The celebrated musician talks about select tracks from his new album, “Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down,” as well as his musical and political influences, with Truthdig’s Robert Scheer and Kasia Anderson.
The first part of this interview originally aired on Truthdig Radio in May. This is an extended interview featuring clips from Cooder’s album, which is now available, and an expanded discussion on politics and music.
An excerpt from Ry Cooder’s new book, “Los Angeles Stories,” out now from City Lights Publishers, is available on Truthdig here.
Click here to enter our Power of Protest Music contest for a chance to win a copy of the album and book.
Truthdig Radio is a collaboration between Truthdig and KPFK Los Angeles, where this discussion was recorded.
A full transcript is available below.
Kasia Anderson: This is Kasia Anderson, associate editor at Truthdig. I’m here with Robert Scheer, our editor in chief, and also the musician Ry Cooder, who has written a song based on one of Bob Scheer’s recent columns, called “No Banker Left Behind.” And before we get into our discussion, let’s play that track.
Kasia Anderson: That was “No Banker Left Behind.” And as I understand it, Ry, there’s a bit of an origin story behind this track. Can you tell us about it?
Ry Cooder: Yeah, sure. We at the house, we read Truthdig pretty regularly. And I like to get up in the morning and find it there on the computer and open it up and see what’s what. And I saw this heading—this was during the bank…the whole business with the bailout. And, “No Banker Left Behind”—I said, that’s the voice of Uncle Dave Macon speaking to me. Uncle Dave, who was the very … at one time very well-known medicine show country musician—you’d have called him a banjo player—just the greatest, par excellence. And he had a great gift for making simple statements about life and about society. And this was also during the Depression; he was very popular at that time, made hundreds of records. And so he would take a thing like this and reduce it down to one little statement, and you heard this and you understood it completely, and by the end of the song you’d learned something. He was very entertaining; he’d dance while he played the banjo, and lived to be a very old man. So I thought, “No Banker Left Behind,” by Uncle Dave Macon … who …no banker left behind, what? The train. OK, they’re on the train, the train’s leaving. Why? Because it’s a rich train for only bankers. They’ve got all the money, they get on the train, the train pulls out, and the rest of us all stand there watching and saying, where’d it all go? You know, how did they make off with all this loot? And then it was a matter of telling a little story of going to the White House, what they’re going to eat when they get on the train, and with Uncle Dave in mind. So it was a pretty simple little thing to do, to get the record started.
Robert Scheer: You know—and it’s not even my favorite track on your record—you know, it’s interesting. I was saying before, sometimes your friends work on movies or they make records or write books. And then they want you to listen to it or look at it. And you just don’t want to say the wrong thing if you don’t like it. And somebody once told me if you see your friend’s movie and you didn’t like it at all, you say to them, “You must be very proud.” [Laughter] There’s a couple of screenwriters told me that once, and that gets you off the hook. And so when you gave us this record—and it’s coming out in September—and you know, I was flattered that you said one of the songs was inspired … well, I listened to it, and I could not stop listening to it. I listened to it over and over again. And I paid you a compliment … where as far as the content, I think it’s right up there with John Lennon’s “Working-Class Hero,” which I think trumps just about anything else as far as taking serious political observations and putting them into music. I just do, I think it’s just a great album. And I listened to this over and over, and the range of content—I’m not talking about the music, now; I think the music also has great variety and is fabulous, but that’s to be expected. But you deal with immigration; you deal with war and peace; you deal with the financial crisis; you actually deal with race. It’s startling. This is an intensely political album, you know. So what is this? Is this your manifesto?
Ry Cooder: Yeah. Well, some of this must come from me being quite frustrated and feeling sort of marooned in all of this—you know, like, helpless. I get so angry. And I try not to dwell in that, because it’s bad mental health; it’s bad for you. The best thing I can do is to take an issue or a story, or something that’s coming up in current events, or something I know about—such as recruiting children in the military in poor schools in Los Angeles, the most heinous kind of atrocious thing there ever could be. So you sit and pound the table and feel terrible—I said, no, make a song out of it. At least then you can record it, and go through the exercise of doing that, and the thought of doing that, and the creativity. And it’s fun, besides; I like to do it. So by the time I get done with one of these songs, it feels somehow, you know, that there’s something good about it rather than just something terrible coming in. And then, after we get a few of them, maybe it’s a record; you know, maybe we can call it a record.
