Los Angeles Noir
Ry Cooder 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 editors here.* * *Excerpted from “Los Angeles Stories” by Ry Cooder.Kill me, por favor
We had three weeks’ work at a combination bowling alley and cocktail lounge in downtown Kingman, Arizona. Harry Spivak was the contractor and also the manager. That’s technically in violation, since contractors are supposed to be players, not managers. It’s a conflict of interest, but you got to put beans in the pot. Our previous engagement didn’t pan out so well. I had to leave a good overcoat behind, and a good overcoat is sometimes hard to find, particularly if the salesman’s got a suspicious attitude. So, there we were, in Kingman, not a very fast-stepping town. My partner’s name was Ramon Sanchez, but he called himself Smokey Ray Saunders on these dance-band jobs. I go by the name of Al Maphis, but I use my given name, Alphonso Mephisto, if we work jobs on the Mexican side of town. Smokey is a bass player and I’m a drummer, so we find it convenient to contract out as a unit. I don’t like to say two for the price of one, which is a violation, but you got to eat.
We found the last room in town, plunked down twenty dollars apiece for the week, and climbed the wellworn stairs to wash up before going to work.
Hanging alongside the rusty bowl was a single towel — one towel and two guys to share it. I grabbed it, ran downstairs, waved it in the landlady’s face, and demanded, “How come?”
“One towel to a room,” she replied. “That’s all my boarders get and you ain’t no better. You ought to mind your manners and thank me.”
“Thank you for what?” I asked.
“You behave or I’ll have my husband throw you out. He won’t like it that a Mex tried to pass, I run a clean place.”
It’s true. I have Spanish blood on my mother’s side. So do half the people in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I smiled my best musician’s smile and said, “Ma’am, you are entirely right. Being halfMexican myself, I know what it is you are afraid of. It’s easy for a Mexican to take a life, I’ve heard them say they enjoy it, and that’s why they like the knife; it gives pleasure. I have tried to better myself, but the urge to kill is strong, and one never knows. ‘Que será, será,’ as my mother used to say. Ramon, he’s never even seen a toilet before. Pobrecito!”
If you get a job call at a bowling alley, take my advice and skip town. The noise is going to mess up your rhythm and concentration worse than plain drunks. But three weeks is three weeks. We set up and got going around six in the evening. Two trumpets, two trombones, tenor and alto, guitar, Smokey, and myself. All good union men and very copasetic.
I counted three couples on the dance floor and five people over at the bowling lanes. The dancers were on their way to being drunk, and the bowlers were already drunk, whooping and hollering every time they hit a pin. Harry Spivak passed out charts, and it was all standards, so I could get some sleep on the stand. The trick is to keep smiling. A girl wanted to hear “Sweet Lorraine,” since her name was Lorraine, so we obliged. After three renditions, a man started a fracas on the dance floor, complaining that he was sick and tired of the same damn song, and play something else. Lorraine’s boyfriend invited him to step outside and say that again, which he did. Spivak called intermission.
Smokey and I sat in the car and had a little drink and a smoke. “This dirty towel business has got me thinking,” I said. “Suppose there was a trailer, a big trailer, but made specially for traveling men like ourselves. We could operate the thing and rent bunk space out to the guys we were working with and have a nice place to sleep and all the clean towels we want.”
“I want pussy,” Smokey said.
“All it takes is cash,” I said.
The next day I found a trailer dealer in town. I asked him some questions, and at first he scoffed at the idea of a roving boardinghouse. Finally he said I should draw up my plans, submit them to a trailer manufacturer in Chicago, and sit back and wait. I’d either get a horselaugh for a reply or maybe one of the most unusual stables on wheels.
Next, I visited a local banker who luckily was sympathetic to trailers. He said he didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t get a loan, provided I could show good credit, a permanent address, reputable job, and good references — that being a white man to sign for the collateral.
Out on the main drag, I thought, now what? The trailer idea had a hold of my mind, and I couldn’t let a little thing like money hold me back. “One monkey don’t stop my show,” I told Smokey.
Our landlady’s husband had notified us that we weren’t welcome around there. I made the point that these older wooden structures like his were highly combustible, which brought his way of thinking around to refunding us the whole forty dollars plus a little extra for good fellowship.
The Buick had been our home often enough. I bought it from the wife of an evangelist, a professional man on his way to the Texas State Penitentiary. It was a 1938 seven-passenger with the backseats removed. The blessed reverend had it equipped with a bed, a collapsible ironing board and electric iron, a marine toilet and sink, and an exterior shower nozzle supplied from a forty-gallon water tank mounted on the roof. As you might know, a musician often finds himself compelled to go straight from the street to the stage with no access to facilities, and a man looking at a matinee and two evening shows needs a place to take a crap, wash up, and press his pants. Some of these dance joints don’t have a backstage, let alone backstage plumbing, and oftentimes the management doesn’t like the help to mix with the customers, as if it lowers the tone to have to piss alongside a drummer.
