Fretboard legend, Ry Cooder visited Japan in 1994 as part of the The Great Musical Experience, a "high concept" extravaganza which used Nara's grand Todaiji temple as a globally broadcast, laser lit backdrop for Dylan, monk choirs, the Chieftans, Bon Jovi, Joni Mitchell, Okinawan funk, 3-meter taiko drums, Osaka glam-rockers et exceedingly incongruous alii. Though the result was far less than the sum of the parts, Cooder immediately homed in on the improvisational virtuosos among the Okinawans, Chieftans, and local rockers, creating the most memorable music of the event far from the stage, cameras or public performance schedule. Cooder's shamanic collusion approach to music (e.g., A Meeting by the River) greatly inspired us and the whole Kyoto Coven Works project, and offers perhaps our last, best antidote to the sensual anaesthesia of corporate MTV.
Nancho: Well, sire, having been so blessed with curiosity, success and virtuosity, when you
reflect on your gifts, what do you see?|
Ry Cooder: Well, I don't reflect on gifts because it doesn't seem possible for a person to reflect...I don't know about that. You can but I can't. See, all I can say is that today I'm here, you know and I have to eat my breakfast and I have to talk to you and then I have to get in a car and go see some Buddhist statue. So, you have a series of little events leading to something we hope, you know. Sometimes it's a good thing, sometimes it's a little weird.
When you received that guitar at the age of four, what do you think the person who gave it to you saw in you?
RC: What had happened was I had injured myself. I had blinded myself in this eye with a knife by mistake. You know, a kid will make mistakes, you know. And I was despondent, I was four-years-old, I was scared to death, you know, I think. I can't remember exactly. But I have a sense that it was terrifying and I was afraid and I didn't know what to do, you know, because a kid is an energy machine and just running towards everything. Then if something happens you put on the brakes and you say, "whoa, something is wrong here with this. There's danger out there." So what I used to do generally was sit in a room and listen to records and that seemed good. I liked it, I could understand it and it made me feel good 'cause music is healing and it's soothing and it's lots of things - it's spatial and it's pictorial. So if you're not going to run into the world and jump into it for some reason at age four, I guess you have to get your information some other way. So there's a lot of information in music to be gleaned out and there's a lot of story and all that. And this man was a violinist, a concert violinist, a friend of my parents and he just said, "here." And I didn't know what it was. How do I know? A little guitar, four strings, it was about yay big. I still have it. And he presented it. I was lying in bed and he put it on my stomach and strummed this chord so the box vibrates and you think, "oh, I can do this. Somehow this is for me to do." You know, your little four-year-old mind. So, at that time it was just a good thing and a way of seeing, a way of learning or just being safe.
Well, here you are in Japan right now with Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and a bewildering assortment of musicians to participate in the Great Musical Experience. So, your assessment of what is happening is that it's possibly not as great as you had expected?
RC: Well, we all know these things are kind of a gamble you take but I really must say that it's a scandal and a shame. Do you know that the head monk for music here is resigning because of this thing. It comes to that. He's personally in disgrace he thinks, 'cause there's no hierarchy that says, 'you're fired." They don't operate that way. So, I mean, I would probably quit, too. I would say, "okay, we were told this ...but it's such a different deal."
Well, what were you told? What did you expect?
RC: Well, we expected that...we were told, preached at even, this is going to be a serious attempt to unify the nature of the site, the temple, the religion, the monks, the Japanese culture, wherever you can find it anymore. Maybe that's where you find it. You find it somewhere in the air around the idea of these places. They're relics but still there's something there. And there's some great musicians in Japan, but of course, hardly any of them are here.
Why do you think the producer of this thing had to go back so far, you know...Ry Cooder, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, the Chieftains...I mean, most of the western musicians represented here have been in the business for 30 years or so. What does that say about contemporary music today that he had to reach so far back?
RC: Well, I don't begin to understand his true motivations and his true agenda, which I only see signs of. Because he and I are not speaking of such things naturally; don't even need to. But, I mean, the point is, I guess, he had to have an element here that would be credible in this theory. We had a press conference. We all sat in a big semi-circle and talked church about how it was going to be. We sat there and talked and talked on about it; it went on and on at great length - real preachy. So in order to do this, you can talk all you want to about people getting together and music getting together and all this but it takes some knowledge - that tale requires some knowledge.
Well, what do you think was so special about that era that you came of age in?
