Nobody’s Angel

With a new CD that draws on her troubled Northwest past, country revivalist Neko Case seems poised for stardom. But can this fiery former punk rocker find success without losing her soul?

In July 1982, when the body of Wendy Lee Coffield was fished from the waters that gave the Green River Killer his name, no one could have predicted the eventual gruesome toll. Over the next 20 months, 48 more young women would turn up dead or go missing in the Seattle/Tacoma area.

During this dreadful season, fear was the common currency among the women in the cities and towns all along the I-5 corridor. This was especially true for the little girls, the ones who’d have to make their way to school before dawn. Many would sneak steak knives—purloined from their parents’ kitchens—into their pockets, some small talisman of protection against the evil that lived in the darkness.

It’s hard to imagine what it must’ve felt like to walk the streets under such circumstances. No doubt, it was a pure and abiding fear, not the morning chill, that turned the blood of these innocents cold.

Neko Case remembers that fear well. She was one of those little girls.

When Case would tune into the news reports of the crimes on television, though, she’d feel something else—not fright but a quiet outrage. As she watched the well-coiffed talking heads grimly wring their hands and report another death, Case noted how they always referred to the victims: as prostitutes, hookers, runaways, drifters. There was something in the naming that suggested these poor souls—their bodies brutalized and dumped—had somehow brought these horrible fates upon themselves.

Even then, as a sheltered 13-year-old, Case could sense the cruel injustice in this: A mean world casting its prim, judgmental eye upon the dead, who were no longer able to respond. It’s a memory that would stick with Case for a long, long time.

Some 17 years later, writing songs for an album she’d spent a lifetime growing fierce enough to create, Case would recall the victims of the Green River Killer, the slighted women who died so horribly—and worse, so anonymously—on “Deep Red Bells.”

“Does your soul cast about like an old paper bag?/Past empty lots and early graves of those like you who’ve lost their way/Murdered on the interstate/While the red bells rang like thunder.”

It’s little wonder she was able to empathize so instinctively with those lacking a voice, an identity, or a chance. After all, Neko Case had felt that way for as long as she could remember. Since her earliest days, she’d known what it was to be poor, small, and insignificant in a world much too big and nasty to comprehend.

America, Nick Tosches once wrote, is alone among nations to conceive of her destiny as a dream. So, too, with Neko Case, a lost, hopeless child who knew neither destiny nor dream until she divined the twin forces of punk rock and country music—the former providing the initial burst of inspiration, the latter, her true direction.

Today, Case is a different person—a musician, a singer, an artist poised on the cusp of some sort of stardom. Exactly what form Case’s changes will ultimately take is still uncertain. Her journey, far from complete, has brought her a long way from her Northwest roots, yet she’s never really escaped the time, experiences, and realities that defined her years here.

But whatever her future may hold, one thing is certain. Neko Case’s soul—once gadding and aimless—casts about no longer.

IT’S LATE OCTOBER in Chicago, and Neko Case is battling traffic on the city’s West Side. Propped up behind the wheel of the Ultra Beaver—the droll sobriquet given her 1988 Dodge conversion van—Case looks wan and wasted. Just back from a European promotional jaunt, she’s been in town only a few hours and is already shuttling between radio shows and band rehearsals, fighting jet lag and a cold as she readies herself for a monthlong tour that starts tomorrow.

“God,” she sighs, absently cutting off a pickup truck. “I really do need some rest.”

Humboldt Park’s silent streets and dowdy architecture create the impression of a peaceful, idyllic borough. But a passing glance at a street corner tells a different story: A large green mailbox sits riddled with bullet holes, shafts of light poring through the torn metal openings. Case’s house is, quite literally, located on the dividing line between two rival gangs. Gunshots, sirens, and body bags are as much a fixture of the neighborhood as the tall, loping sycamore trees.

Rangy and red-haired, Case climbs a creaking staircase up to a musty apartment decorated—overflowing, rather—with all manner of cornpone bric-a-brac and country music ephemera. Spending an average 10 months a year on the road, Case rarely gets the chance to enjoy the creature comforts of “normal” life. Plopping herself on a couch, she looks over the room, smiling: “It’s nice to be home.”