All the towns along Highway 66 are laid out identically. Whites on the north side, coloreds to the south, the highway up the middle. We found a little tamale joint on the dark side of town called Berta’s Pollo Encantado. Smokey dug Berta; she was fat and soft like yesterday’s bacon sandwich. Not my favorite dish, but I’ll take it as I find it.
We ordered tamales and beers and sat down at one of the three tables. Smokey started right up talking to Berta in Spanish, asking her about lodging in the area. She allowed there was a room upstairs if we didn’t mind sharing the outhouse with a white man. What’s a white man doing down here? I asked. Berta sat down and told us all about him, a fellow named Jim, who was hiding out from some bad hombres, but a polite man, and handy too. Handy with what, I asked. “Todo!” she said. “He fix la estufa, el eléctrico, el baño! El baño es muy bueno.” I made an arrangement with Berta and we moved upstairs. By then it was showtime. Smokey invited Berta to the Lanes, but she said they didn’t allow Mexicans where dancing and bowling was going on simultaneously.
I couldn’t keep my mind off the boardinghouse trailer idea. After work, I tried to sketch it out. I could hear the bedsprings squeaking and creaking upstairs, but it didn’t bother me. The trailer dealer had told me a custom job as I described it would probably cost five thousand dollars. I decided to keep the cost down to under four thousand dollars if possible. I’d have to sleep and feed enough boarders to make payments plus a profit. Eight boarders at sixteen to twenty-five dollars a week would pay the bills and fatten my bank account. Each boarder would need a bunk, a locker, and there’d have to be enough room so guys wouldn’t be falling over one another. Two washbasins. What had seemed like a simple job at first was becoming a matter of logistics.
The slats in the bed upstairs went blametyblam, crash! and Berta screamed. Then the floor got to squeaking in rhythm. A radio played boleros. Somebody was smoking outside. I followed the smoke, and it was a little man sitting in a metal chair in the backyard, in the moonlight. “Buenas noches,” I said.
“Five to one, I know why you’re here,” the man answered in a soft voice.
“My partner and I just hit town. We’re musicians,” I said.
“I lose. Smoke?” He put his tin can ashtray down and held out the pack. I took one, and he lit it and used the light to study me. I got a look at him — older and scrawny the way a hobo looks, but with the watchful eyes of a smart man.
“Thanks. I’m Al Maphis. Gambling man?”
“Jim McGee. I have been, off and on. Ended up here, somehow. I like Mexicans, they don’t push.”
“You were expecting somebody else?”
“Always, ever since my last bad hand. Up in Joplin, it was. I saw that Buick of yours out front. That’s an interesting vehicle. You could go straight across the country without ever stopping.”
“We have, on occasion.”
“What’s in the big box over top, if I may ask?”
“Water tank, and the instruments ride up there. String bass and drum set. I’m the drummer, Ray’s the bass. We’re appearing nightly here in town.” McGee seemed to relax a little. He leaned back in his chair and looked up at the black sky streaked with clouds.
“I never saw a night sky like you get out here,” he said. “Ever been in Joplin?”
“Never worked up there. This is a crap town. Arizona is a crap state and very nonswinging unless you like to sit and watch clouds.”
“I can still get my kicks. All I need is a stake.”
I let the line out a little. “Berta tells me you’re quite the mechanic.”
“Master machinist, first grade. I was head tool and dye maker at Martin-Marietta in the war.”
“That a fact? I wonder if you could help me. I got a moneymaking idea, but I need expertise. See, Jim, music is a two-bit racket. You can’t get ahead unless you make records and the mob controls that, so what’s a drummer supposed to do? But I been around out here in the West, and I found out one main thing. This roadbuilding and oildrilling and increased population since the war, it depends on housing. Housing is the key. You can’t have workers on the job if they can’t afford to live. Then they can spend the rest of their money on music and girls and booze.”
“On crooked cards and loaded dice and horses,” McGee said.
“I’d sure like to show you my ideas. I bet a trained man like you could figure everything out to the nickel.”
“See you tomorrow.” I left him there in his chair with his smokes and his clouds.
Excepted from “Los Angeles Stories” by Ry Cooder. Published by City Lights Publishers, October 2011. Used with the permission of City Lights. Copyright Ry Cooder. All rights reserved.