A Conversation With Larry “Ratso” Sloman

Very few rock ’n’ roll artists release their first album on the cusp of turning 70. Even fewer of this breed originally made their bones as a legendary author of multiple books that made the New York Times bestseller list. And only one of these near-septuagenarian rockers/writers is responsible for a record that’s a stone delight. On this particular 10-track work, you’ll find a smoldering duet with Nick Cave, songwriting contributions from John Cale, celestial vocals from some of the planet’s hottest female singers, a Bob Dylan cover utterly unlike any ever committed to tape and an anthem that’s gone on to inspire a novel by Jonathan Lethem.

The album is Stubborn Heart (Lucky Number), and its creator is Larry Sloman, the flamboyantly bearded and even more flamboyantly attired New York City hipster kahuna whom just about everyone calls, simply, “Ratso.”

At his age, you’d think that the man would be resting on his proverbial laurels. Not only has Ratso written for Rolling Stone (back when it was good) and served as the editor-in-chief of both High Times and National Lampoon (back when they existed), but he’s spent the past 40 years churning out all those bestselling books. There have been literary collaborations with Mike Tyson (Undisputed Truth and Iron Ambition), Howard Stern (Private Parts and Miss America) and Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis (Scar Tissue). There have also been scholarly, personal takes on marijuana (Reefer Madness), the New York Rangers (Thin Ice: A Season In Hell), everyone’s favorite escape artist (The Secret Life Of Houdini: America’s First Superhero) and that other lovable escape artist, Abbie Hoffman (Steal This Dream). Best of all, by my lights, On The Road With Bob Dylan, Ratso’s zany-yet-revealing Rolling Thunder Revue epic that His Bobness himself labeled “the War And Peace of rock ’n’ roll.” 

So literary a cat is Ratso that he’s even been an ongoing fictional character in someone else’s written oeuvre. That would be Kinky Friedman’s much-loved series of mystery novels, wherein Kinky’s longtime close friend Ratso plays sidekick to the singing/songwriting “Texas Jewboy” sleuth that is (as Ratso calls him in his Queens accent) “the Kinkster.”

Rewarding as it’s been for him, the literary life plainly wasn’t enough of a buzz for Ratso. He needed to rock. So he put down his quill, picked up a microphone and convened a crack band in order to record many decades’ worth of his own songs. Which is where I—a friend of Ratso’s during the past decade—enter the story. Eager to learn the precise origin story of Stubborn Heart, I invited Ratso to lunch at an Italian restaurant near his home in Soho and brought my tape recorder. Our kibbitzing, which has been edited and condensed for publication here, began with my pal’s late-’60s/early-’70s music journalism at college and graduate school—a job which, he admitted with a sly grin, was mainly about “getting free records.”

—Gary Lippman

How did you turn pro, Rats?
By covering Sly And The Family Stone at a music festival in Milwaukee. Sly was an hour and a half late. People were going crazy, chanting. He comes out, freebased out of his mind, sings three songs—or attempts to sing three songs—and that’s it. He leaves the stage. In New York, people would boo, whatever. Midwest kids, they tore down the fence, burned the stage—it was insane. So I called up Rolling Stone. I said, “This is Larry Sloman, music editor of the Daily Cardinal at the University of Wisconsin. There was a riot at Summerfest with Sly Stone. Do you want me to write it up for you?” The editor said, “Yeah, do it on spec.” That way they don’t owe you for anything. But I didn’t care—I got an assignment for Rolling Stone!

Was it through your work there in the early ’70s that you met your lifelong friend Leonard Cohen?
Right. One thing about me as a music journalist—every thing I do, I overprepare. With my Houdini book, I did a year and a half of research. So when I got assigned to write about Leonard, I embedded myself. Leonard was playing in New York for the New Skin For The Old Ceremony album, and I was with him in the hotel room, cab to the Bottom Line for the concert, hung out in the dressing room with him. He was incredibly open, and said some amazing, amazing things to me.

You got your nickname from Joan Baez, who hurled a Midnight Cowboy reference at you back in ’75. Did Cohen adopt it, too?
Leonard had too much decorum to call me “Ratso.” I wouldn’t expect him to. But he sometimes called me “Jew” when we emailed, because my email address is “newyorkjew.” He would write, “Dear Jew.” And he would sign his emails, “Old Leonard.”

Any other friends who’ve held out on using your nickname?
Well, Kinky calls me variations of “Ratso”—like “Rat-a-tat”—and Howard Stern calls me “Ratsy.” Nick Cave calls me “Rats.” And my wife Christy only calls me “Ratso” when she’s mad at me.