This is the home Neko Case adopted when she left Seattle nearly three years ago. Along with a hundred or so other artists, Case had been ejected from her live/workspace in the Washington Shoe Building, cleared out so it could be remade as a luxury high-rise. The eviction was the final straw in Case’s growing disenchantment with the local government’s shabby, often two-faced treatment of its arts community.

“The politics of Seattle weren’t really pleasing me very much then,” recalls Case. “Everything was being torn down, we were being kicked out, the whole WTO thing happened around that time. It was gross. I didn’t want to be there anymore.”

Case might have bounced all over Washington state (“[My family] lived everywhere from Bellingham to Colville Reservation”), but it’s Tacoma, a place where she spent her adolescent years, that she still refers to as her hometown. Despite her affection for the place, Case’s Tacoma years were not especially happy ones. Her family was poor, and there seemed to be little in the way of a future for an ungainly girl, low on self-esteem. A life in music looked especially inaccessible—the shimmering artifice and excess of the era’s pop felt like it belonged to some distant, alien culture.

“It seemed like there was nothing for me,” she says. “And I was a pretty messed-up kid. But there must’ve been something inside me. For some reason, I had the ability to get intensely angry instead of feeling defeated.”

For Case, salvation—and a convenient outlet for her rage—came in the form of punk rock.

“When I discovered punk, I realized there was this music being made just for me. And it was music that maybe even I could play.”

She took up drums, developing her skills in a series of shambolic combos, along the way shedding the shy, retiring persona of her youth and developing into a colorful character in a scene full of them. Well into the throes of a teen rebellion, Case’s relationship with her parents, predictably, grew turbulent. And so, after one fateful fight with her family, the 15-year-old finally left home for good. “At that point, I had to decide what I wanted to live my life for,” she remembers with a jut-jawed determination. “And I just decided it was gonna be music.”

Situated between the burgeoning music scenes of Olympia and Seattle, Tacoma was an ideal place for a punk pilgrim looking to music as a lodestar. Quitting high school, Case worked at venues like the Community World Theatre and Java Jive—local all-ages hotbeds—where she caught early influential performances by Nirvana and Screaming Trees and got lessons in onstage deportment from aggressive female-fronted bands like the Fastbacks and Girl Trouble (who would pen a tribute called “Neko Loves Rock ‘n’ Roll”).

Tacoma would not hold her forever, though. In ’94 Case—who eventually earned her G.E.D.—moved north to Vancouver, B.C., and enrolled at the Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design. It was there she began playing music professionally, touring with a pair of all-girl punk trios, Maow and Cub. The early years on the road taught Case some hard lessons about the vagaries of the music business, the depths to which the vultures would sink to steal pennies from your purse.

An even greater awakening, however, came when Case got her hands on a worn copy of an album of spirituals by Bessie Griffin and the Gospel Pearls, called Swing Down Sweet Chariot. It was, she says, a life- altering experience. Hearing Griffin’s voice made her “feel desperate and thirsty and warm”—but more, it provided Case the spark to sing for herself. In a larger sense, the album showed Case that female artists in traditional idioms—gospel, folk, country—could make music as powerful and potent as any bit of screeched punk noise.

Case’s ultimate deliverance into the church of country was inevitable. She’d felt its pull since childhood—her love of Nashville twang inherited from her grandmother, who, Case only recently learned, had been in a country vocal band as a youth. Inspired, Case began writing her own songs—sad refrains of distant, troubled memories—though it’d be a while before she’d have the nerve to play them for anyone.

Case admits she quietly harbored such aspirations for years, going so far as to take a single singing lesson back in the late ’80s. Mortified after hearing a playback of her voice practicing scales, she refused to open her mouth for another eight years. When Case finally did start singing, though, it seemed everyone was ready to listen.

“I’M SITTIN AT the crib by my goddamn self. The reason why, because I had to trick. Now I’m breakin’ my back tryin’ to suck my own dick.”

Slunk down in a backseat of a rental car, Neko Case is animatedly reciting a litany of salacious raps, as a small audience titters at every X-rated innuendo.

A good night’s sleep has brightened her mood, and Case seems almost apologetic for the reflective, somewhat somber tone of the previous evening’s conversation. Case is a charmer, to be sure—a woman with a coarse wit, a wicked sense of humor, and a healthy contempt for sham. There is rarely such a thing as a dull moment in her company.

