Ry Cooder might be most known for his work as a musician, and a rather prolific one at that. He was a session guitarist on two legendary Rolling Stones albums Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers. The slide guitar on “Sister Morphine”? – that was Cooder. He has also played with Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, produced Buena Vista Social Club–the band (and record) that popularized Cuban music in the 90’s—scored numerous film soundtracks (including the critically acclaimed Paris, Texas), and has been praised for his innovative exploration and deep love of American roots music. His ground-breaking solo albums recorded in the 1970’s are partly responsible for introducing traditional American music styles to rock and pop audiences. He recently appeared at the Americana Music Festival and Conference held in Nashville, Tennessee where he gave a fantastic hour-long interview, especially interesting to those who follow the genre.
Refreshingly clad in socks and sandals on the Country Music Hall of Fame stage, Cooder is a fountain of knowledge talking shop with music journalist and author Barry Mazor. After hearing just a few moments of Cooder’s interview (though perhaps more of a lecture, as Cooder has no problem eloquently spinning his answers into excellent stories) it’s easy to see why Cooder chose to publish a collection of short stories with City Lights in 2011. Los Angeles Stories surveys a post WWII LA – a very different LA than the one we know currently. In a phone conversation with Mother Jones‘s Tim McDonnell, Cooder notes,
“What LA is now is appalling and unspeakable[…] I like to contemplate Los Angeles as it used to be when I was a kid. I remember it pretty well, and things that are all gone now, or different now, see?”
Cooder’s collection aims to focus on the lives of Angelenos before big money was involved in shaping it into an entirely different beast. Published as part of the City Lights Noir series, a genre that seems to perfectly frame the image of seedy 1950’s-style Downtown LA, Cooder breathes life into an array of characters – bartenders, musicians, cops, etc. and wastes no time doing so. And he would know them well – the life of a musician was quite different in the last century. The first story, “All in a Day’s Work,” immediately introduces us to a sort of “fact collector” who earns twenty-five cents an entry recording residents’ names, addresses, and jobs into the Los Angles City Directory. Cooder writes,
Mr. John’s treasures made life much more interesting. I started listening to the records in the evenings and drinking the Cribari red wine in the way he used to do, a new experience for me. Then I thought I might try to learn Italian so I could read the poetry books. Why not? There was an Italian woman in my building I knew only as Cousin Lizzie. She agreed to teach me for fifty cents an hour. I listed her as Giordano, Lizzie (wild Benito), smstrs, Alta Vista Apts. 255 Bunker Hill Ave.
To Cooder, writing was not unlike his approach to songwriting. American folk music in itself has origins in a kind of oral tradition. Just as he has a knack for preserving and exploring American roots music, he managed to do the same with language in Los Angeles Stories.
For more tales in the world of music check out some of our other new releases including Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie’s Blues documenting the career of one of the great blues artists of all-time from a surrealist and psychoanalytic perspective, and Van Morrison’s handpicked selection of lyrics, Lit Up Inside.