Ry Cooder: Into the Purple Valley
“We didn’t have video back then,” says Ry Cooder. “You had to suggest an alternative environment on the cover of your album. I used to think about ways to do this, mainly to please myself, and this one turned out pretty well.”
This is one of my favourite record covers for the very quality that Cooder pinpoints – the sense of storytelling and creation of an “alternate environment”. It’s a cinematic slice of pop culture that came about organically.
Cooder recorded Into the Purple Valley in a studio next door to a film lot that had fallen into disuse. He arranged for an old staff member to take him around the inactive lot and found his inspiration when he stumbled upon a pile of old painted sets. The now legendary guitarist, composer and producer proved to be a pretty resourceful guy, borrowing the car – a yellow 1939 Buick convertible – from his neighbor. He then cast his fetching wife Susan as the female talent.
It’s very DIY but Cooder is quick to credit the studio rain machine and seasoned lighting technicians for bringing it to life – “otherwise it just looks like nothing — a car and a flat painting of the sky.” If it perfectly evokes a pulpy old Hollywood movie, it’s probably because it was made during the industry’s dying gasps, when the equipment and know-how were yet to make way for special effects and new technologies.
The performance and outfits do a lot to further the story. Her summer hat, which she clutches nervously, immediately tells us that this was meant to be a different road trip entirely. And while she does little to conceal her nervousness, her husband makes a lame attempt to appear calm and in control. But if his posture doesn’t tip you off that he’s struggling to keep it together, his eyes certainly do. I can just hear him telling her that it’ll all be fine and to calm down in a slightly hysterical voice.
The inside cover shows the couple enjoying a more joyous moment.
I’m not sure if this is the happy ending after their harrowing car journey or a glimpse of the lovely couple in more innocent times, before they found themselves under the dark clouds of the Purple Valley.