Given entr饠into her inner circle, it’s easy to be seduced by Case and her tight-knit crew of compatriots. While her musical cohorts are almost exclusively male, Case’s business associates—from her booking agent to her merch crew—are all female and, more importantly, trusted friends. Pulling double duty is her publicist/ manager Amy Lombardi. The voluptuous Lombardi, a woman—as Raymond Chandler might’ve put it—to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window, is directing the action today, making last-minute tour arrangements, packing press kits, picking up T-shirts and CDs.

Crossing off the afternoon’s final errand, we pull into the Hideout—a drinker’s oasis located in Chicago’s harsh industrial flats and Case’s unofficial home base—just as the boys in the band are loading up the Ultra Beaver with gear for a trip north to play Milwaukee’s Miramar Theater. It’s Day One of a long North American tour, an effort that might well be dubbed Neko’s Rolling Thunder Revue. Heading across Canada and down to the West Coast, the traveling road show includes bluegrassers Jim & Jennie and the Pinetops, and for the next week, punk legend and X main man John Doe.

Greeting her with some good-natured ribbing are Case’s bandmates, Tom Ray and Jon Rauhouse—”my homies,” she jokes. With his ancient spectacles and wild chin whiskers, Ray looks as if he’s just returned from some smoldering Civil War battlefield, while Rauhouse—a jovial soul snappily addressing everyone as “babe”—seems impossibly young for his 44 years. Both are longtime veterans of Case’s touring and recording ensembles and name musicians in their own right—Ray as a founding member of alt-country linchpins the Bottle Rockets and Waco Brothers, Rauhouse an in- demand multi-instrumentalist and solo artist. Over the course of the week spent in their company, their loyalty to Case and commitment to her music, something they’ve helped nurture since early on, become profoundly clear.

Hitting the highway, the 90-minute drive is a cold lesson in Midwest melancholia: a gray, unyielding blur of rest stops, tollways, and gas stations. As the caravan makes its way into Wisconsin, green and gold Packers regalia seems to peer from every window and storefront. Despite its proximity to Chicago, Case has never played Milwaukee, save for a brief side-stage appearance as part of the Lilith Festival in ’98. It’ll be a test to see if her glowing press and regional word of mouth can deliver a packed house.

Critical kudos and sold-out shows were the last things on Case’s mind back in ’97 when she took her first tentative stab at recording. Assembling a half-dozen originals alongside covers of Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn, Case entered the studio backed by a crew of Vancouver musicians she dubbed Her Boyfriends—a contingent that would include longtime collaborators Daryl Neudorf and Brian Connelly—and emerged with her debut, The Virginian.

Pitched halfway between breezy country and rockabilly pastiche, the album—originally conceived as something of a lark—revealed Case as an instinctively gifted, if still developing, artist. Released by Canada’s Mint Records—her label home since the mid-’90s with Maow—and later licensed to Chicago alt-country imprint Bloodshot, the disc was a surprise success, earning Case an invitation to perform at the annual CMJ festival in New York City and eliciting attention from a press corps eager to know more about the lusty figure beaming from its shadowy cover.

The following year, just as her fledgling solo career was taking shape, Case graduated from art school and, with her student visa used up, was forced to leave Canada. She elected to return to the Northwest, settling in Seattle. Even as she spent her downtime between tours working at Ballard’s Hattie’s Hat—pouring drinks, prepping food, and washing dishes—it seemed bigger things awaited her.

“I knew music made me happy from the time I was a teenager, and I wasn’t gonna stop doing it, no matter what,” says Case. “But it wasn’t until about ’99 that I thought I might be able to make a living —however meager—at it.”

In between a flurry of side projects—the Corn Sisters, New Pornographers, Kelly & Neko—Case reconvened with producer Neudorf to record her second album. 2000’s Furnace Room Lullaby was released just as Case made her Emerald City exit.

If not the breakthrough that still awaited her, Lullaby certainly outstripped the modest aims of its predecessor. Although she’d yet to begin writing songs on guitar, Case managed to co-author the album’s 12 originals (with the occasional assist from notable friends like Ryan Adams and Ron Sexsmith), displaying a disarming gift for penning narratives filled with both warm imagery and caustic venom.

