The man from another time

 

Ry Cooder's MySpace page is blank. No friends, no photo. His face has barely graced an album cover since 1987. He's mostly the backroom type of music legend. Soundtracks. Sessions. Collaborations with unpronounceable virtuosos from exotic countries. He doesn't make videos and until recently, he hadn't toured anywhere in 20 years.

The most recent portrait of the artist hails from Cuba circa 1997. There he is in Wim Wenders' movie, Buena Vista Social Club, lying back in a rocking chair outside some deserted seaside cafe, long cigar angled at the sky, left foot tapping to an upright bass and drums jamming with the waves.

His joy is quiet and complete. The modern world seems light years away. These two facts are not disconnected.

 "I have a lot of discomfort in the present," growls the slide guitarist/ musicologist, by way of explaining his apparent reclusion these last couple of decades in his home/ garage in Santa Monica.

"I'm 62 now. So I grew up in a time that was distinctly different from the way things are now. Musically, certainly that's true. Thank God for recordings, though. I can put on anything I want to and listen to it any time I feel like it."

He doesn't add "so to hell with you and the horse you rode in on", but his tone implies that general attitude to the whole lousy post-CD world.

It was an old cassette, actually, that lured him back for one of his cyclical reappearances in popular consciousness with the Buena Vista phenomenon ten years ago. He'd carried the rattly artefact around for 20 years before he ventured back to Havana with half a mind to find whoever was playing the small six-stringed instrument on the tape.

It turned out to be tres player Juan de Marcos Gonzales, just one name that would soon be buzzing around every world music marketplace from Carnegie Hall to the Melbourne Arts Centre. By that time, Cooder had gone back to his garage, perhaps mildly bemused that Buena Vista had set the world on fire while his collaborations with, say, VM Bhatt or the Zydeco Party Band were gathering dust in specialty racks.

"What I hear in world music now is the same thing I see in movies," he says — alluding to another niche he's thoroughly explored (notably with the soundtrack to Paris, Texas) and abandoned.

"These people are trying to get a market going. How do they do that? They define what the market likes. They like pop music. They like rhythm. They like a certain kind of a thing. And so we have to move away from indigenous expression, move away from the folkloric, move away from the idiosyncratic towards something that is more palatable to everybody.

"Well, that's the same in shoes and cars and every God damn thing and that's why I am so very disinterested," he says. "When culture falls under the auspices of commercial enterprise — by that I mean style, and the homogenisation of everything — well, I'm sorry to say this, but that's when it's over."

Ryland Cooder has been turning his back on commercial enterprise since the world first learnt his name. Most Rolling Stones fans know the story about Keith Richards hiring the hot new kid from LA to play on their landmark Let It Bleed LP in 1969, and promptly appropriating a fair whack of his style and technique.

Richards has gleefully confessed to the act of piracy — "I took him for all he was worth . . . The tuning, the f---ing lot. I ripped him off" — though he never seemed to understand Cooder's dismay that a highflying rock band had sold him up the pop charts.

Barely out of his teens, the young American had learned his trade by a more subtle osmosis. Far from the smash-and-grab pace of the rock mainstream, his early sessions were with Taj Mahal's Rising Sons and Captain Beefheart's famously challenging Magic Band.

An only child, he'd been given his first guitar by a family friend when he was four years old, while recovering from the penknife accident that put out his left eye. In retrospect, that dramatic event makes some sense of his simmering unease with the world at large.

"A kid can't foresee anything like that," Cooder told his friend, writer Alec Wilkinson, in 1999. "Once it happened it seemed as if the sky could fall in, as if at any time something can go wrong in a big hurry, and forever."

As a popular music commodity — a face on an album cover — his first career cycle ran from his debut of 1970 to The Slide Area in 1982. Bop Till You Drop was the high-tide mark: a distinctively spiced R'n'B covers album that even gave him a fleeting Countdown profile here with Little Sister.

Then he disappeared, for most of the next two decades, behind the silver screen. He scored a dozen movies, nine of them for western revivalist Walter Hill. But even from back there, Cooder's electrifying presence could be hard to miss. His fluid conversance with the multifarious roots of 20th century Americana brought timeless ballast to films of varying weight.

New Melbourne blues sensation Dallas Frasca was one of countless eighties kids who heard his work on Crossroads as ground zero in her musical education. Almost simultaneously, Paris, Texas made Cooder a household name for an older, arthouse audience.

"Wim Wenders said 'It's got to be the blues, it's got to be this lonesome thing, this one character hung out there like he's on Mars'," he recalls of the Paris, Texas brief. "He (mentioned) Blind Willie Johnson and I said 'I got it for you right now. Within minutes I can do that so yes, that's acceptable'.

"It just so happened that that film and the idea went together like a hand in a glove. So we were in good shape. Then of course the film did well and it made sense to people and they liked it." If only it were that simple nowadays.

"Soundtracks to me now . . . they're so God damned problematic and they're so hard and the movies are so strange and I can't even see movies anymore because they scare me to death," he says. "It's not about anything I like. That's all long gone."

Cooder stopped touring in the late 1980s. Money was "always problematic" and he got too tired and too homesick for his wife Susan and their ten-year-old son, Joachim. Get Rhythm would be the last album under his name in almost 20 years. His soundtracks and collaborations kept rolling, but only until the Buena Vista wave apparently exhausted his taste for public attention altogether.