Robert Scheer: You know, what’s happening to this industry? We’re here doing this recording at Pacifica, and when we’re done we’re going to have an appeal for funds and keep this station on the air. And we have this appeal for Truthdig, to keep it going. But you’ve been—Rolling Stone said you’re No. 8 on the list of the hundred greatest guitar players and, you know, maybe you’re the greatest living guitar player. And yet I was surprised—you told me your, really, one big success was the Buena Vista Social Club, the Cuban, the old Cuban guys that you pulled together.
Ry Cooder: Yeah. That was the one that people seemed to like the best, yeah.
Robert Scheer: Yeah. And that, you know, that it’s hard to get a record out there.
Ry Cooder: Very hard.
Robert Scheer: It’s hard. So what’s happening to this industry ...?
Ry Cooder: Well, I grew up at a time—and I know you did, too—the heyday of the record business, which my friend Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records believes is a one hundred year business: started with Caruso in 1908, or 1906, if you like—first million seller; was done, basically in a shambles, by 2006 or so. So during that time, and especially after World War II when the LP was developed and radio began to play a great part in promoting these songs, and people wanted to buy them—I did; I’d hear a song on the radio and go out and ask the guy in the record store. And record stores were everywhere, and the little single cost 99 cents, or 50 cents some places; and the records, the LPs, cost $5.99. And I got my first John Lee Hooker record—and I guess I was in junior high school—in a drugstore, on the rack; we used to call them rack jobbing. And this thing cost, I think, $3.99. It was a whole world, there, of sound. And I sat down and tried to learn to do it. So I guess every day of my life, from early childhood on, you know, I spent with these records and the instruments, trying to understand it; trying to absorb it. And it never occurred to me that this was the music of the days of your life. You talk about John Lennon, for instance, or Walter Gieseking on piano, whichever you prefer. And it could be anything, depending on your state of mind or what you’re thinking of—what you’d like to see in your mind, the beautiful visualization that music brings. The understanding that it brings; the insight from great music. I mean, my goodness, at a price anyone could afford, you know, anytime you wanted. How can you improve on that? It’s fantastic—and now it’s all gone. It was records, radio and retail—the three R’s. So the retail outlets basically dried up; the radio is not about that anymore. This radio station is all, I guess, there is. I mean, I listen to Mexican radio stations, it’s true, because I like to hear banda and I like to hear norteño. But I mean, for content and for inspiration, it’s getting kind of hard now. But I still do this, because it’s … it’s all I’m equipped to do, you know.
Kasia Anderson: I’ve got a question. Just listening to the album, there’s quite a mélange of different styles going on. Can you tell us a little bit about your songwriting process? Do you have a concept first and then choose the style of music, or does it all kind of come to you?
Ry Cooder: Yeah … first you need an idea. No banker left behind, Uncle Dave Macon—let’s go there. We’re going to work pretty well. Then, if you’re going to have, let’s say, “The Corrido of Jesse James” where Jesse James asks bilingually: God, give me back my gun, so I can go down to Wall Street and in the manner that I was accustomed to, take care of business—he doesn’t realize that one man, one gun doesn’t work anymore. He’s kind of a naive fellow, Jesse James. So that’s going to be in that accordion style, the conjunto style; I added banda horns in there because it’s exciting. And so I saw that pretty clearly. John Lee Hooker running for president, infomercial about his campaign—you do it in the style as much as you can. I spent a lot of years playing along with his records and knowing him, even, personally. So I thought I’d try that, you know, and see if you can evoke that feeling. But that’s what musicians do, looking for inspiration through the music, through the instruments. But you do need—these are topical songs, so we need the themes; you know, the girl in the army, enlisting in the army; the person trying to cross the border in Sonoita, Arizona, and getting busted by the … that’s everywhere. We hear this story all the time. So … the maid arguing with the guy in the big house, about values, and what life’s all about.
Kasia Anderson: A timely topic. [Laughter] Maids, and big houses, yeah.
Ry Cooder: Yeah, you bet. [Laughs]
Robert Scheer: You know, I just want to throw in a little optimistic note here. And I think it applies to your business as well, but I feel it with the journalism activity that we do on Truthdig. It’s true, we haven’t figured out a way to make real money here. And I guess if we follow the lead of some others and sell ourselves to some very big operation, maybe we’ll do OK. But you know, as an independent voice, it’s rough. On the other hand, we have no trouble reaching people.
Ry Cooder: No, that’s good.
