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The Sentimental Musical Tastes of Ed Ruscha

The Outsiders: A series featuring visits with personalities from various fields about the importance of music in their lives.

June 19, 1988|KRISTINE McKENNA

Ed Ruscha is often described as the definitive regional artist of Los Angeles. In his 1966 book "Every Building on the Sunset Strip" he photographed exactly that, and early in his career he painted grand homages to the Hollywood sign and the 20th Century Fox logo.

More important, the style Ruscha developed in his paintings and graphics is a virtual blueprint of what's widely perceived as the California aesthetic. The ambition and slightly jaded irony in his work is disguised by a come-on that's laid-back and smooth, and his pictures are always luscious.

What does this favorite son hear as the sound track for our fair city?

"For me, jazz is the music of Los Angeles--perhaps because that's the music I was into when I first came here," says the boyishly charming, 51-year-old artist during an interview at his Venice studio. "Of the music that's associated with this city--the Byrds, the Doors, the Eagles--the Byrds are the only ones that do it for me. I used to go see them at Ciro's on the Strip in the '60s, but I wasn't into most of that music. I guess I was sort of square."

Square hardly describes Ruscha's record collection, which would be the envy of any hip student of popular music. Most of the discs in his library of approximately 1,500 records date from the '30s, '40s and '50s. Many of them are rare, and jazz, country, and rhythm & blues take up the bulk of the shelf space.

Born in Nebraska, Ruscha grew up in Oklahoma City, where his father worked as an insurance auditor. His best childhood friend was musician Mason Williams, and music always played a central role in Ruscha's life.

"The first record I bought was something by Spike Jones," he recalls. "His music shook the foundations of things and that made it perfect for young people.

"At that point I wanted to be a cartoonist and his stuff was the musical equivalent of a cartoon, and it seemed more accessible to me than classical stuff, which I thought of as a high and untouchable art form. I perceived painting that way too when I was young and had no interest in fine art then."

Ruscha's interest in fine art began to blossom in 1956, when he moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in Chouinard Art Institute. While Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were sparking the flame for him in painting, the jazz clubs of L.A. provided musical inspiration.

"I spent a lot of time in jazz clubs during the '50s seeing great people like Chet Baker, but the jazz I liked peaked out in the '60s," he says. "I rarely go see live music of any kind now, nor do I listen to much jazz made since then.

"I think all art forms--including styles of music--reach a logical conclusion at some point, and after that it's just imitators elaborating on something that's already been completed.

"For instance, there was a wave of great country singers--people like Hank Snow, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams and Faron Young--that most artists of today borrow heavily from. As far as I can see, the style has run its course and died out. Of course, the corpse will continue to be repackaged in different forms to fit the standards of the day.

"There doesn't seem to be much going on in music right now," adds Ruscha, who buys about five records a month. "In fact, the last new artist to arrive on the scene that totally knocked me out was Captain Beefheart--he really was working on the farthest experimental edge of popular music."

Of the musicians associated with the art world--Philip Glass, Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson--Ruscha likes some, but not all.

"I like David Byrne's music, but Phil Glass gives me narcolepsy. My son's into new wave music and he took me to see Glenn Branca and I liked him a lot. I also like Alan Vega, Lene Lovich and Bow Wow Wow. Malcolm McLaren's a fairly innovative gentleman and Bow Wow Wow's music was put together really well.

"I like reggae and all kinds of ethnic and roots music, but I can't bear the kind of wailing rock opera that people like Sting put out. I don't care much for rap although I do like the Last Poets, whom I consider to be the forerunners of rap."

In addition to his complex in Venice, Ruscha has a studio in an isolated patch of the Mojave Desert. Does he gravitate toward a specific type of music when he's there?

"When I'm in the desert I listen to American music from the '20s and '30s--things like Bing Crosby and Bix Beiderbecke. That stuff is great out there because you look around and there's nothing man-made for as far as the eye can see, and you begin to wonder what decade it is.

"I guess I have fairly sentimental taste in music, and the stuff I like tends to evoke a rather romantic notion of the America of the past," he concludes. "We were going at a slightly slower R.P.M. then and I like that. However, I don't see this music as nostalgic. It's as relevant to life today as it was the day it was recorded."

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