CAL­I­FOR­NIA DREAM­ING

Four decades into his jour­ney across mu­si­cal bound­aries, Ry Cooder is still dis­cov­er­ing new creative av­enues to ex­plore, writes Iain Shed­den

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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