Ry Cooder Sings “John Lee Hooker For President”

pull_up_some_dustListen to this track by guitar virtuoso, songwriter, and John Lee Hooker campaign manager Ry Cooder. It’s his 2011 deep cut track, “John Lee Hooker For President” as taken from his most recent record, Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down.

The record is a protest album, with songs that have a razor keen satiric edge to them that is refreshing to hear in an era that sorely needs songs like that, helpfully presented in a variety of styles including rock/pop,  country, reggae, tejano, and of course, the blues. This song is certainly satirical, providing some comic relief to songs about crooked bankers, Mexican refugees, damaged soldiers, and obtuse politicians.

Ry Cooder has entered a new phase in his career, from guitar slinger, to folk music archivist, to soundtrack composer, to world-music curator, to an artist who has found a voice as a social critic with an eye for historical events informing current ones. More recent albums Chavez Ravine, My Name Is Buddy and I, Flathead, known as his “California Trilogy” all reference sociopoltical themes of the past, tying them to themes today that show that things  haven’t really changed.

As such, this album doesn’t come out of nowhere. And even if this song about John Lee Hooker has some comedy value, complete with a well-observed impression of the late lamented bluesman, there is a strain of truth to this song that makes it more than just comedy relief.

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Mick Jagger Performs ‘Memo From Turner’

performance-soundtrackListen to this track from the soundtrack of Donald Cammel’s and Nicholas Roeg’s 1970 film Performance, as performed by the star of that movie, one Mick Jagger.  It’s “Memo From Turner”, a song which can be found on The Rolling Stones’ The London Years, and credited to Jagger/Richards. But, this tune was Jagger’s first solo piece, also released in 1970, even if it was recorded in mid-1968 during the filming of the movie, with none of the other Stones featured on the song.

Still in the thrall of his own Byronic image, and presenting it so winningly that he was immediately noticed for cinematic appeal, Mick Jagger took the role of the burned-out rock star Turner in the Cammel/Roeg film that would capture something of the dark side of 60s London.  Faced with his first role in a film, and coached by his actress-singer girlfriend Marianne Faithfull, Jagger decided not to play himself, but rather to amalgamate the dueling personalities two of his colleagues at the time; laconic Keith Richard (later to be known of course as “Richards”, his actual surname), and paranoid, drug-beleaguered Brian Jones.

The film is a dark, impressionistic achievement, marrying the glamour of both rock musicians and 60s gangland London together, revealing the two to be the mirror images of each other.  The tonal darkness to be found here in the movie is perhaps helped along by the fact that the project proved to be a stumbling block for the Jagger/Richard partnership, then at a crucial turning point, creatively speaking.

Jagger’s steamy scenes with Anita Pallenberg, his partner’s girlfriend at the time, which depicted allegedly unsimulated sex between the two, didn’t sit well with Richard.  So, when it came to writing a song for the movie, Jagger found himself abandoned by a fuming Keith Richard.  The full details of this account of the events can be read in Victor Bockris’ Keith Richards biography.

Yet, with the help of studio musicians under the leadership of producer Jack Nitzche, and supplemented by a truly incendiary slide guitar from a 21-year old Ry Cooder, Jagger’s first solo single was something to celebrate.  And in the end, Richard got his musical credit anyway. Despite the unusual circumstance which tested it, their partnership as a creative unit remained intact.

This is just as well, seeing as many of the songs they’d write together to be celebrated as classics of the era were still ahead of them.  Also ahead of them of course would be a real clash between the rock world and the world of organized crime – the free concert at Altamont raceway , captured as it was in another film Gimme Shelter, in which Jagger finds himself in quite a different role as the wide-eyed, sheltered rock aristo in a sea of violence, mayhem, and murder that is well beyond him.

Learn more about the film Performance by reviewing the Performance Wikipedia page.


Ry Cooder Performs ‘Crazy ‘Bout An Automobile’

Ry Cooder BorderlineHere’s a clip of roots music archivist, film composer, world music ambassador, and slide-guitar superhero Ry Cooder with a 1987 performance of Billy ‘the Kid’ Emerson’s “Crazy ‘Bout an Automobile” in Santa Cruz, California, a town which Cooder incorporates cleverly into the narrative for this particular performance.  The studio version of this song can be found on his 1980 album Borderline.

This tune is a quintessential rock ‘n’ roll song, full of sexual vigour, and with a touch of Tex-Mex and Zydeco flavouring heating things up even more.  The band here is stellar, including stalwart session drummer Jim Keltner, Van Dyke Parks on keyboards, Flaco Jimenez  on accordion, among others.  The calibre of the playing certainly helps to attain a funky groove about being horny and being down and out without wheels at the same time. This is ripe subject matter for rock ‘n’ roll, drawing a distinct correlation between the two.

Ry Cooder himself is a fascinating musical figure, being something of a boy-genius when it came to the guitar and many other stringed instruments when he started out. Before the 1960s had concluded he’d worked with Jackie DeShannon, Taj Mahal, and the Rolling Stones. By the 1970s, Cooder built a career as a gatherer of R&B, folk, and pop gems from decades past, and re-positioning them in new contexts.  His slide playing became his trademark, as did his ability to repurpose old songs, many of them minor hits and forgotten treasures into a succession of celebrated albums, like Boomer’s Story and (my favourite) Paradise and Lunch.  His 1979 Bop ‘Til You Drop LP was the first major label album ever to be recorded digitally.

Yet this would be merely a stage in his career.  His 1980s work eventually turned to scoring films, the most high profile being the evocative and impressionistic score for the film Paris, Texas starring Harry Dean Stanton who also sings on the soundtrack, and with contributions from fellow stringed-instrument mage David Lindley.  He would also score the film Crossroads, a film which also concerned itself with blues folklore, making Cooder something of a logical choice as film composer.

Apart from his work with John Hiatt, Jim Keltner, and Nick Lowe as the short-lived Little Village,  Cooder would have a third phase of his career by the 1990s with world music albums featuring Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure, and later with a group of Cuban musicians later to be known as the Buena Vista Social Club.  This  latter project would make stars out of all participants, with a smash hit album and a celebrated film by Wim Wenders, profiling the story of how Cooder discovered a group of masterclass, and very elderly, Cuban musicians and brought them into the limelight at Carnegie Hall in 1998.

But overall, Cooder is a phenomenal guitarist and arranger, incorporating an incredible stew of influences to take old material and make it shine in a new context while not betraying the original spirit out of which it was born.  That’s a skill that isn’t to be underestimated, and in this Cooder is one of the best at wielding it.