Friday, January 18, 2013

Slightly Noire

Los Angeles Stories, by Ry Cooder, 2011 (a book)

No, he doesn’t sing these.  Cooder is a nationally known singer-songwriter who started his own musical life as a roots slide player, and was made most famous by bringing the Cuban Buena Vista Social Club out of the woodwork.

Here he tries his hand at short stories, and provides a picture of old Los Angeles in the 40s and 50s, before it was so crowded, expensive or glittery.  Before it became a third-world city.  Here it is dusty streets and low rent shacks, palms and broken cars, zoot suits and pachucos.  If the characters live around downtown, they’ve never been to the beach.  No one goes to Hollywood, not even Frankie.  The other neighborhoods and streets of LA shine here – Chavez Ravine, Pershing Square, Venice, the Valley, Boyle Heights, Santa Monica, Chinatown, Pico Boulevard, Ocean Park Drive, the Barlow Hospital.  The people are down and outs, scruffy musicians or working people, with many having a tie to music.  Amateurs or professionals, the jones for the music vibe runs through these tales.  John Lee Hooker, Charlie Parker and Merle Travis all make cameos.  It is not your movie-land LA. 

Except when it is.  One of my beefs about LA books is that so many think ‘noire’ is the only way to go. As if every Angeleno can’t wander around town without bumping into a corpse. Bullshit.  Cooder is no exception, and that is the weak thing in most of the stories here.  At least “The Big Lebowski” and Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice” made LA noire funny.  Cooder has a tiny edge of politics – disturbing echoes of the 1943 Zoot Suit riots around downtown vibrate throughout the book.  Chavez Ravine is here, a Mexican neighborhood tracked by Mike Davis in his ‘City of Quartz.’ The Ravine resisted being bought out by the rich gringos for years, only to be eventually destroyed for Dodger Stadium.  After all, real estate is the highest of southern California arts.  Cooder recorded an album called, “Chavez Ravine,” which centered on the history of this neighborhood.  Even Trotsky gets props from Cooder, as his picture hangs on the wall of some Mexican radical.  But that is it. Mostly it is sepia-stained Tom Waits we’re talking here – with corpses and shifty characters.

Nevertheless, if you enjoy visiting LA, this book gives you a feel for what the city was, and still is – if you just squint real hard.  Put on “Chavez Ravine” by Ry and read.

And I bought it in Mayday Books large fiction section.
Red Frog
January 17, 2013

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