Thursday, March 15, 2012

65 Years and Still Smoulderin': Ry Cooder

Ry Cooder

Happy Birthday Ry Cooder! Today you celebrate your 65th year on this earth, for about 40 of which you have made some of the most amazing guitar music. Thank you!  I cannot imagine the last 35 years of my own life without your records to keep me smiling and ever amazed at the ephemeral but rock solid beauty you squeeze out of those six wires.

Over to the New Yorker magazine for this succinct summation of the best living guitar player’s career.

For more than forty years, since Cooder released his first record, “Ry Cooder,” in 1970, he has been a musician other musicians have followed closely, and no popular musician has a broader or deeper catalog. He has played songs so simple that they are hardly songs, and songs so complex that they would tax, if not overwhelm, the capacities of most lauded guitarists. He had quit making rock ‘n’ roll records sixteen years before Rolling Stone, in 2003, named him the 8th greatest guitarist on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time (three of the seven ahead of him are dead guys). Even so, his influence has been felt more than his records have been heard, with perhaps one exception: the group of elderly Cuban musicians whom he assembled and recorded in 1997 and called the Buena Vista Social Club.

Cooder’s guitar playing is expressive, elegant, and rhythmically intricate. It frequently has a pressured attack that he has described as having the feel of “some kind of steam device gone out of control.” His sense of phrasing was partly imprinted in his childhood by a record of brass music made by a group of African-American men who found instruments in a field left by Civil War soldiers during a retreat, and played them according to their own inclinations. If you wonder what his sensibility sounds like when applied to rock ‘n’ roll—one version of it anyway—the most widely known example I can think of comes from the period when Cooder had been hired to augment the Rolling Stones during the recording of “Let It Bleed.” He was playing by himself in the studio, goofing around with some changes, when Mick Jagger danced over and said, How do you do that? You tune the E string down to D, place your fingers there, and pull them off quickly, that’s very good. Keith, perhaps you should see this. And before long, the Rolling Stones were collecting royalties for “Honky Tonk Women,” which sounds precisely like a Ry Cooder song and absolutely nothing like any other song ever produced by the Rolling Stones in more than forty years. According to Richards in his recent autobiography, Cooder showed him the open G tuning which became his mainstay and accounts for the full-bodied chordal declarations that characterize songs such as “Gimme Shelter,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Start Me Up,” and “Brown Sugar.” The most succinct way I can think of to describe the latticed style that Keith Richards says he has sought to achieve with Ron Wood is to say that for thirty-five years the Stones have been trying to do with four hands what Cooder can do with two.

Cooder might have been heard more widely except that he doesn’t like to perform. He doesn’t care for being watched so closely or having to entertain. “I couldn’t go out there anymore and say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, and especially you ladies,’” he says. The people who like the applause should have it, he feels, but he says he doesn’t care for it. After performing, he used to feel like a withered balloon under a chair on the day after a child’s birthday party. He grew up in recording studios and is more at home there, privately trying to capture something ephemeral and elusive—“the big note,” a friend of his has said, the one that makes all the other concerns fall away. In the last few years, he has toured briefly in Europe and Japan and Australia, with his son, Joachim, playing drums and Nick Lowe playing bass—but not in North America.

For most of Cooder’s career he arranged songs from other writers and various historical sources ranging from Depression era songs, to Bix Beiderbecke’s repertoire, to folk and drifter and cowboy songs, miner’s songs, work songs, surf songs, jukebox songs, calypsos, roadhouse and dance hall songs, protest songs, and songs from the registry of rhythm and blues—but in 2003 he began recording albums of his own material. (My own introductory list of highlights from Cooder’s earlier period: “Great Dreams from Heaven,” “How Can you Keep on Movin’,” “Get Rhythm,” which has a fantastic video, “In a Mist,” “Ditty Wah Ditty,” “Smack Dab in the Middle,” “Tattler,” “France Chance,” “Little Sister,” “Dark at the End of the Street,” “Maria Elena,” “I Think It’s Going to Work Out Fine,” “The Very Thing That Makes You Rich,” and I’ll stop, but I could keep going happily.) The recent records formed a kind of Los Angeles trilogy. The first, “Chavez Ravine.” was inspired by black-and-white photographs of the hill town community inhabited by Mexicans and destroyed to build Dodgers Stadium. The second, “My Name is Buddy,” concerned a red cat named Buddy and his adventures during the most virulent period of anti-workingman and anti-communist feeling. One of the songs he sings is “Red Cat Till I Die.” The third record, “I, Flathead,” is a desert narrative about salt-flat drag racers and an alien racer entangled in a complicated moral dilemma. (New Yorker)

To commemorate this Holy Day the Washerman’s Dog has collected together 35 (one for every year I’ve been a fan) favorite cuts from all phases of his career.  Including a few guest spots with other friends like Ali Farka Toure, Mavis Staples and Shoukichi Kina.

                  Track Listing:
                  01 Wildwood Boys
02 3rd Base, Dodger Stadium
03 I Think It's Going to Work Out Fine
04 Patricia
05 Simple Tools
06 Candion Mixteca
07 I Can't Win
08 Footprints In The Snow
09 A Married Man's A Fool
10 Go Home Girl
11 Isa Lei
12 Chinito Chinito
13 13 Question Method
14 Farm Girl
15 Caballo Viejo
16 Amandrai
17 Filipino Dancehall Girl
18 Subete No Hito No Kokoro Ni Hanna O
19 The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor)
20 I Knew These People
21 Steel Guitar Heaven
22 Tattler
23 Echale Salsita
24 Los Chucos Suaves
25 Jesus is on the Mainline
26 Three Chords And The Truth
27 The Long Riders
28 Ganges Delta Blues
29 Across the Borderline
30 Johnny Cash
31 John Lee Hooker for President
32 Denomination Blues
33 No Banker Left Behind
34 Ai Du
35 Women Will Rule the World

Listen here.


Anonymous said...

Cooder eventually sued the Stones for Honky Tonk Women, claiming authorship, and a settlement was reached. He probably received money and continued royalties, but refuses to talk about it publicly. It's been speculated that a gag rule was part of the settlement.

While he's a fine guitarist, to say that he's the finest living guitarist is to exclude everyone outside of US/Europe, especially the many fine guitarists in Africa.

Besides, Ernest Ranglin is still alive...

ajnabi said...

I guess that's what's great about music appreciation. Everyone has their favourites and I use the term 'creates in the world' appreciating it is an impossible thing to measure. Love Ranglin and agree Africa is full of excellent guitarists.

Garrett said...

I'm a life-long fan of Cooder's myself, having first heard his name uttered by Arlo Guthrie in a live performance for television. Thanks for this collection! I'm curious to see how similar our "Ry bests" are.

Also, thanks for the site, I know it must take some effort. It's eclectic and easy on the eyes, too. Just wanted to let you know I appreciate all the music and thoughtful commentary.