The ever-exploratory guitar master Ry Cooder released his final installment of a musical trilogy about California this summer, following Chavez Ravine and My Name is Buddy with I, Flathead -- an album that's actually the soundtrack for a novella he wrote about a fictitious bandleader named Kash Buk (you can get the whole package in its deluxe edition).
Self-produced, full of weirdly wonderful tunes (what's not to like in a CD that features a song titled My Dwarf is Getting Tired?), the release is vintage Cooder. Since it's been stuck in my player for some weeks now, Ry's been on my mind, suggesting that I share with you one of those Clouds in My Coffee:
[Another installment in the ongoing true life adventures of
Periphery Man, who has had myriad peculiar encounters with celebrities,
while not being a celebrity himself.]
When you're a teenager with a record deal, the start date for recording your first album is like Christmas and your birthday rolled into one. That’s how I felt back in 1971, when Elektra Records sent me out to Los Angeles to work with producer Jerry Yester. Visions of many brightly-colored musical sugar plums danced in my head. But all I really wanted was Ry Cooder.
Long before this consummate guitarist became a world music ambassador for America (Buena Vista Social Club, et al) he was one of the most distinctive players in rock’n’roll. I'd first heard his bottleneck stylings on the first Taj Mahal album, then reveled in his instantly recognizable, soulfully sweet and razor-sharp playing with Randy Newman and the Rolling Stones. One song I wrote back then, an urban blues called “Mad Love” (born of my romantic obsession for a waitress in Yellow Springs, Ohio) was written very much in the Ry Cooder mode. Whenever I played the instrumental break, I’d always fantasize hearing his trademark slide guitar riffs sailing over my rudimentary piano licks.
Jerry Yester’s reaction to my request to have Ry on our record was a roll of his eyes. The guitarist was so much in demand that he’d become very choosy about which sessions he would play. Jerry didn’t know him personally, so it looked like I was plumb out of luck. Enter, of all people, my mother: it turned out that Ry Cooder was married to Susan Titleman, whose first cousin Nancy was one of Mom’s oldest friends.
The jungle drums beat from one coast to the other, and arrangements were made: I was to have dinner in Los Angeles with Ry and Susan, at the home of her cousin Nancy, along with Nancy’s ex-husband Bert Margolis, who was still a close family friend. In the context of this social setting, I’d have a good chance of getting Ry on board. Although Bert’s presence gave me pause.
I need to explain to you Bert Margolis. Bert was the charismatic, large-headed fearless leader who ran Camp Greylock for Boys in Becket, Massachusetts—the camp where my brother John and I had spent every summer from ages five to fifteen. In this realm “The Blue Mist,” as Bert was known, was the near-mythic voice of authority, with whistle round neck and clipboard in hand, for some 300 growing boys. It made him a little hard to take the other ten months of the year. After running into him a few times in my post-Greylock life, I knew that Bert was a dominating presence in any gathering, and this would be my first encounter with him in such an adult context, without the presence of my parents.
I was now seriously invested in being a grown-up—especially when meeting a musical idol who was, from the looks of his stylish hat and the silver Airstream trailer he was pictured leaning against on his first solo album cover, the epitome of grown-up cool. So I was a mite self-conscious when I first joined these two older couples for dinner at Nancy’s townhouse. Fortunately Ry and Susan were friendly folk, and after some of my initial star-cowed nervousness wore off, I began to enjoy myself, except…
While for me to be sitting at the same table with him (Ry Cooder—eating peas!) was immensely exciting, I had fantasized we’d have a certain kind of conversation. I wanted to hear war stories about his trading licks with Keith Richard. Instead, to my increasing dismay, Ry’s attention was turned in Bert’s direction. Ry had spent happy times in the Berkshires, and was more interested in reminiscing about that, than in talking about touring with Captain Beefheart. “Ever eat at Mama’s?” he queried, and while I nodded—not about to reveal that I was dandling on my dad’s knee the one time I did—Bert crowed “Mama’s?!” and the two of them were off to the races.
Left in the dust, I did my best to hang tough. Finally, as the evening drew to a close, I bumbled my way into talking to Ry about my record in progress, and worked up the courage to verbalize my inevitable question—which in its phrasing, unintentionally conveyed the very embarrassment I was trying to suppress. “I hate to ask you this,” I said, “but would you be willing to come in and play on one song?”
Ry's gracious, unhesitating consent was immediately followed by a hand on my shoulder from Bert. “Now, Billy,” he said. “You shouldn’t ever ‘hate to ask’ a fellow a favor.” This, as my cheeks went crimson, elicited some smiles and chuckles from the other adults. But the moment passed, and with Ry asking collegial questions about the studio facilities at Elektra, my dignity returned. We shook hands, and I was about to head for the door, home free, mission accomplished, when the Blue Mist made it clear: once a camper, always a camper. “Before you go, Billy, do you need to use the bathroom?”
When Ry Cooder came to Elektra’s Studio A on La Cienega and Santa Monica Boulevard, the track for “Mad Love” was cut and awaiting his overdubs. I remember settling in behind the console with Jerry Yester to watch through the control room glass as Ry cut his solo. It was quintessential Cooder—tight, tart and potent, a model of economical slide-guitar soul. And then it was over. First take. Jerry and I looked at each other. “Maybe we should give him another?” Sure. We had some open tracks to spare, and a second take was only to be expected.
Ry, when asked, was perfectly amenable. We rolled tape again. Again it was a dream come true. One could quibble, were one a fool, but the choice between the two solos was a matter of taste; either one was gold. Jerry and I conferred as Ry gazed expectantly through the glass, then Jerry got on the talkback. Effusive with praise, he opined that we had it “in the can,” no question, but, if Ry didn’t mind, how about trying another, maybe with a different feel, just for the hell of it, this time playing through to the very end, so we could have fills in the fadeout?
Ry’s innocent, benignly stoic expression is forever fixed in my mind. There was just the slightest trace of honest perplexity in it. And who can blame him, considering he had already performed the session equivalent of a hole-in-one, twice? I’m blushing even now as I report the silly truth: he was playing such exquisite guitar that you could listen to him all night, and my producer and I had both gone a bit out of our heads. We were having a personal Ry Cooder concert and there was no way we were letting the poor guy out of there in under an hour. By the session's end he was flapping his arms and rocking on his stool as he played, maybe hoping that this visual aid might hammer the point through our dumb skulls: he had given the tune his all.
A year later, I lucked into opening for Ry at a club in New England, and endured the unique humiliation of being booed by some rabid Ry fans when our set went on too long. Afterwards in the dressing room, Ry salved the wounds with kind words for a Smokey Robinson cover we'd played: “That was a great version of “You Really Got A Hold On Me.” Ironically for this fledgling singer-songwriter, another, greater writer’s song had been the only genuinely affecting number we’d performed that night, but Ry was able to coat this bitter pill with the one honest nice thing he could say.
The last time I saw Ry, sadly, was some years ago at the memorial service for Nancy Margolis. His long hair was silver but he still had that boyishly amiable expression on his face. I thanked him again for having put up with me in the studio that time, nearly thirty years past. Ry had no ill recollection of the date, but I’d been carrying around the guilt of this for ages, and told him so: “I can’t believe we put you through that stupid song so many times.”
Ry Cooder laughed. “Y'know, that always used to get me—it wasn’t just you, it was everybody, back in those days. Seemed like every session I did, people kept asking for extra takes.”
“It was idiot greed!” I said. “We just wanted to hear you play.”
As he laughed again, I felt forgiven. And almost grown up, after all this time.