Throughout his long career, Ry Cooder has successfully avoided the cult of personality. His music stands on its own without interference. So often records get peddled with some kind of back story – what’s going on in the artist’s personal life, why or how the music was made, or just simply through a big, over-characterisation of the musician. As a listener and hardcore music consumer, it becomes a little tiresome being pitched a story in magazines or on TV to be persuaded to buy something, when in any event you’ll either like the music or you won’t. PR teams and marketing gurus may shudder in disapproval, and remonstrate with charts and analytics in favour of branding, logos and subliminal messaging. Yet no amount of charisma will convince me to invest time and money in a rock star’s music if it sucks; the circumstances of its existence, and how the musician discovered the virtues of macrobiotic vegetable juice in rehab, are ultimately insignificant.
The problem is that everything’s been done before, and written about over and over again, at length, but the critic is looking for a way in to interest the reader; the promotional bumpf is sometimes a much needed start to get things going. At the same time, the critic knows that the press release is the record company’s view; it will not be negative, more likely superlative, and in this position the reviewer must decide whether he or she is just a hack, paraphrasing what has been pushed on to them, or alternatively take only what is relevant with an element of scepticism, discarding the rest. The situation lends itself to neurosis, as the critic appreciates but also resents being fed information by the corporate machine. This is why the music writer more often than not becomes passive-aggressive and subject to violent mood swings; it’s an ugly business, only appealing to conflicted and tormented individuals, in it for the glory and not much money. You can kind of see why Lou Reed was not keen on music critics; the only one he ever had any appreciation for was Jeremy Reed, and he is really a poet.
Most artists’ Wikipedia page have a “personal life” section, but for Ry Cooder there is diddly squat. Neither will you be able to find a published biography or autobiography. Yet Cooder has had a tendency to be somewhere in the background or foreground for some significant moments in music history; in the ‘60s he was hopping around with Taj Mahal, Captain Beefheart, Lowell George and Randy Newman, and may well have been asked to join the Rolling Stones. He’s credited for teaching Keith Richards five-string open-G blues tuning; the Stones then went on to conquer the world with some massive guitar riffs.
Although he worked on the soundtrack to Performance in 1970, the decade was taken up mostly with his solo career as he became known as an ace slide guitarist, his musical experimentation and innovation with older American music almost becoming a template for the Alt Country and Americana movements. The ‘80s were spent mostly on soundtracks and the ‘90s on what’s now known as “world music” (A Meeting by the River, Talking Timbuktu, and Buena Vista Social Club). The nougties saw Cooder returning to a more deliberate solo career again. Yet despite being one of Rolling Stone magazine’s top 100 guitarists, Cooder seems to have approached his career with a distinct lack of ego, and the lack of personal information about him in the public domain must suggest he’s not particularly interested in being a celebrity.
It’s therefore understandable that Cooder’s career could be confusing for the modern music junkie, narcissism and self-obsession usually the starting point in an industry which is all about the individual artist or kids in the band. When Cooder does release solo albums they are rarely confessional, but based on other people’s lives and stories – Chavez Ravine focuses on an LA community, My Name is Buddy is the story of a feline and I, Flathead considers drag racing culture. In this context spending a decade on film scores is not particularly surprising, but from a fan’s perspective it may seem off the beaten track when he could have been singing about himself. Needless to say Cooder’s recent book Los Angeles Stories (published by the Beat publishing house City Lights), is yet again about other people. The dude is seriously self-effacing.
The press release from Rhino for Soundtracks is noticeably minimalistic, sticking to the facts; this is a retrospective clamshell boxed set with seven CDs of film soundtracks. Between 1985 to 1986 Cooder enjoyed a prolific period when he reeled off more than half of the soundtracks in this collection – Alamo Bay, Blue City, Crossroads and Paris, Texas. The soundtracks vary widely in terms of style, even as the group of musicians who performed on them remained remarkably consistent. In fact, some combination of the much in demand Jim Keltner, Memphis legend Jim Dickinson, guitarist David Lindley and composer Van Dyke Parks can be heard on every soundtrack in this set.
