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Soundtrack for a lost L.A.

Sorrowed by its vanishing soul, Ry Cooder struck out on an odyssey to rediscover the city he loved and nearly got trapped in 'Chavez Ravine.'

May 01, 2005|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

It's one of those grim afternoons when the whole of L.A. seems to have simply up and vanished; disappeared behind a dirty, gray scrim of smog and haze. You could have sworn you saw it just a moment ago. So where did it all get to so fast?

On days like this, Ry Cooder would just as soon tuck himself away anyway, conjure up something else to fit in the absence.

His hideaway-cum-laboratory is an old relic of a studio -- Sound City -- slipped into a nondescript cul-de-sac in Panorama City. "Things here still have tubes and things," says the musician-composer, taking a brief pause in a small kitchen area redolent with the bitter scent of overheated coffee and must. "It's an old busted-up place. Isn't it great?" His face lights up as he takes in the clutter: magazine stacks and mismatched mugs and someone's shoes parked in a corner. In a rumpled white T-shirt over line-cook checks and navy blue Vans edged in orange, Cooder looks like a veteran swing-shift man on break, ready to pull another double.

It's not so far from the truth. What Cooder's been busy constructing in these beat-up rooms is a commensurately fading story: his latest recording, "Chavez Ravine" -- a long glance back at a now-vanished Los Angeles and a poor hilltop neighborhood, rich in traditions whose memory hovers like a dream.

Spending time with him over many months, it becomes clear the project is his most personal and, perhaps, most challenging to date. It's been an exercise in memory, history, myth-making -- trying to reconstruct not just a physical place, but a way of life, plank by plank.

The tale he has set out to tell is a path as steep and full of turns as the unpaved roads leading up to that old neighborhood: By the early 1950s, the mostly Mexican and Mexican American residents of the La Loma, Bishop and Palo Verde neighborhoods were evicted to make room for an expansive federal housing project. The plan pitted idealistic liberals against progress-minded conservatives, both businessmen and politicians -- all under the long shadow of McCarthyism -- and then came the curveball. By decade's end, the Los Angeles Dodgers won out, crowning the hilltop with their then-state-of-the-art stadium.

Cooder's project, with elements that reach well beyond the recording studio, has occupied all four corners of his imagination and has required a lion's share of his energy and time. Even in a career arc that has been as wide and idiosyncratic as his, it is incomparable to anything he's embarked on in his 40 years in the music business -- including his critically acclaimed and creatively rejuvenating Cuban project, "Buena Vista Social Club."

For the native Angeleno, exploring the Chavez Ravine story is not so much about setting the record straight, but setting down a different sort of record. "I'm just simply saying, 'I remember the way L.A. used to be. And I like it that way,' " he says.

On this day late last summer, Cooder has just about hit the two-year mark in this ambitious musical assemblage, steeped in collaboration with seminal artists from L.A.'s Latin music scene. He's closing in. The tracks are recorded, the liner notes written (by journalist Ruben Martinez). The record, he hopes, will be a 360-degree exploration of a neighborhood -- in texture and mood. Its palette -- a melange of styles: corrido, jazz and pop, conjunto and some shades of R&B -- is as diverse and hard to pinpoint as Los Angeles itself.

He's got more ideas, other ways to make this out-of-mothballs story resonate: "I want to build this ice cream truck, like the old Good Humor trucks that used to go through the neighborhood," he says. "But inside the box, we'll have a diorama of the ravine. On the outside, I want to have a mural where every panel tells a piece of the story. I've already found the guy. He lives in Texas. He's a genius Chicano artist, Vincent Valdez."

Then, of course, that whole process should be documented, Cooder figures. For that task, he's tapped a longtime friend, filmmaker Stacy Peralta. "It can be filmed for a DVD to be released with the record instead of doing one of those god-awful videos," he says with a rueful shake of the head, as if he's bitten into something bitter. "It won't be textbook-y though."

By this time, he has wound himself through a warren of dim hallways and back into one of the recording booths. Time and place seem to have pulled away. Under the yellow glow of spare light, it might as well be 3 a.m. in here. And while there are concessions to progress and innovation -- a laptop here, CD changers there -- it could be 30 years ago, perhaps more. Something Cooder likes. "Records are not museum pieces. This studio is retro, older. So it's complementary to textures we're after."

The man in the engineer's chair, Jerry Boys, is no stranger. He also worked on "Buena Vista" -- both the record and the film. He's ready now to cue it all up for Cooder, who settles into a patched-up sofa, chin in palm, to listen.

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