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HomeNewsOff the Beaten Tracks: Cooder’s Story, Part 3

Off the Beaten Tracks: Cooder’s Story, Part 3

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LAST week I wrote in glowing terms about the band 10,000 Maniacs and their album In My Tribe. A few hours after publication I was surprised and delighted when an email pinged into my inbox from its producer, Peter Asher, formerly of course a member of the British chart-topping duo Peter and Gordon. 

His other production credits include albums by James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Diana Ross, Bonnie Raitt, Cher, Randy Newman, Neil Diamond and many more. He is a Grammy award winner and in 2015 was made a CBE for his services to the music industry.

From his office in Santa Monica, California, he wrote:

Dear Alan,

I very much enjoyed reading your comprehensive and interesting piece on the Maniacs. I loved working on the two albums we did together. Natalie (Merchant) is an extraordinary composer and singer and I am proud to be a fan and a friend. So happy you like In My Tribe. As you may know I have mostly produced solo artists, so working with a band was a departure – but one I much enjoyed.

He concluded by thanking me for the article. What a gent!

The Santa Monica connection reminded me that I had yet to complete the story of one of the city’s most celebrated residents, Ry Cooder.

At the end of Part Two we left Ryland Peter Cooder having recorded 1987’s Get Rhythm, which would prove to be his final studio solo album of the last century. But much more was to come.

For a start there was already a live album in the can, Santa Cruz, recorded in the city of that name with the Moula Banda Rhythm Aces. They included the great Mexican accordionist Flaco Jimenez, Jim Keltner on drums, Van Dyke Parks on keyboards and the gospel singers Bobby King and Terry Evans. A great night was had by all and it was captured on a 90-minute movie called Let’s Have a Ball. Here is the ensemble performing How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live? 

I must admit to owning many live Cooder albums, most of the ‘unofficial’ variety, but this legitimate release is one of the best. There’s a stonking version of the Sam Cooke song Chain Gang while on a 16-minute version of Down In Hollywood, which was underwhelming in its original form on the Bop Till You Drop LP, Ry lets the entire band have a solo each and they make the most of it.

After producing several albums by other artists, including King and Evans, Cooder teamed up with Keltner, Nick Lowe and John Hiatt in the band Little Village, whose career I chronicled here

After their demise, Ry became increasingly involved with world music, which was inevitable given his many tours as a double act with Lindley. The charming 1993 album A Meeting By The River is an entirely improvised collection of instrumentals in which his bottleneck guitar dovetails with the Indian classical musician V M Bhatt, who plays a 20-string guitar of his own invention known as a mohan vina. Cooder’s son Joachim, then only 14, plays percussion.

Recorded in a chapel in Santa Barbara, California, this is one of the most serene and beautiful records ever to bless these tired old ears. In his liner notes producer Kavichandran Alexander writes: ‘Having worked in the studio for nearly ten hours recording a film score, Ry drove for two hours and met Bhatt in a motel lobby. It was close to midnight. Half an hour later we were at Christ the King Chapel tuning guitars and drums, drinking tea and laughing. With no planning whatsoever, and no preparation, the musicians soon established a dialogue. In the presence of Franciscan monks in woollen habits, on a Persian rug by the altar of a Catholic church, two streams merged to form a river.’

Here is the whole album. 

Pour yourself something nice, close your eyes and let it wash over you.

Soon afterwards Cooder collaborated with the Malian multi-instrumentalist Ali Farka Toure on Talking Timbuktu, which was released in 1994. It was recorded within three days at Ocean Way studio in LA. The two men had bonded in 1992 after meeting in London, where Toure presented Cooder with his prize possession, a one-stringed lute called a n’jurkel. This fails to make an appearance on the album although Ry does play plenty of exotic instruments including cumbus, electric mando guitar, acoustic toy guitar, mbira, electric slide guitar, tamboura, bass guitar and marimba. For an example of the record’s laid-back vibe, try track three, Gomni.  

This and A Meeting By The River each won the Best World Music Grammy Award.

In 1995 came Music by Ry Cooder, a collection of his eleven film scores. Probably the best known is Paris, Texas, the 1984 road movie starring Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski, produced by Wim Wenders.

In 1996, our Ry was invited to Havana to record with a collection of veteran Cuban performers. The result was the Cooder-produced Buena Vista Social Club, which opens with Chan Chan, a recently written song by the ‘giant of Cuban music’, 89-year-old Compay Segundo. In his liner notes, Ry, who contributes guitar to almost every track, writes: ‘This album is blessed with some of the finest musicians in Cuba today – their dedication to their music and rapport with each other is unique in my experience. Working on this project was a joy and a great privilege.’

