SORROWED by its vanishing soul, Ry Cooder struck out on an odyssey to rediscover the city he loved and nearly got trapped in ‘Chavez Ravine’
By Lynell George, Times Staff Writer
IT’S ONE of those grim afternoons when the whole of L.A. seems to have simply up and vanished; disappeared behind a dirty, gray scrim of smog and haze. You could have sworn you saw it just a moment ago. So where did it all get to so fast?
On days like this, Ry Cooder would just as soon tuck himself away anyway, conjure up something else to fit in the absence.
His hideaway-cum-laboratory is an old relic of a studio — Sound City — slipped into a nondescript cul-de-sac in Panorama City. “Things here still have tubes and things,” says the musician-composer, taking a brief pause in a small kitchen area redolent with the bitter scent of overheated coffee and must. “It’s an old busted-up place. Isn’t it great?” His face lights up as he takes in the clutter: magazine stacks and mismatched mugs and someone’s shoes parked in a corner. In a rumpled white T-shirt over line-cook checks and navy blue Vans edged in orange, Cooder looks like a veteran swing-shift man on break, ready to pull another double.
It’s not so far from the truth. What Cooder’s been busy constructing in these beat-up rooms is a commensurately fading story: his latest recording, “Chavez Ravine” — a long glance back at a now-vanished Los Angeles and a poor hilltop neighborhood, rich in traditions whose memory hovers like a dream.
Spending time with him over many months, it becomes clear the project is his most personal and, perhaps, most challenging to date. It’s been an exercise in memory, history, myth-making — trying to reconstruct not just a physical place, but a way of life, plank by plank.
The tale he has set out to tell is a path as steep and full of turns as the unpaved roads leading up to that old neighborhood: By the early 1950s, the mostly Mexican and Mexican American residents of the La Loma, Bishop and Palo Verde neighborhoods were evicted to make room for an expansive federal housing project. The plan pitted idealistic liberals against progress-minded conservatives, both businessmen and politicians — all under the long shadow of McCarthyism — and then came the curveball. By decade’s end, the Los Angeles Dodgers won out, crowning the hilltop with their then-state-of-the-art stadium.
Cooder’s project, with elements that reach well beyond the recording studio, has occupied all four corners of his imagination and has required a lion’s share of his energy and time. Even in a career arc that has been as wide and idiosyncratic as his, it is incomparable to anything he’s embarked on in his 40 years in the music business — including his critically acclaimed and creatively rejuvenating Cuban project, “Buena Vista Social Club.”
For the native Angeleno, exploring the Chavez Ravine story is not so much about setting the record straight, but setting down a different sort of record. “I’m just simply saying, ‘I remember the way L.A. used to be. And I like it that way,’ ” he says.
On this day late last summer, Cooder has just about hit the two-year mark in this ambitious musical assemblage, steeped in collaboration with seminal artists from L.A.’s Latin music scene. He’s closing in. The tracks are recorded, the liner notes written (by journalist Ruben Martinez). The record, he hopes, will be a 360-degree exploration of a neighborhood — in texture and mood. Its palette — a melange of styles: corrido, jazz and pop, conjunto and some shades of R&B — is as diverse and hard to pinpoint as Los Angeles itself.
He’s got more ideas, other ways to make this out-of-mothballs story resonate: “I want to build this ice cream truck, like the old Good Humor trucks that used to go through the neighborhood,” he says. “But inside the box, we’ll have a diorama of the ravine. On the outside, I want to have a mural where every panel tells a piece of the story. I’ve already found the guy. He lives in Texas. He’s a genius Chicano artist, Vincent Valdez.”
Then, of course, that whole process should be documented, Cooder figures. For that task, he’s tapped a longtime friend, filmmaker Stacy Peralta. “It can be filmed for a DVD to be released with the record instead of doing one of those god-awful videos,” he says with a rueful shake of the head, as if he’s bitten into something bitter. “It won’t be textbook-y though.”
