Ry Cooder’s American West
WHEN Ry Cooder and I got to El Mirage Dry Lake, it was 110 degrees and heading to 117, hot enough to cook your head inside your hat. The Mojave Desert in daylight will cut the gizzard right out of you, Tom Joad once said, which is why the Okies crossed it at night.
I put away the map and Ry pulled the S.U.V. through the gate and stopped. The gravel road fell away below us and vanished into the bone-white lakebed. The mirage was working: a shoreline shimmered wetly in the distance, made of bent sunlight and sand.
El Mirage Dry Lake sounds like a place one step away from nonexistence, but it’s about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, out among the Joshua trees. It’s not far from Edwards Air Force Base, in the Mojave’s military-paranormal sector, where secretive government installations lie low among the jackrabbits — a land of spy planes, space aliens, off-road vehicles, sturdy reptiles and people with freaky desert habits, like racing vintage hot rods on dry lakebeds
It is, in other words, a critical stop on Ry’s California trail.
Ry Cooder — the rock and blues guitarist, roots musician, record producer, songwriter and composer — is a son of Santa Monica who has spent nearly 40 years exploring all corners of the musical planet, like a sharp-eared extraterrestrial on a lifelong voyage of discovery. (His two-CD career anthology, released last month, has a perfect title: “The U.F.O. Has Landed.”) But even that barely covers it — it’s strictly from his solo albums and the haunting scores he wrote for films like “Alamo Bay” and “Paris, Texas.” If you add all the records he has made with other musicians, like Gabby Pahinui, Flaco Jiménez, Ali Farka Touré, Mavis Staples, the Chieftains and, most famously, the Cuban all-stars of the Buena Vista Social Club, you can only wonder where on earth he could go next.
The answer: his own backyard.
Ry’s latest project may be his strangest and most ambitious. It’s a trilogy of concept albums, plus a short novel, that resurrects a lost California of places and people that Ry, who is 61, remembers from growing up in the 1950s. It was a dryer and poorer place then, but rich in things he likes, like simplicity and ingenuity, good musicians, cool cats and hot cars. Time and neglect have bulldozed most of it into oblivion.
“I like beautiful things, and things that are tough and serious,” he told me, in a tone that suggested the national supply of such things was running out.
Ry is steeped in California lore (he’s as much a writer and historian as a master of the bottleneck blues) and full of wry scorn for the old Golden State traditions of fakery, greed and self-indulgence. Things that set him off include useless corporate entertainment (a song on his last album includes a character who sweats to death at Disneyland in his Mickey Mouse suit, working overtime), the theft of farmers’ water for the California Aqueduct, and Southern California’s endless rows of stucco subdivisions, the splatter from the housing bubble.
But he can be just as emphatic in savoring the near-perfection of an unsmoggy day, the ancient Joshua trees lining the Pearblossom Highway, the harsh loveliness rolling past the window. We were headed to El Mirage, the site where he posed by an Airstream trailer for his first solo album. From the ’20s to the ’50s it was a magnet for white, working-class hot rodders, the kind of people who form the core of his California trilogy, along with steel-guitar players, Okies, Arkies, Mexican-American dance-band leaders, zoot-suited Pachuco hipsters and the occasional space alien.
The kinds of people Ry celebrates, in songs like “Poor Man’s Shangri-La,” are the ones nobody remembers:
Tell you ’bout a friend of mine that you don’t know
He lives way up a road that’s lost in time.
Don’t know his name, or where he’s coming from.
Only thing you know, he’s a real gone cat,
This friend of mine.
Ry talks the way his song characters do, in quick, fluid bursts that smack the ear and linger there, all strange and memorable, both sardonic and sentimental. “We’re going to El Mirage, which is still El Mirage and will always be El Mirage,” he said. “You can’t do anything with it. You can’t exploit it. You can’t figure out any way to make money on it.”
Traffic was light, and Ry’s conversation rolled as freely as the S.U.V., over wide terrain. “It’s terribly dry but beautiful,” he said as we hit the high desert. “It sure is good for the eyes, it sure is good.” He wore bright yellow shades and a broad-brimmed hat, and had brought CDs for the road: country-western guitar pickers and late-’40s Chicano dance music. He’d hoisted an iced-up cooler into the back, full of ginger beer and bottled water and a zip-lock bag of orange wedges from his own tree.
