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Ry Cooder is working harder than ever. When he calls from Los Angeles, he is between bouts of recording. “I’m always doing it. Have to hurry these days before the record business crumbles and dies. I’m 60 this year, and I just sit here and try to think of something to do before it all collapses.”
Few musicians would lament the demise of the record industry, but Cooder is one of them. “Records are the core of the business – it all came from that. But the industry is over. In 2006, Capitol Records was folded into the EMI grab-bag. That historic building, the one that looked like a stack of records, was sold to a developer who’s going to make it into apartments.”
Cooder’s roster of recorded work is as proud as any. His career ranges from guesting as a guitarist for the Rolling Stones to a series of acclaimed soundtracks (notably Paris, Texas), to membership of the Buena Vista Social Club. His sadness at the decline of the industry stems from his preference for recording studios over concert tours. “Travelling is hard. I’m no traveller. I hate flying and I hate hotels.”
His latest CD, My Name Is Buddy (Nonesuch), could be Woody Guthrie reimagined by Aesop: straight-talking animal fables with a political undertow. The songs tell the story of an itinerant cat, a union-organiser mouse and a preaching toad making their way through a Depression-era West that frequently sounds alarmingly contemporary. “It’s a pretty sorry-ass record of progress,” says Cooder, comparing the 1930s with today. “We’re now seeing the unravelling of the progressive agenda, which was the union agenda, and with it any feeling of solidarity.”
The heroes of the record stumble through a series of misadventures. “I tried to tell a story two ways. It’s a very compressed series of typical events – a strike, a police rousting, and so on. Each song moves the characters forwards in the pattern of migrant workers, which is to say westwards.” But in the end, they are given hospitality by a poor farm girl and recover some optimism. “After all is said and done and institutions fail, people still have some ability to care for each other,” Cooder says.
This is his second record explicitly to tackle social history in unexpected narrative forms; his previous CD, Chávez Ravine, recounted the bulldozing of a Mexican neighbourhood in Los Angeles in the 1950s to make way for a baseball stadium, mixing sci-fi conceits with oral history and doo-wop.
The animals on My Name Is Buddy solved a formal dilemma for Cooder. “I can’t sing, ‘I got off the train one evening in a little mining town’, because I didn’t. I’m a 60-year-old guitar player from Santa Monica.” Buddy the red cat gave him a voice to sing in. He acknowledges the influence of the historian Howard Zinn and of Studs Terkel, but the immediate inspiration was the satirical cartoonist Walt Kelly.
Does Cooder believe that music can change society and politics? He rushes to draw a distinction between the two.
“Very different things. Society means people, right? People can be moved by music. When we were doing Buena Vista, journalists would say to me: ‘You’re dealing with communists.’ I’d say: ‘Who are you scared of? Ruben Gonzalez [the elderly piano player]? Compay Segundo, the 90-year-old cigar smoker?’ We connected as people, and governments don’t want that. This current clown regime, their trick is frightening you. Music creates complicity, and then you feel less isolated.
“But can it change politics? That’s out of the question. Politics runs on power and money and on ignorance.”