did come through a songwriter well-versed in song craft.)
But Peter’s perspective is understandable. Because songwriters don’t craft songs like someone would craft a shoe oir a thatched roof. The craft has to do as much with that discovery as in how faithfully it is brought into our realm whole. Like trying to remember a dream, songs can crumble fast in the light.
This is what true, essential song-craft is all about. “Norwegian Wood” by Lennon, according to Leonard Bernstein, was an ingenious use of the Dorian mode, the scale that starts on the second note of the scale. But Lennon, obviously, didn’t intentionally go Dorian for that song. He was realizing the fullness of that minor-key melody. It’s the music that comes first, after all, not theoretical systems of organizing it.
Peter, who shares a lot of Lennon dynamics in his work, merges a vast gift for poignant, lyrical beauty and also the audacity to expand song content. To do something new.
“The Long Good Time” is a perfect example of this. Even rendered, as he does often, with one voice and a guitar (okay, usually a guitar with twice as many strings – a 12-string) -its power comes from his genius with vivid lyrical story-telling. That part might be obvious. But it’s also the music – that melody – which is wed so perfectly with the momentum of the words and images – that it is a home-run every time.
The lyrics cut between home-movies of the past to the narrator in the present, that place where we all reside, looking backwards at our lives with wonder, sorrow and disbelief at how much is long gone. Yet before it gets weepy at all, it’s injected with the songwriter’s big heart of hope.
The inner structure of the chorus melody tugs at the heartstrings in a big way. It ascends with inspirational “Over the Rainbow” hopefulness on the first line of the chorus and the third. Starting with th “Everyone every place, everything has been erased.”
Then the third line also ascends but begins on a higher note, which causes it to end on a higher note; that effect of creating a melodic pattern and then expanding is powerfully poignant. The music brings one level of truth and then adds another, exactly as the lyric does.
The words establish that all living scenes from his memory are as vividly real as if they were happening right now. Which is how we experience our memories. Especially writers, those who, as John Prine declared in his last song, remember everything. Those memories, like old songs don’t fade or yellow in the sun.
Yet the song then expands on that with almost disbelief: that all of life–every song, every picture, every fight with his dad – is all long gone, and buried in the past. Which is part of life that is forever hard to accept, especially as we have so many decades behind us of these vivid memories, still playing like old songs.
Yet it doesn’t leave us there. If it did, this song would mot qualify as a true sky song. Because it would give us a reason for sorrow. A reason to hang it up. Instead, it gives us hope. It reminds us life is but a dream. And that transcendence is real. At least we haven’t given up hope that it is! It ends in the light. And we’ll all meet again at the end of the long good time.” Right on. I hope it’s true.
I’ve written and said it before, but while most things are not worth repeating, this is. When I listen to his songs I think that it just doesn’t have to be this good. Nobody insists Peter, or any other modern troubadour, bring it to this level. The world is mostly busy celebrating other phenomenons, while many people consider serious songwriting to be an arcane relic of a bygone era. Like making thatched roofs. But this song and the others he’s crafted and discovered over the years, keeps hope alive that great songwriting will always matter
So on behalf of all of humanity : Thank you Peter Case, for this and all the great songs you have created. We need them and we love them. Happy Birthday. See you and John and everyone at the end of this long good time. Bring your guitar.