'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?
“Without radio, music is sent back to a third tier – it is practically impossible [to get heard] without radio. So if you don’t have radio to help you. how the hell are they going to hear this goddamned thing?”
So is radio closed to Cooder?
“The airwaves in this country are supposed to be public, ha ha, a ‘superstition’ as [writer] James Baldwin might have said. The idea of public airwaves is a superstition as they have always been controlled and monopolised. The idea of the networks. Where’d that come from? How come that’s legal? When you ask these questions you get no place.”
If he does get an audience they will hear music steeped in classic American vernacular styles: blues, Texas swing, earthy twang, country, old-time and shaped by an artist who believes music can “get you to think about something in a slightly different way, to receive information in a different way”. A prime example of this is the haunting and beautiful Brother Is Gone, which is about Cooder’s pet hates, the Koch brothers.
“Now, the songs are nice if you listen to them and just sit there and let them happen to you,” he says. “That’s what music does, it draws you in and then the thought might occur. So, for instance, the Koch brothers, who have been responsible for so much destruction and desolation in this country, and more to come . . . I wanted to treat the song like a graveside remembrance of all these poisoned environments of theirs and these cancer towns – or worse, people who have been kicked out of their homes by the Koch brothers, or out of their jobs by the Koch brothers.
“So it occurred to me, let’s make this – I hope you’ll pardon me for saying this – a nice old Irish lament in a way. Imagine yourself in a churchyard and the tombstones are all people who have gone down because of this scheming and the thought that the devil was the one who made the pact with them, that the devil would deliver the world. All he wants in return is for one of them to come back down to hell with him and he’s not going to tell them which one that is and when it will happen, but one day Charlie wakes up and Davy’s gone. His bed’s made and there’s his Bible. But he’s gone. That was still a good deal though, because look what they were able to accomplish.”
While his villains get a fair old lash, his heroes are framed in a more sympathetic light. On Cold Cold Feeling, Cooder takes on the role of a scared Obama.
“Some of the songs contain blues lyrics from other songs. Cold Cold Feeling is familiar. ‘I walked up and down wearing the leather off my shoes’ is a famous blues line. So we understand, okay, I get it, but the only difference is, it’s not some guy walking down Highway 61, it’s President Obama in the dark, at 3 o’clock in the morning, frightened to death, walking up and down: ‘What am I going to do? I’ve got these Republicans snapping at my heels, these stray-dog Republicans and they wanna pass these Jim Crow laws and I’ll have to come in through the kitchen.’ It’s an actual fact. They are trying to redo Jim Crow, they’re bringing it back every day. This is really what is going on here. He knows. So I thought that was pretty clever. I liked it. I was listening to T-Bone Walker one day and I said ‘I’m going to make a T-Bone Walker song out of this’.” And he does.
That’s just one of the styles on show. Cooder seems able to pull out any number of them at will. “Yes I can. I’ve learned to do it. It’s only taken a lifetime.” Throughout, the sound is earthy and urgent. Cooder likes it. “That’s a good sound there. It’s thanks to our recording techniques – our engineer Martin Prader is a genius at making this happen.”
We talk a little more about a range of topics including the perils of lifestyle thinking – “the world is set up to accommodate lifestyle components or lifestyle presenters of self which is something I despise and refuse to do” – and finally why he would like to tour this album: “If we can scale things down, I’d like to tour because it’s a good time to do it.” He’s also concerned about the high cost of ticket prices.
“I’d like to come over there and play in a decent place for a decent ticket price. And I want to go see where [writer] Frank O’Connor is buried.” A case of one master paying respect to another.
Election Special is available on Nonesuch Records