By this time, he has wound himself through a warren of dim hallways and back into one of the recording booths. Time and place seem to have pulled away. Under the yellow glow of spare light, it might as well be 3 a.m. in here. And while there are concessions to progress and innovation — a laptop here, CD changers there — it could be 30 years ago, perhaps more. Something Cooder likes. “Records are not museum pieces. This studio is retro, older. So it’s complementary to textures we’re after.”
The man in the engineer’s chair, Jerry Boys, is no stranger. He also worked on “Buena Vista” — both the record and the film. He’s ready now to cue it all up for Cooder, who settles into a patched-up sofa, chin in palm, to listen.
There’s the establishing sonic shot: In “Poor Man’s Shangri-La,” nighttime Los Angeles comes to life, a homeboy (in the voice of Cooder) spinning stories just as a space vato sweeps by in his UFO looking for a party, a fusion of grooves — partly tropical, partly citified and full-on joyous.
On the next track, the great Lalo Guerrero, the father of Chicano music, leaps in with a brazen one-two punch, a strutting corrido, telling of the boxing Chavez brothers who lived in the ravine’s Palo Verde and La Loma neighborhoods.
Further along the road, the space vato returns in the voice of bandleader Don Tosti (“Pachuco Boogie”) to warn the residents of the ravine’s future. “He’s saying, ‘The barrio is changing; they are going to bury our homes.’ But nobody believed him. They thought, ‘We have rights in America,’ ” Cooder translates, over the chilliness of Juliette Commagere’s dreamy vocal, just as the song collapses into a smear of otherworldly echoes and whirs.
It bends this way and that. In English and Spanish then back again, it’s moody, zany, seductive and uncategorizable — more cinema or opera than garden-variety pop album. Cooder is smiling as it all crawls by. In this space, in this bubble, everything is light and easy — until it isn’t. Track 10 unscrolls: a slinky reworking of Leiber and Stoller’s “Three Cool Cats” featuring Willie G. of Thee Midniters fame, Gil Bernal on tenor sax. Cooder taps out the rhythm, until he hears something. Something off. Boys hears it too. Without a word or even an exchanged glance, all stops — like a train in trouble.
The colloquy is over. Cooder’s disposition has gone dark. He and Boys huddle for a moment and Cooder settles, disconsolate, scrunched back into his corner of the sofa. “I like environment in music,” he explains. “It locates something between you and the listener. And that was just starting to sound too roomy. Too vague.”
“It’s got the arm in the wrong place,” Boys says. “We’ll do it again. Where do you want to start, Ry?”
They dismantle it — the timbales here, Bernal’s horn there, the purring girls there, the sound of tires on pavement — isolating the problem, which just might be something with the timbales. “The bass drum is sitting about right,” Cooder says. “Well, let’s see if we can make it walk across the room.”
After much tinkering, Boys hands over a CD. Cooder makes for the door.
“Gotta hear it the way people do riding around. If you’re in your car it won’t be as glorious and pretty as it is in that old studio,” he says, venturing outside. It’s inky black out by now. He climbs into his Toyota truck and slips in the disc. “It’s got to be funny and mysterious right away. Otherwise, you’ll just stop and go get a sandwich.” The sounds of some far-off neighborhood at twilight fill the car, and Cooder nods along — the girls purr, the timbales strut, the dogs bark. It doesn’t sound bad. But what he doesn’t say is that it sounds good enough. “Close but no cigar.”
Of late, it’s been difficult to tell if Cooder is haunting a neighborhood or if it’s haunting him. He’s been on this ride since encountering photographer Don Normark’s dreamy pictures at an Echo Park gallery more than three years ago. The two connected and Normark told Cooder of his plan to make a documentary about his time reacquainting with the families from the old neighborhood. He needed some music and Cooder figured he could help him out. “After all these years, I had this floating stuff in the drawers.”
But it didn’t stop there. “Why not do some music?” he figured. “But in order to do that you have to write it. There aren’t any songs about Chavez Ravine as such. So that’s what got me going.”
He motored down to Palm Springs to meet with Guerrero, whom many credit with helping to articulate the Chicano experience in song — mixing Spanish-language lyrics with swing and R&B, giving birth to a new sound.
