Cooder’s Story (Part One)

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REGRETS, I’ve had a few, music-wise. One that springs particularly to mind involves the visit of the band Little Village to the Crystal Palace Bowl in south-east London on July 5, 1992. At the time we were living in Beckenham, within walking distance. Yet when my favourite living guitarist Ry Cooder took to the stage just up the road, alongside Nick Lowe, John Hiatt and Jim Keltner, we were at Butlin’s in Minehead on a family holiday it had proved impossible to rearrange.

Little Village broke up soon afterwards, so I never got to see them live. Thankfully, however, there have been several other opportunities to watch the great Ry perform over the years and, with the exception of Dylan, there is no stronger presence in my record collection.

Ryland Peter Cooder was born in Los Angeles in March 15, 1947. By the age of three he was already playing the guitar. A year later he accidentally plunged a knife into his left eye and was given a glass replacement. At 20 he had appeared with Taj Mahal and Ed Cassidy in the Rising Sons, and played on Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band’s 1967 album Safe As Milk.

According to the author John French, Cooder performed with Beefheart that year at the Mount Tamalpais pop festival in preparation for the Monterey festival a few days later (when Jimi Hendrix would play the set that cracked America for him). As the Magic Band launched into Electricity, Beefheart walked off the stage claiming he had seen a girl in the audience turn into a fish. Cooder decided at this point he could no longer work with one of rock’s major eccentrics. Monterey was off.

Despite his youth, Ry had already built a reputation as a guitarist and he was a session man on the late-sixties Rolling Stones albums Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers – supplying the slide guitar on the latter’s Sister Morphine.

He can also be heard on Mick Jagger’s Memo from Turner, from the film Performance, and the original version of Willin’ from the first Little Feat album, plus Randy Newman’s 12 Songs.

In 1970, Ry Cooder released his eponymous debut solo album, a mainly blues-based exploration of his American musical heritage. It’s quirky and delightful. Every track apart from the instrumental Available Space is a cover version. First up is the brilliant Alimony:

Look at this one, look at that one,
Tell me do they look like me?
All my friends said, don’t you worry,
Said they’ll testify for me.
Well, I wonder which of my friends had it in for me.
Alimony, alimony, alimony’s killing me,
I don’t want six extra children
When ain’t but two that look like me.
Please, have mercy, judge your honour
Alimony’s killing me.

This was the opening song from Ry and his band when they played the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1977. What a delight it was to see this comical, almost Chaplinesque figure in a Hawaiian shirt shuffling from side to side as wonderful sounds came from his guitar.

Another song from Ry Cooder which would grace his live sets for many decades is Blind Alfred Reed’s heartfelt How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?

Written in 1929, it describes life during the Depression.

There was once a time when everything was cheap.

But now prices almost puts a man to sleep.

When we pay our grocery bill,

We just feel like making our will.

Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

A further highlight for me is the Sleepy John Estes song Goin’ to Brownsville, with its virtuoso mandolin playing. Here is a fine live version:

Incidentally, backing vocals on this album come from Gloria Jones, who would go on to become Marc Bolan’s girlfriend.

Ry’s second LP, Into the Purple Valley, was released in early 1972 and was a revelation. The brilliant sleeve, for a start, was voted number 12 in Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 Greatest Album Covers.

Here we have a sublime mix of gospel, blues, country and even calypso. The playing is exceptional throughout – with precise, pithy solos that always leave you wanting more. Opening track is How Can You Keep on Moving? about Oklahomans who migrated west to escape the terrible Dust Bowl https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dust_Bowl in the 1930s. Musical genius and a history lesson too. The same applies to track two, Billy the Kid, which supplies more mandolin magnificence.

FDR in Trinidad is a deeply sarcastic calypso written by Fitz McLean about President Roosevelt’s visit to the Caribbean in 1936 – ‘the greatest event of the century in the interest of suffering humanity’. The same song features on Van Dyke Parks’s truly magnificent album Discover America. Into the Purple Valley concludes with Taxes on the Farmer Feeds Us All and Woody Guthrie’s chilling Vigilante Man a slide tour de force which Ry still plays live today at the age of 72.

American history was never one of my strong points but a fair bit of what I do know comes from his music. I cannot stress too strongly how highly I rate this album, which has been one of the jewels of my collection for almost half a century and still brings me out in goosebumps.

Later in ’72 came Cooder’s third album, Boomer’s Story, another journey into the past. Again he chooses from an eclectic mix of cover versions, wisely avoiding the mistake made by so many artists of including too many of their own (inferior) compositions. The title song is about an inveterate railway rider – ‘Travelled all over the country, I’ve travelled everywhere, I been on every Branch Line railroad, And I never paid a nickel fare.’

I love Crow Black Chicken – ‘Hardest job that ever I done is ploughin’ a field of rye. Easiest job that ever I done is eatin’ chicken pie.’ And The Dark End of the Street is another Cooder perennial – his live solo in Manchester was one of the finest I have ever heard.

You will have gathered by now, I trust, that I am quite keen on Ry Cooder’s early career. I shall return to his subsequent records at some time in the future.

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