What did you do for an encore after the Leonard Cohen piece?
I wrote a preview of Lou Reed’s album Berlin. Every critic attacked the shit out of Berlin, but I gushed about what a brilliant album it was. I called it “the Sgt. Pepper of the ’70s.” What I meant was that the ’60s zeitgeist was captured by the Beatles, with sex, drugs, drop acid and have a great time while the ’70s zeitgeist, as in Berlin, was a bisexual couple beating the shit out of each other, trying to kill themselves and having their kids taken away. 

That’s Berlin all right.
So when the album comes out, they made huge posters with my quote. Apparently, though, Lou hated Sgt. Pepper. Also, when the Berlin album tanked, he blamed RCA for using that quote. So he didn’t talk to me for a couple of years. He warmed up to me only after I started writing lyrics for John Cale. I guess that gave me credibility. And you know that if he didn’t think they were good lyrics, he would have said so!

Which brings us to Ratso the songwriter. 
Songwriting was a hobby. The first lyric I wrote was a satire of this little guru from India who Rennie Davis and a lot of the New Left had decided was a spiritual leader: Guru Maharaji. He was doing rock-star dates around the country. And I was hanging out with the Fugs’ singer Tuli Kupferberg, who was a genius at writing song parodies—“parasongs,” he called them. Tuli encouraged me. He said, “Why don’t you write a parasong?” So I wrote “Guru Maharaji/He really wants you and me/You know he’s really the one/He may be fat, but he’s fun.” 

We all have to start somewhere, I guess.
I wrote my next song while I was covering Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. I had a falling out with Rolling Stone, but I wanted to write a book about the tour. I told Dylan, “I really want to document this.” So he said fine, and I started working with the film crew for the tour film Renaldo And Clara, scouting locations and bringing people for them to film. They sent me north to Boston a couple of days in advance (of the concert there)—they wanted hookers, strippers for a party scene. Well, with my great research skills, by the end of a whole day and night in Boston’s red-light “Combat Zone,” I got to know every hooker, every stripper, every club owner, and I wound up at six in the morning in a Howard Johnson’s restaurant where they all stayed. So I wrote a song called “Combat Zone.”    

What was the spark that led you to write about that scene in a song in addition to in your book?
The spark was being around Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, Bob Neuwirth and all those Rolling Thunder people. I’m a lyric freak, anyway, so being in that atmosphere, I was, like, “Hey, I should try this!” And then, when I showed my “Combat Zone” lyrics to Dylan on a train ride from Toronto to Montreal for the next gig, he looked at them and said, “Yeah, these are good, man!”  

You didn’t feel any sense of timidity, showing your first serious lyrics to Dylan? For most people, that would be plenty daunting.
Yeah, but at that point, I was completely crazy. I was manic. My chutzpah … At the end of the tour, Dylan gave gifts to everyone, these nice medallions. And so I had T-shirts made up with a photo of me by Bob Gruen and the word “Ratso,” and I gave them out to everyone, too!

Chutzpah, indeed.
And part of that chutzpah was to treat Dylan like a normal person, not at all deferential … I even went up to his hotel room, hanging out with Bob and his then-wife Sara there, and after they had room service, I ate leftovers off their plates in front of them.

What became of your song “Combat Zone”?
Roger McGuinn wrote music for it, and at the end of the Rolling Thunder tour—when I was still in my manic phase—McGuinn and I performed it on Bob Fass’ radio show, Radio Unnameable, on WBAI. Then I did two performances of “Combat Zone” at (legendary Greenwich Village club) Gerde’s Folk City with my friend George Barkin (Ellen Barkin’s brother). The first time I did it, I got off the stage and there was this crazy woman who was wearing a jumpsuit with shorts, made out of Mylar. I swear! You took one look and you knew she was wacky. But she liked the song …

Your first groupie!
My first groupie. And within five minutes, I took her into the kitchen, and …

And?
Mike Porco, Gerde’s owner, walks in and says, “Ratso, what am I gonna do with you?!” She and I still consummated the act. And the next week, I come back with George to do the song and she’s there again. I finish it and she says, “Come outside. I wanna talk to you.” George reluctantly comes outside with us. And the woman pulls a knife and says to me, “Don’t you realize you’re my husband now?” George runs and leaves me there. I’m going, “Humma-na, humma-na.” But I say, “Listen, put that knife away, I don’t want you to get arrested.” I start trying to talk her down. She’s obviously distraught. And when she puts the knife away, I run. 

Your master’s degree in criminality and deviance obviously paid off. 
That was the last time I ever saw her. And that was the last time I ever performed at Gerde’s.

What was your next move as a songwriter?
I started hanging out with Liz Derringer, a music journalist whose husband was the great guitarist Rick. She called me “Schmatzo.” Liz said, “Why don’t you write songs with my husband?” So Rick and I hung out and wrote some great songs. One was about discos: “I don’t care what’s new in Beirut/I just wanna dance/Nuclear war? To me it’s moot/I just wanna dance.” 

