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.”
Cooder acknowledges that his career has been anything but a straight line. “What you’re really doing in music is expressing yourself and whatever yourself is keeps changing and your pursuit keeps changing, but the goal is to learn an instrument or get better at an instrument, and have things happen to you. That’s what makes life interesting.”