Robert Scheer: You know, we were discussing earlier that Chris Hedges gave this speech at one of our fundraisers; it was the night bin Laden was shot; he gave a little impromptu speech; we transcribed it right away; it’s brilliant, as Hedges always is. And we had 100,000 people come to it in a matter of hours. And I know we’re going to do that with this album of yours. It’s coming out in September. And I think, through the Internet, we can. Now, I don’t know if it turns into record sales; I don’t know how iTunes works; I don’t know…
Ry Cooder: I have no idea. No idea.
Robert Scheer: But you know, it seems to me that the Internet is a great vehicle for letting people in on something. And if we do our job right, you know, and we promote this record, it will be a very good test for us. You know, we want to really push it. It comes out in September, and I’d like to see if we can’t find a big audience for it.
Ry Cooder: Well, I think your audience is right there.
Robert Scheer: Yeah, but not only our audience. We want to share it with The Nation, and AlterNet, and all the other folks that are out there; you know, they’ll steal it anyway, so we might as well share it. [Laughter] In a good spirit; I don’t mean they are, particularly, thieves. But you know, the Internet is a place where people—you know, my column this morning was grabbed on about 10 different sites before I read it on Truthdig.
Ry Cooder: Wow.
Robert Scheer: Why not take advantage of that, get the word out. And then, I think—and you said you’re not familiar with it—but I think with something like iTunes or something, you must get some income … that … no?
Ry Cooder: Not that I know about. It’s tiny. The artist is usually at the bottom of that food chain.
Robert Scheer: Oh, OK. Well, that’s depressing. But anyway, as far as getting the music out, and getting the content of it out, I think the Internet is an incredible vehicle. And you know, someday we’ll figure out how to make a little money off it.
Kasia Anderson: Well, speaking of the Internet, I think this is the point where we’re going to share some of the message on Truthdig.com. And we will start by playing another track from the album. And Ry, can you set that up for us? It’s track nine, another of our favorites.
Ry Cooder: I don’t know how I got to this John Lee Hooker for president idea, except that I began to hear him campaigning. And hear him telling you, the audience, what politics means to him. … He was a very funny fellow, John Lee Hooker. He had a very interesting view of the world, and tremendous language; I just loved to hear him talk. And so, if he did run for president, what would be important, you know? And then juxtaposed along with certain issues like the horrible failure of the Supreme Court to do the right thing—what would he do about that? Would he reorganize the court? Who would be his running mate? [Laughter] You know, Jimmy Reed for vice president. And so forth. And then, so to extrapolate, I took certain passages out of some of his songs where he talks about himself, and just reworked the language a little bit. But I just like to play his music myself on guitar as best I can. It’s something that I like to listen to, and he’s not around to do it anymore.
Kasia Anderson: Let’s hear a couple of minutes from that track, then.
Kasia Anderson: So I was wondering, you mentioned—well, Bob mentioned John Lennon’s “Working-Class Hero” as a great political anthem. And I wondered, Ry, if you have kind of a greatest-hits lineup of your own kind of inspired political songs that you … no? Nothing really comes to mind?
Ry Cooder: Well, yes—I mean, but, from back in the day; when I was a little kid, there were friends of my parents’ who had all the Woody Guthrie records. And I used to go over to their house after nursery school, I think it was; it was the same folks that gave me the guitar that I started on. And they had these Woody Guthrie records with the photographs—the 10-inch LP, in those days—Folkways. And they had the photographs, the Farm Security Administration photographs to go along with it, and I just—I got all wrapped up in that. So those tunes started me, I guess, in the folk way of doing music. As opposed to, you know, formal, classical ways; it just didn’t have that kind of brain, I don’t think. But it was the way. So—and that’s political; I mean, that’s—he was the greatest of his time, Woody. You know, he was the bridge between, let’s say, Uncle Dave Macon of the previous generation and the future guys such as Bob [Dylan] and John [Lee Hooker] and others.
Robert Scheer: You know, you’re leaving out Pete Seeger …
Ry Cooder: Oh, I forgot about Pete! [laughs] Oh, dear …
Robert Scheer: … no, I just remember as a kid—and I won’t say he had the greatest voice or anything, but I remember as a kid I was living in the Bronx, and I was very young, I went down to Yugoslav Hall on 13th Street in New York, and somebody took me there to hear Pete Seeger. And I just never got over it. And anytime he played anywhere, there was an energy and an accessibility to it, you know?
Ry Cooder: Absolutely.
