Gary Steel interviews Ry Cooder around the release of Chavez Ravine, a concept album reimagining of life and music in an immigrant suburb of Los Angeles in the 1940s.
Witchdoctor – The album’s (Chavez Ravine) getting a good reception?
Ry Cooder – Well, the media seems to like it very much. I have no idea what people are going to think of it. Too soon to tell you know.
WD – You’d have a lot of hardcore web site action happening. Do you check out your fans through that medium?
Ry – Um, I don’t even know how to do that. I suppose you’re right, it’s just not something I’m doing. What I’ve been doing is talking on the telephone. That’s what they give me to do in a day and I sit and I talk. You may be right, I didn’t think of that.
WD – You’re not a technological guy?
Ry – I do email, that’s the best I can do.
WD – I imagine that it’s a fairly full-on engagement of press activity, without the usual videos and so forth to help promote it.
Ry – Well sure, there’s not too many tools here except me. I’m trying to think of something else I could do for it, but right now it’s mostly me. I’ve been on this press-wise for about a month now, so it’s a lot of work. I don’t mind, it’s good.
WD – It sounds like a real epic prior to that, getting the project to fruition.
Ry – I’ll just tell you that it’s been a big job of work, and a mighty good thing. Now that I see it for what it is, since we didn’t start out with any clear idea, I just sort of felt my way through it. But now it’s done and packaged and tied together well, I can look and see that it’s quite a good thing. And of course Lalo Guerrero and Tosti, the two pachuco cats, died. And it just proves once again that you’d better make haste, because if you get an idea, because these people are always departing, the train’s always leaving, and now that book is closed, too.
WD – It must be incredibly emotionally resonant to be working with these people who are… you’re there right at the end of their careers.
Ry – It’s always interesting to see old people who have been through what they’ve been through, and they bring along their secret past. And there are things that nobody has revealed. If you’re attentive, and ask the right questions, and present the right thing, then you might learn something. This whole pachuco swing musical idea barely existed, and only those two guys really recorded it, and they dealt in this whole East LA hipster slang speaking thing. But so briefly, because the media was so antagonistic to the Mexicans of East LA and the pachuco culture and all these cats, and they painted such a terrible picture of these people. And now we understand why, in other words, to have wanted to portray Mexicans as bad people, they’re not good Americans, they wear funny clothes and they don’t speak our language… the weird police atmosphere of Los Angeles in those days. And yet, these were great musicians, and this idea that they lived in and around black neighbourhoods, and so they heard black swing music so they got on with it and did something about and made these fantastic records in those days. This was a long damn time ago in ’49 and ’50 when nothing was happening. So I just love it, and all these many years I thought the old music of Los Angeles was unique, because when the migrants came here, they came from everywhere, and the first thing they did, before they unpacked their bags it seems like, they started changing their music around. And you can see signs of this in the hillbilly music, the swing, remembering Merle Travis of course, and in the rhythm and blues and jazz. Charles Brown’s a good example. All the Central Avenue stuff, something happened in LA, to streamline everything that was going on and mix it together. And every now and again something really fabulous would be spit out such as pachuco swing music, and then it would quickly die, disappear and go away. So I used to think ‘Damn, what can I do about that? Probably nothing’. Then this idea appeared to me, let’s write songs, let me approach these people with the idea in mind of creating something, not to dwell on the past but to write about it. To create something around it. And let’s see if it’s energizing or stimulating to anybody. Of course they liked doing it. Everybody liked doing it, and I got such an enthusiastic response from everybody that I talked to. Who never would have done this otherwise? Nobody had done it already, so it hadn’t happened, even to think about.
WD – This secret history, both in terms of the music and the settlement… is this recorded at all?
