Four decades into his journey across musical boundaries, Ry Cooder is still discovering new creative avenues to explore, writes Iain Shedden
IT’S 1955. On a night among many in a house in Santa Monica, California, an eight- year- old boy lies in his room listening to his favourite country music station. Intoxicated by the mystery and magic on the airwaves, he drifts off to sleep dreaming of being a steel guitar player or a band leader or, best of all, waking up next morning and being Johnny Cash.
That boy is Ry Cooder. Some of those dreams will come true but, just as importantly, the music of the American heartland seeping out of his old valve radio will resonate with him forever.
You can hear the spirit, passion and authenticity of that music in much of Cooder’s work. While he has crossed boundaries and even forged new genres with his scores for films such as Paris, Texas and The Long Riders , and collaborated on a variety of cross- cultural projects such as the Cuban Buena Vista Social Club , Cooder’s career, spanning more than four decades and many styles, is largely a touchstone to the US’s multifaceted folk traditions, such as gospel, blues and country.
It resonates in his 1970s albums Into the Purple Valley and Boomer’s Story , and on Chavez Ravine and My Name is Buddy , his more recent explorations of California’s 20th century social, cultural and musical roots. It’s the third album in this California trilogy, I, Flathead: The Songs of Kash Buk and the Klowns , that has brought the songwriter back to those roots in more ways than one and opened the door to a new chapter in his life, as an author. The new album, released today, is awash with loose- limbed, rootsy tunes such as Ridin’ with the Blues , Drive Like I Never Been Hurt and My Dwarf is Getting Tired , the last of these a beautifully crafted and unexpectedly ( given the frivolous title) melancholic take on the demise of the travelling circus.
Accompanying the songs is a 104- page novella written by Cooder and inhabited by a vivid assortment of drifters, grifters and musos and an alien called Shakey, who makes glue and chewing gum and cruises around the Californian salt flats in his souped- up flying saucer. The book and the CD stand on their own but also complement each other. It’s the novella, however, that has caused the much- lauded guitarist and composer to rethink his career.
‘‘ It’s the most fun I’ve had in a long time,’’ the 61- year- old says in his warm Californian twang. ‘‘ In fact, since I got done with that ( I, Flathead ), I’ve started doing more. These stories are great for me. I get to say what I want, do what I want. I guess over the years I’ve proved that I do have some understanding of music, but with the writing thing I don’t have to prove anything. So I’m just going to sit and do it.’’
Like the previous two albums, I, Flathead focuses on events and characters from California’s turbulent and formative past. Chavez Ravine ( 2005), a melange of Latin, American and Afro- Cuban styles, was inspired by the MexicanAmerican Los Angeles neighbourhood of that name, whose poor inhabitants were paid or forced to leave their community in a failed property development in the ’ 50s. The area was later flattened to make way for Dodger Stadium, home of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team.
My Name is Buddy ( 2007) was a return to the dust- bowl ballads and Woody Guthrie- style bound- for- glory folk of Cooder’s early career and followed the adventures of Buddy Red Cat and a host of other characters through the Depression. In the extensive booklet for this album, Cooder added short stories to complement the songs, where the musician character Kash Buk first appeared. He has been writing consistently since. It’s his new passion, to which he applies his experiences and impressions of his Californian heritage. He describes it as liberating.
‘‘ All these years I’ve paid attention to history and Los Angeles and the people and times past and collected photographs and maps and all kinds of things,’’ he says, ‘‘ so I know something about it, or at least I think I do: enough to where I can think up these characters and give them some life and make them move around a bit. And, I gotta say, it’s a lot easier than making records.’’
The protagonists in the I, Flathead story, which is set in the late ’ 50s, include meat packers, drag racers, mechanics and drinkers: working- class people with simple dreams and ambitions and a bucketload of humanity that even the outsider, Shakey, can relate to.
‘‘ These people are just made up in my head,’’ he says. ‘‘ I didn’t know people who went drag racing or who worked in a meat- packing plant. The outsider who comes down to earth is a terrific concept. They see things with a completely different perspective. We’ve seen that over and over again in films. But this guy, Shakey, he’s very like these people because he’s very good with tools and he can make cars go faster, and make glue and chewing gum. It was a do- ityourself culture in those days.
‘‘ I never knew anybody like this. If I had, growing up in that milieu, I might have had a different life. When I was that age I wanted very much to be a car pin- striper. I tried to learn with the brush and the paint but I couldn’t do it. You need to have somebody show you. I didn’t know anybody. I wanted to play steel guitar but it was being done by other people on the other side of town. I didn’t know anybody, so I couldn’t do that. And I wanted to be in the ( country music) Ray Price band. Obviously I didn’t do that.’’ IF Cooder’s music and writing are compelling, his voice — and not just when he’s singing — is equally engaging. In conversation he has a storyteller’s gift: an easy drawl with a hint of mischief that draws you in like a campfire on a cold night. He relates eloquently those radiolistening nights of his childhood, just as he does on Johnny Cash from I, Flathead . And his total recall of events 50 years ago helps him articulate them with admirable fluency and colour.
‘‘ Looking back now I can remember those times and I can remember the music like it was yesterday,’’ he says. ‘‘ I feel these things. I’m still the same person I was back then.’’
If his musical ambitions, albeit fanciful ones for an eight- year- old, were thwarted at the time, it was also during this period that his future as a guitarist took shape. Playing a four- string acoustic guitar given to him by his father, the young Cooder explored the work of blues and folk innovators such as Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James and Lead Belly.