Robert Scheer: And he let you in on it, and …
Ry Cooder: Made you part of it.
Robert Scheer: Yeah. And then there was a feeling he sold out when he went to the Weavers, and so forth. And I actually liked the Weavers, and I remember once waiting in a very long line at Orchard Beach in the Bronx to try to go swimming, or waiting for the bus to come from swimming, and I couldn’t believe it—there was the Weavers coming out over the loudspeaker, because they were No. 1.
Ry Cooder: They were a huge hit.
Robert Scheer: Yeah … [laughs] … there was Pete Seeger suddenly, and I thought “Wow!” You know, the revolution has come, or something. But it didn’t, did it?
Ry Cooder: Amazing, isn’t it, to think it was popular.
Robert Scheer: It was. Well, they toned it down. So where did your politics come from? I mean, why have you got this concern? Why haven’t you sold out? [laughter]
Ry Cooder: Nobody offered me … [laughter] No, I’m just—I don’t know; it’s just something I like. It’s something that interests me, and it may very well be that those Woody Guthrie records were the beginning of the thinking. When you’re a little kid, you know, you don’t understand, you can’t grasp all the complex—we were talking earlier about Chavez Ravine? Now, I remember that chain of events back then; I didn’t understand what was going on, but it was—I understood something about it. …
Robert Scheer: People should understand, who haven’t seen the play or read the literature, this is the leveling of a whole community, and that’s where we have Dodger Stadium now. And you made an album about that. Maybe we should talk about it a little bit; I think it was quite powerful.
Ry Cooder: Well, I looked around for some of the Pachuco sounds of those days. And there were two left remaining; that was Lalo Guerrero and Don Tosti, both older then, and actually died by the time I got the record made; took me three years. So I thought if we can go back to them and get them going—and find a way to write songs, either in English or Spanish, that can evoke and tell some of this story, you know, and work it in. I really worked pretty hard on that record; I really enjoyed that. Because I was really fascinated—the Don Normark photographs; I liked going there, I liked driving around; and it’s music that I love, you know; the L.A. Chicano music is really special.
Robert Scheer: It’s an amazing disconnect that people have, you know. That somehow people arrived yesterday, illegally, from Mexico or something. And yet when you’re in those communities, you know, that still exist, and you sit in somebody’s backyard as I’ve been doing lately, and people tell you no—I’m here—I’m third generation, I’m fourth generation—no, you know? And we’ve been having the same backyard party in the same backyard with family going back four generations. And of course these are the original inhabitants. And I don’t know, what’d you think of the play? There was, I thought, a very good play on Chavez Ravine; it was at the Ahmanson [Theatre].
Ry Cooder: Well, yeah, I liked the play. The story is so interesting; everything about it is—you know, David and Goliath and all this. And then you had J. Edgar Hoover was involved, and of course then came the Dodgers. But I mean, all of this—and Fritz Burns, the developer; this tradition, the culture of development in L.A. is nefarious, you know. The satanic builders, I call them. How they want to own everything and sell everything over and over again, and you can’t ever pull this off about public housing, barely, or take care of poor people, barely. You know, and it moves fast, and you can be gone for two weeks, come back and not know whole areas.
Robert Scheer: You know, L.A. has such a rich history. People back East, of course, deny it, you know, have contempt for it. But that story itself is really quite complex. At the heart of it, at one point, you had a well-intentioned—I don’t know, was he a liberal guy or a communist guy or what? The guy who wanted to build the housing thing, and he was working for the city …
Ry Cooder: Well hey, listen, it was a federal—FDR insisted on public housing has got to be done. It was the law, in a sense.
Robert Scheer: So there was going to be public housing.
Ry Cooder: Yeah.
Robert Scheer: But in a way, the people who were living in what, I guess, the housing people thought were hovels, had an intact community.
Ry Cooder: Yes, they certainly did.
Robert Scheer: They were living in villages. They had their music, they had their lifestyle and so forth. And then the do-gooders, in a way, felt the need to wipe that out. And then the FBI, you mentioned J. Edgar Hoover—he felt the need to wipe out the do-gooders, because there was some communist connection, now, we were in the Red Scare. And the whole thing got incredibly convoluted. And then you end up with Dodger Stadium. And the history of L.A. is very often that kind of hodgepodge of intentions and avarice and, you know, yes, bring the water; it’s good, people need water; but meanwhile, let’s create the valley—and we have Chinatown! You know, and so forth. And I thought what was really great about your involvement with that in the music is that, to acquaint us with this rich history. I don’t think anything did it as well as that and maybe “Zoot Suit,” you know, the play, originally. But let me ask you—can’t have an interview without asking you about “Buena Vista Social Club” and all that. How did you get involved with that?
