The Man Who Rediscovered America

Cooder through the years
Photos courtesy of Rolling Stone

By JOHN HARLOW | Special to the Palisadian-Post

For months, I was hoping to meet up with Santa Monica Canyon resident Ryland Peter Cooder for this piece, if only to look at each other eye to eye: I lost my right eye from a stroke, very boring, and at the age of 4, Cooder managed to stab himself with a knife in his left.

How does a Westside kid, who had already proven himself dexterous on the guitar at 3, even manage to do that?

Today’s glass eye may be a constant reminder that yesterday’s kids were wild at heart.

But, right now, the 71-year-old musician is back on the road, playing big houses promoting “The Prodigal Son,” his first album in six years, before wrapping up at the end of July in Napa.

As of yet, there is no hometown date.

So, until he gets back home to the Westside, maybe we shall just tell his story, just as he has documented the stories of the lost people of Chàvez Ravine (before it was flattened for the Dodger Stadium), salt flat racers, bank robbers, meandering felines and border jumpers. Like a snippet from his 2013 book of short noir fictions, “Los Angeles Stories.”

This is the guitar virtuoso that all other classic rock musicians adore.

The man who, many believe, actually wrote the open-tuned G riff for the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman” while giving Keith Richards guitar lessons. He certainly enhanced the Stones’ creative peak, playing mandolin on “Love in Vain” and slide guitar on “Sister Morphine.”

Who has worked with—deep breath—Rita Coolidge, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, (Palisadian) Randy Newman, The Beach Boys, Neil Young, Little Feat and The Doobie Brothers. (All the acts your smarter kids are rediscovering on your scratched vinyl collection.)

Who introduced the world to Cuban music by reviving the almost-ancient Havana group Buena Vista Social Club, producing the top-selling world music album of all time and inspiring an Oscar-nominated documentary by Wim Wenders.

And all it cost him was a $25,000 fine for violating the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

The man who helped introduce the world to the original guitar blues of Mali when recording “Talking Timbuktu” with Al Farka Touré, an album that stayed in the charts for half a year, hardcore Gaelic music by working with The Chieftains, twice, and Hindustani classical music with V.M. Bhatt.

And this was before he produced some memorable film soundtracks—audiences may not recall all the scenes from “Paris, Texas” or “Steel Magnolias” or “The Long Riders” or “Primary Colors,” but many remember the music.

Like soprano Cecilia Bartoli exploring the outreaches of Russian or castrati music or fellow guitarist Richard Thompson unearthing the music of the court of King Henry VIII (and mixing it up with the oeuvre of Britney Spears), Cooder has proven to be endlessly curious and wary of repeating himself—but quite happy to repeat and honor others.

Which is why with over 17 solo albums—and many collaborations, soundtracks and session appearances—he rarely offers up his own songs, unless they are co-written with his son and partner Joachim Cooder. He is too interested in sharing other’s buried treasures.

That is how he introduced himself to the world in the early 1970s with a Depression Era songbook featuring Dust Bowl migrants arriving in California—tunes such as Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi” and Blind Alfred Reed’s “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?”

(Sidenote: Cooder seems to favor optically challenged songwriters, from Reed to 1930s-blues man Blind Willie Johnson. Their songs return on the new album. Maybe Freudians might find this significant. Or maybe the injured just wrote the best gospel songs of the era).

He moved through the musical fair, exploring jazz and ragtime, Tex-Mex, Mexican accordions and brass band, Hawaiian slack-key guitar, and then back to vaudeville “negro songs.”

He expressed his disgust with right demagogues, especially those who attack immigrants, maybe like his Italian-American mother, flamed in recent years with the so-called “California Trilogy” of albums where he mocked everyone from armchair pundits to “Mutt Romney.”

He dug out roots music from every corner and reshowed us a richer musical America than you might find on the average Spotify list.

Cooder’s patience has always had its limits—he walked away from 1960s jazz-pop musician Captain Beefheart just before the Monterey Pop festival because Beefheart’s merry troupe were using too many psychedelic drugs.

And given this was the late 1960s, one can only imagine what qualified as too many drugs.

He rarely tours and usually confines himself to Europe because he does not enjoy the experience of besotted crowds—if the French are, they are too cool to show it.

“I am not kind that of showman, saying all those things, and feel like a deflated balloon afterward. I am not really that rock and roll,” he said after being listed at No. 8 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of most influential guitarists.

Which makes the current tour and the new album such a treat.

Yes, “Prodigal Son” looks backward—as music business commentator Bob Lefsetz said, it sounds like nothing else in the marketplace. “But, again, he never did.”

He returns with the same lost songwriters he first introduced us to in 1970—and that includes Reed and Johnson—with possibly the most powerful album of gospel music from outside the gospel mainstream since Elvis sung out his Memphis soul on “How Great Thou Art.”

But Cooder, probably agnostic, repurposes the gospel into what he has called reverence.

“I do connect the political/economic dimensions with the inner life of people, since people are at risk and oppressed on all sides of our world today,” he said in a press statement.

“There is some kind of reverence mood that takes hold when you play and sing those songs. Reverence is a word I heard my granddaughter’s nursery school teacher, a Kashmiri woman, use. She said, ‘We don’t want to teach religion but instill reverence.’

“I thought that was a good word for the feeling of this music.”

Lyrically he is also righteously cranky, in a Bernie Sanders style, taking on sweatshops, gentrification and freshly enfranchised racists.

And yet the music itself, lifted by his slide guitar and subtle elevation by his son and band, is wondrous and sweet, reminding us what we lost when we became fixated with beats and gangster brags over lyrics and songwriting.

Cooder’s career has always zigged when it might have zagged, taking us to places we might not want to spend much time. But his exploration of American roots music, melodic, upbeat and slyly humorous, the harvest of 100 cultural traditions, has never been more necessary.

The Canyon can be proud that Cooder is their neighborhood troubadour.

Watch Cooder perform “Straight Street” from his latest album at