I taught at Oakmeeds Community College from 1998 to 2011. Every year, in the second week after the Summer half term, there was an “Activities Week”. It was truly ghastly. The outdoor types amongst the staff took all of Year 7s camping and some of Year 9s to an Outdoor Pursuits centre in Devon. Year 10s were on work experience and the old timers on the staff went to visit them – a nice easy week and none of them were willing to relinquish the “responsibility.” All of year 8 and the Year 9s that didn’t fancy abseiling, canoeing or orienteering were left at the school and the mugs on the staff that were left behind had to think up activities for them. I had to partake in 1999 and it was all my worst nightmares come true: no structure, no point, no pleasure, only pain. As always 90% of the children were lovely and the remaining 10% were monstrous. And then, hallelujah! Mick, the Deputy Head asked me in 2000 whether I would like to help him write the school timetable during Activities week. After several milliseconds pause for thought, I agreed. After two days of working with him he told me that he was going in for a heart operation at the end of the week and would I be able to finish it? I found out that writing a school timetable was one of the few things I could do reasonably well. I can’t change a fuse, I can’t paint a wall and I have trouble deciding which orifice is for oil and which is for screen wash but it turns out that I could write a school timetable. I did this for the next ten years until the Headteacher wanted me to leave and started stripping me of my roles, giving the timetable to … (hang on, this could be libellous, I’ll stop now but nine years later I still feel the pain). I missed Activities week until 2011 when I had to partake. I remember Sarah seeing my miserable face on the Monday morning in 2011 and telling me “Remember, Mick – everything passes.” She was right although writing this during the lockdown of 2020 at the beginning (?) of the Covid-19 pandemic, I’d rather not dwell on that. The timetable would take around 100 hours to write. Every year, I would find an album and play it while I was working (I got to work at home during Activities Week – bliss!) and I would put it on repeat so I played it and played it and played it until it finally seeped into my consciousness. In June 2005, Chavez Ravine arrived through the post and I played it repeatedly for 100 hours. It was brilliant then and I’ve just listened to it again this morning and it’s still brilliant.
Wikipedia likes to describe each album by genre. “Chavez Ravine” is “Chicano Rock”, “Tex-Mex”, “Latin”, “Contemporary Folk” and “Latin Jazz.” I’ve spent a very interesting hour today reading the description of each of these genres. Suffice to say that this album has a unique and varied sound.
The album tells the story of Chavez Ravine, a semi-rural Mexican-American community in Los Angeles that was earmarked to be developed by a construction of public housing called “Elysian Park Heights” only for the City Council to change its mind and sell off the whole area to the baseball team Brooklyn Dodgers who subsequently built the Dodgers Stadium there and changed their name to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The musicians that play on the album include Ry Cooder’s son Joachim, Joachim’s wife Juliette Commagere and several venerable singers including Lalo Guerrero (who died aged 89 before the album’s release) and Don Tosti (who also died before the album’s release, aged 81).
The first song is called “Poor Man’s Shangri-La” and imagines a UFO landing in Chavez Ravine before it was knocked down; an alien emerges and describes what it sees. “Onda Callejera” is sung by Little Willie G (who was a member of the Three Midniters who had a minor hit in 1965 with “Land Of 100 Dances” before Wilson Pickett) and describes an attack on the local Pachucos (“zoot-suited, well-dressed, street-connected flamboyant playboys”) by 300 sailors. “Don’t Call Me Red” is very exciting and it depicts the interrogation of Frank Wilkinson in a House Of Un American Activities committee hearing. Frank Wilkinson was a member of the L..A. housing authority and was an advocate of the Elysian Park Heights project. Actual sound footage of the hearing is included in a song that reminds me of the exciting bit at the end of the live version of “Waking The Witch” on Kate Bush’s “Before The Dawn”. (Don’t go looking for that on Spotify; it’s not there. Tell that to all the snowflakes who like their music to be free. I’ve got the CD. I play it on an actual CD player). “Corrido be Boxeo”, “Muy Fifi”, “Los Chucos Suaves”, “Chinito Chinto” and “3 Cool Cats” are all great pop songs describing varied life in Chavez Ravine before its destruction. (“3 Cool Cats” was sung by George Harrison in The Beatles’ failed Decca audition in 1962). In “El U.F.O. Cayo”, our visiting alien advises the residents of Chavez Ravine to leave. “Grab your things and lets get out of here before they squash you. Get in my flying saucer.” Like nine of the fifteen songs here, it’s sung in Spanish. Juliette Commagere sings this song beautifully and at over eight minutes long it is a memorable highlight. The extensive booklet that comes with the CD version (not available if you download, I guess – buy the CD you lightweights!) gives all the lyrics in Spanish and English. “It’s Just Work For Me” is sung by the driver of one of the bulldozers that are knocking down the houses. “In My Town” is brilliant; it’s sung by Ry Cooder (as are three other songs) and it’s about the invisible men in L.A. that make decisions that profoundly and adversely affect other people’s lives. I think they’re mainly called Colin. “Erjecito Militar” is a warning form a mother to her sons not to come back from the war because their neighbourhood has disappeared. “Barrio Viejo” is sung by aforementioned Lalo Guerrero and describes the neighbourhood where he lived in Tuscon, Arizona. It fits, somehow. My favourite track on the album is “Third Base, Dodgers Stadium” and is sung by Bla Pahinui (a “slack guitarist” from Hawaii). The singer is a car parking attendant at the Dodgers stadium and “If you want to know where a local boy like me is comin’ from it’s 3rd base, Dodgers stadium.” In other words he is now working where his home once was. “2nd base, right over there, I see grandma in her rocking chair.” I’m choking up as I’m writing this. The last song is “Soy Luz y Sombra” and writing about this in the sleevenotes, Ry Cooder says “I like the idea that the earth has the last word.”
I nearly saw Ry Cooder in June 1982. I had been talking to Colin about him and we decided to go together. I had to pull out because Tye Green actually won a cup match and got through to the next round on the same evening. In some ways it was a shame because Colin was a great guy – a drama teacher at Netteswell – and I never went to a gig with him either before that or subsequently. (My best memory of Colin was that I went to his 50th birthday party many years later and he said he was going to Switzerland for his Summer holidays. I told him that I was going there with a school trip and we arranged that he should come and stay at our hotel for a couple of nights. We persuaded the children that we had a special tour guide coming and he was going to give an amazing commentary on our day trip. Unfortunately, during the evening he arrived, he got so pissed that he spent the next day in bed.) Anyway, he ended going to see Ry Cooder and he sat next to my mate Dai who I had given my ticket to. Colin didn’t sit next to Roo but it turns out she was there at the same gig. This somehow seems an apposite story in the context of Chavez Ravine. Something to do with “What if…?”
2 thoughts on “Chavez Ravine by Ry Cooder”
I’ve just been listening to Chávez Ravine on my morning bike ride and there’s nothing like those amazing rhythms to make you think of the sun in the sky rather than the frost that’s biting your fingers. This album typifies what’s great about Ry Cooder: he’s content to take a back seat for a lot of the time and let humanity/the music speak for itself, but then he comes in with a blistering solo that’s like fireworks going off. There are some fantastic riffs on this album as well (Ry reminding us he’s there when other stuff is going on). It reminds me a lot of the David Byrne/Brian Eno album, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
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