Ry Cooder's atmospheric film scores, eclectic albums and collaborations with prestige performers like Randy Newman and John Hiatt have created an image of the musician as the Pure Artist.
But here's the singer-guitarist on the phone in the small coffee room of a Hollywood recording studio, looking like a colorful pool-hall hustler in his tropical shirt and pork-pie hat as he sweet-talks an executive from Rounder Records. The small, Massachusetts-based label is waiting for the album Cooder is producing in the adjacent studio--a soul record by Bobby King and Terry Evans, two of Cooder's longtime backup singers.
"Ken?" Cooder says. "Oh, superb. I don't want to say too much. I'm gonna send you a cassette. I think this stuff is absolutely colossal but I'm not gonna like sit here and jump up and down over the telephone."
"Everything is 90% complete," Cooder continues. "I'm tellin' ya, it's red-hot and it's right in the pocket. Really, really a good band. . . . The sound is big and gigantic and I think you're gonna be surprised. You sit tight and I'll send you a cassette as soon as I got one, which should be in about a week."
Cooder hangs up and exhales in exaggerated relief. "Whew! The friendly man from Rounder Records."
Cooder may be an artist , but he doesn't orbit in realms of abstract contemplation and dry research. With an ear to the phone and an eye on the marketplace, he's every bit a hands-on, all-purpose entrepreneur, charting his course without the assistance of a manager or an agent.
And the pace is picking up. After a solid five years of film scoring, he's about to release "Get Rhythm," the first official Ry Cooder album since "Slide Area" in 1982.
How have things changed for him in that time?
"I feel more at ease with everything about making the music," said Cooder, who headlines a concert at the Palace on Thursday.
"Playing, singing, being on top of the situation. It seems less of a snarled-up, gnarly bother than it used to be. I think I'm more relaxed, I think I'm more philosophical, I don't get worried as much as I used to about things. I felt, 'How can you play the music you like if you can't relax your mind and body enough to do it?'
"I can't even recall my state of mind five years ago, but I can say in every respect as a player I'm 1,000% better. . . . My communication with my musicians has certainly been improved. I can go in now and get closer to the desired results. . . . Some people, I guess, are born good. Maybe Louis Armstrong or Ben Webster or Thelonious Monk. But the rest of us kind of have to crawl along. It makes life interesting."
Though his music for films like "Paris, Texas," "Alamo Bay," "The Long Riders" and "Southern Comfort" is a far piece from the raucous, rough-edged, ethnically spiced rock 'n' roll of "Get Rhythm" (due in stores Tuesday), Cooder, 40, sees no essential division.
"Everything you do cross-breeds. Playing is playing, thinking is thinking."
The movie projects have driven Cooder to seek new guitar sounds, and forced him to develop a songwriting methodology. But there have been larger rewards.
"Film work is a job I like to do because I really love to solve problems," says Cooder, speaking fast and with a jivey inflection in his dusty voice. "I think I'm a pretty good detective. If you show me your picture, I can figure out what goes with it. . . . I don't have training. but I think I'm good at sussing out what's going on.
"What it did for me was help me to think faster, work more efficiently. . . . You have to get on to it, and you have to do something good in a hurry, and so what you learn to do is do most things just by instinct, and the more I work by instinct and the less I think about it the better off I am.
"If the guy comes in and says, 'I like what you've done but it's just not working,' then you've got to think fast, get on with it, change it, be flexible with it. And that's real good training. That's like reflexology: 'OK, entirely different thing now, break down, stop, change instruments, you play this, I'm gonna play that, let's go for it, let's do it now .'
"I've scored a 6-minute cue by talking the instructions into the microphone while the musicians were playing it--'cause we had to do it--and hitting all the cuts. And when you do that, you feel good."
Movies aren't the only medium Cooder has profited from financially and artistically. This additional one delivers one more blow to the Pure Artist image:
"I've done a fair amount of commercials. I did a bunch of Champion spark plug ads, and Levi's, and Molson Beer. You wouldn't know it. But some of it's damn good. We did two Levi commercials that they didn't use that were absolutely hip. I mean, they were hit songs, but they didn't like 'em.
"To score a commercial is extremely painstaking because you have to be great for 30 seconds or 60 seconds, and that can be just as good as anything. So I like all that kind of junk. . . . Any job to me is interesting if I can get a handle on it."