It was at this point that Chavez Ravine took on extra-musical directions. "It was a quest and a study, and I had to work at it every day, like writing a book. I would go for my morning walk, I'd get an idea, and I'd spend the rest of the day working on that—if I needed to go see something, or find somebody, or look at photographs and architectural drawings. I think my wife worries about me sometimes, too much preoccupation, but I like to do it. What else would I do? I don't know what else to do."
Armed with his research, Cooder continued sketching out the mood, texture, and narrative of the album. Musicians including bassist Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre's musical right hand), jazz pianists Jacky Terrasson and Chucho Valdes, and East L.A. boogie king Don Tosti got involved. Cooder visited with Wilkinson, now 93 years old, who showed the musician the 132,000-page file the FBI kept on him, including details of an assassination plot that J. Edgar Hoover did nothing to prevent. ("He's very proud of that," notes Cooder.) Wilkinson even provided a cameo narrative to the album. More songs, in both English and Spanish, were written or found: the story of the Zoot Suit Riots, an account of a bulldozer driver, and even a tune sung in the voice of the scarred earth. Cooder also came up with the slightly loony character who helps tie the story together—a lonely "space vato" dropping in on the residents of Chavez Ravine in his UFO.
"The UFO allows you to take a different viewpoint," Cooder explains. I look over, and he's dead serious, weaving through freeway traffic as jazz plays softly on the radio. "If every song is in the past tense, that's a drag, so you have to predict the future. And the Ravine would be a good place to land one of those things. So the guy gets out, looks around, and warns the people about the future—which enables somebody in the crowd to say, ‘Sir, you're wrong, that can't happen here.' Which I really wanted to say, because everywhere I go, I'm thinking to myself, if you'd have said 10 years ago that a mutant tribe in Washington will take over, unplug the Constitution, wreck our country, and steal two presidential elections, everybody would have said that can't happen. So every day we're crossing that line, and that's all I seem to be able to think about."
"WHAT A MACHINE!" Cooder beams as he stands in a small garage called CJ's, located at the entrance to the Santa Monica airport, a few blocks from where he grew up and not far from his current home. He runs a hand over the half-constructed '50s-vintage ice cream truck that he's having rebuilt. "It sits just so, I tell you. The slope is the thing—Good Humor figured that out."
He's seeing the new hubcaps (actually replicas from Taiwan) for the first time. In a few days, a low-rider specialist will put in the motor and the brakes. Then Cooder will ship the whole thing to San Antonio, where a young Chicano artist will paint a Chavez Ravine mural on the truck's side; concurrently, a local artist is building a diorama of the old neighborhood that will fit in the back. What will he do with this rolling masterwork? Who knows—it won't be completed until long after the album is out and its promotion is done. "This is for me," he says, shuffling back through the parking lot. "I've been wanting an ice cream truck forever. You can't just work and work and work—and this is worth it! This thing is something else."
The truck is a reminder of the L.A. of old, the city of Cooder's youth that still had rural areas and ties to the unreconstructed West and neighborhoods like Chavez Ravine that felt like distinct towns. "TV changed everything," he says, shaking his head. "Advertising, consumerism, everything got brighter and faster. This airport is the last place that still has that same breezy, restful quality. If they do what they say they're going to do—which is convert it into an office park—then I will leave Southern California never to return. That's a blood oath."
Los Angeles' penchant for cultural erasure made his new project a dramatically different undertaking than Buena Vista. "This Chavez thing was like a big puzzle that was all spread out, you couldn't even see the pieces," he says, "whereas Buena Vista we essentially walked into it. In Cuba, it was like it was on a plate—if you go to Havana, especially seven or eight years ago, and walk down the street, everything's there, the old people, the young people, the past and the present are one thing. It's pre-media, pre-television, it's all very viable and dynamic. [But] the change in life of L.A. from that time to this one is very extreme. People have it in their memory—but only a few."
Indeed, one thing that ties the two undertakings together, sadly, is that Cooder concocted them just under the wire, before the aged musical principals involved passed away. For just as several of the Cuban maestros died soon after Buena Vista's release, so Lalo Guerrero and Don Tosti—the tangible connections to the Chavez Ravine of old, and the unique hybrid its music represented—did not live to see this album's completion; their collaborations with Cooder were their final recording sessions.
"You're always working against the clock," says Cooder. "It makes you work really hard because you know that you might need something, and if somebody's died and you got to them a week late, it's just gone. You won't be able to open that book again. A year later, I couldn't have made this record. It was really a lucky break, and Buena Vista was a lucky break."
One other result of his work, though, was Cooder's realization that the legacy of Chavez Ravine is not entirely negative; the neighborhood's destruction also led to a transformative moment in Mexican American activism. "Chavez Ravine is the dawn of Chicano consciousness," he says. "It was the first time they acted together in defense of themselves as a group. They went down to City Hall to these City Council meetings, to these condemnation proceedings, and they damn sure demonstrated and protested. It didn't get them anywhere, but it was the first time it happened."
It's easy to describe Ry Cooder as a historian, an archivist, a nostalgist, or a curator, but it's important to remember that at the beginning and in the end, he's a guitarist, and that Chavez Ravine isn't a textbook, it's a suite of glorious music rooted in emotion, simultaneously a lament and a celebration. "I really had to create a new sound out of nothing," he says. "It's not a documentary, it's imaginary. It's not quite the way it happened, but I like to think of it this way."