The resume of Larry “Ratso” Sloman is epic: editor of National Lampoon, collaborator with John Cale and Lou Reed, a member of Bob Dylan’s traveling carnival known as the Rolling Thunder Revue, ghostwriter for Howard Stern, Mike Tyson, Anthony Kiedis and Peter Criss, writer for film and TV, and songwriter. Now, at age 70, with the release of his first album, Stubbon Heart, his ambition is to be the “Jewish Susan Boyle”. He may be the only songwriter on the planet influenced by Leonard Cohen, Tuli Kupferberg and Wild Man Fischer. Ratso spoke with PKM’s Todd McGovern about his eventful life.
How can a man who has worked with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed and John Cale be relatively unknown? And just what hasn’t Larry “Ratso” Sloman done in his career, which spans over four decades? He’s ghost-written the best-selling memoirs of Howard Stern, Mike Tyson and Anthony Kiedis; co-wrote a biography of Houdini; and a book on the history of marijuana. He recently gave a lengthy interview to Martin Scorsese for his forthcoming documentary The Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story.
And now, the man who seems to be everywhere and nowhere has also just released his first album, Stubborn Heart.
Looking back on the making of his debut album, Ratso says, “Everything about this project was fun. And it was always about the songs. They had been lying dormant…they deserved a life.” Each track carries a significant and often astonishing history. For instance, the John Cale collaboration “Dying On The Vine,” was originally conceived in a hotel room off Sunset Blvd. while trading lines with Tom Waits and Chuck E. Weiss. Ratso bartered with Sharon Robinson – for singing on the cover of Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands,” he wrote the preface to her photo book On Tour with Leonard Cohen.
I had the honor of connecting with Ratso on the eve of his record’s release.
PKM: You’re 68-years-old and putting out your first album. You know, don’t you, that this opens the door for every old geezer that’s ever sung in the shower….
Ratso Sloman: As long as they don’t slip on the soap and then can’t get up, I encourage their participation in the music world. I personally am aiming to be the Jewish Susan Boyle. By the way, I’m really 70 but somewhere on the web it said I was 68 and you can’t argue with the World Wide Web.
PKM: When did you first start writing songs?
Ratso Sloman: My first song was at the urging of my friend Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs. Tuli wrote what he called “Parasongs” – song parodies of famous songs usually with a political bent. At the time, around 1970, there was a chubby teenage Indian guru touring the states named Guru Maharaj Ji. Rennie Davis, one of the radical Chicago 7 antiwar protesters, became one of his disciples. I thought that was so bizarre that I wrote a song that went something like, “Guru Maharaj Ji, he really wants you and me, you know he’s really the One, he may be fat but he’s fun…” That was my first foray into lyric writing.
PKM: What time period were the songs on Stubborn Heart composed?
Ratso Sloman: The earliest is “Caribbean Sunset,” a collaboration with John Cale from 1984. The latest were “I Want Everything” and “Listen Little Man,” the two songs my producer Vin Cacchione and I wrote a few years ago. And the Dylan song, of course, came out in 1966.
PKM: Your singing style is reminiscent of Leonard Cohen, who you worked with. Who are some of your other musical influences?
Ratso Sloman: Cohen, Dylan, those were my obvious mentors. But I always dug the consummate vocal stylings of Bryan Ferry. And, subconsciously, Wild Man Fischer had a big influence on me.
PKM: I love Yasmine Hamdan, who sings with you on the song, “I Want Everything.” How did you come to work with her?
Ratso Sloman: Yas is the greatest! I met her through Jim Jarmusch. He had a party after the premiere of his vampire film, Only Lovers Left Alive and he introduced me to her. She lives in Paris, but she said she was coming back to New York in a few months and she’d look me up. She did and I picked her up at the apartment where she was staying in Chelsea. “Where are we going?” she asked. “To a recording studio in Bushwick,” I said, “You’ve got to sing on my album.” She laughed and said yes as long as we made a stop to buy a bottle of vodka! I did. She had a sip or two and chanted beautifully on that track.
PKM: Besides all the original songs on the album, you include one cover song – Bob Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.” Out of the hundreds of Dylan songs to choose from, what made you choose the intimate11-minute song he supposedly wrote for his wife at the time, Sara?
