It was more than 50 years ago but Ry Cooder remembers it like it could have been last week; he was 8 years old and Johnny Cash came on the radio singing “Hey Porter.”
A third-grader with a guitar was hooked.
Cooder knew he had to head up to “Big River” himself. Or over to Folsom Prison or down to Jackson, Miss., or anywhere else Cash was singing about. But his parents balked at even taking him across town so he could hear people like steel guitar great Speedy West or Spade Cooley, the original king of Western swing.
“I’d ask my dad, ’What’s that? Where is that?’ ’Oh, you don’t want to go there,’ he’d say. ’Oh yeah, I do. They play that stuff there. Where is this place?’
“It turns out it was just down the road, essentially,” Cooder chuckles in his gravelly, laid-back, laconic voice.
It was the L.A. of the 61-year-old musician’s childhood, a city of East Side Pachuco juke joints filled with Hispanic hipsters, of hillbilly honky-tonks scattered throughout the city’s white working-class pockets and of jazz and R&B resonating from the black neighborhoods.
It was an L.A. in many ways not unlike what exists today in those same general geographic regions. But one that has all but disappeared from overall public view during a time in which Cooder says “American Idol” has become “the ultimate expression of popular entertainment.”
California trilogy keeps past alive
It’s an L.A whose sounds Cooder has, nearly single-handedly, been keeping alive in his “California trilogy” albums, the third of which, “I, Flathead,” was released this week.
In the first, 2005’s critically acclaimed “Chavez Ravine,” the multi-instrumentalist Cooder collaborated with legendary Chicano musicians Lalo Guerrero and Don Tosti, as well as Tejano accordionist Flaco Jimenez, former El Chicano lead singer Ersi Arvizu and others to put into music and words the story of the bulldozing of a historic downtown barrio to make way for the construction of Dodger Stadium.
The second album, “My Name is Buddy,” changed direction, as Cooder worked this time with musicians like Roland White, Pete Seeger and Seeger’s brother, Mike, to tell the story, in folk-music terms, of the white hillbilly migration to California in the 1930s and its influence on the state’s burgeoning labor movement.
In the final installment, named in honor of the old-fashioned flathead automobile engine, Cooder brings the story closer to the time of his childhood as he looks at a pre-Disneyland Southern California filled with desert drag racers, carnival barkers, Western swing musicians, country honky-tonk players and their Pachuco counterparts.
The recording, told through the eyes of fictional country musician Kash Buk and his band the Klowns, is accompanied by a 95-page novella that Cooder says he wrote mainly for fun but which in the end inspired the album’s songs.
Although his work has been called L.A.’s sound, mixing as it does Los Angeles’ diverse white, black and Latino musical roots, Cooder dismisses such labels. What he creates, he says, is simply based on an amalgamation of the sounds he has heard and assimilated throughout his life.
“Really, all it is is stuff I like. This is stuff that I like to do,” says Cooder, who lives on the edge of Los Angeles, in the beach-front city of Santa Monica where he grew up.
Which is saying something, given that Rolling Stone magazine once described him as “an extremely gifted musician” who can play “damn near anything, from slide guitar to mandolin to banjo, saz, or tiple, or any style, be it gospel, folk, blues, calypso, Tex-Mex or Hawaiian slack-key guitar.”
Musician stuck with his vision
Cooder recalls he was 4 years old when a musician-friend of his family gave him a guitar and his father taught him to play.
“It was not so hard,” he says, adding that a later, failed effort to master the pinstriping of race cars proved much more difficult. “Another career step missed,” he jokes.
By his early 20s, he was one of rock music’s most heralded session guitarists, working with the Rolling Stones, Captain Beefheart, Taj Mahal, Eric Clapton and others.
In any case, the sessions stopped some 20 years ago, by which time he had gone on to film composing. He’s worked on scores of movies, including “Primary Colors,” “Crossroads,” “Dead Man Walking” and “Paris, Texas.”
In the 1990s, Cooder’s interest in Cuban music also led him to collaborate with musician Juan de Marcos Gonzalez and others on the acclaimed album and documentary “Buena Vista Social Club,” recreating the music scene that flourished in pre-Communist Cuba.
Earlier this year he produced Arvizu’s first solo album, “Friend for Life.”
“It’s very rare that you find somebody that knows their vision and sticks with it no matter what,” said prominent Chicano painter Vincent Valdez, who collaborated with Cooder on art work for the “Chavez Ravine” project.
Cooder, he says, isn’t one to take no for an answer when told something that interests him isn’t on the media’s current pop culture radar.
“People told him, ’You can’t do this project.’ Or ’Why do it? Who cares?”’ Valdez said of “Chavez Ravine.” “But he did it anyway.”
With his California trilogy complete, Cooder says he’s turning his attention more to storytelling, working on another novella like the one that accompanies “I, Flathead.” Whether it will result in a future album, or whether he’ll even publish it, he doesn’t know.
“But it interests me very much,” he says of the writing process. “It’s not attached to anything and it’s not dependent on anything. It just is. ... I get up in the morning and I like to do it.”