Ry – It’s historical fact, a matter of record. But at the same time, you have to realize that in LA, history is covered over and erased every day. It’s just a physical fact of life. In other words, old neighbourhoods are routinely torn up for the purpose of freeways or shopping malls or commercialized space rather than personal space. That’s the order of the day in Los Angeles, always has been. Because the developers and speculators run the town, they always have. It was up for grabs from the very beginning. So in a physical sense what LA once was, was a collection of strange little neighbourhood enclaves kind of strung together, and there was trees and forests and lakes and streams and this weird topology, and then people settled here and there, and then after the war, the trend was to pave it all over and flatten it out, so as to control it and to organise it. Organise it along the lines of commercial… the progress of commercialising everything, and every act and every occupation, everything you could think of. Along the lines of automobiles and freeways and shopping malls and parking lots. But this was what the future, how it was conceived of, by these developers and civic boosters. And of course where music lives and where music is made is in the atmosphere of a certain society or culture. Now we say the culture of East LA is chicano, which is not necessarily unified, but it is distinct. The music that was made by Lalo or the Arvejas or even Willie G in the ‘60s. This is just underneath the surface, so to speak, these people are there. They’re certainly there, I went to see them and record with them. All you have to do is call them up. It’s kind of like this idea of ‘let’s take another look’, never mind what you hear every day, because all you hear these days is hip-hop in cars, rap music. So like everything in LA it’s been glossed over with commercial forms. The leading edges of consumerism such as hip-hop, which is what I believe it is. And so forth. But of course if you ask people of a certain age, let’s sing some of the old songs, or let’s make up some songs, what do you like to sing, do you remember this? You get that kind of movement with people and you get some energy going, you can then record something, something might happen. And that’s exactly what did happen, except of course it did take three and a half to four years. And it isn’t right there at the end of your fingertips, you really do have to pluck it out of the air. It takes a lot of willpower, a lot of willpower to will this goddamn thing into existence. That’s about the size of it. That’s about what it took.
WD – Were the styles on the record really like a recreation or reimagining or something between those things, and working up a new fibre-optic cable going through it?
Ry – We invented most of this stuff, but… Los Chucos Suaves, that’s exactly what it sounded like in ’49. That tune is recreated. What that does for you is it puts you there. And you can see this is what a nightclub sounded like in East LA. On the other hand Muy Fifi is just the idea… I told Joachim my son, I said I need a track that sounds like a low rider at 20 miles an hour. Your low rider is very low, you can’t drive fast. You cruise when you go out at night, and you pick up your girlfriend, she’s having an argument with her mother, about whether or not she should go out with you because you’re some greasy guy, and the girl says ‘mother I’m going anyway’. Well, in a Mexican home before World War 2 that never would have happened, it was a very strict home environment. But during and after the war, these old conventions fell away, and people started doing what they wanted. So the girl goes out. But I told Joachim ‘get us cruising, get us grooving along, low rider music, I want to feel the car at about 20 miles an hour with the springs way down’. So he went to the tape library and yanked out a bunch of stuff from Havana that we had done and re-pieced it together on Protools, and came up with the track. And that sounds to me what I’m talking about. That’s conjecture. Another time I went to him and said ‘a space ship has to arrive, but I don’t know what that’s supposed to sound like.’ He’s very good at this because he grew up in the studio watching me score films, he’s very adept. So he puts the pieces together. The space ship in the ravine, perfect. Then he went to Juliet his girlfriend and said ‘look here, Lalo doesn’t understand about the space ship because he never saw it, so he doesn’t believe it’. I said ‘you know what I mean’, and she said ‘sure’. She’s half Mexican. You’ve got the language, you write it. Then I took the track to Don Tosti, and said ‘you be the voice of the space vato and he said ‘I didn’t get what you were talking about before, now I see’. You merely are proposing a… it’s a world we make, a compressed imaginary world. It’s a time and a place, and the backdrop is real events and real people, but the drama and the visualization is one that we make up. And that’s what theatre is I guess, it’s what music is if you look at it really. When Elvis says ‘don’t step on my blue suede shoes’ that’s sort of what you’re saying. It used to interest me when I was in the 4th grade or 5th grade: what do they mean don’t step on my blue suede shoes? Sounds very dangerous, sounds like some hell’s about to break loose. Why would they worry about their shoes? Because I wore tennis shoes I didn’t see the problem. Then you come to find out that it’s because these shoes are expensive, and if you step on them I’m going to kill you. And that song says it all, and that’s what I mean by drama and by theatre. That’s the beauty of popular music at that level, that it can express conflict or all kind of things, but it does it in 3 minutes, which I think is an amazing concept. That’s the same concept we’re trying to apply to this record here.
WD – It does strike me as being quite theatrical in ways, and I couldn’t help wondering if it might be adaptable to the stage.
