A Million Miles Away
Take Yes for an Answer
Fred Parnes’ documentary about Peter Case is a poignant tribute to this songwriter and to the artistry of songwriting
By PAUL ZOLLO
Bravo! Fred Parnes and his team have created a beautifully poignant, dimensional and triumphant film about the life and work of Peter Case. It’s remarkably intimate, told not at a distance from its subject but from its very core. With the great benefit of the artist himself being still with us and capable of telling his own story – plus a surprising bounty of sound footage found from his early days as a street-singer and with his first two bands, The Nerves and The Plimsouls – this is a film about a real songwriter unlike any other.
“I wanted to get out to California, where it seemed like people might understand if you were just gonna be a musician all the time,” says Peter in the film. “I clung to my guitar like a burning piece of wreckage on a sinking ship.”
Peter Case, as many know well, has been wild in wreckage for decades – and also remarkably prolific – and has never gone down with the ship. Though various life events threatened to bring him down (heart surgery, Geffen Records), he prevailed. And steadily, through the years, while playing with his bands or solo, he’s been creating a beautifully expansive American songbook, distinguished both by its depth and diversity.
Like all of our greatest songwriter-artists, Peter’s had to endure all the anguish of being a unique artist in an industry. But unlike so many of the greatest ones, from Hendrix through Cobain and Amy Winehouse, he survived. And he flourished. Rather then ever be derailed or destroyed entirely, he was empowered and artistically unchained by each shift, and his songwriting deepened and expanded in every direction.
By sharing Peter’s often rocky journey with such evident love for the unbound spirit of this man and his art, the film honors Peter in a way the world rarely honors songwriters. There’s a recognition of all that goes wrong behind anything that goes right, which is rarely because of the artist. This film resounds like a love-letter to songwriters and to the artistry of songwriting itself. It affirms that great songs still matter, and that real songwriters like Peter remain fully engaged in this ancient mission, connecting with their audiences despite all the old obstacles, and the new ones.
Parnes, a writer, actor and musician himself, has a lot of insight into the dynamic of being an artist in the world, and avoids the usual simplistic depiction of the music world as a complete racket run by execs no better than mobsters. Sure, that is part of the truth. But a larger truth emerges, which is that, separate from the music business is the music community, the musicians, songwriters, engineers, managers and all the others. And it is undeniable, and confirmed by this film, that those in the music community are bonded by an abundance of good will, gratitude and real-time love.
This comes across in the reverent words of Peter’s peers, collaborators, friends and even music writers. Their love for the man and his music doesn’t diminish with passing time any more than the magic of the songs diminish. In fact, the opposite is true: awareness of this songwriter’s greatness, and the power of the songs themselves, continues to expand.
The most beautiful and genuine example of this is when Peter underwent emergency open-heart surgery, yet had no health insurance. Though his life was saved, he was unable to pay the astronomical bill. That’s when Van Dyke Parks stepped in, along with other fellow songwriter-artists including Joe Henry, T Bone Burnett and Richard Thompson, and held a benefit concert which raised substantial money.
As Van Dyke says in the film about this effort, “This is what we do.”
MusiCares, the charity wing of the Recording Academy, also helped Peter substantially as they have helped countless members of the music community since their start in 1983.
This truth is rarely expressed in such films. Though the corporate music industry might exploit and abandon musicians and songwriters, there is more love and support for musicians from fellow musicians and music folk than is known. Peter’s medical bill could have easily decimated a normal man with a regular family. Not so Peter, who was back on the road, in the studio, and writing new songs, soon as he was able.
Fred Parnes also made the great 1994 documentary on the Persusasions, Spread the Word: The Persuasions Sing Acapella, a film Peter loved and which he said warmed him to the idea of Fred making his movie.
Parnes lovingly relates Peter’s journey with much soul, laughter, music and visual grandeur as the artist drives all over creation from gig to gig. The lyrical editing by Kate Amend and Jordan Krause propel the film powerfully, and reveal the expansion of Peter’s songwriting with passages of many of his songs wed to visuals of the man almost always on the road, in motion.
This is a road story in many ways, a Homeric journey of the eternal troubadour, the true poet of the heart and soul; the brave, mystic jokerman escaping from the strictures of his home-town to join all the other black sheep of America and beyond with the limitless, playful, hopeful, and inspirational spirit of song.
All of this combines ideally into what is the most poignant, funny and beautiful filmic love letter to songwriting to come along in some while. It stands up beautifully with the two best so far – 2012’s AKA. Doc Pomus, about Doc Pomus, and 2010’s Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? Both of these films pay tribute to great songwriters, and to the artistry of their work, which is why their songs still matter, and still move us.
Yet this film is different in many ways, the most prominent being that the songwriter is still alive and well. The present-day Peter becomes the film’s comforting nucleus, around which the film revolves. His real-time presence brings a great warmth, humor and intimacy to the film. Even when relating dark chapters of his life, such as his struggles with his father – and those with the music industry – he injects them with much levity, and usually aimed at himself.
A rebel from the start who always possessed a powerfully resonant singing voice, he was a kid who couldn’t easily fit into the world or even view it well – for awhile he saw everything flat, as in 2D, except for a few fully-dimensional friends. Yet in art – music, literature – he found his pathway, and by writing songs began to make sense of the world.