Back in his garage, though, he never stopped tinkering. In the last five years he's staged an uncompromising comeback, resurrecting the ongoing, essentially political American roots narrative he'd picked up in the early '70s on albums such as Into the Purple Valley and Boomer's Story.

His so-called California Trilogy comprises three concept albums, each celebrating some forgotten slice of history. Chavez Ravine is about the forced displacement of a Mexican neighbourhood of Los Angeles in the 1950s. My Name is Buddy is a cat and mouse allegory about the demise of the labour movement. I, Flathead is a rev-head's folk story ostensibly told by redneck muso Kash Buk.

"American vernacular music, which is what we do, is a narrative kind of thing," he explains. "What it amounts to is somebody telling you about themselves: I got fired from my job. I got drunk. I wrecked a car. I met a woman. I went to a party.

"Underneath all that, usually the themes were failure and hard times. Failure in America: that's what interested me when I was little. This dust bowl music, and the blues, and the hillbillies talking about their lives."

By way of illustration, he launches into the first verse of Woody Guthrie's The Dust Storm. In four lines, it recounts the black day of April 14, 1935: the start of the five-year exodus from the ravaged farms of the Midwest that helped shape pre-war California.

"I'd listen to that and I’d think, God damn, that must have been some shit," Cooder says. "When you're six, seven, eight years old, that's powerful, you know, this one guy talking out of this record at you, very close and personal. It's narrative, is all. To me, that's the whole point of all this work that I learned to do, and that I like, and that I continue to like to do."

Again, the middle-fingered salute to popular appetites is hard to miss. But talking about the nostalgic heroism of My Name Is Buddy, he also makes it clear that his renewed motivation as a writer is partly a reaction to the modern world he despises.

"At that time we were in the middle of this Bush thing here, you know. And I was so pissed off every day and so full of hate for the government. And seeing the solidarity of the workingman's movement disappearing made me so incredibly angry. I was so disgusted that I thought 'I'm going to hurt myself if I don't turn this into something here'."

Nor does his internal narrative stop rolling when he puts down his guitar: "I've been writing stories now. I wrote a bunch of stories about people in Los Angeles from that time and I put them together in a little book which I'm selling at shows cause it's interesting and fun to make books. I like books, you know.

"I wouldn't go to a publisher with these things, that'd be silly," he adds tersely. "I'm doing it myself."

The show that brings Cooder to Melbourne for the first time in 30 years began as a benefit for a sick friend in San Francisco a year ago. It was a mutual friend and studio colleague, former English punk turned American roots aficionado Nick Lowe, who dragged Cooder out of the garage.

The odd pair drafted Cooder jun., Joachim, to play drums, establishing a lean and versatile stage chemistry that rolled on to Europe with uncharacteristic enthusiasm from its grumpiest member. Not because it's necessarily a way forward to anything. But because it takes him back.

"I really had a great time," he says, "and man, we played good. It made us think about things, like songs we used to know and stuff we remembered from another time. And that's always fun."

Another time. It takes more than a crafty guitar tuning to get there, but even in a commercially homogenised world, Cooder's radar remains tuned to a dimension way beyond the white noise of popular music.

"I got a record of some Cambodian rock guys doing this weird surf music, probably during the Cambodian war. It's called Cambodia Rocks. Listen to that. Now that's world music. That shit is so wicked it'll take your face off.

"Also here in LA today is psycho Mexican music being played by kids, like banda, and weird distorted nortegna music, and it is some of the God-damnedest craziest shit you have heard in your life. That is some world music. But most people would be offended and go run for the door, you know, probably go turn on the radio."

And don't get him started on that.

"Radio? Oh no. Oh God. Who runs the radio? A bunch of fascists. A bunch of nazis. They want to find the dumbest, worstest thing they can find and just promote it to death. Ooh, I hate these people. It's enough to make you want to take poison and die, as Linda Ronstadt said to me the other day.

"But I don't have a problem because they don't want me anyway. I don't have to deal with them. I'm clean."

SEVEN SHADES OF RY:

  • Jamming With Edward (1969)
    Keith Richards arrived too late to this live and sloppy blues jam in which Cooder played sole guitarist in the Stones: a highly collectible companion to his work behind Mick Jagger on the Performance soundtrack (1970).
  • Paradise and Lunch (1974)
    Cooder's encyclopaedic handle on obscure American roots styles reached an early peak with this rich gumbo of country blues, street corner salvation, boxcar tunes, Latin, calypso, r'n'b and Burt Bacharach.
  • Jazz (1978)
    The audacious title laid claim, naturally, to its earliest utterances by Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke and others rooted in the ragtime/ vaudeville traditions of the early century.
  • Crossroads (soundtrack, 1985)
    Satan was played by metal guitar monster Steve Vai in this loose rendering of the Robert Johnson legend, while Cooder held a more modest and virtuous profile behind the smoking slide guitar and gospel quartet.
  • Little Village (1992)
    John Hiatt's rhythmic rock band couldn’t stop rolling after his Bring The Family album of '87. Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner backed him for this short-lived supergroup in the aftermath.
  • Talking Timbuktu (with Ali Farka Toure 1994)
    In which Cooder played witness/ accomplice to the uncanny connections between the trance and stomp of traditional Malian music and various threads of American blues.
  • Mambo Sinuendo (with Manuel Galban, 2003)
    Beyond Beuna Vista with a rocking Cuban electric guitar band featuring two drum kits and maximum '50s swing. Serious smiling music.

This article first appeared in The Age, Melbourne, November 21, 2009