The All-American Music Man

No-one has celebrated the rich variety of American music with more virtuosity than Ry Cooder, who starts a British Tour this week. In his homeland he remains almost unknown, after a dozen years of recording. But here he seems set to change status from cult to rock star. Report: Mick Brown.

The Sunday Times (UK) May 1982


Illustration - Anne Sharp

It was the Mexicans that did it. The violent hue of his shirt notwithstanding, the tall, taciturn figure in the centre of the stage looked unremarkable enough. The black gospel singers to his left were, it is true, an unusual fixture in the setting of the Hammersmith Odeon. But it was the group of beaming Mexicans to the figure's right, a dapper, mustachioed accordionist foremost among them, lending their weight to songs which stretched back to the Depression and beyond, and being rapturously received by the audience -- it was this that put the hot pepper on the enchilada in conveying the charm, eccentricity and humour in Ry Cooder's music.

Bizarre it may have been, but Cooder's first appearance in Britain in 1978 -- and a subsequent visit in 1980 -- were of the standard that make a fellowship of those who saw them. Heartwarming, personable in a way rock concerts seldom are, they made those who knew and loved Ry Cooder feel different from the rest.

The rest, of course, comprised the clear majority. Cooder may have been making records for 12 years; Rolling Stone magazine may indeed have described him as "the finest, most precise bottleneck guitar player alive today" -- not, perhaps, the sort of endorsement to galvanise the uninitiated -- but still Cooder was a well-kept secret: a man who even in his native California could hardly claim to be a household name in anyone's household but his own. This week Ry Cooder returns to Britain -- without the Mexicans but with the gospel singers -- having already achieved the somewhat remarkable feat of selling out a huge London theatre for eight consecutive nights. The rest, it seems, are becoming fewer in number.

It is not simply the content of what he plays that tends to make people who know Cooder's work take it to heart and keep it there. To say he blends folk, blues, rhythm and blues, Texas-Mexican and other American musical idioms may be true, but it says nothing of the artistry behind it, nor of what may well be Cooder's most remarkable achievement -- to have maintained his standards and survived.

This is an important tour for Cooder, whose popularity has seemingly escalated at a faster rate in Europe than it has in America. There is no American city, he says, where he could fill a theatre for five nights, let alone eight. American audiences have had trouble knowing what to make of him. "When I took my Mexicans to the East Coast the audiences despised it," says Cooder, evidently still smarting from the blow. "To me it was something great, strange, exotic, weird but very beautiful -- exciting in other words, like bearded ladies and midgets. All they could see was Mexicans in polyester suits, black guys singing church style.... no way were they going to go for it." This is the problem. American music, as Cooder will tell you, is in "a mindless period": what place for a man who seriously questions the ethics of a disco beat against the "humanitarian overtones" of jazz syncopation? or who is given to pondering how an Okinawan love song could sound exactly like a Memphis rhythm and blues song? Few enough people ask that sort of question nowadays, if they ever did. Fewer still bother to go to Okinawa, as Cooder did, to find out the answer.

From the age of 10, when his father gave him his first guitar, Cooder says, he was "monorailed" to the almost total exclusion of anything else. His parents moved in politically radical circles, and introduced him to the music of Woody Guthrie, the itinerant folk singer who wrote songs on a guitar emblazoned with the legend "This machine kills fascists". Cooder was enraptured, by Guthrie and the mythology of the dust-bowl and the rural poor. But the blues, when he found it, was stronger, darker and more alluring still.

Cooder became a fixture in local folk-clubs, crouched at the feet of singers like Sleepy John Estes and the Reverend Gary Davis -- last practitioners of the rural blues tradition -- absorbing everything, "before they died or were shipped off to the county old folks' home"; he was inhaling the aroma of an exotic world.

When he began working as a studio musician, he was like a puritan among cavaliers. "There was always a streak of evangelism about him," says the percussionist Milt Holland, who first played with Cooder 16 years ago. "He was an extraordinary guitarist even then, but not out to put one over on anybody. Doing sessions can be like digging ditches, but he'd always put his heart and soul into it."

Cooder's reputation grew and he was much in demand. In 1969 he was invited to London to record by the Rolling Stones, then the height of notoriety. "The only thing I knew about them," says Cooder, "was that they'd done a bad version of It's All Over Now by Bobby Womack and the Valentinos...." He looks perplexed. "I never could understand why they did that." The recordings were a musical but not a social success. Cooder did not understand the Rolling Stones, thought "the Moroccan bead and incense trip" a little peculiar, but the cheque, when it came, was the most money he'd ever seen at the time -- "and damn near since".