One thing that fills his head, besides a longing for someplace better than now, is cars. “Every woman I know, crazy ’bout an automobile,” he sang years ago, and it’s a rare record of his that doesn’t have wheels in it somewhere.
That’s how he met Bobby Green, who is far too young to remember those days, but an inventive old soul all the same. Mr. Green, a Los Angeles bar owner, is a member of a hot rodding club that dates back to the 1930s, when lakes like El Mirage first became meccas for racers. Soon after we arrived at the western edge of El Mirage, we met up with Mr. Green, who was preparing his custom-built “belly tanker” to run at the Bonneville Salt Flats, in Utah.
In a few minutes we were all rolling onto the lake bed.
The ride was bumpy and then less bumpy and then smooth and then real smooth: a pool table in all directions.
A Predator spy drone, out of Edwards Air Force Base, buzzed overhead, presumably checking our faces against terrorist databases.
Ry had brought me so I could witness a rare event, when the fabric of time and space splits and a piece of lost California sticks out. For the last several years, he’s been poring over archives and deciphering maps. He’s been hanging with young fellow enthusiasts like Mr. Green and writing songs and stories about the California they embody. The project has crisscrossed miles and decades, tossed fact with fiction, and led to three records — “Chávez Ravine,” “My Name Is Buddy” and “I, Flathead,” which comes with its own short novel, his first.
The book is populated by white, lunch-pail Los Angelenos who left Oklahoma and Arkansas for barebones suburbs like South Gate and Vernon. These were people who liked Merle Travis, the finger-picking country-western guitarist, and found California to be just the place to realize homely dreams of peace and quiet. They worked in factories, danced in honkytonks and built hot rods out of surplus parts to race at El Mirage.
“You had to be kind of hardcore to come out and do this,” Ry told me. “Get sand in your teeth. God knows what. It was a working class, blue-collar thing, you know what I mean.”
Mr. Green, a compact man in a porkpie hat, is a throwback to that era. He had brought his garage crew, Lucky, Logan and Tyrell, and his friend Mister Jalopy, an artist and blogger who is also an authority on vintage technology and old California and does not go by his real name. Soon we added George Calloway, who had seen our dust and driven over from the trailer homes on the lake’s edge. George is the honorary mayor of El Mirage, a chatty old man who started racing there in the 1950s, and in the ’90s moved to El Mirage for good with his wife and car collection. If you come out to race on the lake, he’ll come out to you, and tell you all about the old days. His wife calls him home with an air horn.
Mr. Green’s team set up a tarp, a flimsy oasis in the wicked heat. They rolled the car off the trailer, a polished tadpole with a roll bar custom-fit for Mr. Green’s head and shoulders. Its 1933 Ford flathead engine, a cherry-red block of steel, coughed to life and found its thunder-rumble — hot but smooth, as if running on lava.
Ry marveled. You couldn’t see his eyes, but the growl said: happy.
The belly tanker began giving Mr. Green a hard time. Short high-speed runs were followed by hours of tinkering and repairs. The rest of us drank Dr Pepper and Tecate beer and watched a towering dust devil do a slow hula out by the trailer homes.
Ry and I talked about writing.
There’s historical scholarship tucked into “I, Flathead,” from his study of postwar suburbia. But if you know “Kiss Me Deadly” and “Cry Danger,” the brutal 1950s L.A. noir films, or “Them!” the horror movie about atomic ants, you will know a lot about where he’s coming from.
In the book, a man named Kash Buk, as invented by Ry, is a mediocre musician and sometime hot rodder. At El Mirage, he meets Shakey Lavonne, a virtuous, dome-headed alien who races a space car with no tires or steering wheel. Shakey, on the run from Martian slave traders, settles for a while in Trona, a dead-end town far out in the Mojave, because its desolate rocky pinnacles remind him of his home planet. He marries a local girl, sees his share of murders and assaults, and even commits a few, but eventually finds a stable life, until the past catches up with him. Kash ends up in a trailer park closer to the city. Years later, when he is old and falling apart, he and his oxygen tank are bundled into his old Cadillac and driven out to El Mirage at night, so he can walk out on the cool sand one last time, and die.