Next Tosti, the colorful bandleader who tipped off a music and dance craze in 1948 with his zoot suit-inspired “Pachuco Boogie,” which married jazz and jump-blues with a mix of Latin rhythms to become the first million-selling Latin record.
They wrote some tunes. “I’d go to see Willie G., get him going. I’d say, ‘Look what I did with Lalo here, see, there’s something to this.’ ”
But even after Cooder handed over a mix for Normark he couldn’t seem to shake the story. “I started to think, ‘This is a really good thing to do. I’m going to do it some more.’ ”
Three years and more than $350,000 of his own money later, Cooder is knee-deep in it. He’s faced disappointments and delays, and has weathered the passing of two of the old-guard contributors, Guerrero and Tosti. “Who knows? After all of this, I may end up living in a cardboard lean-to somewhere.” (The record is slated for release June 14 from Nonesuch/Perro Verde Records.)
But Cooder’s career has been nothing if not unconventional and full of risks. Born in Santa Monica, he began playing guitar at 3. By his mid-teens, he’d planted himself firmly on the L.A. folk and blues scene in the early ’60s. He immediately amassed an impressive roster of associations — Jackie DeShannon, Taj Mahal and Captain Beefheart, among others.
A slide-guitar virtuoso and a keenly adroit composer, Cooder has been called many things — an “archivist,” a “world music pioneer,” labels he finds utterly distasteful. “You come back from Cuba and it creates this illusion that you’re some sort of guy with a big, thick stack of airline tickets just going everywhere. Just whimsically cruising around the world,” he says. “That’s far from the truth. I don’t do that. I don’t even like the idea. I like to stay home.”
Though he’s spent a good portion of his career absorbing and extrapolating all manner of roots music and source sounds — American blues, Tex-Mex, Hawaiian, African and Indian — Cooder puts his work in more straightforward terms: “I consider myself a fan of the music.”
But what has often sent him searching, digging deeper for the purest elements, is a quality that can’t be simply articulated: “There are people who generate excitement … who are transcendently gifted,” he says. People like Gabby Pahinui, the Hawaiian slack guitarist, or Cuban guitarist Compay Segundo. “Call it a ‘source person’ if you like. I try to understand these things. How is it done? To this day, it’s a mystery.”
Consequently, Cooder has earned disparate camps of fans — those guitar heads who want to know if he cut his own bottle necks; “the traditionalists” who sink into the crevices of his roots music; or those who came later drawn by his contemplative, horizon-less film scores, including “Paris, Texas,” “Johnny Handsome” and “The End of Violence.”
“Chavez Ravine” falls somewhere in the middle of all this. It certainly plays on Cooder’s ravenous curiosity, his itch to get at the source of things. But it is also the story of his native city and his complex relationship with it: The crass overpopulated L.A. that he races to get through — the city it has become — and the one full of open space and secrets that resides in his memory.
This project then was the perfect work for him at the perfect time. “After Cuba I just did not know, ‘What the hell are you gonna do now? You’ve seen the best in the world. The last of the true oracle-grade vernacular musicians.’ Everything was old and crumbling. Even the people. You come back here and the past is dead.”
Cooder, 58, has been trying to get a fix on something long gone, not so much to pay tribute to it but to prop it up and dust it off and show us all how it is still vibrant and essential. From the beginning, the challenge was, “To build a mood … something that you can sustain every day. Because you have to get up every day and look at this thing.”
A HUNT FOR IMAGES
Cooder is sitting in the shade on the courtyard near the Flower Street entrance of downtown’s Central Library. It’s a hot day, but you can feel the crispness of autumn edging into the air. In his sand-colored work pants, a muted floral shirt and a pair of canvas shoes known affectionately around the neighborhood as “winos,” he would blend in as just one of the afternoon idlers ruminating on the benches and banisters if not for his big, goggle-like sunglasses, the frames the yellow of taxicabs. “I’ve been here for an hour, getting my head together,” he says. “Had some coffee.”
