fter spending the last several years recording and collaborating with newly liberated Cuban musicians, eclectic guitarist Ry Cooder is back with Chavez Ravine, his first official solo record since 1987. Returning to the American myth hunting of his younger years, Cooder explores Chavez Ravine, the Los Angeles Mexican-American community that, via McCarthyism and the misuse of eminent domain laws, was bulldozed to make way for Dodger Stadium in the late 1950’s.
It would be impossible to ignore the social misdealing that happened here, but Cooder’s main focus is romanticizing the lost neighborhood, sympathizing with Ravine dwellers by embracing their unique culture. Appropriately, Ravine rises and falls with Cooder’s ability to paint portraits of the rich culture of a lower-class immigrant neighborhood. The major events that led to the destruction of the neighborhood—a community planner accused of communism, unprovoked police brutality, and a seedy business deal—are not simply narrated, but lived in, told only as they apply to the community.
Though Ravine is the first “solo” Cooder disc since 1987, the eclectic guitarist received plenty of help. Cooder digs deep into 1950’s L.A. culture to drag up some long-ignored names of Latin popular music. I’m in no position, culturally or academically, to judge the “authenticity” of Chavez Ravine, but there’s no doubt that its best moments are born at the hands of Cooder’s skilled collaborators, many of whom helped establish Chicano music decades ago.
The most compelling of Cooder’s cohorts is the late Lalo Guerrero, often referred to as the “father of Chicano music.” Guerrero contributes three songs here, the best of which is the manic, swinging “Los Chucos Suaves.” He has a thick, syrupy voice, and Cooder seems to save the album’s best arrangements—accordions, horns, splashy drums—for his veteran pipes. Little Willie G. led the Latin rock band Thee Midniters [sic] in the 1960’s, and he sings and writes much of Ravine. His interpretation of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller’s “3 Cool Cats” is the album’s single most humanizing moment, a story of three friends, “dividing up a nickel candy bar,” ogling “three cool chicks,” each choosing a girl before being summarily rejected.
Ravine bursts with moments like this. “Chinito Chinito” is a gloriously bratty tune about teasing a Chinese laundryman; “Muy Fifí” recollects a mother/daughter argument; “3rd Base, Dodger Stadium” comes from the mouth of a local forced to park cars at the stadium, his neighborhood reduced to baseball’s geography.
Cooder was wise to tell this story not with ivory tower hindsight, but through the seemingly trivial events of daily life. As such, everyone gets a fair shake—on “It’s Just Work for Me” there is sympathy even for the worker bulldozing the town. Cooder’s own compositions—especially those that he sings—stumble a little. Only on the plea-of-innocence vamp “Don’t Call Me Red” does Cooder himself manage to tap into the vein of the story.
That’s okay. Cooder is humble and fascinated enough to collect a group of creative musicians and let them tell their story. Even when his contributions are minimal, his judgment and input are no doubt essential. Chavez Ravine drags occasionally, the result of too many serious narratives, but the stories that do work are jaw-droppingly simple and painfully familiar. As such, we can all imagine what was lost in Chavez Ravine.