Lullaby‘s lurid cover—with Case’s “corpse” splayed out in homage to the work of tabloid shutterbug Weegee— anticipated the record’s equally dramatic reception. While the distaff aspects of the music attracted female fans en masse, and the genuine grooves swayed roots acolytes, it was the cleverly calculated iconography of the whole package that made (mostly male) journalists salivate. To them, Case was a godsend, a punk pugilist -turned-country revivalist, a middle- finger-thrusting spitfire, unafraid to offer her opinion on just about anything. What some critics missed, however, in their breathless, often puerile characterizations, was Case’s depth of commitment to the traditions of her musical matriarchs. Lullaby powerfully distilled the best elements of Americana, from the dark Appalachian folk of the Carter Family and Hazel Dickens to the countrypolitan flutter of Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline. If nothing else, the album—a moving union of noir and nostalgia—proved Case worthy of the legacy she so cherished.

Having annexed the provincial world of alt-country, Case began a somewhat uncomfortable march into the mainstream, feted with spreads in glossy fashion mags and “boys only” slicks from GQ to Playboy—a fairly extraordinary achievement for a self-described “plain-looking tomboy.”

Predictably, the major labels—smelling fresh meat—came calling, but they were quickly put off by the strong-willed and opinionated Case. Needless to say, her initial major-label courtship was short-lived.

“I would’ve considered [signing]—and still would—if it were a fair deal,” she insists. “But the standard record contract is not a fair deal, and I don’t want any part of it. I’m not willing to spend a year of my life touring to promote an album, recoup the album’s costs with my royalties, only to find out that I don’t even own my own masters. That is totally insane! How were people ever convinced that was a good idea?”

Unlike other high-profile performers—say, Courtney Love—who’ve similarly come out against the major-label caste system, Case’s stand is not intended as a ploy for publicity nor a bargaining tool. For Case—a strict moralist when it comes to the business of art—that sort of uncompromising attitude is born of purer motivations. Case has long been a critic of the unfair—often pernicious—conditions working musicians face on the road. She’s been especially outspoken against venues that try to horn in on a touring performer’s lifeblood, merchandising money—a still accepted form of skimming, a vestige of the days when the mafia ran the entertainment business. She’s even gone so far as to denounce the merch policies of New York’s Beacon Theater from its very stage—stands that have earned Case a reputation as a firebrand and troublemaker, black marks in an industry that prefers its women to be seen, not heard.

And yet, it’s hard to imagine Case doesn’t derive some perverse pleasure in remaining so steadfastly independent, keeping those eager to co-opt her and her music at bay. Her Milwaukee sound check ends with an urgent reading of “Running Out of Fools,” a smoldering kiss-off covered by both Aretha Franklin and Elvis Costello and included on Case’s latest album: “So go ahead with all your sweet talking/Go ahead for all the good it will do/Have yourself a dime’s worth of talking,” Case coos, clearly relishing the lyric, “Then I’m gonna hang right up on you.”

NEARLY SHOWTIME, and upstairs in the Miramar’s cramped dressing room it’s bluegrass nirvana. Case, Doe, and the Pinetops are huddled together in the round, rehearsing the night-capping encore, a spirited take on the Stanley Brothers’ gossamer prayer “Rank Strangers.”

Down below, close to 300 patrons have passed through the turnstiles. The numbers indicate a success, and it’s a hushed, almost reverent group that greets Case after a pair of well-received opening sets.

Her hour-long performance is a lesson in chilling simplicity. Ray delivers languid rhythm on his upright bass and subtle percussion from a foot tambourine, as Rauhouse—switching from banjo to dobro to pedal steel—carves soulful filigrees into the songs. Case’s voice, meanwhile, thrills with a purity that cuts across the decades, the audience awash in tears and rippled gooseflesh.

“She’s funny and she’s able to connect with people on a human level—all that stuff. But it’s her voice,” offers John Doe, when asked to pin down Case’s appeal. “There’s a lot of heartache in that voice, a lot of longing, and it’s an old-sounding voice. It’s like something out of the past.”