RC: Well, I don't know. I think it was the tail end of everything, that's what I think. See because there was this hope in that the war had been fought and that people were going to get together - all the leftwing thinkers and all the utopian thinkers. You know, we were going to do this somehow by singing. Pete Seeger said it alot, he used to say "if we all sing 'We Shall Overcome' in 'G', it will happen." That's that theory - you know, visualize a thing and it becomes a fact. So, then a lot of things happened along the way and it didn't quite work out that way, except that all of a sudden now, I can't help but see that people are turning some attention to these ideas again. The era is different now. But we went through this doldrum period, see. I can't explain it. I don't know. All I know is that I used to sit around with older guys and they would play and we would play and I learned a lot of music, you see. Then I began to think that it was all useless. Rock and roll is dead now, you know, in an essential sense. Not to the people who love "X (Japan)" but these bands are just disposable, throway fountain pens anyhow. But real rock and roll is dead, it's long dead. And because of that people are going to have to start listening to other things, you know, and they're going to have to go somewhere else for their vibe. So, some of us older folk, we know that, we recognize that.
So, what do you want to do with the rest of your life?
RC: Well, I'm not a rock player anyhow, so I'm not bothered by that. It doesn't hurt me. In fact, it opens up the air a little bit for someone who's doing something different. I did this record with this Indian man. A guy from Rajasthan who's a raga player. It's quite something. He's a guitar player. He's a Brahman class guy; trained from childhood, high technician.
Who's this gentleman?
RC: His name is Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and he plays a guitar that he made with a sitar neck and he plays it flat like a Hawaiian. But he plays all the classical repertoire on this thing. Unbelievable. Truly. So, I sat down with him, we recorded in a church, directly with a DAT tape recorder and me just basically trying to keep up with him. But he's really good. And it's really soft and it's real like searching and good. Not jive but actually good and not silly. And I put this on a little label, and boy, people just couldn't buy enough of them.
You did an album with Robin Williams back at the end of the 80s for children - Pecos Bill. What was the purpose of that? Were you trying to turn on a new generation?
RC: No, I just got a phone call. A guy called who does these children's packages, a sharp character and he said that,"Robin will do the text. Do I want to do the music?" And I said, "sure." He sent me the narration, I took two days, I did it. We got a grammy for it. Those kinds of jobs and those kinds of things that you do are like the little task events, you know, that you just stay up with. And if in one week, somebody says, "do you want to go do this, this, this?" I say, "I've got time for this one here." You can't do everything. But the Robin Williams thing, at least you know you'll enjoy it - cowboys and all that stuff.
But why has so little been done relatively, creatively for children?
RC: Well, because people haven't seen any money in it and there was no market. It was hard to market, it was hard to sell it. Then this guy who does Pecos Bill, he saw that he could connect with the mail order business, he saw that he could connect with the yuppies who like packaging, who want their children to grow up in a beautiful world where actors and actresses are charming and do good readings and exciting musicians do the music and we can all listen and have a 'quality time,' and all that bullshit, which I think is stupid, except that that one is good because it's too funny. You know, Robin Williams is just too funny. You have to love it.
Well, you appeared with your first group and your first solo album back in l970, establishing you at the age of 23 as one of the finest fingerpickers of the generation. But if you knew then, what you know now, how different would be your entry into the music industry?
RC: Well, I knew then what I know now. I was doing sessions and stuff and suddenly, you know, in a couple of years, I learned that there was this great big umbrella of business, and records were made in a certain way. And as a player, all of the musicians I had known prior to that time were folk players who were poor and had short life spans and it was kind of rough.
Why are musicians getting paid these astronomical fees these days?
RC: Because there's astronomical money that the other people are earning. And as my friend, Jim Keltner said the other night, as we looked upon the scene up here, he said, "well, if you['re gonna be humiliated and degraded like this, you really need to get paid, you need to get paid a lot. There's so much money on the table. This thing cost so much and the greed is so rampant. And we;'re just cotton pickers and food coloring up there."
Is there any kind of formula to make that magic happen.
RC: Yes, there is. You have to have an intention that says, "we could approach this different." But it can't be hierarchy and it can't be fascist. It has to be musician oriented and really given space. Bob Dylan asked, "why do they hate us?" That's his comment. Well, what's the matter? We can all really play good. We can play great and people would love it, too. They wouldn't scream for the heavy metal guys if they saw something really going on on stage.
The big record companies have kind of sabotaged the whole music scene. Pumping out the same sort of thing throughout the world.
RC: But little labels have come up now. That's the beauty of them. Because the majors went that way and have now ascended into some sort of air where no one wants to journey any more. It took the music far from the listener. The little label comes along and brings the music back. They always have. The independents in the '50s did that with rhythm and blues. You were close to those records - you could hold them in your hand and say, "I'm closer here than I am to a Capitol release somehow." It's a closer experience, more familiar, more real, more like the proximity. That;'s what's going on now. And that CD thing, little as I like CDs sonically, they have made it possible for anybody to make their own record; and all you have to do is go get one of these things and you really can feel closer.