Ry Cooder has played with the Rolling Stones, Captain Beefheart and Jackson Browne, as well as Ali Farka Toure and the Buena Vista Social Club. So where did he go for his latest solo album? Back home.
A lifelong resident of Santa Monica, California, Cooder has spent the last three years constructing an album about a poor Mexican-American neighborhood called Chávez Ravine in downtown Los Angeles that was bulldozed in the 1950s to make way for Dodger Stadium.
“People thought they had a neighborhood,” said Cooder, who’s been a professional musician since 1963 and released his first solo album 35 years ago. “They thought they lived somewhere and it was theirs until someone took it away from them.”
The idea came to Cooder several years ago after he saw a book of photographs about the neighborhood taken during the 1950s by then-student photojournalist Don Normark. Cooder eventually met the photographer, who wanted to create a PBS documentary about meeting up with the former residents years later. Cooder began “poking around the bin,” as he put it, for old songs that he had written that were appropriate, but he slowly began to write and gather new tunes. The result is Chávez Ravine (Nonesuch), a mix of styles, including rock and blues, that evokes the era and the regional Mexican tunes that the residents might have enjoyed.
He then found a book on the history of public housing in the Los Angeles area, and as the story of the ousting of the Chávez Ravine residents became clearer to Cooder, he began a three-year effort to craft a set of tunes to tell their story. He likened the process to writing a novel, complete with trips to archives and “inching forward” to create the storyline and characters through song.
Cooder said he has no intention of making the story into a play or transform it into any other medium. In fact, he said he couldn’t even imagine taking it on the road and performing it live. “It’s so much of a fantasy. If it’s working for you and you’re feeling and sensing it, to peel it back and turn it into something as mundane as a bunch of cats onstage, I just think it would be a big mistake. On the other hand, you never know. I always like to keep the door open.”
The story of poor people shunted aside by the rich and powerful is an old one, Cooder acknowledges, but he said it is particularly apt to what is going on in the country today.
“It’s hard for people to recognize when this is happening,” said Cooder. “The mutant tribe in Washington is very skillfully and cleverly engineered us right out of our own great big Chávez Ravine. And I also blame the corporations in all this because it’s replaced with something that you can’t use. And when they take something and they give you back something, what they’ve given you is useless and empty. But because of media and the consumer fascism you are expected…it’s engineered into your daily life and you might stop and think, well, this cheeseburger is not the same as Uncle Lefty’s Six Finger Chili I used to get on the corner. But before you know it, you’re just going to the mall anyway, same as anybody.
“I’ve always liked [the Los Angeles area] the way it was,” Cooder said, “I don’t like the way it is now. So for me, I’m just pissed off, because I miss all these things and I don’t like what they’ve stuck in their place, but there’s nothing do about it. But as a musician, I find it was very soothing and comforting to make this record.”
Cooder noted the contrast to the situation in Cuba, where he worked for seven years with the group of musicians now known as the Buena Vista Social Club—until the U.S. government told him he could not go back.
“In a few hours upon arriving,” Cooder recalled of Cuba, “you feel different and everybody wonders why…You don’t expect to be hit with the realization that this is not a consumer society. You don’t see billboards, you don’t see ads.”