The musician and songwriter Ry Cooder is lamenting lost Los Angeles.
“Local human experience isn't a thing you can commodify, if you follow what I'm saying,” he says. “If you lived in Chavez Ravine or East L.A., it's not worth anything — even though that was your store or your movie theater. Because a freeway went through there, or a shopping mall's there now. And every time that happens, it takes away the cellular memory of a community. And what do you have, then?”
We spoke with Cooder by phone last week, mostly about his new book of short fiction, Los Angeles Stories, which he's signing tomorrow at Vroman's in Pasadena, but also about how L.A.'s peculiar ills have influenced his work.
Cooder is no stranger to rescuing and preserving endangered corners of our culture. A four-time Grammy-winner, he scored filmmaker Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas and The End of Violence before collaborating with Wenders on the hit 1998 documentary and album project, The Buena Vista Social Club, which shined a light on virtuosic Cuban musicians previously unknown outside their own country.
Cooder's recent explorations have been more local. He first looked at “lost L.A.” on his acclaimed 2005 album, Chavez Ravine, which recreated voices and stories from the vibrant Mexican-American neighborhood that was demolished in the mid-1950s to make way for the unrealized Elysian Park Heights housing project. Today, we know Chavez Ravine as Dodger Stadium.
What hooked Cooder on writing was his album I, Flathead from 2008, which was released with a companion book that told the story of Kash Buk, the fictitious musician depicted in Flathead's songs. Cooder had so much fun with it, he decided to stick with prose for a while to see where it led him.
With Los Angeles Stories, Cooder says, “I wanted to look at the same time period [as Chavez Ravine and I, Flathead] — the post-war era, the early '50s, when there were still lifestyles you could imagine that you can't imagine now.”
As well as recreating the period from an Angeleno's perspective, Cooder wanted to counter contemporary stereotypes of the 1950s. “People look back and think that in the '50s, everyone wore suits and hats, that everyone was a conformist,” he says. “But it was television that wrecked everything, because it showed everyone how to think and talk and be. If you watch it enough, you start to think, 'Well, my own thoughts can't mean as much, because look at this world that's being presented to me!'”
Cooder's Los Angeles Stories are noir-infused, glamour-free portraits of working class loners, drifters, bums, musicians (both real and fictional), and numerous other fringe types. Each speaks with his or her own individuated, idiom-riddled (but cliché-free) patois.
“I love speech,” Cooder elaborates. “I love hearing people talk. Especially from that era. Not so much now. We're all starting to talk alike. Pretty soon, we're all going to talk like computers, with short sentences — whatever fits on a cell phone screen.”
After completing initial drafts, Cooder had planned to sell bound stories at his concerts, inspired by Bob Dylan's “tremendous” entrepreneurship and insistence that Cooder have merch available at shows. But in its earliest printed incarnation, the book was dead on arrival.
“I had it printed in China, which was a terrible mistake,” he recalls. “Everything in China is done wrong, which we should all know by now. It's either broken or done wrong.”
A friend later submitted the manuscript to City Lights, which put the book out in October.
Going back to the subject of lost neighborhoods, Cooder notes, “I don't know any place as susceptible to this as Los Angeles. You can go away for two weeks or five days. When you come back, it's 'Where did that corner go? Where did that tree go?'”
The Bunker Hill of yesteryear (see video below), where some of his stories are set, remains a particular source of sadness for Cooder, who rues its 1955 destruction to this day.
“Not one day goes by that I don't regret this and despise the people who did it: hate them, hate them, hate them,” he grouses. “I've had people in the city government admit to me personally that it was a mistake. We could have revitalized it, fixed it up, and money could have been made. What do you have now? These hideous half-empty office buildings. Does anyone want that? No. That goddamned Westin hotel down there — it's a monstrosity.”
Ry Cooder will appear in conversation with Lynell George at Vroman's at 695 East Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena on Thursday, Jan. 12 at 7:00 pm.
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