The past, present, and future gather onstage, as three generations of musicians—Doe, Case, and the young Pinetops—close the show to a long, thunderous ovation.

Before the last bit of applause has completely died, Case is already sprinting her way toward the lobby to take a seat behind the merch booth, greeting her fans with a warmth usually reserved for long-lost friends. If an artist’s worth is measured by their ability to connect with an audience on a personal level, then Case is suffering an embarrassment of riches at the moment.

“It’s like you’re in my head,” offers one clearly besotted blonde, clutching an autographed CD.

“Thank you so much for coming to our town,” enthuses an older raven- haired woman.

“Oh my god,” says another, eyes bulging with excitement, “your new album is soooo good.”

BY THE TIME Neko Case set to work on her third album, Blacklisted, much had changed in her approach. She’d finally taken up guitar—struggling at first on six string and later finding her way on the four-string tenor model. Writing both music and lyrics on her own for the first time, what poured from her pen was striking. The songs were simple in structure but complex in nature, her imagery becoming sharper even as the words grew more abstract. The characters—especially the lost souls of “Deep Red Bells,” “Stinging Velvet,” “Ghost Writing,” and “Tightly”—seemed to muster an almost martial resilience in the face of their bleak surroundings and dark fates—a spectral presence flitting about the edges of each tune.

Having established her country provenance with The Virginian and Furnace Room Lullaby, Case elected to branch out for Blacklisted, adjourning to the Arizona desert with running buddies Ray and Rauhouse. There she enlisted a corps of native collaborators—among them, sound guru Craig Schumacher and the members of Tucson’s noted Calexico/Giant Sand contingent. This “mix of ingredients,” as she puts it, helped lend the desired textures and scope—wide-screen cinema, as it were—to a brace of songs that cried out for just such a treatment.

From the gripping tumble of images that open the album, to the ethereal concerns at its heart, and through to the lonely radio static that closes the record, Blacklisted is a meticulous merger of mood and movement—a concept piece of sorts, unified by Case’s descent into the depths of her own scarred soul and psyche.

Released in late August, the album created an early stir. Strong initial sales brought bigger venues and more press—cover stories in music journals, glowing reviews and features in mainstream mags—and it wasn’t long before Case found herself at the rare nexus where critical and commercial momentum meet, helping generate the singular buzz of an artist poised for a serious breakthrough.

Perhaps more than any of her current fellow travelers, John Doe senses the conflict she’s feeling right now. For an artist like Case, this window of opportunity is fleeting, the big chance coming only once in a career. That moment also brings fear—of sellout, of doing things that threaten to corrupt your integrity, even worries over whether mass appeal will mean artistic immolation.

Later, as everyone is filing out, the wizened punk vet corners Case’s manager Lombardi, offering advice.

“Neko has soul,” Doe tells her, “she has credibility. She’s not gonna lose that. She shouldn’t worry so much about all the other bullshit.”

It appears the greatest obstacle for Case may be overcoming her fear, almost pathological in nature, of having other people define her. It would explain, for example, why she’s willing to pose for racy, seminude photos, as she did for Seattle cheesecake mag Kutie, but refuses to allow any suggestive pics to accompany articles concerning her music—even in places like Rolling Stone, where such displays would, no doubt, earn her a raft of attention. It’s an admirable quality in many ways, indicative of a mercurial, maverick spirit—but in the end, you have to wonder how high she can rise doing things her way.

With the unequivocal triumph of Blacklisted—it’s the fastest-selling album in Bloodshot’s history and will eventually surpass Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker as its biggest—the challenge for Case now becomes how to handle her burgeoning popularity and the inevitable choices that come with such a success. Her licensing agreement with Bloodshot is already over, and her recording contract with Mint calls for just one more album. The major labels will be coming back around very soon, and everyone expects big things for Neko Case—except, perhaps, Neko Case.

“In a perfect world, that kind [of success] would be great. But I’m not 18 years old with a sweet ass. I don’t think my ass is that bad,” she says, laughing, “but it’s certainly not MTV ass.

“Besides, people don’t sign you anymore because they’re interested in developing your career and making you an artist,” she argues. “They’re interested in someone who’s gong to have a hit record or someone they can use as a tax write-off for one album if they don’t. I don’t want to be somebody’s tax write-off!”