Always he was literate, funny, passionate and driven; much more a Lennon than McCartney, brilliant with biting wit, a resonant and passionate singing voice, and no phoniness. We learn of the ways his dad would denigrate him, often assaulting his open, artistic spirit by asking, “So, what do you have to say for yourself?”
“I had nothing to say,” Peter remembers. Which is how he felt until he started writing songs, which helped him to discover what he did have to say. “I was tongue-tied,” he said, “in the face of life.”
Songwriting – the merger of words and music – allowed him the means to ascend, and he started writing what he considered “sky songs, ” which relieved the constant burden of gravity holding him down. He also actively deepened his own songwriting well; like Dylan in his early New York days who spent hours at the NY Public library absorbing all the poetry, philosophy , and even newspapers from previous centuries, Peter read his way through the famous City Lights bookstore, where he often crashed for the night.
We see him through the stages of his emergence as a musical force. First came The Nerves, a punkish power-pop trio he formed with fellow songwriter Jack Lee and drummer Paul Collins. Lee’s presence in the film – both in current interviews and in footage from the past – is compelling. (As is the odd folly of their choice of wardrobe – two-piece suits in the punk era.)
When that band broke up, just as at other key junctions in his life, Peter wasn’t defeated but emboldened. He decided to make his own band and do only his own songs. That was the Plimsouls . And they were great. Peter crafted great rockers for the band, and they started ascending. It’s there he broke through with the great triumph of his infectious “A Million Miles Away,” a bonafide radio hit.
Their success – and popularity – as he explains in the film, wasn’t random. They worked hard and put in serrious time to develop the singular character of the band, defining their sound and refining their arrangements and performance. It worked. The Plimsouls became beloved almost instantly, and started selling out each and every L.A. show. Signed by Geffen to Geffen Records, they made one album, and had one hit. A big one.
It became a hit, and more. Chosen for inclusion in the film Valley Girl, in which Peter and his Plimsouls are seen in a club performing, the song was propelled in a bigger way than any of his others. But one hit alone, unlike in previous eras, was not enough to inspire the label to sustain him. As detailed by Peter as only he can, after being signed to Geffen Records by Geffen, he decided to go solo and made a great album.
In one of the film’s most telling, tragic and comic scenes, Peter relates a meeting with Geffen which says everything about this business and these times, ending with the remarkable phrase which became the film’s subtitle, as spoken by Geffen to Case: “Peter, for once in your life, just take yes for an answer.”
But Geffen essentially abandoned him by offering little distribiution or promotional effort. As he says in the film, “I just wanted to get out, while everyone else just wanted to get in.”
He soon got his wish.
But, again, rather than being diminished by this struggle, as he film reveals, Peter was inspired by his ultimate liberation, and it deepened his artistic soul. He went acoustic, and evolved naturally from rocker into folkie.
The scope of his songwriting expression – which was already expansive, blossomed in new, unexpected, wonderful ways. Unchained from a major label, he wrote every kind of song there is, and each with soulful authority: bluesy epics, matched to great open-tuning guitar parts; beautiful, melodic ballads, great rockers , and those songs that are as great as great gets.
His albums were still wonderfully produced – the best of all worlds – and always featured great musicians, who were also his friends.
Peter, not unlike Elvis Costello and a few others, has created such a vast body of work and in so many styles, that it can be overwhelming. And people have a real hard time with anything overwhelming, as Dylan said while discussing Shakespeare. Because of this, the fullness of Peter’s body of work, although unified by his voice as a writer and singer, has rarely been appreciated by the world. His fans, and also fellow songwriters get it. It’s why so many legendary songwriters, such as Springsteen and John Prine, not only recognized his greatness, but spread the word. In this film Ben Harper proclaims that Peter is our greatest living songwriter. (Ben joined Van Dyke Parks, the late great Don Heffington and other luminaries onstage at McCabe’s for Peter’s great 65th birthday concert, portions of which are included in the film. )
But now, because of this film, that fullness of his work – his remarkable musical and stylistic range – is now being fully embraced. Parnes and his editors brought home this understanding by beautifully weaving a bounteous array of Peter’s lifetime of songs into the soundtrack, which veers through punk, power-pop, rock & roll, folk, blues and, as he wrote, much that is beyond the blues. Far beyond.
To bring home this truth, the film includes a wonderfully inspirational performance of Peter’s stunning “Two Angels” as a tremendously soulful and empassioned duet by Lady Blackbird and Chris Pierce. Produced live by Chris Seefried (who can be seen in the studio playing guitar along with Mitchell Froom on keys, and other luminaries in the band), it shows that Peter’s songs have a life far beyond his own recordings. “Two Angels” was previously covered by Alejandro Escovedo and was featured in HBO’s “True Blood.”
As the movie progresses, we learn not only of the general resistance and anguish this songwriter – and all – must endure, but the bigger lesson: that for a songwriter to persist in modern times, and to remain plugged into that source from which the greatest songs come is more than impressive. It is heroic. It is, to paraphrase the great Van Dyke Parks, a triumph of the human spirit.
And just when we were about to give up hope, this happens. That Fred Parnes and his team honored this triumph with such a beautiful film is a great reason to rejoice.