Power Pickers
of the '60's

Musicians of the Flower Generation


Ry Cooder and My Copper Mine Blues

In the winter of 1973 I was commissioned to write a music score for “Bisbee, Arizona,” a film documenting the closing of the Phelps-Dodge copper mine in that town. Because of the unusual ancestries of the men who worked the mine-Mexican, Cornish and Yugoslavian-I wanted musicians comfortable with all three musical idioms. Enter Ry Cooder.

Ry already had awesome chops in several ethnic styles, and I knew him well enough to ask him to help me out not only with the recording, playing tipple and guitar, but in writing the material to be recorded. By writing I mean sitting down with me (I am also a guitarist) and working up themes and approaches to marrying the three different idioms.

The problem was he was leaving town for some gig the night I needed him, so there was no chance of getting him into a recording studio. Now enter Roy Noble, the genius guitar-maker and electronics whiz, and also my Revox portable studio-quality tape recorder. The play was to go over to Ry’s house in, I think, the San Fernando Valley and leave the recorder on while he and I wrote and he played.
That was the plan. The execution was a little different.

This was a period when Roy, who, incidentally and irrelevantly, was making guitars that Pete Seeger, Glen Campbell and Doc Watson eventually played, and I were heavily into psychedelic drugs. We decided to record Ry when we were high on Gorilla Milk, a chemical you sprayed on parsley, smoked and then went to a galaxy far, far away, etc. You know the drill. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

We got to Ry’s around eight o’clock at night, already high, and began trying to set up a portable studio in his living room. It would consist of my Revox recorder, microphones, a mixing board Roy had made, and all the other shit that goes along with recording: outboard effects boxes, headsets, boom stands, cables, baffles, the whole nine yards. And remember, this was all before the digital revolution; recording gear was heavy, bulky and difficult to use.
By the time we were ready to move the equipment from our cars into Ry’s living room, Roy and I were wasted.

I know I was suddenly seeing paisley dragons all over Ry’s walls; I can only imagine what was going on in Roy’s head, a place you didn’t want to go into without a flashlight and a shotgun. I don’t remember much after the wall show, except that I backed my car up into Ry’s front yard and ornamental flower bed there, hit on his wife, and insisted on plugging the Revox into itself rather than the wall.

I also recall, but barely, that Roy thought it would be a good idea to pound rocks with a hammer on Ry’s front porch while we were recording, in order to replicate the sounds of the miners’ picks. He also hit on Ry’s wife, about which he and I almost came to blows. I can only imagine what this looked like to Ry, at the time a quite serious, highly focused man not known for brooking much nonsense.

I think the end came when Ry’s wife stopped me from trying to wash and rinse a thousand dollar (in 1972 dollars!) microphone after Roy said the signal coming from it was dirty.

I remember Ry was patient and cordial as he helped Roy and me load our equipment back into my 1967 jalopy (about which please see “The Summer I Rebuilt the Valiant”). Actually, it was more like he was holding his breath. I guess he buckled my seat belt, because I never use to, and it was buckled when I woke up the next morning in the parking of a Safeway Supermarket.

I had to hire three musicians to do the playing Ry could have done if I’d had my shit together, which cost me three times as much money as Ry would have asked for. My father said that was the cost of doing business. He said that just after he took away my Union Oil credit card (people mostly had only gas station credit cards in those days) and said Roy and I would just have to carry our equipment on our backs the next time we wanted to do some field recording.
It seriously cramped our remote recording business. That was probably a good idea, since Roy and I had a lot more drug research ahead of us.

One-liner Notes:

“Now I’m gonna vomit for you folks.”  Johnny Cash, struggling with drugs, on stage at the Ash Grove.

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