Finally, in 1970, with his tolerance of the routine demands of session-work wearing increasingly thin, Cooder recorded his first solo album. To the reconstructed blues and folk songs that comprised his repertoire in those days, he has subsequently brought myriad styles and influences. He travelled to Hawaii to learn slack-key guitar playing from one of the last exponents of the style, Gabby Pahinui, and spent six months mastering the accordion so he could play with the Mexican Flaco Jimenez. He found dance songs from Texas, rhythm and blues songs from Chicago and rock and roll from Memphis. "His knowledge of old music is awe-inspiring, second to none," says Jim Keltner, who has played on and off with Cooder (presently on) for 12 years. "He digs up names no-one has ever heard of before. I sometimes wonder if he doesn't make them up."

Some critics have been prompted to characterise Cooder as an ethnomusicologist, a curator of American music idioms and traditions -- and it is this sort of talk which causes him to assume the expression of a man watching a cockroach crawl out of his soup. "It's horrible, horrible. I never asked for any of that stuff to be said about me. I get a reputation for being 'eclectic' or some damn thing like that, but to me the different kinds of music I play are all the same stuff -- good time music -- and it is the only stuff I can do."

Nonetheless, he admits that his status as "a sort of academic in residence" has been critical in maintaining his foothold in Warner Bros through the years when his records were apparently being bought only by friends and relations.

To the executives at Warner Bros Burbank offices - a study in stripped pine, stained glass and ethnic rug, ornamented with icons to more trustworthy money-spinners like Fleetwood Mac and the Doobie Brothers -- Cooder's continued presence on the label has been a matter of artistic merit, even conscience. "Ry is the kind of artist that keeps us honest," says Lenny Waronker, the head of A & R, who was instrumental in signing Cooder to the label in the first place. "He is one of those rarities that you just have to leave alone to do what he wants -- you can't play around with him. He's not a fool. From the very beginning his records have gone against the kind of records everyone else makes and which sell, but he knew that. But the guy is so great, and that kind of artistry has to pay off somewhere along the line."

Certainly, Cooder's commercial standing has risen by degrees in recent years. His album Bop Till You Drop gave him his first British chart entry in 1979; and he has lately been discovered by Hollywood and composed film scores for Walter Hill's The Long Riders and Southern Comfort, and most recently The Border, directed by Tony Richardson. Film work, says Cooder, provides "a cool piece of change", but he makes no secret of his frustration at having been regarded as a cult artist for so long. "The record industry is like a fast car; it doesn't idle well. You get up there in fourth gear and you're really rocking. But for me, I'm still lugging around town in second gear in a car that wants to go 130mph, and that's kind of a grind." And yet one feels that even if the car he was in was going at 130mph, the first place Cooder would be likely to drive it is home. The description most often voiced of Ry Cooder by those who know him is "family man".

"I've worked with madmen," says Jim Keltner, "and Ry is not like that at all. He does his work and he goes home. That's rare in a musician, but I think that stability is a real important part of his creativity."

"I've had people tell me I don't look or act like a musician," says Cooder with a sigh. "I'm not proud they've said that; it gets me mad. What's a musician supposed to act like? I'm just me; an ordinary guy. This business pumps air into people; they feel they've got to behave in a certain way. But it's easy to be crazy. It's hard to play music."

Cooder, his wife Susan, who is a sculptor, and their three-year-old son Joachim live in Santa Monica in an old property built in the Spanish style. Cooder bought it before prices soared, and says he could never afford it now. There have been builders in and out of the place for the past four years, and the Cooders have not yet got around to furnishing it. But the setting is idyllic, a short walk to the Pacific among palms and hibiscus. On a fine day the ocean appears to stretch into infinity, and the promenade is thronged with joggers, cyclists and roller-skaters.

Cooder is not immune to the contagion. He has a racing bike which he cycles around town, and lately he has taken up an exercise regime called aerobics. Three times a week he pulls up his '66 Buick beside the chocolate BMWs and Mercedes in the car park and takes his place among the rich young things in leg-warmers; his legs take their revenge next morning, but he admits he is hooked. Since having a child, he says, his life has speeded up immeasurably. "I used to be slow to do anything - that was always my problem. Now I work too hard..."

Last year alone Cooder wrote and recorded two film scores, and his newest album release The Slide Area. The word being optimistically bandied around the pine-clad corridors of Burbank is that this will be the record to confirm Cooder's stardom in Europe and, who knows, perhaps even to give him a gold record in America. Cooder is more philosophical. "I can only do what I can do. I don't care who you are, man. You can be a pigmy nose flute player from the Congo and if you came up with the right record you'd be on the air right now in this town and on the charts next week. It's democracy in action...".