THE ORIGINAL RY COODER
“It was obvious to me by the time I was 20 that if I wanted to keep playing the same rock ‘n’ roll bottleneck (guitar) licks I could work a lot of recording sessions and make some money. But I also knew that I’d eventually be strip-mined. I could feel it beginning to happen . . . the repetition and the tendency for people to say quite simply, ‘Just do the same thing you did on that last record.’ You’d try to tell them you could do something better, but they’d say, ‘We don’t want “better.” We want the same.’ You get to where you don’t feel like you are making music, you are just stamping out music. That’s what pushed me into making my own records. I could see right away that the emphasis was on sales in the record business, so my concern was to find a way to stay afloat in the middle of all this. I just figured the better I got, whatever the style was, the more people would enjoy it.
“But it was clear to me at a certain point that it could be a problem if I put all my eggs in one basket. When the film thing (sound-track assignments) came along, I saw there could be a future for me in that. They are making new films all the time and somewhere in all those films there is a diversity that isn’t in the record business. They even honor the use of abstract music . . . your ability to use resources and be thoughtful or intuitive on that level. Film represented a challenge. It is packaged the same way the record business is packaged, but there is more room (for me) to work and grow in different areas. You just know that the people you admire in music didn’t get great by settling for some kind of niche. I mean if that had stopped developing as soon as they found something that worked for them, they wouldn’t be that good. Earl Hines is a good example. Think of the drive he must have had to be individualistic and so good. You’ve got to be able to say no when someone comes along and asks if you want this little cubbyhole . . . and a chair with your name on it.”
That’s the longest quote I’ve ever used in an article, but it captures the passion, long-range strategy and articulateness of guitarist-composer Ry Cooder, whose uniquely original vision of American pop music has been documented on more than a dozen studio and sound-track albums. In a field in which everyone loves to talk about doing it “my way,” Cooder may be the one guy in pop music who has truly done it his way. He has worked for more than 20 years in two fields that are noted for forcing compromises on artists, yet he has a body of work that seems remarkably pure in vision and spirit.
Cooder, 39, was playing a guitar before he was in grade school in Los Angeles. He spent most of his teen years literally at the feet of the great country, blues and folk musicians who played the old Ash Grove on Melrose Avenue. By the time he was 18, Cooder was in a band with Taj Mahal and his lonesome, bottleneck guitar style was later featured on numerous albums, including ones by Captain Beefheart and the Rolling Stones. He also contributed several distinctive moments to “Performance,” Jack Nitzsche’s 1970 sound track that was a pioneer in the serious use of rock music in film.
In his own albums, Cooder explored various facets of traditional-, folk- and blues-oriented American music--from Cajun to jazz, modern country to hillbilly, Delta blues to Tex-Mex. Though he cracked the national Top 50 with his “Borderline” album in 1981, Cooder seemed destined to remain a cult artist. But the move to films has brought him wider attention.
He won the Los Angeles Film Critics Circle award for best score of 1980 for his work on Walter Hill’s “The Long Riders.” He has since done more than a half dozen additional scores, including two current releases, “Crossroads” and “Blue City.”
The albums that perhaps best showcase Cooder’s art, however, are two sound tracks from 1985: “Alamo Bay” and “Paris, Texas.” In those two chiefly instrumental LPs, Cooder comes closest to defining the theme that flows through much of his most personal work: the contradictory aims and impulses of the American character.
Even though he has usually added his own artistic vision to these styles rather than simply recycle them, Cooder’s fondness for tradition has led him to be viewed as something of an archivist.
He grits his teeth when that image is mentioned. “I lot of people still like to think of me as some sort of musicologist, but I don’t see myself that way at all,” he said, sitting in the Los Angeles office of film director Walter Hill, who uses Cooder on most of his films.
“I think that just reveals their lack of understanding about what music is all about . . . that it is a continuing process, not something that stops because people decide they prefer to listen to something else. A lot of those great blues and country musicians got better as they got older, and their music still lives.”
It’s only fitting that Cooder is doing the interview in Hill’s office. Cooder has worked on so many of Hill’s projects--from “The Long Riders” and “Southern Comfort” to “Blue City” and “Crossroads"--that you think of them as a team.
But Cooder is frequently approached by other directors. He worked with director Louis Malle on “Alamo Bay” and Wim Wenders on “Paris, Texas.”
About accepting a film project, Cooder said, “The first thing you have to ask yourself is, ‘Can I hear this?’ You’ve also got to find out if you can relate to what the director is doing and what he needs. A hundred different people would score ‘Paris, Texas’ a hundred different ways.
“You have to find the ‘sound’ that fits the film and you’ve got to agree on that sound. I can only do the film if his musical vision fits mine. If a director called and said, ‘I expect to hear 100 accordions here,’ I’d say, ‘Skip it, I can’t do it.’ ”
For all his distance from the commercial mainstream, Cooder has strong feelings about that process. So, it’s only fitting that he close with another long quote.
“The lawyers and accountants took over the record business in the ‘70s,” he said. “After the success of the Beatles, they found a way to centralize the whole thing . . . to focus the market on the kind of product that would move the greatest numbers of units. The British invasion was perfect for it . . . a certain hair style, certain clothes and it was an exotic import. They began to shoot these groups through the grease, one after another. Here’s one, here’s the next one . . . good, bad or indifferent. It didn’t matter. It was a sound, a style--and when style supersedes content, then you know you’re looking at packaging. A lot of musicians react to this (pressure to sell) by saying, ‘Well I’m gonna go out and make my hits, make my money and then I’m gonna do what I really want to do with my music.’ But it used to have a false ring to me because I knew you could get to a point in that pursuit where you forget what you wanted in the first place.”