May 25, 2015
Ry Cooder Listening Party With Robert Scheer
Posted on Oct 2, 2011
Robert Scheer: What were “bad-men ballads”?
Ry Cooder: Well, just exactly that; sort of the Robin Hood notion. I mean, Woody did a good thing with “Pretty Boy Floyd”; he turned it into more of a Robin Hood story, you know; stole from the rich, gave to the poor. In my tune “The Corrido of Jesse James” it’s just the opposite; Jesse is in heaven, and he looks down and he sees that the rich are robbing the poor and giving to themselves, and they’re subsidized by the government. This—he cannot fathom this at all. It’s one thing to steal, but to be paid by the government, to steal and give to yourself, this can’t be right. So he goes to God and in Spanish he says—bilingual now, in heaven—and he says, con permiso, I’d like to go down to Wall Street, if you give me back—we can’t open carry in heaven, you see. So he says—because it’s advanced up there—give me back my trusty ’44. This old-time way of thinking, that one-man one-gun hero—we love our heroes, you know—can go down, walk down Wall Street like “High Noon” with Gary Cooper, and shoot up the place and teach these bankers a lesson. He doesn’t realize that it’s so thick and sophisticated and multi-tentacled, you know, that he has nothing—he’s not going to be able to do a thing about it.
Kasia Anderson: Well, I want to know about the story behind “Humpty-Dumpty World.” [laughter] That one was a real favorite of mine, listening through the album.
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Ry Cooder: Well, just—that’s a phrase that occurred to me, Humpty-Dumpty World, that’s about to shatter—or he’s just about to fall, or just did, you know; and you can’t put it back together. So I messed around with that lyric for a long time, thinking—the world in pieces, you know, and all the good thinking and all the money and all the stuff. But it was difficult to write, and I came again upon this notion that God is fed up. He says I made man and woman, I gave them simple tools, I did everything that I thought to create a nice environment; pretty birds, and flowers and trees; what more do you want? But that didn’t satisfy them, it didn’t please them. They wanted gadgets and they wanted this thing called television, and that’s really ushered in a very bad situation. So I’m going—I’m leaving, God says. I’m sick and tired of the whole thing. [laughter] I’m going to Mexico and have fun.
Kasia Anderson: Sounds like a good plan, let’s …
Ry Cooder: So it’s the opposite of leaving Mexico and immigrating; he’s going back. [laughter]
Kasia Anderson: He’s reversing the direction.
Robert Scheer: Do you know this song, if I recall correctly, it’s about the man who works with his hands?
Ry Cooder: Yeah.
Robert Scheer: And the other one who sells mortgages?
Ry Cooder: Oh! He says—my wife couldn’t understand, I make my living working with my hands; she took off with a junk-bond daddy, but he was a telephone man, he did everything over the phone … [laughter]
Robert Scheer: I love that song. That’s very contemporary, because—and now the poor junk-bond men, most of them lost their jobs too.
Ry Cooder: Well, sure. That’s true too.
Kasia Anderson: I have a general question, maybe, because I’m hoping that there will be some budding musicians out there listening to this interview. And I wondered, from your perspective—there’s a lot of hoopla about the Internet and the power of production that it gives people that wasn’t available before. But in your view, knowing what you know from your experience in the music industry, do you think it’s easier or harder now for someone trying to make a dent, and maybe come out with a unique style or perhaps a political message, to get anywhere—trying to either produce their own stuff, or have kind of an unusual act with the record label. What’s your purview of the music industry?
Ry Cooder: Oh, well—the record label is a different thing going on. Now, if you say a record label, what does it mean now? I mean what does a record label exist to do? They’re trying to stay in business …
Kasia Anderson: That’s true, yeah.
Ry Cooder: … they’re trying to survive in a corporate situation where they own copyright, or they have the distribution—it was all about distribution in the record business, you know. And the businesses, the corporations that these record companies became, growing from little back-of-the-Cadillac operations locally into these bigger entities, you know—it was because they controlled distribution. And then, now that’s failed; I mean, now that’s gone; it’s basically not working, so then you’ll say that it was because of digital technology, which is portable and small. I mean, I made most of this record in the living room of the engineer. It just so happens that he’s a great genius and can get a beautiful sound; not everybody can do that. But it’s nice for me, because I have my son Joachim on drums, and we can, together we can—because it’s family, you know, and you can access the personality or the presentation you have in your mind easier. We don’t have to worry about expensive studios, which are kind of dinosaurs now anyway; they’re almost gone. I really don’t know the answer to that; I don’t know … I grew up knowing, or thinking, the record company is your partner, you know. And yes, they take too much money from you, it’s true; but that also means that you have some kind of platform. And you need a business partner in the record business, you know; it was a good working relationship, really, for the most part; although many people cheated, and I used to hear Little Richard complain he never got paid. But I mean—and that’s true; but still, what do we do now? Now that there’s—everybody’s at home with a little recording unit and doing their songs, and it goes into the cyberspace somehow. It’s just not the same that I knew. So I just don’t know how to evaluate it; I really don’t know. Now, Robert’s sitting here being very optimistic, and I’m …
Kasia Anderson: He tends to be. [laughs]
Ry Cooder: … I’m listening to what he’s saying, and it’s positive, and I’m feeling good. [laughs] But we’ll see. But either way, I mean, I’m 64 now; so either way, I’ve done this professionally since I was 15, and I like to do it, so I’m going to keep doing it. But as far as—I don’t even—I used to tell Joachim, if you can support yourself to the extent that you have a tank of gas—because you need a car here in L.A.; you’ve got to have it—and you need a roof over your head, hopefully without bars on the windows, and a broiled chicken sandwich three times a week, and you’re all right. Most people in the world can never achieve that.
Robert Scheer: Oh, yeah. I mean, I’m 10 years older than you—more, 11 years older than you … and I have, still, four or five jobs—if you don’t have work that excites you, then you just—in my case, and I think you’d be like me; you’d kind of be like a nut, walking down the street muttering about how screwed-up everything is. And this way you got some outlets.
Ry Cooder:That’s right.
Robert Scheer: But the great thing is—and maybe this is a way to wrap it up—is you have this great artistry, this great talent, and this may be the most important work that you’ve ever done, this album. I mean, I’m not a great musicologist or anything, but I think it’s incredible. And maybe this is the culmination.
Ry Cooder: I hope you’re right, Robert. [laughs] That sounds good to me.
Kasia Anderson: And our listeners can hear it for themselves. We’ll be featuring this new album, called “Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down,” by Ry Cooder, on Truthdig. The track “No Banker Left Behind” is based on our own Bob Scheer’s column on Truthdig, and we’ll also be linking to that. So thank you very much for your time.
Ry Cooder: Thank you, Kasia.
Kasia Anderson: It’s Ry Cooder, Bob Scheer, I’m Kasia Anderson.
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