“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.”
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, after a songwriter does that for a while it gets noticed in a big way. And then bigger. And 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 our love of Peter Case. reverence. 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 confronting 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 Case’s 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.
Peter’s chorus does exactly that. And like other great melodies, its greatness goes to the heart. Peter’s melody on this chorus is exquisite, and brilliantly conceived. Yet when you hear it, it simply sounds right. It sounds great. Because that is the essence of great song, and powerful melody, the dynamic of effortless inevitability–that the songwriter didn’t contrive and assemble the tune as much as discover it whole. He heard it on the “supernatural radio,” as Petty put it.
This chorus melody is all poignance and power. And though, knowing Peter would bristle at this notion, it is 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. Because there is no repeatable method. But within that journey of discovery songwriters can access timeless melodies. 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.
It’s the power of song, which comes from the combustion of words and melody together; one without the other doesn’t do it. The lyrics which cut away from his 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, a quality which often elicits an inspirational “Over the Rainbow” hopefulness. It ascends on the first line of the chorus and the third.
The ascension starts with “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. And it’s that effect – creating a melodic pattern and then expanding on it – that is a beautiful, old-fashioned, and powerful means to sweetly unify this lyric as it presents memories, reality, sorrow, loss, and ultimately hope. That fast progression of emotions all flows easily with the sweet elegance of the tune.
Listen to how the third line “first the laughter then the light/they’re all gone and locked up tight…” begins one note higher than the first line, so that its ending is higher, and more powerful. 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 by John or Peter (including two songs they co-wrote, “Space Monkey” and “Wonderful 99”) don’t fade or yellow in the sun. They’re as sharp as ever, as brightly chromatic as Kodachrome used to be.
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 not be as great. 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! And musically and lyrically, he leaves us all not in the darkness, but ends this fable with a happy ending, 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. 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, I’d like to say: 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.