But doesn’t she owe it to herself, to her art, to make the unpleasant sacrifices, at least take that chance, in order for more people to hear her music?

“Maybe. A major label can get you things, or buy you things, but wouldn’t you rather earn them yourself? Don’t they feel more real or permanent that way? I could sit around being sad that my music doesn’t get played on mainstream radio, or I can look at it like I get to make exactly the kind of music I want. I can play in an intimate setting and see the faces of my audience and talk to them after the show. That’s enough for me.”

And yet, she’s well aware of the predictions being made for her. She hears them over and over again, like some sort of mantra: It’s gonna happen for you. It’s gonna happen.

“Yeah, that’s what everyone keeps telling me,” Case muses tiredly, packing her things. “Only I don’t know what ‘it’ is.”

As the rolling rain clouds chase her down the asphalt ribbon home to Chicago, Case has the long ride back to ponder that very question.

DRIVING PAST WRIGLEY Field, it’s striking how much smaller it is in person than in the imagination: something closer to a Little League park than a big-league stadium. Not so far from the famed brick and ivy cathedral is another of Chicago’s landmarks, the Metro. The past few nights, the club’s marquee has trumpeted shows by the Foo Fighters and Sleater-Kinney, but tonight Neko Case’s name is out front. The concert is ostensibly a CD-release show, Case’s first gig in her adopted hometown since Blacklisted bowed; for obvious reasons, a lot is riding on her performance.

Case’s highly anticipated set—the crowd letting out a roar as the spotlight first catches the corona of her red hair—is preceded by a garrulous, yet loving, five-minute introduction. Despite the massive build and inherent expectation, she does not disappoint. The 1,100 or so patrons—it’s not quite a sellout, but close enough—hang on Case’s every word. She tells jokes and hurls insults, engaging in a comic banter with the crowd which, after a few minutes, is resting comfortably in the palm of her hand.

In between the patter, Case runs through much of Blacklisted, its ghostly trills and haunted laments reverberating beautifully inside the walls of the old theater. Later, she showcases her interpretive skills, remaking Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain” into a merry hobo jangle, turning Hank Williams “Alone and Forsaken” into a dark night of the soul. As she goes deeper into her songbook, Case’s set surges with a reckless power until all that’s left is a hail of cheers and applause.

Backstage is a clusterfuck of bodies, a drunken, celebratory din permeating the walls of Case’s dressing room. The tireless Pinetops pick out old mountain songs, leading everyone in boozy sing-alongs. Meanwhile, Case is greeted by a flurry of friends, fans, and well-wishers, all of them overjoyed at her symbolic coronation. Case’s hardscrabble success is, in some small way, theirs, too, after all.

The night stretches out like this for hours. Case and company adjourn to a nearby bar for more dancing and drinking, eventually landing at El Presidente, a 24-hour Mexican diner on the city’s North Side. After polishing off a plate of chicken mole and paying the check, Case ambles outside to find her ride—the party finally ending as everyone breaks off in different directions.

If winter weren’t so near, the morning sun would already be up casting its bright, warm rays onto the freezing sidewalk. Even so, there is a brilliant, unlikely glow coming from Case’s tired eyes. It’s a look of hard-won satisfaction, but also of anticipation. Tomorrow, she’s off to Madison and points west; next month, it’s back to Europe for more dates. Then further roadwork with her myriad side projects—an endless cycle of recording, touring, and work that will stretch well into the New Year and beyond. Listening to her rattle off her commitments, it makes you wonder why Case insists on pushing herself, why she seems compelled to go at it so hard.

“I have to,” she offers simply, as if moved by a force greater than words can describe.

“When I was a little girl, I never would’ve thought any of this was possible. Growing up, I thought I was particularly unimportant and stupid and never imagined I’d amount to anything good. So, now that I don’t feel like that anymore, I’m gonna spend every minute I can not feeling like that.

“I don’t feel like a worthless little girl anymore,” she says, almost to herself, before striding off purposefully into the dawn, “and I’m not going to ever again.”

Neko Case plays the Crocodile Cafe on Thursday, Nov. 7 and Friday, Nov. 8 with Jim & Jennie and the Pinetops, plus guests. $14/$12 adv.