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Ry, Flathead: RY COODER (Unabridged)

Highlights from 20 Interviews (2009)

Photography Courtesy of Corbis

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Monday, March 09, 2009


The following piece originally appeared in the third-annual 20 Interviews issue. Here we present the full unabridged interview. Click here for more on 20 Interviews


RY, FLATHEAD
: RY COODER

By Tony Scherman

A few years ago, Hollywood director Walter Hill listed his friend Ry Cooder’s many facets: guitarist, singer, collector of indigenous musics, rock ’n’ roller, bluesman. Hill left a few out: record producer, songwriter and soundtrack composer (an odd omission — Cooder has scored eight of Hill’s movies). With the 2008 novella I, Flathead we can add still another: author.

That Ry Cooder is exploring a new creative realm isn’t in itself surprising; Hill calls him “the most talented person I’ve ever known.” What is surprising is how good I, Flathead is, the work of a born writer. And at 61, Cooder is ready to take a break from his four-decade career as a musical legend — assimilator of a rainbow of vernacular styles into his own blues-based sound and perhaps the greatest slide guitarist in pop-music history — to explore his newfound literary gift.

Accompanying a new Nonesuch Records album of the same name (Cooder’s 34th, including 16 soundtracks), I, Flathead sprawls in its 97 pages across Southern California, from blue-collar LA suburbs like Vernon and Downey eastward to Trona, Darwin and other godforsaken high-desert towns. Its chronology runs from the early Fifties to the late Sixties, “a time within which there are, for me, certain realms of possibility that no longer exist,” says Cooder. As the narrative opens, Kash Buk, a country music bandleader at the Green Door Lounge in Vernon, is out on the salt flats in his homemade race car powered by a flathead, an early type of Ford or Mercury V-8 engine. Although Kash, a colorful con man, starts out as I, Flathead’s protagonist, his role is usurped by the one-armed alien 8923-bsx000*10*20*50, renamed Shakey by Kash and his racing buddies. Alien or not, Shakey turns out to be the most human of I, Flathead’s characters, a loving husband and father burdened by melancholy. In a twist on the B-movie convention of the alien who conquers Earth, Shakey is befuddled by earthly ways. “Every time I thought I had Earth figured out,” he says forlornly near the story’s end, “it threw me a curve, like in what you call ‘baseball.’” Another wrinkle unites I, Flathead’s two components, book and album: The latter is presented as the work of Kash and his band the Klowns, and Kash himself writes all the tunes, from the hard-rocking “Ridin’ With the Blues” to the heartbreaking “5,000 Country Music Songs.”

Cooder began writing during the arduous three-and-a-half-year creation of Chávez Ravine (2005), the first album in what he calls his “California trilogy.” The second, My Name Is Buddy (2007), chronicles the Depression-era travels of a hobo cat; the third is I, Flathead. When Cooder finished the novella he embarked on a group of what he calls “LA stories about common people, underclass, oddball folks who live downtown in 1940 or 1950 and work jobs you don’t know or care about, but funny things happen to them.” He has no plans for a new album; what he wants to do is write his stories.

He can afford to take a break from record-making because of an unexpected turn his life took in the late Nineties: the runaway success of the 1997 album Buena Vista Social Club. Its producer and driving force, Cooder expected the exploration of Cuba’s vanishing song style to sell perhaps 8,000 copies. It sold eight million, the best-selling world music album ever, and Cooder shot from underappreciated roots-music virtuoso to the guy who made Buena Vista Social Club. A follow-up has just been released, the triumphant 1998 Carnegie Hall concert by Buena Vista’s musicians, including Cooder and his drummer/ percussionist son Joachim. Buena Vista’s success, says Cooder, “is what’s going to make it all right for us [he and his wife of 30-plus years, photographer Susan Titelman]. Now I can sit here and write these stories. And if people don’t like that, they don’t like it.” If he sounds truculent, it’s no doubt because Cooder has spent decades making great records that, with one big exception, the world has largely ignored. My hunch is he’ll keep on making records.

And, one hopes, exploring California in stories.

Stop Smiling: How did you get started writing fiction?

Ry Cooder
: I was working on Chávez Ravine, which was a hard record to get into. Finally I could see I was getting somewhere. A UFO touches down and the alien says, “Caramba, partners, where’s the party at?” He wants to be a pachuco. And there’s the dreamer-psycho up in his room, dreaming about being a real-estate mogul, and there’s the bulldozer operator. “Well,” I thought, “this is what to do, make up characters. Then I can write the songs in their voices. Finally, I can write songs!” Because I could never write a regular song — a love song or an “I’m so sad” song — but I can make up characters all day.

And then I thought, “I know, I’ll put them in a story form.” And that’s when I, Flathead started. I wanted it to be about anonymous white working-class folks. I stumbled across this very interesting photograph of a girl, Donna Greva, Miss Temple City. Tough-looking babe in a bathing suit. High heels, hatchet face. I started with her and her boyfriend, this hard-ass guy who plays guitar and drag-races — that was basically a Fifties pursuit, when guys made these cheap little race cars with flathead motors in them. And I called him Kash Buk.

SS: Why?

RC: Because of Johnny Cash! But I wanted someone lower down than Johnny Cash, a lowdown guy with a bad Cadillac and a Fender.

SS: Why the k’s?

RC: Fifties hot-rod magazines. Kar Kraft, Kustom Rod — everything had a “k.” That’s all I did from, say, age seven on, was read hot-rod magazines.

SS: Why did you drop the “c” in “Buk”?

RC: I don’t know, I just liked the way it looked.

SS
: What part did you write first?

RC: “The Book of Kash,” the oral history sessions. Once I got that down I needed a beginning and an end. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll have this alien, who’s a tinkerer and a do-it-yourselfer.” He winds up being the major character.

SS: There’s an alien in all three projects. What’s the attraction to space visitors?

RC: I don’t know. I tried to do it years ago in a song called “UFO Has Landed in the Ghetto.” I didn’t do it very well, but the idea’s good. An alien comes down and wants to mix it up: dance, party, meet girls. In I, Flathead he wants to race cars; in Chávez Ravine he wants to be a lowrider. So do I.

SS: I never realized you were such a car nut.

RC: Oh yeah, cars have always fascinated me. I can’t do mechanics but if I’d grown up more in that milieu I’d probably have done it for a living.

SS: Do you still read hot-rod magazines?

RC: No, I’ve read enough of them.

SS: What do you read?

RC
: Everything. We’re just about at the point in my house where we can’t walk through the rooms so good, because books are stacked up everywhere.

SS: Who are your favorite authors?

RC: Oh, I’ve got tons of them, but especially LA writers: Ellroy, Jim Thompson, Michael Connelly. Guys you may never know of, like Domenic Stansberry, who wrote an amazing novel, just genius, about Jim Thompson.

SS: Why didn’t you start writing fiction earlier?

RC: It didn’t occur to me. But once I started I said, “This is a snap. It’s a lot easier than making records.” I’m not saying it’s literature, believe me.

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