Ratso Sloman: That was always one of my favorite songs on my absolute favorite album of all time, Blonde on Blonde. I thought that it was underappreciated after all these years. So I wanted to cover it in all its 11-plus-minute glory. But I was savvy enough to know that nobody could stand to listen to me singing 10 verses and 5 choruses straight so I came up with the idea of getting five wonderful female singers to each take one chorus. We got Brooklyn’s own Eddi Front; Magali Charron, who plays beautiful violin on the album; Sharon Robinson, Leonard Cohen’s co-producer, co-writer, and backup singer; and a gal I like to call the Jewish Janis Joplin, Ruby Friedman (no relation to Kinky). And we also got Yas. When we finished recording Yasmine for “I Want Everything”, I was going to bring her back to Manhattan because she had to meet a friend to see an opera at Carnegie Hall. “When do we have to leave?” I asked her. “About fifteen minutes,” she said. I immediately wrote down the lyrics to the chorus of Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowland.” “When was the last time that you sang in English,” I asked her. She said maybe 12-15 years ago. I had her memorize the chorus and we recorded her as one of the five Sad Eyed Ladies singing the choruses on that song. But being from Lebanon, she was the ONLY one who had the authority to sing the line “My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums.” I love that track because I also convince Warren Ellis from the Bad Seeds to play fiddle and flute. He’s one of the greatest musicians around and he just killed it.
Ratso Sloman: In their dreams, probably most people would love to put out an album. I had a head start doing lyrics for people like John Cale and Rick Derringer, and my real intention was to get the songs out. I never thought I’d be the vehicle for them. But my producer egged me on and I brought a demo of the first song to my friend Hal Willner who’s worked with everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Lou Reed. When the song was over, I asked him if I should sing my own songs. He took a deep breath, straightened up in his chair and said, “What are you waiting for?” So I took that as a yes.
PKM: Can you talk a bit about the first time you met Bob Dylan?
Ratso Sloman: Well, the first time I SAW him was sitting in the back of the audience at the Westchester County Center on February 5, 1966. I was too young to drive so my father drove my friend and I and then picked us up a few hours later. He got back early and, on the way home, he told us that he was looking for us and he walked right up to the front of the stage. I flipped out because I was so far back I could barely see him. “What was he wearing? How did he look up close? What kind of boots did he have on?” My father just laughed. “What are you getting so excited about? He was a small, ordinary guy. He looked like a shipping clerk.” It was a good lesson in idolatry.
PKM: What were the circumstances behind Dylan asking you to join The Rolling Thunder Revue?
Ratso Sloman: I had done a preview of his album Blood on the Tracks for Rolling Stone magazine. He liked the article a lot and a few years later Roger McGuinn and I went to the Other End bar on Bleecker Street because we heard that Dylan was in town and holding court there nightly. When we walked to the very back of the place, we saw a table full of people. One was Dylan. He jumped up and called us over. Said he was doing an old timey medicine revue-type tour and he wanted Roger to come along. Then he talked to me about this article I was doing on Hurricane Carter and invited me to cover the tour. “I’d rather have you do it than anyone else,” he said. So I was on the tour.
PKM: The Rolling Thunder Revue, both the first and second legs of the tour, was probably the last time that Dylan was so unguarded. What kind of access did you have to him?
Ratso Sloman: Well, when we were hanging out in the Village before the tour started, I had all-access to him. The problem was once we hit the road, I had to deal with his road manager, his old friend Louie Kemp and the tour promoter, Barry Imhoff. They were trained to keep journalists away. But I persevered and wound up working with the film crew shooting Renaldo and Clara after I had a fight with Rolling Stone over the coverage of the tour they wanted. Rolling Stone wanted me to ask questions why the tour was playing bigger venues, why the ticket prices went up. “This isn’t fucking Forbes magazine!” I screamed. “It’s a major cultural event. Nobody cares about that shit.” So I quit Rolling Stone and got a room and per diem for the rest of the tour and got all the access I needed.
