Peter Case is calling from a mystery spot on Highway 1, where he's hanging out somewhere on the road--as usual.
"It's kind of a rugged existence," says the solo singer/songwriter, about the constant travel involved in his work. "Doing it alone is weird too--I mean, taking the Greyhound bus into Kalamazoo or someplace, setting down in town and setting up. . . . I should get a Greyhound mileage card, I use it so much."
Case has been playing solo since 1983, when he split from his then 6-year-old band, the Plimsouls (best known for the underground classic "A Million Miles Away"). In the last year, however--since the release of his solo debut album last spring--Case's career has been one long trek down the proverbial lonesome highway, from cafe to nightclub, "playing everything from the Ann Arbor Folk Festival to a bunch of one-night stands," as he puts it. (He'll be appearing at Cal State Fullerton, in the Pub, Friday night at 8 and 10:30.)
He also did a stint last year in bigger arenas, opening for Jackson Browne, and toured both Europe and Japan. "Being solo makes you more mobile!" he jokes.
The hectic schedule was Case's reward for releasing one of 1986's most highly acclaimed albums, called simply "Peter Case." The New York Times placed it No. 1 on its year-end critical list; the song "Steel Strings" became a smash on college radio stations, and Case, himself, was lauded with solo-star accolades.
Playing what he calls "a kind of post-atomic age folk music," sparsely instrumentalized on the album thanks to guest musicians and such friends as T-Bone Burnett, Roger McGuinn and John Hiatt, Case exemplifies what American music is all about right now: simplicity. His music is the antithesis of dance-mix singles by Euro-beat haircut bands. Instead, it follows the path of Dylan and Woody Guthrie, with more of a jangling pop edge to the sound.
Jangling pop is all very well, now that it's in fashion. But it wasn't always this easy. As leader of the Plimsouls for six years, Case became increasingly frustrated not only with his band's lack of success in the music industry but also with what he terms "a lack of communication with the audience."
"Night after night, there'd be all this huge energy, these big amps--a big spectacle. It seemed like it was all just one big party and that's all anyone was concerned about. When you play solo, you really get more to the heart of the matter--the songs--right away. Also, it keeps you on your toes. You can't fake anything."
Playing solo also is more flexible than having a band, Case says. "You end up knowing people in every town that you can invite to play with you on stage, so it's more like having 40 or 50 band members scattered all over the country, than just being stuck with the same four guys in the van."
Case's on-the-road life style is not new. And he admits that he always has had a yen to be a modern-day Ramblin' Jack Elliott. After an uneventful childhood in upstate New York, he hitchhiked around the country, accompanied by an acoustic guitar, earning spare change in cities such as San Francisco and Boston by thumping out old Beatles songs to the tourists. He wound up in Los Angeles on the cusp of punk rock, although his band, the Plimsouls, was considered a precursor to the short-lived Power Pop movement by those who give niches to rock bands.
The Plimsouls became a popular local act--they were even featured in the 1981 movie "Valley Girl." But Case decided that he had better move on--"or backward, however way you look at it," he says. He has still been known to play a street show now and again, although the songs he plays now are more often his own.
Case currently is trying out some of his new songs by playing a few gigs around California, backed by whoever of his friends shows up to help him out. "I really don't know who'll come down to Fullerton to play," he says, although his wife, Victoria Williams, who has a new solo album out on Geffen Records, herself, is a good bet, as is former Dylan session man Steve Soles, who will help produce Case's next LP, which is set for recording in a few weeks.
As for the songs on the album--many of which he will play Friday night--Case says, "All my songs tell different stories, but art is kind of the art of finding a way to say the same thing in different ways. You find after a while that the same points are on your mind. I just started (performing) a song I wrote when I was 15 again, and it fits right in."