Ry told me he had pretty much abandoned songwriting for fiction. Songs are hard, but stories keep pouring out of him. The night before we went to El Mirage, he said, he’d been up from 1 to 4, writing another.
We were both short on sleep, and left as Mr. Green and crew kept working through the rest of the blistering afternoon. Ry made the long drive home, and I left his house feeling weary and slightly scorched, not quite believing the day I’d just had. It was as though I’d been roaming the Delta with Robert Johnson, or gypsy France with Django Reinhardt.
There was more to see, but Ry had things to do, so he left me in the care of the lanky, affable Mister Jalopy — “a very interesting individual,” Ry said.
The next day Jalopy and I went to lunch at the Halfway House Cafe, a 1930s roadhouse on the old Sierra Highway, halfway between Los Angeles and Palmdale. It’s a Kash Buk kind of place, a hangout for old test pilots and desert rats, where you can get a good steak sandwich and a beer.
After lunch we walked in the desert to examine a bricked-up mine shaft and to collect sand for gold panning back at Mister Jalopy’s workshop. Watch out for snakes, he told me as he walked ahead through a gully. Turning over rocks for reptiles, I found an old, neatly torn and folded girlie picture, perfectly preserved after escaping some trucker’s wallet. I refolded it and put it back.
We headed to Chávez Ravine, once a poor Mexican-American neighborhood and now the hilltop fortress of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The view of downtown from the hillside, across to Chinatown and City Hall, was just like the one captured in 1949 by the photographer Don Normark, who stumbled across the neighborhood one day. It was a collection of shacks and vegetable plots, like a hidden farming village, and looked to him like a “poor man’s Shangri-la.” The nickname and his haunting book of photographs are all that remain — in the late ’50s Chávez Ravine was buried, literally, and the stadium built on top of it.
Ry wrote a song about how old-timers locate themselves, by a memory plumb line down through the playing field, “to the town underneath all that cement”:
Second base, right over there.
I see Grandma in her rocking chair...
And if you want to know where a local boy like me is comin’ from:
3rd base, Dodger Stadium.
3rd base, Dodger Stadium.
My last stop was Shakey’s stomping ground, the old borax mining town of Trona. It’s the worst place on earth, Mister Jalopy told me, semiseriously, citing its heat and remoteness on the edge of Death Valley, and the acrid smell from an old chemical plant. Recent newspaper coverage bore him out. The population has plunged from a steady 6,000 to 1,880 in the 2000 Census. Retirees and young people have been moving away; methamphetamine addicts, parolees and arsonists have been moving in.
If you do go to Trona, it probably won’t be for the atmosphere but for the pinnacles, otherworldly geological formations just out of town that are a magnet for movie directors. When we entered the town just before high noon, it seemed locked up, like a Western town afraid of bandits. A drive-in was open, though, and a friendly woman there called the local historical society and got us an appointment for a museum tour.
We arrived at 2, just as Marydith Haughton pulled up in her white Buick LeSabre. Mrs. Haughton is 72 and tiny. Born and raised in Trona, she had the finely furrowed skin of a desert creature, white permed curls and eyes as blue as the Mojave sky.
Walking with a cane, she inched from room to sweltering room, turning on lights. I fiddled with an air-conditioner. “Turn that sucker up,” she said. Sweat collected on her glasses. The museum was a time capsule of Trona’s good old days as a company town. Old photographs lined the walls, cases displayed mining equipment, mineral samples, glass telephone insulators. Near a chair from the old hospital hung a varsity jacket from Trona High that had belonged to Mrs. Haughton’s husband.
It was a good place, she said.
I drove out of town, past its all-dirt ball fields and all-dirt graveyard. I had a little chunk of hanksite in my pocket, a local mineral sample Mrs. Haughton had given me as a souvenir. My favorite song from “I, Flathead” was playing over and over in my head. It’s “5000 Country Music Songs,” the story of a failed country singer. He marries, leaves the city for the desert, buys an old Cadillac and a trailer home and dreams of being the next Hank Williams. He keeps mailing songs to Nashville, but they keep coming back. He has his wife’s love, but once she gets sick and dies, there’s pretty much nothing left.