Ry Cooder: Well, that was—my friend Nick Gold from England, who heads World Circuit Records, we would speak, and I’d done some work with him. And he called me up and said, would you like to record in Cuba? I’m thinking of going there. I said absolutely. My wife and I had been there in the early ’70s, and never had been able to get back. So well, what do you have in mind? He said I want to do some of this so-called country music of Cuba, and bring some of these West African guitar players who do a similar thing, that highlife, it’s called, or was called. And if we get them all together—said well, it may work and it may not; it’s certainly worth a try; let’s do it. So we got down there, and the Africans couldn’t make it; and then it was a matter of who can we get? Let’s see who’s around. Some people had died; many had died at that point. Some who were reported to have died were very much alive. And it’s a tiny place, Havana, as you know; and you could just go and get them, could knock on the door. Is Ruben home? Yeah, he’s in the back. [laughs] Oh, well, get him, here, let’s bring him down to the studio. Oh, I don’t play piano anymore. Well, see if you feel like you’d like to. And there it was. So yes, I’d say it was [that] fate intervened.
Robert Scheer: Well, you were in the movie. They have you on a motorcycle …
Ry Cooder: Yeah, it was a Russian motorcycle, I think. [laughter] Very bad motorcycle, wouldn’t go out of first gear.
Kasia Anderson: I’ve got a question about music and politics. One of Bob’s favorite contemporary acts, the Dixie Chicks, have been involving themselves in politics, sometimes by mistake, seemingly, and sometimes on purpose. But one of the refrains that came from their controversy was “Shut Up and Sing.” And you know, that comes up a lot, or that sentiment comes up a lot, when it comes to entertainers, musicians, people in the public eye taking a political stance. Have you encountered that kind of thing in your time, and what’s your response to it?
Ry Cooder: No … well, if you’re that well known—and their thin line, or their fine line, is this country music establishment, you know. And it’s odd, because some of the most out-front, bold, political music was made by so-called country musicians, you know. And what happened to that populist tradition there? It’s an odd kind of a thing. Why did it dry up, why is it so…
Robert Scheer: Can you mention some of them? Because I’m not familiar with it.
Ry Cooder: Well, all of the Depression-era music—I used to listen to the New Lost City Ramblers a lot, Mike Seeger and John Cohen, Tom Paley; and there was so much of what they did—like, most of what they did were tunes, white country tunes, mountain people, and miners of course, and textile workers, all of whom were doing what we now think of as—we kind of draw a circle around it and call it country music, you know. But then, after the war, I think, when business started to really—and Hank Williams and others started selling millions of records, then you had the corporate to deal with. Record companies getting big, and wanting to have the widest possible appeal; therefore, you know, clean it up a little bit. And the Red Scare you talk about—I know it affected that music quite a lot. And it became conservative, and then it became right-wing, and isn’t that peculiar.
Kasia Anderson: Well, Nixon’s Southern strategy might have had maybe a little to do with it.
Ry Cooder: Yeah.
Robert Scheer: Well, people don’t—that’s a very important point you make, Kasia, because people don’t understand what Nixon did with the Southern strategy. It was—how are you going to split working-class farmers, white farmers and working people who were with the Democratic Party—how are you going to split them away from the Democratic Party? And he used race. He said oh, the Democratic Party stands for civil rights; which was an irony, since it was Eisenhower’s Republican Party, even when Nixon was vice president, that was actually more effective in breaking Jim Crow than the Democrats. But Nixon’s Southern strategy, incredibly cynical, said no, let’s appeal to these white Southerners on an anti-black basis. And country music fit into it. Also, a certain kind of false patriotism, you know, that had an appeal. But I do—let me revisit the Dixie Chicks, because she always throws it in my face—Kasia Anderson is getting a doctorate at USC, and in her thesis she deals with the Dixie Chicks, and she’s written a paper about it. And when I first listened to the comeback album, I was listening on the treadmill as I often do, and it hit me—I just could not stop listening, I went too long on the treadmill, probably risked my health. But it hit me that this music was more provocative, politically, than Joan Baez; than most of Bob Dylan; than a lot of the stuff in the ’60s that people thought of as political. It was explicit, it was about not selling out, it was about the power of conservatism in the South, of the churches, what, more churches than …
Kasia Anderson: You know it far better than I.
