Master of the Slide Guitar and … Noir Writer?
So you think I’m kidding, do you? You think I don’t know that Ry Cooder is a musician? Aha, but in 2011 that same Ry Cooder wrote a book of short stories published by City Lights, entitled Los Angeles Stories. These stories, set between 1940 and the 1950s, are not only great L. A. Noir, but they sing with their own unique brand of chicken skin music. John Lee Hooker puts in an appearance, as does Charlie Parker. And the stories are rife with musical references:
Four Chinese girls were sitting at the corner table laughing and drinking. They were all excited about the dance hall where they’d been and the swing band they saw and the musicians they liked. I knew the place, the Zenda Ballroom, on Seventh and Figueroa. Tetsu Bessho and his Nisei Serenaders played there every Monday night. Jimmy Araki, the sax player, he was sharp. Joe Sakai was cute. The girls spoke English with a lot of hip slang, like musicians use, and as far as I could tell they were no different from any other American girls, except they were Chinese.
In fact, Cooder has a real ear for the race and ethnicity of his characters, from black musicians to Mexican Pachucos to white trailer trash to Chinese cooks.
Born in Santa Monica, he also has a great sense of place. We see Chavez Ravine before Dodger Stadium was built, the old Bunker Hill neighborhood, Playa Del Rey, Venice, and even Santa Monica.
Los Angeles Stories consists of eight tales, one better than the other. Insofar as I know, this is the only fiction he ever wrote; but I hope it is not the last. He has a great turn of phrase, as in “I am happy to have a little luck once and [sic] a while…. Too much, and fate pays a call. La Visita, my grandmother called it.”
There’s even nifty song lyrics:
Too many Johnnys, ’bout to drive me out of my mind
Yes, too many Johnnys, ’bout to drive me out of my mind
It have wrecked my life an’ ruint my happy home
When I first got in town, I was walkin’ down Central Avenue
I heard people talkin’ about the Club Rendezvous
I decided to drop in there that night, and when I got there
I said yes, people, man they was really havin’ a ball, yes I know!
I might cut you, I might shoot you, I jus’ don’ know
Yes, Johnny, I might cut you, I might shoot you, but I jus’ don’ know
Gonna break up this signifyin’,
’Cause somebody got to bottle up and go
I know that they gave the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan. In my humble opinion, Ry Cooder is even a better writer. Believe it!