But Cooder's career has been nothing if not unconventional and full of risks. Born in Santa Monica, he began playing guitar at 3. By his mid-teens, he'd planted himself firmly on the L.A. folk and blues scene in the early '60s. He immediately amassed an impressive roster of associations -- Jackie DeShannon, Taj Mahal and Captain Beefheart, among others.
A slide-guitar virtuoso and a keenly adroit composer, Cooder has been called many things -- an "archivist," a "world music pioneer," labels he finds utterly distasteful. "You come back from Cuba and it creates this illusion that you're some sort of guy with a big, thick stack of airline tickets just going everywhere. Just whimsically cruising around the world," he says. "That's far from the truth. I don't do that. I don't even like the idea. I like to stay home."
Though he's spent a good portion of his career absorbing and extrapolating all manner of roots music and source sounds -- American blues, Tex-Mex, Hawaiian, African and Indian -- Cooder puts his work in more straightforward terms: "I consider myself a fan of the music."
But what has often sent him searching, digging deeper for the purest elements, is a quality that can't be simply articulated: "There are people who generate excitement ... who are transcendently gifted," he says. People like Gabby Pahinui, the Hawaiian slack guitarist, or Cuban guitarist Compay Segundo. "Call it a 'source person' if you like. I try to understand these things. How is it done? To this day, it's a mystery."
Consequently, Cooder has earned disparate camps of fans -- those guitar heads who want to know if he cut his own bottle necks; "the traditionalists" who sink into the crevices of his roots music; or those who came later drawn by his contemplative, horizon-less film scores, including "Paris, Texas," "Johnny Handsome" and "The End of Violence."
"Chavez Ravine" falls somewhere in the middle of all this. It certainly plays on Cooder's ravenous curiosity, his itch to get at the source of things. But it is also the story of his native city and his complex relationship with it: The crass overpopulated L.A. that he races to get through -- the city it has become -- and the one full of open space and secrets that resides in his memory.
This project then was the perfect work for him at the perfect time. "After Cuba I just did not know, 'What the hell are you gonna do now? You've seen the best in the world. The last of the true oracle-grade vernacular musicians.' Everything was old and crumbling. Even the people. You come back here and the past is dead."
Cooder, 58, has been trying to get a fix on something long gone, not so much to pay tribute to it but to prop it up and dust it off and show us all how it is still vibrant and essential. From the beginning, the challenge was, "To build a mood ... something that you can sustain every day. Because you have to get up every day and look at this thing."
A HUNT FOR IMAGES
Cooder is sitting in the shade on the courtyard near the Flower Street entrance of downtown's Central Library. It's a hot day, but you can feel the crispness of autumn edging into the air. In his sand-colored work pants, a muted floral shirt and a pair of canvas shoes known affectionately around the neighborhood as "winos," he would blend in as just one of the afternoon idlers ruminating on the benches and banisters if not for his big, goggle-like sunglasses, the frames the yellow of taxicabs. "I've been here for an hour, getting my head together," he says. "Had some coffee."
He gathers up his tote bag full of his essentials -- a slim, caramel-colored Filofax, a large Moleskine notebook, some CDs and some stray notes, then makes his way down to one of the sub-basements where the library's photo collection is stored. As well as looking for images for the CD booklet and others to hand over to the Texas muralist, Cooder has hopes for a map. "One of those big ones that used to hang in offices downtown that they'd frame. The ones that show the whole city."
Carolyn Cole, who heads up the photo collection, brings over a pile of pictures in a folder marked "slums." "Aliso Village. Bunker Hill too! Oh, I'm going to get seriously sidetracked," Cooder says. He pages through picture after picture -- bucolic L.A., old-growth trees, Victorian houses, street corners that have recognizable names but not features. "I spend at least a minute every day being mad about what happened to Bunker Hill," he says with a grim head shake. "Bastards got away with murder!"
A bit later, Cole leads Cooder to another room to look through other folders and boxes of photos. Then he attacks the street atlases. He opens one and sniffs the pages: "This is real good but I need something larger." One of Cole's colleagues sails in with a roll-up map. Hand drawn, blue ink on tan, the streets -- Malvina, Reposa, Palducah -- clearly marked. "This is it. This is the thing. Very exactly."