Ry – Well, it’s going to have to take a different mind to mine, I’m going to have to let some genius figure that one out, because I can’t, I don’t do that, I don’t write plays, you know what I mean. I just play guitar and play records. I think that’s the best I can do. We’ll see though, somebody might come forward.
WD – Now the people you talked about who were dispossessed of their settlement, where did they end up being made to go?
Ry – Most of these people simply relocated, went out into the East LA zone, the barrio out there, because in those days… there have always been restrictions… it’s a very segregated city. Sort of in an apartheid sense, and black people and Chinese and Mexicans in particular, it was never possible for them just to go anywhere and live wherever they want. And in those days where they could go is to East LA which is already crowded and was never nice. Chavez Ravine was very open, they did have a beautiful life there, it was extremely nice I think, with their farm animals and little vegetable gardens and things. So it wasn’t so crowded, it wasn’t noisy. They must have had a wonderful time. Once they got out to East LA they were in the big city and I’m sorry to say that they probably did not, could never have felt as at home. I’ve heard it said by people who were made to move, ‘we never felt the same way about where we ended up’. But of course it’s a story told over and over again, poor people who find themselves in the cross hairs of progress. The strange thing about it is that the United States was founded squarely on the notion that all property was sacred and protected. Just yesterday the momentous decision by the United States Supreme Court found in favour of commercial development when they said that the city may declare domain at any time for commercial development. This is the first time the court has ever articulated that idea, because the law always said private property is protected, and the popular idea that a man’s home is his castle, which is a myth, it’s one of these ‘it can’t happen here’ myths. So just yesterday the Supreme Court once and for all struck down this popular notion, the founding fathers notion that your home is safe. So what we’re seeing is this conservative agenda, I call it the fascist agenda now, is to in the true and deepest sense, dismantle all of the structure of American life. That’s one man one vote, that’s been eradicated now with two Presidential elections stolen. Or, let’s pick another one. My mind is getting tired, but there are several of these things. It’s not just this, and now we have this home thing. It’s incredible that these people, this tribe in Washington, sees that it is to their interests, a little secret group, to take away…. Oh, habeus corpus, that is no longer enforced, the right to legal council. The Patriot Act took care of that. So all of these bill of rights constitution… have always been a stumbling block, a serious impediment to the agenda of the fascists, and ever since World War 2, with the dawn of the cold war, the paranoid state… now 50 years later we’re really seeing this, and they’re doing it. It happens every day, wake up, you never know what’s next, it’s astonishing and I just don’t know what’s the matter with everybody. Unless it’s that they’ve had too many cheeseburgers and they just can’t think straight. That’s what I actually think has happened. And television… TV has proposed that it’s better to eat cheeseburgers than to think, or better to have Coke than to learn anything. And of course the other things the Republicans did was to destroy public education, they made sure they did that. Ben Franklin said if you don’t have an educated population the constitution will topple and a despot will remain… he was dead right. Isn’t that amazing, he saw the whole thing.
WD – In a way your interest in the scenario portrayed on the record, the more joyous side of it, is a celebration or a eulogy for what you see as a more authentic sense of community that’s being lost in American life today.
Ry – Well sure, because music is like a rain gauge. When you measure the life or the health of a community or a culture or whatever you call it, what are they doing for themselves, what kind of a statement are they making, it’s very instinctive it’s very basic, it’s not mental at all what they play and sing about, and that’s my observation and I think it’s true. So I like music that does those things, that shows what people are like and what they do. I don’t like music that’s simply a reflection of, as John Lomax pointed out, cash and power. These are detrimental, these destroy music. The human being myth thinks I’m no use, I’ve gotta change, I’ll stop doing what I’m doing, and I’ll start moving towards this other… it’s pretty obvious in American music. The musicians on this record, we get together and we do good work, there’s some goddamn good shit on this record, it’s strong, and I think it means that people are great if they get together and collectively do great things and make something happen. And it’s far more than just a bunch of East LA people or some guy from Santa Monica calling them up. That’s a process, but the result is something pretty good, pretty strong, and I’m really happy about it.
WD – As you hinted at, the music world does these days seem very black and white… not very multicultural. And I was wondering if you could remember at what point you started getting into music that was outside of those narrow confines that most Western culture places itself in. Obviously you were into blues from an early age.
