Ry Cooder has been on my musical radar for over 40 years. His work with Captain Beefheart on “Safe As Milk” shattered the blues-rock template & produced a sound which was primal & from the future. He accompanied Mick Jagger on the soundtrack of the film “Performance”. “Memo From Turner” is a classic song which matched the brooding, erotic psychedelia of this marvellous film. His first solo LP, released at the end of 1970, was dominated by covers of traditional blues songs which were unfamiliar even to those listeners who thought they knew their blues. Over the years Ry has released many records, some are of the highest quality, others have brought musical styles from around the world to a new audience. His reputation as a premier guitarist is assured. All his LPs include songs and music which rewards repeated listening.
Now there is a brand new record “Election Special”, his commentary on the up-coming US Presidential election. Ry pins his colours to the mast from the opening track “Mutt Romney’s Blues”, a song from the perspective of the presidential prospect’s pet involved in a bizarre incident in 1983. Here is the fine song and the interesting video.
On a family holiday the Romney family drove for 12 hours with their dog on the roof of their car. The pet was in a carrier with a windshield. After some time the dog’s piss and shit was leaking down the side of the car. Romney stopped, washed down the car and the dog then continued the journey. Mitt’s seeming lack of common sense & an unconvincing defence of his behaviour has been interpreted as a “valuable window into how Romney operates. In everything the guy does, he functions on logic, not emotion”. (Neil Swidey, The Boston Globe)
“Election Special” covers a wide range of issues. The financial crisis, war in Afghanistan, Guantanamo &, in “Kool Aid”, the unquestioning belief of parts of the electorate (the phrase “drinking the Kool Aid” references the Jonestown massacre”). The songs are not general calls to arms but use characters affected to voice the views. “Cold Cold Feeling” is Barack Obama singing his blues in the White House. It is Cooder’s most overtly political work and, of course, he has been accused of bleeding heart liberalism by critics of his viewpoint.
I feel that this record is noteworthy because there is a lack of involvement with politics in current music. It is not likely that a 65 year old protest singer will have any great effect on the election but it is, at least, an attempt to connect the single issues of opposition in 2012. There is a general dissatisfaction with politics and politicians but no unity of these feelings. To see and hear someone I respect attempt to make such connections is a good thing.
Cooder has always had an affinity with the songs of the Depression era. His early records included not only songs by the poet-laureate of the times, Woody Guthrie, but other wonderful tunes which deserved a wider hearing. He has adapted the Popular Front approach of the 1930s and the style of the songs in his new music (all original compositions) to link contemporary issues. An unlikely protest singer perhaps but “Election Special” is a continuation of concerns which Cooder has been dealing with in more recent years.
“No Banker Left Behind” from his last LP “Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down” (great title) channels the spirit and style of Woody Guthrie to illuminate the financial crisis. It sounds like one of the songs he lifted from the 30s catalogue. “Pull Up” and a trilogy of albums about the Latino presence in California had all taken an anti-authoritarian stance on socio-political issues. There is though no po-faced preachifying about his work. The sardonic humour of Guthrie, of the R & B songs he so loves, is an integral and entertaining part of his musical updates.
This final track is from “Election Special”. It directly addresses the billionaire Koch brothers who ride roughshod over environmental violations with the best lawyers money can buy. They use their money to support Romney and to promote libertarian right-wing policies. The song is a re-writing of the “Cross Road Blues” of Robert Johnson. The “prairie town of Wichita” being the headquarters of Koch Industries. It is, said Ry, “the only logical explanation for the Brothers I could come up with is, they made their deal at the crossroads with Satan.” It is, also, a terrific song and has been my tune of choice since I first heard it last week.
It is rare for me to show such enthusiasm for brand new music. There is enough good music about for me not to be too concerned with new releases.In 5 months time Ry Cooder may have been shown to be out of touch with the electorate of his country. In 5 years he may be seen to be ahead of his time and a coherent alternative to the policies of the two main political parties will have emerged. For myself it is a pleasure to see an artist I have admired for so long producing work which entertains and shows a conscience and an anger about the way things are. that’s the kind of music I was raised on.