David Lichfield the Editor of Ritz Newspaper (which was the UK equivalent of Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine) called me and said “How would you like to photograph Ry Cooder”. I said ‘Stop it, you know I would love to as he is one of the greatest guitarists on the planet”. He laughed and said “He’s staying at the Athenaeum Hotel Piccadilly, they’ve given us an unfinished suite because they are still refurbishing the hotel, you need to be there tomorrow at midday.”
I arrived at the allotted time with my erstwhile assistant Arthur in tow and we were shown into the large but empty suite but for a few chairs and a table. Ry was sitting in the corner by the window, it was a very hot day and the air conditioning wasn’t working. The room was actually like a sauna which didn’t seem to bother Ry. I thought this was because he was used to the heat of Mexico on the borderline, that he so often sang about. I felt overheated and very nervous and Ry was calm and cool as a cucumber.
I’d first encountered Ry’s music when he released his album RY COODER, the cover art work was what initially attracted me, Ry leaning against an Airstream Winnebago in the middle of the Mojave desert. I thought this was so cool and I do remember a few people had whispered his name in the annals of great guitarists. I particularly loved the track Alimony (see the video below).
I followed his work from that point on and I’d always wanted to meet him I was a complete fan. Bop Till You Drop was also a stand out album for me, one of my favourite track is “Down In HollyWood (see the video below). The rhythm section is phenomenal. As a matter of fact just looking at these videos and listening to the music again resulted in my downloading three of his albums again. I think I’ve bought them on vinyl, CD and now download so I am a Ry’d out and in the saddle!
Anyway back to the furnace of the Atheneum Hotel Suite as Arthur clanked about and set up the lights, I started to interview Ry with my microphone and tape machine (this was 1988). By this time my eyes were filling with sweat and my t-shirt was stuck to me (in part due to the heat and also because of my nerves at interviewing my idol). I asked my first question, “Well Ry can I ask you about your slide guitar playing” he looked at me calmly and said “Okay”. My heart sank as I realised that this interview would be sparse on dialogue as Ry was like Gary Cooper in High Noon ( a man of few words). This further increased my levels of perspiration and stress, so I asked Ry if he would mind if I used his bathroom (I was hoping to splash myself down with cool water). I was not used to interviewing people as well as doing their portraits, so the pressure was on.
I looked in mirror in the bathroom and I looked as if I had just stepped out of the shower. What must Ry be thinking I thought, my vision of being cool, calm and collected with my hero had evaporated into a pool of sweat. I switched the taps on and there was just a dry gurgling sound and I realised to my horror that there was no cold water as the bathroom was still not finished. Fortunately there was a new roll of toilet paper in it’s holder, I reeled of a huge handful and dried myself as much as possible. As I did this I realised that this was only making me sweat more. I was desperate and lifted the lid of the toilet and saw to my enormous relief that there was water in the toilet. The toilet was still in it’s wrapping and I hoped it had not been used. It was a moment of desperate need for cold water, so I splashed my face with toilet water and dabbed myself down with toilet paper, in fact I nearly used the whole roll and then blocked the toilet I’d used so much.
At this moment Arthur knocked on the door and said “Mr Arrow the lights are ready and I’ve taken a reading.” I walked back out into the hotel suite and got Arthur to close the curtains so I could get the dramatic light I wanted. I started shooting and forgot about the interview for a moment which calmed me down. Ry just sat there and let me shoot his portrait silently without any comment. I got the shots I wanted after about three or four rolls on the Hasselblad and then continued with the “interview”.
“Ry did you change from a bone to a metal slide” I said thinking I was giving him a really insightful question he just looked at me and said “Yup, I did”. Then I said “Did that give you a sharper sound” and he said “Yup it did”. My heart sank as I imagined myself submitting a very meagrely worded interview. All this time Arthur had been gesticulating to me from behind Ry as I held the microphone to record his answers. I kept saying “Yes, Arthur in a moment, can’t you see I’m trying to interview one of the greatest guitarists in the world”. I thought a faint smile drifted across Ry’s face but I think that was wishful thinking. Eventually Arthur could contain himself no longer and he said within earshot of Ry ” Mr Arrow you have toilet paper stuck on your forehead”. “What?” I said and Arthur generously repeated his observation in a louder voice “You have toilet roll stuck on your FOREHEAD!”. I reached up to my perspiring forehead and sure enough there was a rather large piece of Delsy Luxury toilet roll stuck to my face. I desperately scrapped it away (it took a few goes) and rolled into a ball and hid it in my jeans back pocket.
Ry looked at me with blank jet lagged disdain. I had to get out of there as soon as possible “Arthur pack up the equipment” I said trying to salvage a fragment of dignity from the fiasco. “Thank you so much Ry for a great interview” I said (trying to reassure myself that there was something to work with). As Arthur opened the curtains Ry just looked out of the window and said “Ah, Bye” and stared out across Green Park. I staggered out of the furnace suite to the lift and headed down to the foyer where there was an air conditioned bar for a vodka and a large cold beer (in my drinking days). As the alcohol calmed me I surmised that I at least I had some good portraits of Ry. I also concluded that the only way to write this story was to tell it honestly as a narrative of complete disaster.
When I got back to my house in Kensington my wife told me that my mother had called, while commenting “What happened to you, you look terrible”. “I’ll tell you later”I said. I rang my Mother and relayed the whole sorry tale and she said “Oh, don’t worry our Clive, it’s not the end of the world (she would always trying to comfort me whenever disaster befell me). I remember when your great Great Grandmother went to Liverpool with the ladies Guild on a church social in the 1930s and her white knickers fell down to her ankles on the tram platform. She casually stepped out of them, picked them up and blew her nose in them and put them in her handbag as if nothing had happened.” This story cheered me up and when the full story of my disastrous encounter with my hero Ry Cooder was published in Ritz it went down very well. I got endless phone calls asking me if this was true and I didn’t know if I should be ashamed or relieved.
- Clive Arrowsmith is shooting stunning images, staging exhibitions and is as passionate about photography as he was when he first pressed the shutter at The Paris Collections. He is available for global media opportunities related to his work and photography generally. SEE OUR *Kickstarter Campaign for LIMITED EDITION PETER GABRIEL REFLECTIONS EXHIBITION CATALOGUE – HERE – Bespoke prints from Clive’s archive are also available by special request, for any enquiries (email Eugenie here). Clive’s book Arrowsmith: Fashion, Beauty & Portraits is available hereand Lowry at Home: Salford 1966 is available here