Ry – When I was a little kid, the music I heard as an infant was classical music every day. The guy that gave me my first guitar he also gave me Woody Guthrie records. It was coming, this thing of the poor people and the intellectuals getting together. I ended up getting together with people of like minds. I don’t play classical music, so I don’t see those people. But when I was coming up in LA it was during this whole folk music revival, and we were also seeing the resurrection of some of these older players, white and black. And they were brought to LA and it was an unbelievable opportunity for the people to step out of the grooves of the old records and walk in front of you. And I mean people like Stanley Brothers or Sleepy John Estes or Mississippi John Hurt. They’d perform and I’d sit ten feet away from ‘em. This was living proof. Then is when you learn things, because a lot of stuff is transmitted in some molecular way only by being right up against somebody. And people were always nice to me, they were very friendly, never met anyone that wasn’t. I’d say ‘can you show me this sort of thing’ and they always did. I learned an awful lot of shit in a hurry from people like that. Real simple things but important things. How to play, how to make things sound good, how to make tone.
WD – You have a tremendous reputation for being a nice guy too, so…
Ry – It means if you’re intent upon something you can always spot someone who’s serious, because they have a feeling for the thing, so people used to play me something I could play it back at ‘em, I was pretty good at it. And even if later I would rethink it or redo it, I was always able to understand something on the spot and give it back, and that means you have an aptitude for it. And then they like it better and might show you some more stuff. This is how I learned music. It’s not something I learnt at school. You can’t do it anymore either, you can’t see these people, they’re either dead or a million miles away from you.
WD – Your experience in Cuba… I guess seeing Havana in its present state where it’s kind of stuck in the ‘50s or ‘60s… Did that help you imagine what ‘50s Los Angeles was like?
Ry – No I know what Los Angeles used to be like because I remember it. We lived here, and I used to go driving, or take the bus or street cars, I was always out. Go to places, I used to draw buildings. I had a sketchpad. I used to think that’s what I wanted to do all the time, but I discovered I was better at music than I was at that. But it was an interest I had. Of course you go to Havana, it was heaven to me because it was just like stepping into a time warp in which the past and the present were all one thing. Instead of the frustration you have here where the past is always slipping away from you and being destroyed. LA was famous for eccentric architecture like coffee shops that looked like pigs that you walked into, or hats. And I loved that stuff more than anything. And then they started chopping ‘em down and they demolished everything. And they made a great error when they did that because this is what people would have liked to have seen… they would have paid money to see it. If money was the objective, as it often is, but they didn’t see the future, these people are stupid. Bad planners, because all they see is the next five years, short dollar. The church of the next dollar, they want to get it, and get rid of anything eccentric… they want to homogenise everything, which means repeating everything, so you have ONLY McDonalds, and only these chain stores, and I blame Disney and the guy that invented McDonalds, their kind of thinking. It’s sad, because it was really much more interesting than that at one time.
WD – Why can’t you go back to Havana?
Ry – The fascist pigs won’t let us off the hook, and they will persecute you if you defy them and go down there, and I’m certainly not going to do that. I’m sorry to say it’s the facts though. That’s just how it is.
WD – I imagine this project will run and run.
Ry – I don’t know what will happen to this, it is a bit odd. If people feel they can absorb it, or place it somewhere in their daily life, then they might take it to heart. Also I’ve got some other notion that occurred part way in, that the white people, the factory workers, all those hillbillies who settled in the industrial parts of LA, worked in the aircraft factories and so forth… their music which I like very much, that ‘50s honky-tonk stuff, would make a great story record, because I know more about them. And I’ve got about eight songs now, in the story mode of like using country music in that corny ‘50s thing. It’s something I’ve looked into for a long time and thought about. Once I started doing this, that naturally came up, because it’s like the flipside, the other part of time. So I’m going to fiddle around with this and see if I can make it work. And I might try it. Of course we don’t know this Chavez thing, if people like it, maybe there’s a future in it. I would never have figured that eight years of Cuban music was what I was heading into. It’s all I did for eight years. Four albums and a film, that’s a lot of work.
WD – Did you spend a lot of that time away?
Ry – I went down there sporadically, because it was tiring, I’d go down a few weeks, come home. Think about it, rest, then go back down. And off and on for quite some time, because it took a lot of thinking and poking around like everything does. And then they started dying. It happens.