'What can I do but write my songs?'
Legendary American singer, guitarist and musicologist Ry Cooder has decided that it’s time to stand up and be counted – and he’s come out fighting for Obama with his latest album, ‘Election Special’
HIS VOICE IS GRIZZLED and seasoned, old as time, deep and resonant, angry and unrepentant and offset by a wonderful, sleazy guttural chuckle. His syntax has all kinds of quaint constructions and is peppered with deliciously dated expletives. I mean, who says “goddamned” any more?
But Ry Cooder is not a man who has ever taken kindly to what is fashionable in his 40-plus years in music. When he has cause to mention the word “lifestyle”, he spits it out with distaste. Almost, but not quite, the same distaste as when he speaks of Mitt Romney and the right-wing in the American Republican Party.
It is 10.30am in Santa Monica in his native California, but the phone line crackles with his political passion as he details what prompted him to record his spirited new album, Election Special.
“This bunch of songs got started with Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down . So once I finished that I just kept going. That’s the simple answer . . .”
A more complete answer would be that the left-leaning Cooder believes that the time has come to stand up and be counted.
“Well, we live in an urgent time. People here believe that this is the most critical time in American history. There has never been a more critical time, when you have terrible forces of the right so organised and so fully funded and so in control, like a giant octopus. If they can buy this election – which they are trying to do, simply just pay for it – and they are doing many things towards this goal . . .
“Everybody thinks ‘oh Obama, he’s popular, he’ll win’. But he could lose. It’s so drastic. I tried to say this in a couple of these songs but what can you do but write your songs? That’s what I know how to do, so that’s what I do.”
In a way, Election Special is like an old-fashioned public information broadcast, albeit from one side, that deals with election issues and personalities, from the controversial and powerful brothers, Charles and David Koch, to how Romney’s dog views his master. It is hugely entertaining, but Cooder’s tales carry a real sting. The album is also the latest in a rich seam of form for the 65-year-old Californian that began with 2005’s Chavez Ravine, the first of his celebrated Californian trilogy, completed by My Name Is Buddy (2007) and I, Flathead (2008). He has also published a book of short stories, Los Angeles Stories, last year.
He picks up on the public information line but adds: “I’m sorry I have to say that music is not the source of information that it was, say, 100 years ago, or during the early days of the labour movement, when songs were very important – this was one way that ideas were sent around. Now it is a very different time, a very different social environment, so I don’t know where music fits in. I think it can have a place, but jeez, the question has to be: How will people even find this record? How will people hear it?