Cooder was approached by film director Walter Hill in 1980 to score his Western, The Long Riders, and as this box set shows, it was a good start to a considerable amount of work together. The soundtrack heads deep into folk, using civil war songs like “Rally ‘Round The Flag” to ensure authenticity along with traditional instrumentation – banjos, fiddles, and even a saz and tamboura. The spoken word monologues are interesting, but emphasise this was music created for a film. Unfortunately, however, “Jack of Diamonds”, which was in the film and did not make the original release of the soundtrack, is still missing in action.
Music For Alamo Bay followed in 1995, and was altogether something different, this time for director Louis Malle. The film was about a returning Vietnam veteran, and the music is appropriately haunting. “Theme from Alamo Bay” is beautifully melodic, and on the whole the tracks are evocative, wistful and moody, enhanced by Japanese instrumentation such as shakuhachi. John Hiatt and Amy Madigan turn out a lilting country duet, “Too Close”; “The Last Chance” is a bar room stomper with Fear vocalist Lee Ving, and David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos guest on the fine waltzing “Quatro Vicios”.
Wim Wenders was next to tap Cooder for a soundtrack to his influential film Paris, Texas about an amnesiac’s attempts to revive family relationships. The soundtrack is stark and twangy, masterfully evoking the vast and empty desert landscape of the film. The main theme is based on Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Is The Night”, and most of the music is a variation on this central motif. Harry Dean Stanton adds gentle Spanish vocals to “Cancion Mixteca”, and there’s some dialogue from the film included on “I Knew These People” which is atmospherically creepy. Wenders and Cooder returned to work together some time later on the film supporting Buena Vista Social Club.
Then we move on to Walter Hill’s Blue City, starring Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy, which was highly anticipated by Brat Pack fans, but was widely considered a disappointment. The soundtrack is certainly of its time; the music is busy because of all the effects, synthesizers and slap bass, but Cooder’s distinctively quirky playing still comes through. Benmont Tench and Bobby King make appearances, and Alejandro Escovedo’s True Believers turn in “Marianne” which is a worthy piece of pop. “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” is a Ry Cooder cover of a Johnny Cash song, and could almost be the man in black himself.
Hill’s film Crossroads was another film that went down the tubes, and you may note that this is a developing theme; the films Cooder worked on (up until Cocktail) did not achieve great commercial success. Crossroads was a blues odyssey inspired by Robert Johnson, and the soundtrack combines covers and original material. Cooder’s guitar work is sharp and Sony Terry adds some great harmonica throughout. Unfortunately missing on the soundtrack is the showdown in the film played by Steve Vai and Cooder (which can be found on Vai’s The Elusive Light and Sound Volume 1).
Johnny Handsome, a crime drama with Mickey Rourke and Ellen Barkin, also struggled at the box office despite the big name actors. The soundtrack is pure instrumental, interesting enough, with some swampy grooves. “Clip Joint Rhumba” and “Cajun Metal” are archetypal Cooder tracks, and this CD contains the most cinematographic music in the collection.
In 1992 Hill and Cooder reached Trespass, a crime thriller written years earlier by a pre-Back to the Future Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. The soundtrack is a jazz experimental, veering around sharp corners thanks to Jon Hassell’s trumpet, Cooder’s slithery guitar and Keltner’s pulsating drums. Edgy and dissonant, this is probably not the record to listen to if you have a head-ache.
It must be a tricky business making a soundtrack for a film. First, one has to ensure the music does not overpower the pictures on the screen, and then at the same time make sure the music has some impact. This set shows Cooder’s work off to great effect, although without watching the films who’s to say how it all worked out in cinemas? What is certain is that on their own, these records are distinctive and interesting to listen to.
Cooder apparently saw his film work as much closer to the music he liked to make than the Ry Cooder we think we’re listening to on his solo records; he was free to put down the sonic landscape that was in his head whilst a film flickered on the wall in front of him, away from the commercial pressures of the music industry. True to style, you can listen to all of these soundtracks and by the end of the experience be no closer to knowing anything about the man himself, other than what he likes; music, music, music.
Finally, it’s perhaps surprising that his soundtracks for Southern Comfort, The Border and Streets of Fire are missing, but maybe there’s another box to come. In the meantime, Soundtracks is a thorough introduction to Cooder at the movies, essential for fans and film buffs, but don’t expect any Hollywood gossip. For that, you will have to go elsewhere.