Among those to receive a late-life career boost from Buena Vista, which featured in a documentary film by Wenders, was the pianist Ruben Gonzalez. By the 1990s he had fallen on hard times and did not even own a piano but was persuaded to come out of retirement for the album. Rediscovering his enthusiasm and talent, he was first to the studio every morning and played all day, leading Cooder to call him ‘the greatest piano soloist I have ever heard in my life’. Here is his song Pueblo Nuevo

On the strength of this, at the age of 77, he won a contract to record a solo album, Introducing Ruben Gonzalez. Two other Buena Vista stars, the singers Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo, were also given their own subsequent solo releases.

In 2000 came Hollow Bamboo, a collaboration with US trumpeter Jon Hassell and Indian flautist Ronu Majumdar. This hard-to-find CD is recognised as a chill-out classic but any Cooder freaks tempted to fork out big money should beware: his playing is little to be heard.

Back to Cuba for Mambo Sinuendo, a jolly 2001 link-up with the guitarist Manuel Galban. According to Cooder, ‘Galban and I felt that there was a sound that had not been explored, a Cuban electric-guitar band that could re-interpret the atmosphere of the 1950s with beauty, agility, and simplicity. We decided on two electrics, two drum sets, congas and bass: a sexteto that could swing like a big band and penetrate the mysteries of the classic tunes. This music is powerful, lyrical, and funny; what more could you ask?’ The first track, Drume Negrita, gives a good indication of what the album is about but it does have its reflective moments, notably on a reworking of the classic Secret Love. Eat your heart out, Kathy Kirby.

For the next couple of years Ry continued production work with his Cuban chums before returning to the studio under his own name for a historical concept album, 1995’s Chavez Ravine. This tells the story of a Los Angeles district inhabited by Mexicans and poor Americans. Their strong community spirit counted for nothing when their shacks were obliterated in the 1950s to make way for a public housing project which never came off. Eventually it became the site of a baseball stadium occupied by the Brooklyn Dodgers when they moved to LA.

Although Ry’s later work can often be simplistic and display startling political naivety, his guitar playing and particularly his singing continued to blossom. Chavez Ravine has some good tracks, in particular Poor Man’s Shangri-La, Chinito Chinito and the lovely 3rd Base, Dodger Stadium. 

The next album, My Name Is Buddy, I confess I gave to the charity shop. Released in 2007, it is about a cat, a mouse and a toad journeying across America ‘in days of labour, big bosses, farm failures, strikes’ and so on; you get the picture.

I, Flathead (2008) is an improvement on its predecessor although its subtitle, The Songs of Kash Buk and the Klowns, indicates its lack of intellectual sophistication. Musically it’s pretty simple, too, with a succession of jogalong ditties such as Waitin’ For Some Girl and Ridin’ With The Blues. 

Cooder goes full-on political with his next two albums, 2011’s Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, and 2012’s Election Special, neither of which, as one might expect, is sympathetic to the Republican Party.

There is then a gap until 2018. Unsurprisingly I hesitated before investing the Ashworth twelve quid in The Prodigal Son. However, praise the Lord, it provides a much-belated return to form, largely because Ry returns to one of his specialities, cover versions of gospel songs. Track one, Straight Street, was originally recorded by the Pilgrim Travelers in 1955. Everybody Ought To Treat a Stranger Right is an old Blind Willie Johnson number featuring Ry on slide and on backing vocals Bobby King and Terry Evans – this proved to be Terry’s last album as he died that same year at the age of 80. The title tune, a traditional gospel number, follows the same happy path.

You Must Unload, an Alfred Reed song from 1927, could sit happily on one of Cooder’s early albums, as could the traditional I’ll Be Rested When The Roll Is Called

 Harbour of Lovewritten by Carter Stanley in 1955, is gentle and peaceful, as is a Cooder original, Jesus and Woody, in which Ry imagines his great hero Woody Guthrie meeting his Saviour in Heaven.   

Here’s a clip of Woody’s song Do Re Mi  performed by Cooder, Van Dyke Parks and some bloke called Zimmerman on vocals.

So that’s more or less it for Cooder’s Story, although until the virus he was still delighting live audiences around the world. I’ll leave you with a track from his golden years, Billy The Kid, off 1972’s Into The Purple Valley, one of my top ten albums of all time.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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