Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Ry Cooder’s California Trilogy
This item is a repost from my "Tony's Rants" blog. I'm slowly moving the musical content from that blog over to this one, so if you've seen this one before, my apologies.
Guitarist Ry Cooder has done it all. He started off playing with bluesman Taj Mahal in the Rising Suns and almost replaced Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones. Many of his best albums are movie scores, including the folk-culture clash of 1985's Alamo Bay and the purple-prairie atmospheres of 1989's Paris, Texas. My favorite is the score he did for the western The Long Riders. A lot of his movie music can be found on the double CD Music by Ry Cooder. Having explored North American music — blues, country, rockabilly, R&B, gospel, minstrelsy, Hawaiian, folk, Tex-Mex, Cuban — over four-plus decades, and with numerous awards and accolades under his belt for boundary-crossing collaborations with global legends like the late Ali Farka Toure, Manuel Galbán and Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club, Cooder is an authority on how music has been able to transcend diverse cultures.
Add to his legacy his “California Trilogy.” In this day of the music business trying to get you to buy music on the Internet one song at a time, Ry Cooder has done three (!) concept albums over the last four years. The first part of the trilogy, Chávez Ravine, is a tribute to the long-gone Los Angeles Latino enclave in the late 1940/early 1950s. This is the story of a hillside Chicano community whose poor inhabitants were paid or forced to leave their community in a failed property development in the '50s. This community was eventually bulldozed to make way for Dodger Stadium. Sung in both English and Spanish, there are short tales of head-busting GIs, boxing matches, UFOs, red scares, cool cats, and J. Edgar Hoover.
Part Two of the trilogy is My Name Is Buddy. This is the story of workers who left the “dust bowl” in the 1930s for what was thought to be the “Promised Land” – California. The story is seen through the eyes of three fictional characters; Lefty, a left-wing mouse who's looking for a socialist utopia; blind Tom Toad, who has lost his religious faith, but is 'looking for a way out of darkness'; and Buddy himself, who 'being a cat, is looking for his next meal.' During their journey to California, they encounter the Klan, unions, big boss union busters, company cops, hobos, strikes, voter fraud and trains. J. Edgar Hoover makes another appearance in the form of a pig (get it?) that used to be on the farm where Buddy the Cat lived. During his travels, Buddy encounters Kash Buk, a country musician who almost went on tour with Ray Price but decided not to. Buddy sits in with Kash’s band to sing a song called Three Chords and the Truth. There’s never a dull moment with Buddy, Lefty and Tom Toad.
The third and final part of the California trilogy was released this week. Its title: I, Flathead: The Songs of Kash Buk and the Klowns. Not only is Kash Buk a country musician, he also races souped-up cars on salt flats [hence the title]. In this part of Ry Cooder’s tale set in the 1950s, Kash Buk [the same Kash Buk with whom Buddy the Cat sang] encounters circus freaks, meat packers, drag racers, and an alien named Shakey who cruises the desert in his flying saucer when he isn’t making chewing gum, glue, or making cars go faster. Kash Buk pays homage to Johnny Cash, laments how he’s written 5,000 country songs that no one has recorded, and sings of dancing the “Pink-O Boogie.”
As one can surmise, the creator of this trilogy has a more-than-slightly left of center tilt in his politics. That doesn’t detract from this work being fine entertainment that’s done with tongue planted firmly in cheek. It's all just a little bit weird, but this trilogy appeals to my warped sense of humor.
On March 9th, Ry Cooder will release his next project. It's called San Patricio. It is a collaboration with The Chieftains [billed as The Chieftains featuring Ry Cooder] that tells the nearly forgotten story of the brave San Patricio battalion - a downtrodden group of Irish immigrant conscripts who deserted the U.S. Army in 1846 to fight on the Mexican side against the invading Yankees in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Also included will be Los Tigres Del Norte, Los Cenzontles , Moya Brennan, Linda Ronstadt, Banda de Gaita de Batallón, Mariachi Santa Fe de Jesus (Chuy) Guzman. This meshing of the Irish and Mexican musical forms should be plenty interesting. I am looking forward to it. It will be mine!