Ry Cooder will forever be remembered for his production and guitar playing on the Buena Vista Social Club album and Ali Farka Touré’s Talking Timbuktu. His own albums have been the definition of eclectic, pulling in influences from all over the map. He’s also been on something of a nostalgic theme album kick lately: 2005’s Chavez Ravine was dedicated to a forgotten Mexican neighborhood razed to build Dodger Stadium, and his new one, My Name Is Buddy, follows the adventures of a left-leaning cat (literally) named Buddy who lived during the mid-20th Century.
Are you a cat lover?
Oh, we always have cats. Cats are, always been, companions. They come, animals come as strays in my experience. This one, we’ve had him for 20 years.
Oh wow, that’s quite a stretch, even for a cat. I’ve always been more of a dog person myself.
We have dogs too; they don’t live as long.
They don’t, indeed.
It’s so sad when they go, too. This cat’s mother is buried in the yard, I mean, he’s not going to be around too much longer. We can never move because we have a big pet cemetery outside. We’ll have to stay here for the rest of our life, and probably get buried in the yard!
What’s the allure of having a cat as the protagonist of this album?
He’s simple. Everything is simplified, a version of simplicity, but there’s some detail in it. I like the idea that he’ll say something like, “Well, the thing about J. Edgar Hoover the pig” or whatever the observation is, it’s simple but it’s true, but it isn’t. You don’t have to think in terms of human consciousness—how complicated everything gets, and how tough it is now, because after all, we’re no longer part of this world anymore. All our perceptions are so diverted or managed or whatever you want to say. But for Buddy that’s not the case, he knows his own mind, his mind is not such a maze.
This album has a sort of dust bowl feel to it. Did your family migrate west with everyone else?
Actually, my mother did grow up as a sharecropper on a farm. Italian family, they were immigrants around the turn of the century in Goleta. There were a lot of Italians in that area of central California. The first wave of migrant workers after the Chinese was Italians. And they actually settled and did real well, as we know.
There’s mention of country crooner Ray Price on the album. Is he a big influence?
Ray Price has “My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You” and “I Got Big Shoes To Fill” and all those songs. And those songs called me so hard: I used to say: “I’m sick, I can’t go to school,” and I would sit home while my parents went to work and listen to the hillbilly station. Just waiting to hear these songs, I tell you. “Hey Porter” by Johnny Cash—I memorized it the first time I heard it, which I could do in those days. I couldn’t do that anymore.
Between Chavez Ravine, the Buena Vista Social Club and this album, there seems to be a melancholy look to the past?
I have to tell you, music for me is a look back, not a look forward. Because all my life I’ve been noticing that stuff was receding. I couldn’t catch up to the receding aspect of it. Then in the ’60s, there was this brief period where the window opened and there was enough people still alive, and you could make contact with them, or at least see them in the flesh. But that didn’t stop it from receding. And you knew this was happening. I could tell this by the time I hit high school, I could see that everything I liked was going to get harder to find and harder to reach and harder to grasp, even understand. So I had to hurry. So I got in the habit of being in a hurry but it’s never fast enough because shit just kept disappearing on me.
Was that the allure of Cuba for you?
Okay call me nostalgic or some word, but the truth is down there -- the past and the present are one thing, whereas here the past is nothin