Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ry Cooder, Los Angeles Stories (City Lights Noir, 2011)

Ry Cooder has written a book! Everybody’s go-to guy for bottleneck guitar has decided to write stories. He spent the first 20 years of his career navigating the history of American music. Then he worked for the movies. After that he helped the world rediscover Cuban music, he introduced us to the Okinawa sound, to the guitars of Timbuktu. More recently he wrote and performed a trilogy of albums about California. Chavez Ravine told the tragic tale of a community of Mexican-Americans, who were moved out of their neighbourhood to make room for Dodger Stadium. Then My Name Is Buddy presented us with a fable of a cat named Buddy in a Guthrie-esque odyssey through the Depression. This was followed by I, Flathead, which came packaged in a hardbound book which featured the lyrics to the songs, along with a novella to flesh out the stories. On a rare tour of Europe with son Joachim on drums and Nick Lowe on bass and vocals, the ‘merch counter’ offered t-shirts, posters and a hard cover book called Los Angeles Stories. The book came signed or unsigned. My copy was bought for me in Barcelona and mailed at great cost (the stamps covered the front of the envelope as well as the postage). Now two years later the book has been published in a popular trade paperback edition, by San Francisco’s City Lights Books.

There was certainly a sense of place and time in the tale of a door to door salesman who gets involved in a mystery by circumstance. It was a bit like a Raymond Chandler story. Maybe not as cleverly plotted, but rich in language, character and the essence of 1950's LA. Each tale has a title and a date, and early to mid-50s seems to be Cooder's oeuvre. Some of the stories echo each other as characters (or at least names) reappear. The links are tenuous except that they all take place in the City of Angels and all involve people involved in shadowy activities -- musicians, gun shop owners, pornographers, thieves, and all sorts of women.

Although it’s based on the kind of hard-boiled style of Chandler and the like, Cooder has his own voice, and if he had started writing sooner, might have made a bigger splash in the literary world. It might be too late for that. Bravo to City Lights for taking him on, and introducing him to a broader audience.
Who’s in that audience? Well, obviously, Ry Cooder fanatics will have to get a copy. Fans of hard-boiled fiction might want to give it a try, and anyone interested in the city itself, will find much to savour. The limited edition hardcover is all gone but the paperback edition is available anywhere books are sold.

This review has been updated from a review of the hardcover edition which appeared in Green Man Review.

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