He gathers up his tote bag full of his essentials — a slim, caramel-colored Filofax, a large Moleskine notebook, some CDs and some stray notes, then makes his way down to one of the sub-basements where the library’s photo collection is stored. As well as looking for images for the CD booklet and others to hand over to the Texas muralist, Cooder has hopes for a map. “One of those big ones that used to hang in offices downtown that they’d frame. The ones that show the whole city.”
Carolyn Cole, who heads up the photo collection, brings over a pile of pictures in a folder marked “slums.” “Aliso Village. Bunker Hill too! Oh, I’m going to get seriously sidetracked,” Cooder says. He pages through picture after picture — bucolic L.A., old-growth trees, Victorian houses, street corners that have recognizable names but not features. “I spend at least a minute every day being mad about what happened to Bunker Hill,” he says with a grim head shake. “Bastards got away with murder!”
A bit later, Cole leads Cooder to another room to look through other folders and boxes of photos. Then he attacks the street atlases. He opens one and sniffs the pages: “This is real good but I need something larger.” One of Cole’s colleagues sails in with a roll-up map. Hand drawn, blue ink on tan, the streets — Malvina, Reposa, Palducah — clearly marked. “This is it. This is the thing. Very exactly.”
Some days aren’t so smooth. He’s been on all manner of chases since this whole thing started. He’s crisscrossed the region — on the 60 Freeway, the 110, the 5, the 10, after one thing or another. He’s run up thousands of minutes on his cellphone securing permissions, talking to his musicians, people at the label. He’s darted out to Whittier in the driving rain to pick up snapshots; he’s been to Texas to meet with artist Valdez. He catches up with the crew working on the ice cream truck, and talks to filmmaker Peralta, whose schedule is starting to get squeezed.
Amid it all, Cooder has been caught up in other research — reading, talking to writers and scholars. Finding the book “The Provisional City: Los Angeles Stories of Architecture and Urbanism” by Dana Cuff, a professor of architecture at UCLA, was a crucial turning point. “Her book set the mood of a hidden world … and hidden beauty of the past. It was all about what had happened to a way of living in the city,” he says. “It went beyond the idea of ‘good old times’ and ‘how sad.’ Because ‘how sad’ doesn’t get you anywhere.”
The book opened a clear path for his imagination. “I thought, ‘Hallelujah! All I have to do is score this book — treat the book as a film.’ The book got me…. I read it five, six times…. Then I began to convert it into a mood. You’ve got to convert information into a mood so that you find yourself in it.”
While he’s after the story, he’s also after the ambience and atmosphere of hidden corners of the city and tapping into precisely what that might feel like — the spiky quarrels between mother and daughter, vatos on the corner, the apprehension of the advancing bulldozers, the rush of a Saturday night opening up under the stars.
“I think this is so unique,” says his son, drummer Joachim Cooder, who is also one of “Chavez Ravine’s” key collaborators, stitching together samples taken from Tuvan throat singers, old drum machines and random Cuban sessions for the backspace. “With the Cubans, you just go there and play. It’s totally not thought out. And if it was thought out, it would end up being not what you thought. But this is his hometown and he is such a connoisseur of L.A. history.
“So this is a whole other ballgame.”
THE VISION EXPANDS
By February, Cooder’s had another brainstorm. Most likely, it won’t be his last.
Peralta’s out and a discussion with another potential filmmaker, Philip Rodriguez, has consequently cast a light on an area he hadn’t explored. “The psycho developer wreaking havoc,” Cooder explains. So that got him thinking. Then writing. What emerged was the song “In My Town.”
“It’s very dark and fairly horrible,” he says with equal parts assuredness and glee. “The idea is that you come out of the neighborhood and then you suddenly hear this psychopath. It just boots it into a different realm.” He rubs his hands in a way that says, “Very nice.”
He books another old-school studio — Studio B at Capitol records — and flies in jazz musician Jacky Terrasson from New York and sits him down at Nat Cole’s old piano.
Not only is there this new song, Cooder has now decided against the film (too costly, too time-consuming). The record has been re-sequenced and remixed yet again. “I just kept having this horrible leaden feeling. Now, I feel good instead of that hideous sense of disappointment. Like, can’t I please like something?”
