Saturday, November 19, 2011

Los Angeles Stories by Ry Cooder

Ry Cooder the writer might not be as incisive and exact as Ry Cooder the musician, but, for me, the near-amateurish quality of Los Angeles Stories constitutes part of its charm. Not that it's badly written, it's just that those who've covered other aspects of this terrain-  Cain, Chandler, Ellroy, Fante, Mike Davis, Joan Didion, DJ Waldie- have set the bar extraordinarily high. Still, Los Angeles  Stories is more than admirable, coming across as the work of someone trying not only to resurrect the past, but to make sense of it, while, at the same time, looking for a way to tell a story,  trying things out on the page. That Ry has long been able to mix musical styles with tasteful flourishes only adds to the mix, generating its own demand and interest.

For me, these stories, whatever their surface deficiencies, function like a memory theater, conjuring up  an LA of fifty to sixty years ago, with its anti-Communist witch-hunts, Red Cars, City Directory, Bunker Hill rooming houses, downtown burlesque houses, bowling alleys and, of course, music, whether country, jazz or Mexican.  It was a time when Town Hall Party was on TV every Saturday night, Jazz Man record store was still situated on W. Pico, Pershing Square rang out with gospel singers, preachers and Oakie wannabes, radio stations like KGFJ and KXLA blasted across the airwaves, Chavez Ravine was little more than a dusty neighborhood and Angel Annie's voice could be heard behind third base at Wrigley Field. Ry writes about that time, centering on ordinary and forgotten, people, whether jobbing musicians, dental technicians, petty criminals and scam artists. Then there are those who make peripheral appearances, like d.j. Hunter Hancock, legendary guitar honchos Merle Travis and Joe Maphis, and the infamous cross-gender pianist and band-leader Billy Tipton.  I found myself wishing Cooder had written more about Tipton, who undoubtedly deserves a novel all her own. 

Like Ry, I grew up in the twilight years of that period and rarely a day passes when I don't travel back there in my mind. So even though Los Angeles Stories might be something of a one-trick pony, it has charm and no small amount of historical value. Likewise, it doesn't surprise me that Cooder should have branched off into story writing. Because this book also works as an addendum to Cooder's recent albums Chavez Ravine, I, Flathead and Pull Up Some Dust, which exists as texts in their own right. Los Angeles Stories reflects the fact that Cooder's music has become increasingly narrative and political. But then Ry's a product of the Ash Grove, where the civil rights movement and the Peace and Freedom Party rubbed shoulders with Lightnin Hopkins, Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Stu Jamieson and Sleepy John Estes. As anyone who was there can attest, it was a time and place from which no one escaped unscathed.


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