From The Current: Listening for the Magic: How Peter Case crafted his classic “On the Way Downtown”
Listening for the magic
How Peter Case crafted his classic “On the Way Downtown”
Songwriter Peter Case has spent a lifetime walking downtowns. He’s no homebody, he’s a “hanger outer,” he laughs, man drawn to social fabrics like a butterfly to a net.
At some point in the mid 1990s it all began to hound him, nag at him. He needed to process an unfamiliar thought.
“I was haunted by the feeling - the knowledge that it had been with me so long and I’d still been doing it. I started writing. I like to write to know what I think. I write to know what I feel,” he says.
He ran leafs of legal paper through a typewriter and started to work it all out, page by page, following rhymes to new scenes and new details from his decades on the scene. Over the course of a few days, writing in a stream of consciousness, he compiled the lattice of images and memories that became his classic “On the Way Downtown.”
Editing is essential to Case’s work. He sharpens his images like knives, and they cut deep. A lot of the process is worked out in his head — it’s not all red ink and redrafts. Sure, Kerouac wrote “On The Road” in one go, he jokes, but first he worked out six drafts in his head.
“You use everything, rhythm and melody, to open up a thing,” he says. “You have to make a door for people to go in. I want the peaches to have juice, you know what I mean?”
In “Downtown” the images are real. The church basement where he fell for rock and roll. The anonymous bands that enchanted him. The ageless girls smoking cigarettes while the pavement wastes away. The friends he lost that still hang around the downtown corners. That part’s gotten more real as he’s gotten older.
Case carried “Downtown” around with him for several days. He tested and teased ideas. His son, Joshua, helped him suss out a minor chord twist in the song’s chorus. The seasons change, he sings. There’s another one coming on. The thought hits like a door swung open or closed. It’s hopeful or hopeless depending on the baggage you carry with you to the tune.
He declines to give specifics, preferring to guard them for himself and preserve the uncanny magic of the song: transporting the listener’s experience into the one he conjures. That experience is fragile, he says, and needs protecting.
“I don’t want to step on it. It’s all real. You could hurt these things by talking about them too much,” he says.
Songwriting is a way for Case to understand himself. He’s a talker. When he thinks aloud his thoughts sprint back and forth between the edges of the topic at hand, nearly tumbling off. Despite his gift for gab — he’s an Irishman indeed — he says that he struggled to express himself as youngster.
“My dad would sit me down and say, ‘What do you have to say for yourself?’ It stymied me,” he says. “It blocked my expression. Songwriting became something interesting to me because you could say something in it and put your best foot forward.”
Nearly 50 years in the business, Case has written scores of songs. That’s a lot of time making sense of it all. Since the 1980s, after stints with cult proto-punks The Nerves and new wave staples The Plimsouls, he honed a plainspoken song craft that winds biography and personal myth into vessels for empathy. When Case goes downtown, you go with him, shuffling streets of your own creation, as vivid and stark as Case’s own memories of Buffalo, N.Y. , his hometown.
What Case wants is to set off a movie in your mind of your own making, not direct it shot for shot. That’s a self-generating creation, something with lasting value and meaning. “Downtown” is a ramble from start to finish, bouncing across time while the world the turns.
Case still wanders downtowns. And for twenty years now, he’s brought “On The Way Downtown” with him to the stage and watched it work its transportive magic.
“It changes the temperature of the room,” he says. “That’s how you know when it’s a song.”
At SOLO Songwriters Festival, Peter Case will join an all-star faculty of the world’s great songwriters, gathered in one place for four days to exchange tools of the trade and collaborate on new material. Throughout the festival, local and visiting songwriters will perform for public audiences, giving onlookers the chance to hear music in the making.
SOLO was created in partnership with the Buddy Holly Educational Foundation. It’s a workshop for aspirers and admirers of song craft. The festival is open to participants and passersby.
Visit https://www.solosongwriters.com/events/ for programming and ticket details.