“Take what you want after I’m gone,” sings Ry, to the man who has come to clear his belongings away.
It was only just a little place that we called home sweet home
It was one old house trailer
Two rusty Cadillacs
and five thousand country music songs.
A SOUNDTRACK FOR CRUISING THE DESERT FLATS
“There’s nothing to buy and no place to stay,” Ry Cooder told me when I said I wanted to explore the California of his last three albums and book.
His point was that this was a history and memory project, not a Disney attraction — that a lot had been paved over and the rest forgotten, except those bits that lived in his head and in old maps and pulp movies. I said: “Sounds like a good time. When do we leave?”
Ry Cooder is a musician without borders, crisscrossing the globe in dozens of albums over nearly four decades. A 34-song overview of his career has just come out on Rhino Records: “The Ry Cooder Anthology: The UFO Has Landed” and is available on iTunes ($16.99).
His last three records are a trilogy about Southern California, his home: “Chávez Ravine” (2005), “My Name Is Buddy” (2007 ) and “I, Flathead” (2008), all from Nonesuch Records (www.nonesuch.com) or iTunes. These are Cooder originals, but each contains big contributions from other artists of the day, like the bandleader Don Tosti, who wrote the 1948 hit “Pachuco Boogie” (www.arhoolie.com) and Little Willie G. of the ’60s East Los Angeles rock band Thee Midniters (www.littlewillieg.com). Lalo Guerrero, a giant of Chicano music, wrote a song, “Corrido de Boxeo,” for “Chávez Ravine” and recorded new versions of two of his classics, “Los Chucos Suaves” and “Barrio Viejo.” Ersi Arvizu, a former boxer and singer for the Sisters, an East L.A. girl group, was a FedEx driver in Arizona when Mr. Cooder tracked her down. (Go to www.myspace.com/ersiarvizu to hear clips from her new album, “Friend for Life,” produced by Mr. Cooder.) The sweetest, saddest song on “Chávez Ravine” is “3rd Base, Dodger Stadium,” sung by Bla Pahinui (www.pahinui.com), a son of the Hawaiian slack-key guitar master Gabby Pahinui.
“My Name Is Buddy” and “I, Flathead” celebrate the steel-guitar-rich, honky-tonk country-western music of the white working class. That scene begins and ends with Merle Travis, Mr. Cooder says, but also includes old names like Ray Price, Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant. Mr. Cooder’s own collection includes “The Best of Merle Travis: Sweet Temptation (1946-1953),” “Stratosphere Boogie: The Flaming Guitars of Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant (both at www.musicspace.com) and “Speedy West Featuring Jimmy Bryant: There’s Gonna Be a Party” (www.jasmine-records.co.uk).
When you’re in Los Angeles, head to Dodger Stadium with the book “Chávez Ravine, 1949” by the photographer Don Normark. Stop in at Coco’s Variety Store (2427 Riverside Drive; 323-664-7400; www.cocosvariety.com), an awesome knickknack and vintage bicycle shop run by Mister Jalopy (www.hooptyrides.blogspot.com).
The hot-rod racing season ended Nov. 16 at El Mirage, officially the El Mirage Dry Lake Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area (directions at www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/barstow/mirage.h
Google “Trona Pinnacles” to find directions to these geological landmarks. They are more than bizarre enough to justify a long drive beyond El Mirage. In the sleepy little town of Trona, the Searles Valley Historical Society (760-372-5222) runs the Old Guest House Museum (www1.iwvisp.com/svhs), where kindly volunteers will take you back to the days of borax mines, the magnesium monorail and the American Potash and Chemical Corporation. Open Monday through Saturday mornings, and by appointment.
On your desert trip, eat at the Halfway House Cafe (661-251-0102; www.halfwayhousecafe.com), a 1930s roadhouse on the old Sierra Highway in Canyon Country, or Trails Drive-In (84520 Trona Road in Trona; 760-372-5803). For ideas on where to stay and eat in Mr. Cooder’s hometown, go to the Santa Monica guide.LAWRENCE DOWNES is an editorial writer at The Times.