Blues guitarist Ry Cooder’s eclectic, tastefully idiosyncratic musical career spans 16 years, 16 LPs and about as many genres. His feverish quest to absorb a variety of idioms—including Cajun, Tex-Mex, jazz Hawaiian, Caribbean and folk—has led the 39-year-old Santa Monica native to such spots as Hawaii, Japan, the Bahamas and Cuba. For the past six years he has been displaying his genius in that most bizarre of cultures—Hollywood. “What kills music in films,” says Cooder, “is when it’s done as performance, drawing attention to the fact that someone’s in the background playing it. I draw on stuff I’ve heard and imagined. I retain over the years those images and associations. That stuff is ready to go, pops into my head. You can’t mastermind everything; it needs to be cathartic, intuitive, spontaneous.”
Cooder may be the hottest of film score composers among the pop-rockers who have tried the tricky crossover to the reel world. Since 1979 he has written the music for The Long Riders; The Border; Alamo Bay; Southern Comfort; Paris, Texas; a Showtime Western based on the life of Annie Oakley, and Streets of Fire. He shows no signs of chilling out; currently his sound sets the tone for Crossroads (evocative guitar, Mississippi Delta-style) as well as Blue City (scorching electric rock).
Films featuring Cooder’s work tend to be set no farther north than Louisiana, and there’s no better evocation of the heat and menace of the South than a Cooder chord sizzling under the three-inch, sawed-off sherry bottle neck he uses as a slide to give his guitar a richer tone.
“If there’s a sufficient subtext, an ambience to create with sound, I can do the work,” says Cooder. “But if what they want is laugh music, or space music, or fright music or a guy-sits-on-a-cake music, I can’t figure that stuff out so good. I would use Tootsie as the classic example of the kind of film I stay away from.”
Cooder’s movie work reflects the purist instincts that have enabled him to become a cultish success, though he has never won a single Grammy or had a song in the Top 40. As to hit singles off sound tracks, he says, “That’s different. That’s product. A decision: ‘We need a hit.’ That’s why they stick those songs on now at the end of movies. That’s packaging. I know nothing about packaging.”
What Cooder knows is the blues. “I’ve listened to blues my whole life,” he explains. “I know it, I play it, I understand it. The trick is to apply it. Not to be too literal but to be ‘blues-inflected.’ The blues is so expressive—nostalgic but not sentimental, mournful but not pathetic, so humble and close to the earth. It’s a nuance-filled thing. I don’t let myself be frontal about it. You got to know that when the sun’s going down, the music needs to sound like this. When it’s raining, like that. The swamp in Southern Comfort to me was really an interior space, a state of mind. I thought the sound had to be lonesome, dangerous, pastoral and ominous.”
As for his recorded work, Cooder says, “I’ve tended to look at my albums as research and development. I was just trying to get someplace new on each one. I’ve never sold too many of them.” (Except for Bop Till You Drop, the first digital rock LP in 1979, which is his top seller at 850,000 copies worldwide.)
Cooder speaks of the music and film industries in a private vernacular that, like his music, can veer from technical and precise to impressionistic and hip. “Most people, you see, expect you to always be”—he suddenly raises a defiant fist to mock a heavy metal rocker—”that flying wedge out front. The world loves to see a guy tear his face off out there. It’s very exciting and wonderful; we honor that in all walks of life. People expect you to be that all the time, to play that same music, be incredibly focused, to be hatched doing that song, go through life doing that song, go down in a blaze doing that song, wear that thing like neon your whole life. But I’ve never resisted trying out something new. It’s probably been a mistake not to thrust myself out there”—again, fist raised with a self-mocking grin—”wedge like, into the market.”
Cooder was noodling on guitar by age 4, encouraged by musically inclined parents. His dad, Bill, showed him chords; his mother, Emma, played old 78s. Young Ry copped licks off early rock records or honky tonk radio stations for hours after school—or instead of school. He began backing local singers and doing session work as a teenager in the L.A. folk-rock scene after graduating from Santa Monica High in 1965. Before rock became big business “the pop music business wasn’t so airtight,” he says. “It hadn’t quite escalated to that stage where everything is a matter of the conduit, the man in the tower who gives you—or doesn’t give you—the nod. You weren’t at the mercy of these people. Looking back now, it’s hard to believe it was that wide open. It was all just arts and crafts.”
Through the late ’60s and early ’70s—what he refers to as rock’s “Guitars ‘R’ English” phase—he thrived as a studio picker. But he became wary of being “strip-mined, pigeon-holed and thrown on the slag heap after four years.” He played on the sound track for Performance (Mick Jagger’s acting debut in 1970), sat in on Let It Bleed with the Stones and began his solo career in the early ’70s.
Scoring films has gained Cooder much more attention than his albums ever did. It has also liberated him from “the Box”—his term for the hotel-bound life on the road. “I can’t take the Box anymore,” Cooder says. “I’m a homebody. I never did make any money with all the expenses, and I hated not seeing Joachim and Susie. That’s what life is for, not for the Box. One seven-week trip almost gave me a nervous breakdown. Parts of your body leave you. Pieces of skin, lots of scars. I mean, it’s just too brutal.” He does drive now and then from his Santa Monica home to a California gig. But no more bopping till he drops: “Your music is fragile, delicate, you have to nurture it. If you stomp it every night, it will flatten out and not be much good to you later on.”
Yoga keeps him supple despite the 10-hour sieges in his cluttered music room. A lapsed surfer, he stays loose with bicycling and walks to the beach with his wife (of 16 years), Susan, and son Joachim, 7. His and Susan’s literary interests are reflected in books that range from biographies of Fats Waller, Hitler, Elvis and jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke to Mishima’s fiction and art books on Bosch and Georgia O’Keeffe.
There is a stream of film offers these days. Cooder’s last studio LP was released in 1982. He says he’s a “better, more dexterous player now.” His movie work, he says, has freed him: “I have always been peripheral and it’s nice to be sitting here feeling not so peripheral, sort of well-positioned so that life and things go simpler. And smoother. I don’t mean I’ll go in there and do a dog movie or something obvious. But with film, my music has come alive and come much closer to what I want it to be for me. I’ve gotten better at it.”
So even if he does reject a script or two from Mike the dog’s agent, Hollywood work seems to be providing what he had in mind when he titled one of his finest LPs Paradise and Lunch. “See,” he says, “with films, you stay home, do it, go crosstown, record it and you net out pretty good. I’m looking to last, not to go out smokin’. I’ve had people in the business drop dead around me, and I do not believe there is much percentage in that.”