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Ry Cooder Crafts Offbeat Tribute to Fifties Los Angeles

The guitar virtuoso on the final chapter of his California trilogy

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Sep 14, 2008

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Ry Cooder, legendary guitarist and producer, is considering the state of his career at age 61. “I don’t know what the point is, honestly,” grouses Cooder, whose work has spanned everything from playing session guitar on Let It Bleed to reassembling the Buena Vista Social Club. “The whole thing is dismantled. Retail is gone. Radio is gone. OK, now the records are gone. It worries me about what [his son and percussionist] Joachim is going to do. I’m not worried for my sake ”“ we won’t starve. But it’s too bad.”

The music business is high on the list of things Cooder liked better in the old days; Los Angeles is another. His new album, I, Flathead, is the third in an ad hoc trilogy of records about lost LA culture, after 2005’s Chávez Ravine and 2007’s My Name Is Buddy. Cooder treasures vanishing pockets of California culture: neighbourhoods that have been ploughed over, homemade drag cars, kitschy roadside attractions. “It’s not that I hate the world,” Cooder says. “I just preferred it another way.” We meet for lunch at Philippe’s, a funky old restaurant in downtown LA, in business since 1908. “If you’re smart, you’ll get the turkey sandwich,” Cooder advises.

The inspiration behind I, Flathead: Cooder wanted to write about the people who lived in Los Angeles in the middle of the 20th century. “This mass of hundreds of thousands of defence workers and factory workers and people that liked their honky-tonk music,” he says. Cooder has intense nostalgia for the experiences he missed out on when he was still in grade school in Santa Monica and the local hot-rod artists he never actually visited. “If I’d been smarter,” Cooder says, “I would’ve gotten Von Dutch to pinstripe my guitar, or my lunchbox.”

Cooder actually learned to play guitar from the radio; he would stay home from school and listen to Bob Wills and Kitty Wells on “the hillbilly radio station” all day. He longed to go to the Ray Price gigs he heard advertised. “It would have taken us 45 minutes to get there,” he mourns. “No freeways in those days. ”˜You don’t want to go there,’ my dad said. So I never did.”

On his LA trilogy, Cooder didn’t want to do straightforward song portraits of those honky-tonk factory workers: “What are you going to say about the white lower class that Merle Travis didn’t already say?” So instead, Cooder started writing blue-collar-noir science-fiction short stories about an extraterrestrial visitor, the Native American girl who loves him, and a meatpacker and musician named Kash Buk. The deluxe edition of I, Flathead comes with 97 pages of those stories, and 14 songs that are presented as the music of Kash Buk and the Klowns.

It’s almost as off-kilter as My Name Is Buddy, which was sung from the point of view of a cat, a left-wing mouse and a blind toad migrating to California in the 1930s. “People didn’t get Buddy,” Cooder says with a light drizzle of contempt. “Too much of a stretch for them. Oh, OK, you never heard a fable before.”

The music on I, Flathead ranges from country to mariachi to gutbucket blues, unified by Cooder’s raspy vocals and his lyrical guitar playing: light on flash, heavy on feeling. It was recorded earlier this year at the Silverlake apartment of engineer Martin Pradler. “I had guitar amps in the bathroom and bass amps in the closet,” Cooder says. “We just played those tunes once.” The atmosphere was casual; when they recorded ”˜Johnny Cash’ ”“ a rockabilly tribute to Buk’s hero ”“ Cooder’s son, Joachim, was in the next room watching The Dead Zone and refused to get behind the drum kit until the movie was over. “You’ve seen that film 30 times,” Cooder remembers complaining. “Give me four minutes, won’t you?”

With his California trilogy finished, Cooder wants to spend more time writing short stories and rescuing plants from the roadside trash. “I’d like to rest a little,” he says. “I haven’t had a vacation in 10 years.” This year, Cooder produced an album of Latin-flavored R&B for Latina singer Ersi Arvizu, which came out in May. (Highlights of his production career include Mavis Staples’ We’ll Never Turn Back and Buena Vista Social Club.) He’s overseeing the forthcoming live album from those legendary Cuban musicians ”“ a recording of their Carnegie Hall engagement in 1998. “I’m calling it ”˜Last Paycheck Social Club,’ ” he cracks. “That was an amazing show. It has tremendous energy and verve but no aggression at all.”

According to Cooder, he’s playing the guitar better now than ever ”“ no small feat, since he was probably the world’s leading slide player already. “Since the Cuban experience, I am at least a hundred percent better. Before, I knew some moves, and I thought of three good ideas. But now everything is more fluid with the rhythms.”

Wait ”“ what were his three good ideas? Cooder answers without hesitation, “Putting a banjo tuning on the guitar was a very easy, good thing to do,” he says. “Another tremendously good idea was playing against the tuning key ”“ if you’re in open G, play in the key of D. You get these inverted chords. And rhythm mandolin was a pretty good idea ”“ if there’s three guitar players on a session, why would you want to be the fourth?”

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