An accident when he was four had left Cooder blind in one eye, so with that handicap he found a niche for himself in music rather than, say, sport. ‘‘ You’re on some path when you’re a little kid, you know,’’ he says, ‘‘ and that’s your path.’’
The songs on the new album are redolent of those early influences and have a loose, organic feel, thanks largely to the trusted ensemble of players, most of whom appear on the entire trilogy. They include celebrated drummer Jim Keltner, who has played with Cooder since the ’ 70s, multi- instrumentalist Martin Pradler and, on drums and percussion, son Joachim Cooder.
At 61, Cooder is well across the music he plays. ‘‘ This is all a memory trick for me,’’ he says. ‘‘ I think back to old records and it comes out pretty fast. It’s easy: you can just sit and play without having to work too hard to make it happen.’’
There’s an empathy between father and son, too, that made the recording process a breeze.
‘‘ I don’t have to tell Joachim what to do,’’ Cooder says. ‘‘ We just set up in the little apartment of the engineer as a three- piece with the guitar amp in the bathroom and the bass amp in the closet and just played it. He’s grown up inside all of this stuff that I’ve done, so he knows exactly what’s coming. It’s telepathic and now we’re very good at it. It’s very nice.’’ IN the ’ 60s, Cooder made his name as a hired gun, working with the likes of Taj Mahal, Captain Beefheart and the Rolling Stones, all the while building his reputation as a guitar technician with his own rootsy style — particularly on slide guitar — and someone who could turn his hand to a variety of folk instruments. That paved the way for a succession of well- crafted solo albums in the ’ 70s that capitalised on his blues and country grounding, but he also experimented, most notably with the Hawaiian- influenced Chicken Skin Music ( 1976), the self- explanatory Jazz ( 1978) and the more ’ 50s R & B- inspired Bop Till You Drop ( 1979). Cooder had a top 40 hit in Australia with Little Sister from that album.
In the ’ 80s, his solo career, at least as a performer, gave way to creating film soundscapes, most successfully for Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas ( 1984), that in their sparseness and with their use of ambient, bluesy textures, conjured up the plains of the American west in a way that remains influential to this day. That scene- setting state of mind seems to influence the songs and
the prose of I, Flathead . Cooder admits that his music has always had a visual component.
‘‘ I liked working in film at the time because I always thought music was a visual thing. That’s why I loved Johnny Cash so much when I was a kid. You could see it.’’ Cash’s Get Rhythm was the title track on Cooder’s 1987 rock ’ n’ roll album. ‘‘ The appeal for me in a song is the imagery that goes with it,’’ he says.
‘‘ Whatever the language or whatever the style, if I feel motivated, if it conjures up something — ‘ let’s look and see what they’re saying’ — that’s what, particularly, vernacular music is good at.
‘‘ In a three or four- minute song, to lend a song an atmosphere — which Johnny Cash or Merle Travis could easily do — they can do it with a couple of notes. It’s amazing how effective that can be. So that’s the theory of I, Flathead .
If the ’ 80s was Cooder’s film decade, the ’ 90s would prove to be his period of collaboration and exploration. He made albums with Hindustani slide guitarist V. M. Bhatt ( 1993’ s A Meeting By the River ) and Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure ( 1994’ s Talking Timbuktu ), both of which won Grammys for best world music album. But it was a trip to Havana in 1996, initially for what he thought would be guitar sessions with local musicians, that turned into Buena Vista Social Club , a project that relaunched careers for a wealth of forgotten Cuban talent and created one of the biggest- selling albums in the history of world music. As Cooder said at the time: ‘‘ I felt that I had trained all my life for this and yet making this record was not what I expected in the 1990s. Music is a treasure hunt: you dig and dig and sometimes you find something.’’
Today, he says those forays into other musical forms were never planned. ‘‘ As a musician, there isn’t a plan,’’ he says. ‘‘ Every time the phone rings it might take you down a new road. Those were just weird alternative pathways that people suggested to me. You know, ‘ Damn, that sounds good. Cuba? Of course. Let’s just do it.’ I always try to take advantage of those opportunities, because they may only come once.’’ COODER doesn’t tour any more, so he won’t be coming to Australia or going anywhere else with his new album. Instead, he will do what has become second nature in his seventh decade. He will get up every morning and write stories.
‘‘ I’ve been sitting here every day writing more stories, and I’m having a ball doing it,’’ he says.
‘‘ I’ve got to the point where I’m ready to do it, so now I’m doing it. It’s stuff I’ve been thinking about and wondering about for years, and now I’m going to set it out. Why? I don’t know. What use it is, I couldn’t say. But one thing for sure is that I know a lot of people who do this. They get up every day and work at it, and then the purpose of it is revealed later on.’’
Whatever is revealed to him, one would hope that he will continue to capture the essence of American roots music in the way he has done so expertly during the past 40 years. The thread that holds all of that music together, he says, is in setting the mood, just as he has done with his tales of Shakey, Kash Buk and their friends.
‘‘ I’ve always said it’s like the bubble. Inside the bubble is this place. So that it’s like: ‘ Let’s go there, take a little trip, a little journey.’
‘‘ If the song is good and the performance is good, then you can go there and take it somewhere, and then you feel something. It’s like a catharsis in a way, an emotional moment for yourself. What I understand about music is that you do it to yourself. You move your energy around and then you feel something. That’s nice. That’s the greatest thing about it.’’
Driving force: Whether on solo projects or with peers from left field, such as in
Buena Vista Social Club , pictured opposite, Cooder makes a statement