Robert Scheer: Really! And the lyrics of that album, the comeback album—it was about courage. It was about death threats, and I’m not going to shut up and sing, and I’m going to stand here, and you know what, it makes me happy to be protesting. And what got them into all this trouble, after all, was just daring to say on the London stage that George Bush did not speak for [them] when he made an illegal war in Iraq.
Ry Cooder: Right.
Robert Scheer: Right? I mean, it was just what you think your right is in America, and people really dumped on them, you know. But I think Kasia’s point, which is an interesting one, is what is the role of the artist? And why don’t more of them speak up?
Ry Cooder: Yeah. And then, to the labor, working people had a voice in country music; it was their music in the South. And then sang so many songs, there are so many songs about work, you see; and hard times, and work, and the bosses, and all this. It wasn’t just Woody, you know. He was one of so many. And very articulate in that. And then that all got to be a big problem, you know; you couldn’t—and then of course Johnny Paycheck sang “Take This Job and Shove It,” and all that. But that was different.
Robert Scheer: Well, what about Johnny Cash and, what was it, the black—why I wear black, and the prison stuff—I thought that was very tough, and …
Ry Cooder: Oh, yeah. He’s right there. Oh, yeah.
Robert Scheer: I was very impressed with your dealing with immigration, and the cynicism about immigration. And you have the vigilante going after—which song was …
Ry Cooder: That’s called “Quicksand.”
Robert Scheer: “Quicksand.” Can we play “Quicksand”?
Robert Scheer: You know, again, that’s a pretty provocative song. You’re taking on sort of the prejudice of some country-music people. [laughter] You got the vigilante in there, policing the border.
Ry Cooder: Mm-hmm. In 1950, maybe ’51, the great Anthony Mann, the film director, made a film called “Border Incident.” I don’t know if you know this. Fantastic film; he depicted the whole thing, he told the whole story of the exploitation of the workers who come over the border, the evil ranchos they work; then they’re herded into these pools of quicksand and killed rather than sent back. And if the federal police come, United States police, the border police come, their bodies are thrown into these quicksands—I mean, it’s really, it’s really gnarly. And this film was made in the 1950s. So it’s hard to believe. So I remembered this quicksand thing. It’s a good metaphor, you know. The story of how these folks, when they come across in that heat, 120, 130 degrees—if you make a wrong move and go out of your way at night, five minutes, you can’t get back. And you dehydrate so fast that you turn into a mummy in four days. And the ones who live to tell about it, I got this from reading this book called “The Devil’s Highway”—they very often have this vision of the virgin flying, she’s flying overhead and they have all these religious visions. This is what people have heard about. So I put that in the tune. It’s a kind of a rollicking little song; it’s sort of Little Julian Herrera sitting in with The Byrds in 1966, this tune is supposed to sort of sound like in my mind, you know? But it’s very dire; it’s obviously very horrendous kind of a daily situation that we have, you know. All these poor people trying to live and get work, and nobody wants them to do it.
Robert Scheer: Well, everybody wants them to do it; they just don’t want to give them a driver’s license … pay them and give them citizenship. You know, another song which we might mention is the one about your vision of heaven.
Ry Cooder: Oh, sure.
Robert Scheer: Which one is that?
Ry Cooder: [laughs] There are a couple. There’s the one where you have—where heaven is segregated. The Republicans have taken over [laughter], Jim Crow has been re-instituted, and God and Jesus, all of them don’t have adequate proof of citizenship, so they have to leave. That’s a good one.
Robert Scheer: So we could play a little, a few minutes. What number is that?
Ry Cooder: That’s called “If There’s a God He’s Got to Bottle Up and Go.”
Robert Scheer: Is that—that’s based on an old Woody Guthrie song, isn’t it, the Jesse James one?
Ry Cooder: Well, the Jesse James, the original, as far as anybody knows, goes back to a time when he just had been captured or had been gunned down. “Jesse James, we understand, killed many a man”—it’s very old. And then Woody …
Robert Scheer: So that was just a folk tune?
Ry Cooder: Ah-hah. From his time.
Robert Scheer: Oh! I shouldn’t say “just” a folk tune, but …
Ry Cooder: Well, it was one of these bad-man ballads of the time, you know. They were popular, I think.
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.
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.