Oft-remembered for soundtracking “Valley Girl” with the classic cut “A Million Miles Away,” singer-songwriter Peter Case has a worldwide following, but veteran followers of the Los Angeles music scene may have spent the last 40 years or so trying to solve a puzzle about him. The riddle: When Case was a master of Beatlesque power-pop in his role as frontman of the Plimsouls, one of the great L.A. bands of the early ‘80s, was that the real him? Or is he an ageless acoustic-folkie who accidentally got swept up in rock’s new wave on the way to the hootenanny? Because, even with decades of hindsight, fans may still have a problem reconciling these two primary identities as being the same guy.
This is where documentaries like “Peter Case: A Million Miles Away” become valuable, taking on performers who’ve gone through reinventions without attraction elaborate media attention. In Case’s case, Parnes’ origin story helps establish that the singer really was to the folk-troubadour manner born, with his time as a putative rock star being more of a blip along the way, if a brilliant one. By the end, you’d be hard-pressed not to imagine Case was destined by no less a force than fate to be driving himself across the country from gig to gig with just an acoustic guitar for company, not negotiating major-label deals with David Geffen … even if the specter of “what if” still pops up in the rearview mirror.
Early scenes in Parnes’ film establish Case’s unhappy early family life in Hamburg, N.Y., and his eagerness to hit the road and go full-minstrel at the first possible moment. Lightning struck, in every conceivable sense, when Case happened upon a modest gig by Lightnin’ Hopkins in Boston in 1971 and took the legendary bluesman’s authenticity and modest career as a role model. He soon ended up in San Francisco, putting in the proverbial 10,000 hours by busking every day. His natural star quality came to the fore when, contrarily, he joined a rocking trio called the Nerves that figured there was nothing more counterculture in S.F. in the ’70s than wearing matching suits and invoking the British Invasion.
The Nerves broke up before recording a full album — fellow frontman Jack Lee describes it as a constant conflict between “three narcissists” — with not much to show for it, other than a cover of Lee’s “Hangin’ on the Telephone” becoming a huge hit for Blondie. (Case still looks a little put off by that.) In forming the Plimsouls down in L.A., Case was able to become a more primary point of focus, sounding and looking, with his skinny tie and constant shades, like a very young John Lennon. More intra-band conflict busted up the group, but Case kept on with Geffen Records for a time, dropping the Fabs-on-speed sound and going solo/acoustic under the imprimatur of producer T Bone Burnett — increasingly confounding the label until he ended up on a succession of indie labels. As a cult artist of the ’90s and beyond with an Americana bent, Case kind of became a folk hero in both senses of the term.
Questions loom, looking back: Did he jump or was he pushed from the rock stardom ledge? He doesn’t deny he could be difficult, especially in his headiest days as a whippersnapper who believed his folk-rock side could be big, too. Case quotes David Geffen as telling him to “take yes for an answer,” when the mogul agrees to give a certain solo single (“Put Down the Gun”) a huge push, before Case successfully begged to be set adrift. After an adorable extended meet-cute between Case and Victoria Williams that made them the L.A. scene’s most adorable couple, Williams is able to vaguely testify to the part that Case played in their long-ago divorce. (In her interview for the doc, Williams says they’re “OK now,” though she’s not effusive in saying it.)
Even with some bridges fully or half-torched behind its subject, “A Million Miles Away” is a highly flattering portrait of the artist as a young man who really just kind of wanted to sound old before his time. He certainly found a way to grow into that, as a middle-class musician of integrity rather than celebrity. Watching this film satisfying tie up Case’s loose ends, you can still lament the lost promise of the Plimsouls, or wonder what might’ve happened with a more copacetic label/artist relationship.
The brass ring? About a million miles away, to borrow a phrase, and unregrettably so, with fellow roots heroes like Steve Earle and Ben Harper weighing in with their admiration for a fellow champion of the road less traveled. As early comparisons or models go, John Lennon might not recognize the career Case has now. But Lightnin’ Hopkins might.