Peter Case’s Column
Yep-Roc Recording Artist Peter Case’s most recent album is Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John. He’s the author of As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport.
“My First California Gig.”
WE WERE STRANDED on the main drag of a Mexican beachtown, penniless and hungry. That was when we met a diver. The diver needed a driver, he’d been separated from his party, a group of scuba enthusiasts from the States, and was now wandering San Felipe lost. He seemed to have no idea where his pals had gone. We rescued him, became his Baja chauffeur for a spell, and the twenty five dollars plus a tank of gas saved us, two for one.
Soon Derek and I were bound North again, with a hitch hiker in the back seat, and this time we took the road to Mexicali.
We dropped our passenger off in Calexico and made for the coast, turning North again on the 5, the 405, and the 101.
Back to San Francisco. It was a long drive and Derek was too tired to make it, so we switched places and I drove, though I had no drivers license, no eyeglasses anymore, hadn’t driven for years, and the world was a blur. Derek sort of forced it: he was getting bugged. The conclusion of the trip hadn’t agreed with his sense of adventure, or maybe he’d just hoped for a different outcome. We’d never found the two girls we were looking for, Derek’s lawyer friend, and whatever number he’d been planning to run on me, well, I wasn’t buying.
We got back to the city with me at the wheel, after dark. We went straight to his McCallister Street pad and crashed, after dealing with some difficulties and his flipped out building manager, Stapleton. Stapleton was a middleaged man who lived alone with 2 big dogs that he’d put out in the yard. The dogs had fleas and now so did we, after being back for all of a half hour, the fleas had taken over. Derek went to complain, but Stapleton wasn’t too concerned. He was alone, drinking from a quart of beer, and playing boogie woogie on an out of tune upright piano, with snapshots of topless dancers taped all over it. Derek said the dancers were his daughters. Anyhow, mites or not we crashed, Derek in his room, and me on the box springs parked in the living room.
The trip out and the trip back were so different. Something changed when we met the diver.The gears of the summer shifted and my streetsinger’s freedom started fitting me a little tighter than it had before. It’s not that all of a sudden I got more serious, but it was something like that.
I wasn’t any less free.
First thing next day we drove to the wharf and found Johnny and Burt, who were working together, playing with the case out on Beach Street. They seemed to be getting along fine, and were maybe a trifle aloof from me. I’d hear about it from both of them later. I jumped right in and started playing while Derek hung around for awhile, then split.
My friends didn’t get along. Johnny chafed with Burt and Derek. But it was back to the long traipsing rolls across the city, guitars in hand, searching for a suitable site to sing a set. Back to the fork on the inside coat pocket, always willing to meet a meal halfway. Once more knocking out the long sets over and under the traffic noise, banging on the boxes ’til the strings broke and our fingers bled, while tourists tossed silver the winos tried to snatch.
Summer ended and the Winter began to edge in. One day’s morning on the streets of North Beach the newspapers announced that Dylan would tour again, with The Band. How did I ever miss that show? I’m at the the empty intersection of Broadway and Columbus at dawn, bent over reading the papers headlines in its box. Black magic loogies dot the sidewalk. Shut down strip clubs go nearly transparent in the weak daylight, City Lights Books still asleep over there, tucked in. This honky tonk beauty beneath Heaven and concrete clouds: off to the East, a descent to the bay, North a view to the blue peaceful tyranny of Alcatraz.
Back to nights on Broadway’s corner, though the crowds were flying away, thinning. I’d be shivering in my sleeping bag alone in my brokedown abandoned school bus, up in the cold morning, sun riding over the black bay, cormorants and gulls over Johnny’s listing ark and his gutted microbus, amid weeds, brush, trash and stirred out fire sites.
His Cuban guru pal Cordova was due into town. ‘Dova had been a hair dresser to Battista, in the presidents mansion, in Havana, during the days before the revolution. He was given the opportunity to split for the STATES when the government fell. Castro was on TV everyday ripping up contracts with corporate america: ‘No Deal,’ but ‘dova saw the writing on the walls and even tho’ he said he dug the new, he flew while he had the chance.
He must’a been a kid when that happened. He’d survived for years in the States, first in Dallas, where he’d met Danny, then on the particular psychedelic beaches of Hawaii, where the two of them took off to when Danny’s court case for flag desecration went full on. They’d both taken a lot of LSD and Cordova now seemed to be getting his clothes at a Guru Supply Shop, as he was affecting a swami-like appearance, with white robes, sandals, and extremely long hair and a beard. ‘Hey, cool it, baby, it’s just a style’ he’d say, but he was putting it on.
He had lots of memorable sayings. One of my favorites was ‘Freedom’s what you CAN do,’ that one makes a lot of sense. He’d go on about ‘woman’s lip,’ he thought that was real funny, and he had a routine about Jesus and the Devil, where the Devil kept making offers and the Lord kept saying ‘No Deal.’ That was Cordoba’s position to society, he wasn’t gonna make a deal either, he was firmly and proudly planted on the outside, a first class and total outlaw.
I wanted to put some fresh strings on the Yamaki Deluxe, as I was scheduled to play my first ‘real,’ indoor gig that night: I was supposed to sing at Gulliver’s, the bar down the steps on the corner of Grant Avenue and Columbus, in North Beach. My name was written on the chalkboard by the clubs front door: Saturday 8pm, Folk and Blues, with Clifford Gifford. It was official.
So I had the guitar out of it’s case and i was wiping it down with a cloth I’d found, and putting on a new set of Black Diamond Strings, and stretchin’ ’em, so when Johnny handed me the joint he and Cordova had just lit up, I didn’t think much of it, but dragged deep and held it in my lips while I tightened the tuner, and listened with half of one ear as they talked about this batch of pot that Cordova had guarded as it grew, when he worked for the Brotherhood Of Eternal Love over on Maui.
Soon time stopped as we entered Eternity, which looked a lot like our junkyard, but was a strange and alien place, a million miles away.
Too High. Airplane Trouble. There was no line and I was way over it. As usual during periods of ‘high anxiety,’ I found refuge in my guitar. I hung onto that guitar the way a drowning sailor clings to a piece of burning wreckage. How many times had Danny and I sung those songs in mystifying and terrible states of over-intoxication? Many.
It wasn’t that the songs were expression: they were a routine, and a rendezvous. A move we put on, an edge at parties. We used to talk about ‘the act,’ (but not without a sense of farce.) Always the monkey beat on buzzing steel string guitars, with eye contact, stoned synchronized sound, tight but rough.
My mouth was dry, my body was a house, my head was the tower and I was sitting crosslegged, hypnotized by lights and shadows. A deep sensation of being stranded mixed with a strong doubt about whether or not I had just peed my pants. The California blue sky, the freeway whoosh as I said farewell to my friends and spacewalked out to hitch a ride into the city, the golden sun pouring it’s red liquid metal all over my vulnerable flesh.
I stuck my thumb out and the first car stopped.
The passerby on the street were lit from within. The neon from the strip clubs blinked and traffic added to the whirl. From all directions on a Saturday Night, the shine of lights on buffed metal, and the drums of action on Broadway. something for everybody. A lot of nothin’ much for anybody just hovering around.
My voice on automatic, the songs playing me, I’m a lighthouse with a tiny stairway within, where I stand, watching through my eyes and working the levers.
The bartender keeps telling me to turn down, and I’m not even using a microphone.