PKM: That film, the infamous Renaldo and Clara, was made up of concert footage and improvised scenes directed by Bob. What did you make of the movie?
Ratso Sloman: I thought it was a great exploration of identity, loyalty, and notoriety told in a surreal fashion. Not too many people agreed with me though. Wait until you see the new Marty Scorsese documentary on the Rolling Thunder tour. It’s coming out soon on Netflix. It’s astounding.
PKM: How did you meet Kinky Friedman?
Ratso Sloman: Back in 1972 I got a call from my pal Michael Bloomfield, the great guitar slinger. He told me that he saw this cat Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys play and that I had to see them when they came to New York. So I went to their gig at Max’s Kansas City. I was blown away by the great comic onstage banter between Kinky and his band and the incredible songs. Maybe halfway through I joined by kibitzing from the audience. When the show was over, I went backstage to meet Kinky, and I was met by his brother Roger, who was his road manager. “Hey, you were the guy shouting all that shit during the set,” he said to me. “You were the best heckler on the whole tour! Come back and meet Kinky.” And that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
PKM: How did you come to write songs for John Cale?
Ratso Sloman: I was so inspired by the Rolling Thunder tour that I started to write lyrics when the tour was over. First, I worked with Rick Derringer, who lived near me in the Village. Then I met Cale one night at a Kinky show at the Lone Star Café and we began a nice three-year run of writing songs together. Sometimes we wrote songs together on the spot, sometimes he gave me music to write lyrics to and sometimes I gave him lyrics and he musicalized them. That was the case for most of the album Artificial Intelligence. I think the highlight of that album was the song “Dying on the Vine,” which became one of the signature songs of Cale’s post-Velvets career. And, I’m proud to say, a song that inspired two novels, including one by the great Jonathan Lethem. Lethem once said that “Dying on the Vine” was the best Leonard Cohen song not written by Leonard Cohen. I couldn’t think of a higher compliment.
PKM: I’m sure you’ve been asked this many times but how did you get the nickname “Ratso”?
Ratso Sloman: On the Dylan Rolling Thunder tour. You know how when you’re on the road covering something and you have to drive a lot and you don’t shower every day and you take substances to stay up, etc. etc. So one day, I drove up to the hotel where the tour was staying and Joan Baez was outside and she walked over to my car. She smiled and put her hand inside and fingered my long, stringy hair. “Hey, it’s Ratso,” she said to everybody who was hanging around outside. “You calling me Ratso because I remind you of Dustin Hoffman (from the great film Midnight Cowboy)?” “No, you remind me of Ratso Rizzo (the seedy character Hoffman played.)” When I started writing the book, it’s in first person until Baez calls me Ratso and then it changes to third person and Ratso becomes a character in this circus.
PKM: Is there a “Ratso” persona?
Ratso Sloman: For sure. Ratso is a great alter ego. He’s the provocative, loud, brash presence. He wears Soul Train Fashion crazy ass colorful suits and somehow carries it off. Thank God, he’s not me.
PKM: How did you get into the business of ghostwriting?
Ratso Sloman: I heard Howard Stern talk about writing a book on the air. At that time I had just left the National Lampoon magazine after a six year run as editor-in-chief. So he knew my work and he hired me as his ghostwriter. But he had to fill up six hours a day on the radio, so he kept talking on the air about working all weekend on the book with Ratso. I instantly became the most famous ghostwriter in the world, which is kind of an oxymoron. Our two books were monumental bestsellers so then I had the choice to work with whoever I’d like. So I did books with David Blaine, Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Peter Criss of Kiss, and two books with Mike Tyson, all the while still doing my own books. It was a lot of fun.
PKM: What’s next for you?
Ratso Sloman: I’m developing a TV show with the great music producer Hal Willner, and another one with Jeff Lieberman, my partner in Shallow Entertainment. That show will be hosted by the great Penn Jillette. A movie I co-wrote came out this year, so I’ll be doing more movie work. And I’m about to start writing my own memoir. Gotta keep busy.
PKM: Do you think this album is a one-off piece of work for you or will there be more songs from you?
Ratso Sloman: There will be more songs. I’ve got a bunch ready to be recorded. And I’m working on a few new ones in the shower.