East L.A. Fadeaway

by | Aug 14, 2005

Mother Jones is understandably stoked about Ry Cooder’s latest effort, Chávez Ravine. Cooder spent the last three years constructing an evocation of Chicano East L.A. in the ’40s and ’50s–and he has become so fluent in the history of these side streets that he can go door to door telling stories.

Ry Cooder’s “Chávez Ravine” — a post-World War II-era American narrative of “cool cats,” radios, UFO sightings, J. Edgar Hoover, red scares, and baseball — was released by Nonesuch/Perro Verde Records on June 14, 2005. The record is a tribute to the long-gone Los Angeles Latino enclave known as Chávez Ravine. Using real and imagined historical characters, Cooder and friends created an album that recollects various aspects of the poor but vibrant hillside Chicano community, which was bulldozed by developers in the 1950s in the interest of “progress;” Dodger Stadium ultimately was built on the site. Cooder says, “Here is some music for a place you don’t know, up a road you don’t go. Chávez Ravine, where the sidewalk ends.”

In almost 40 years of dizzying musical globe-trotting, Cooder had never plumbed the idioms of his native Los Angeles.”I always thought East L.A. music was so dreamy and languid and kinda greasy,” he says. “I would think, something’s out there–I wonder what? I used to sneak my little East L.A. instrumental ideas into movie scores. If I saw an opening, we’d dream up some little low-rider song.”

About four years ago, Don Normark approached Cooder. As a young photography student, Normark had shot extensively in the Ravine, later assembling the book Chávez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story. He was planning a reunion with the families he’d photographed and was interested in turning it into a film. Cooder immediately agreed to help with the music. (The documentary recently premiered on PBS’s Independent Lens series.)