He’s also decided to pen the liner notes himself, realizing he had to locate himself in the project somehow. “If I back off, people will wonder, ‘What’s the deal with that?’ ” He’s been keenly aware from the beginning that he may be viewed as an outsider: “What does some boy from Santa Monica know about all this? You better know what you don’t know.”
Writer Martinez (“I’ve never been fired in a nicer way”) admits he had his antenna up when he got the first call about the liner notes. “But Cooder is a different kind of animal when it comes to the intercultural project,” the author of “The New Americans” says. “His collaborations are a world apart from those of Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel where [artists put themselves] front-and-center against an exotic backdrop. Cooder’s projects weren’t ego-driven. On ‘Buena Vista Social Club,’ his name was not [big] on the cover. His guitar was buried in the mix. So I’ve always respected him for that. And if nothing else, recording Don Tosti’s and Lalo Guerrero’s swan songs will earn his place in heaven.”
Cooder has been obsessed with getting it right.
“By the time he came to me he already had the concept but wanted to be able to put a heartbeat to it,” says Willie G., who collaborated with Cooder on nearly half a dozen songs.
As an L.A. native who had family who lived in Chavez Ravine, Willie G. (born William Garcia), feels that this project is not just a tribute to a neighborhood but to Guerrero. “Lalo was out there shaking the trees. His music helped us to bridge our identities. Our community is so much more than a location. We have so much more than any politician could try to take away from us,” he says.
While the album is a celebration of collaboration, one would be wrong to think of “Chavez Ravine” as “Buena Vista Social Club: L.A.” That’s what’s also sort of needling Cooder — trying to get people to think beyond what they’re accustomed to and explaining a record that really has no precedent.
So how to make that dent — create a bridge that listeners will cross? “With Lalo and Don and Willie, we had the real quality,” Cooder says. “We had the possibility of making the whole thing take you somewhere where you weren’t quite expecting to go. The journey is a real journey. Not just cool or styling cool. Because we are just swamped with that now.”
For many longtime Angelenos, the album’s wash of moods, rhythms and cultural touchstones will be deeply resonant. That’s because in many respects “Chavez Ravine” is the soundtrack to an intrinsically Latin city constantly in flux. But its story extends much further. “There is a part of this [neighborhood’s story] that is fundamentally Los Angeles,” says author-professor Cuff. “It’s about landscape, about Latino history, architecture and modern housing. But it is a story of eminent domain that plays out in a lot of cities. Small houses of poor people of color become the terrain of the big dream of city fathers,” she says. “That’s why the story of Chavez Ravine hooks into one’s heart. There was no easy answer. Big dreams are often imperfect. But we shouldn’t stop ourselves from dreaming big.”
‘THE VISUAL ELEMENT’
It’s getting on to evening and Cooder’s holed up at the Santa Monica Airport, where he keeps a small studio. It’s cozy, dimly lighted and a bit scuffed up around the edges. It’s quiet but what he also appreciates are the low, spread-out vistas that obscure most traces of the modern city.
Just a few steps away, there’s a small auto shop where a crew works on the ice cream truck. He peeks in for a bit. Geoff Giammarco has been pulling 12- to 15-hour shifts on the truck, though all of it — mural and diorama — won’t be ready until long after the album is released. Up on blocks, all brushed silver, it looks as if it’s already in motion — almost as if it has taken flight. “This is now going to be the visual element,” Cooder says. “Imagine that riding up Solano. Going to one of the reunions. Playing the music.”
Although it is still only spring, he’s already not too happy with what lies immediately around the corner. Meet-and-greets and interviews and “meetings with men in the square-toed shoes.” Performing is out of the question. “Tosti’s dead and Lalo’s dead. So, really, what would we do?” And anyway, Cooder says of his performing days, “Afterward, I always feel worn out, like a [helium] balloon under a chair after a party.”
In his perfect world, this record alone would be all he’d need. It would be a marker, a way to keep this way of life present and among the living.
“I try to say something there about the timbre of life. If you look at these pictures and listen to the music … what does it really seem to be about?” Cooder says. “It seems like it is about something small and something intimate and something quiet and something that I like.”
Photo by Susan Titelman