"SEE UP THERE?" asks Ry Cooder, pointing up a seemingly nondescript Los Angeles hill. "That's where the viejitos, the old men who worked for the railroad, rented shacks, on that ridge right there. Now this is Academy Road," he continues, swinging his white Toyota 4Runner around the corner of a residential street that's somewhere between quaint and ramshackle. "There's a WPA school down here—it was built in the '30s, and the neighborhood was built around the school."
Cooder's remarkable new album is titled Chavez Ravine, and this little neighborhood is Solano Canyon, the last intact section of the 400-acre district that gave the project its name. One of the most celebrated guitarists alive, best known for his work on Buena Vista Social Club, Cooder has spent the last three years constructing an evocation of Chicano East L.A. in the '40s and '50s—and he has become so fluent in the history of these side streets that he can go door to door telling stories.
"This corner house? They've been in here since it was built, maybe 80 years ago," he says, continuing the tour. "If you go up these steps you're in a field that was never built on. And then there's this wonderful, obscure, esoteric house here that I think was a rooming house and now it's a one-family. I love this place—it really speaks. It's got lots of secrets."
As late as the 1940s, Chavez Ravine was an Old World enclave with 300 families of Mexican immigrants—a place where goats wandered freely and kids played in the dirt roads. But in 1950, following a city planning commission study of L.A.'s "blighted areas," it was decided that Chavez Ravine would be cleared out to make way for a low-income public-housing project. Most families took the meager payout and didn't challenge the authorities; when necessary, though, the city invoked the right of eminent domain, seized the land, and bulldozed the residences.
But the real estate lobby (which Cooder calls "hideous villains") saw an opportunity, and cast the idea of public housing as "creeping socialism." They accused the Los Angeles Housing Authority's Frank Wilkinson of being a communist agent, and the FBI stepped in to squash the project. Eventually, the housing authority sold 170 acres of Chavez Ravine back to the city, which offered the site to Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley. After a voter referendum and a California Supreme Court decision, construction on Dodger Stadium began in 1961. It's a classic Los Angeles story, full of shadowy deals and backroom corruption, reminiscent of Chinatown or a James Ellroy novel, and Cooder captures it with impressive complexity and nuance.
He drives through the adjacent fields of sprawling Elysian Park and further up into the hills before pulling to the side of the road to look down on the massive spread of the baseball stadium, perched above the city streets on a hill of its own. "That's just the parking lot," says Cooder, 58, from behind oversize yellow sunglasses. "You can see it was an enormous expanse. There's a whole town under there. I love the fact that it's high, it's up. I wanted to say that in the music—that it was set apart, and when you were here, you were somewhere else for real."
RY COODER HIMSELF seems vaguely out of time; in his checked shirt and slip-on Vans, speaking steadily but in no hurry, he exudes something like a beatnik cool (he even says "I dig it" with some frequency). His career defies easy explanation. He has recorded with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, the Monkees, and Little Feat. His solo albums, explorations of "world music" long before such a term existed, have featured Hawaiian slack-key guitars, Tex-Mex accordions, and Indian flutes. He's written scores for numerous films such as Paris, Texas and The Long Riders. His reputation as a guitarist is such that, as he hilariously recounts, Bob Dylan showed up at his door one night, unannounced and shabbily dressed, looking for help learning a Sleepy John Estes blues song (and giving the neighbors a good scare in the process). And all that came before Cooder produced Buena Vista Social Club, which won him a Grammy and introduced traditional Cuban music to the masses.
Yet in almost 40 years of dizzying musical globe-trotting, Cooder had never plumbed the idioms of his native Los Angeles. "I always thought East L.A. music was so dreamy and languid and kinda greasy," he says. "I would think, something's out there—I wonder what? I used to sneak my little East L.A. instrumental ideas into movie scores. If I saw an opening, we'd dream up some little low-rider song."
About four years ago, Don Normark approached Cooder. As a young photography student, Normark had shot extensively in the Ravine, later assembling the book Chavez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story. He was planning a reunion with the families he'd photographed and was interested in turning it into a film. Cooder immediately agreed to help with the music. (The documentary recently premiered on PBS's Independent Lens series.) He was familiar with Normark's book, and knew the rough outlines of the Chavez Ravine story. "Most anybody of my age who lived in Los Angeles knows something about Chavez Ravine," he says. "Mexican guys, East L.A. guys, and left-wing people like my parents know all about it. I'd heard it as a kid, but I didn't know the details and I didn't know the players." As he started to look into the history, an obsession began.
His first stop was a visit to octogenarian singer Lalo Guerrero, whose pachuco songs were part of the Ravine soundtrack during the '40s and '50s. (The pachucos gained national attention during L.A.'s 1943 Zoot Suit Riots, when hundreds of sailors on shore leave attacked Chicano youth wearing the distinctive baggy clothing that was somehow interpreted by the media as evidence of their criminality. Not much changes.) Guerrero embodied East L.A.'s musical fusion of slinky Latin rhythms with the updated cool and harmonies of R&B, flavored with sprinkles of swing and boogie-woogie. Together, they worked up three songs, which gave the project its spiritual center. Cooder then visited local hero Little Willie G, lead singer of low-rider favorites Thee Midniters, and they knocked out a few more songs, both old and new. At that point, the guitarist could start to see something taking shape, but he still couldn't quite envision what it was.
"I needed a story to go with this East L.A. thing," he says. "You can't just do the old songs; they've done those to perfection. Then I found this book, The Provisional City, that's a history of public housing in L.A., and it told the whole story about the Ravine and the FBI and Frank Wilkinson. It was so vivid to me, so I thought, I'll pretend to score the book. I found the mood I want, I found myself as a speaker—which is what you have to do, you can't just be an observer, you have to get yourself located."