How did you launch your collaboration with John Cale?
Kinky was in town doing a residency, and he was staying with me. Don Imus said that Kinky “left skid marks” on my couch. Cale started hanging out at Kinky’s shows and said to me, “Let’s write songs together.” So we did that, every which way possible. We’d be at Marylou’s (a popular New York City restaurant/bar) at four a.m., drinking and getting fucked up, then finding some illicit substances, going back to my apartment and staying up all night writing crazy songs.

Rumor has it that Cale can be standoffish. Is he difficult? Or just shy?
He’s shy and difficult! But he’s a great guy, with a great sense of humor once you get to know him. Very smart.

Would Cale contribute to your lyrics?
He’d throw in a line … “Ooh La La,” that was a real collaboration. “Dying On The Vine,” he changed a line or two. But for some other finished products, he took a chorus from this song, a verse from that song, and did a mash-up.

“Dying On The Vine” got a lot of attention.
It became Cale’s signature song. The novelist Jonathan Lethem wrote in an essay that he did a whole novel of his (Girl In Landscape) fueled by listening to “Dying On The Vine” every day. He called it “the best Leonard Cohen song that Cohen never wrote.” Lethem says that he had never reconciled himself to his mother’s death until writing that novel and being inspired by “Dying On The Vine.” 

Another writer, Elissa Schappell, has written about that song’s influence on her. Did you ever branch out from lyrics to write your own music?
For “Stubborn Heart” and “Our Lady Of Light,” I did. I never gave those to Cale. I thought, “I don’t want to split the royalties for these 60/40 like I did with the other ones!” Then Cale moved to L.A. around ’85, so we stopped working together, though we kept in touch. My songwriting fell by the wayside.

Did you miss it?
When my Thin Ice book was a Barnes & Noble top-10 bestseller, it was exciting for me to walk by a booktore and see it in the window. But to sit in the last row of The Bottom Line and watch John Cale onstage singing my words, that was a thrill like no other. I’d get goosebumps. So in the back of my mind, I always knew that I’d get back to lyrics.

Ever considered co-writing with your pal Kinky?
By the time Cale moved away, Kinky had already started on his mystery novels. He didn’t write songs for 25 years. But he’s flipped out over my country song “Matching Scars.” He says he’s going to do a cover of it.

Tell me how your new album came about.
I started going to Brooklyn and hanging out with new friends, these young indie artists who were fans of my Dylan book. One of them was Shilpa Ray, who’s fucking great. I gave her album to Nick Cave, who raved about it and took her on his Grinderman tour. Shilpa introduced me to Vin Cacchione, who played with Shilpa and fronted his own two bands, Soft Black and Caged Animals. So one time I saw Vin play, and before the show I said, “I have some lyrics. Would you be interested in writing music to them?”

Lightning strikes!
I gave him “I Want Everything,” which I think is one of my best songs, and I said, “I see it as an uptempo Byrds kind of thing.” He did a version of it that way, but I realized I was wrong. The song didn’t really work like that. Apparently, he felt the same thing, so he also did a much more contemporary version, with drum machine, but he was afraid to show it to me. Finally, though, he got up the courage, and I listened to it and thought, “Holy shit!” I loved it. So we started working together more, along with the musicians Pat Curry, Kyle Avallone, John “Catfish” Delorme, Andrew Hoepfner, Jack Byrne, Paul Shapiro, Darwin Deez and Vin’s wife, the violin whiz Magali Charron. I did a duet with the sensational artist Imani Coppola. But at first my only goal was to get our songs out—I had no idea that I would be singing. I wanted to do what Kinky does: tribute albums to himself.

Other people performing your work.
Yes. But I did a demo of “Our Lady Of Light,” and Vin goes, “You should do your own songs. You have a unique voice.” So right away I’m paranoid: “Unique?’ What does ‘unique’ mean? Like Florence Foster Jennings?” I didn’t commit until I brought the demo to my friend Hal and played it for him in his office.

Hal would be Hal Willner, the music producer and impresario par excellance.
Right. Hal put the demo on his system and lay back with his eyes closed—which is how he listens. When the music’s over, I said, “So, Hal, should I be singing these songs myself?” And Hal takes a deep breath, and he opens his eyes and leans in and says, “What are you waiting for?” Which gave me the confidence to do it. 

Nick Cave’s duet with you on “Our Lady Of Light” is an obvious highlight of your album. How did you and Cave meet?
First I met Mick Harvey from Nick’s band the Bad Seeds, whom I loved. Harvey would invite me to their concerts, and Nick tells me now that he always noticed me backstage and felt fascinated by me. He’d wonder, “Who’s this guy wearing these bad-ass, out-there suits?” Eventually I brought Nick a copy of my Dylan book, and he read it and flipped out and loved it. Then I went on tour with his band Grinderman and came out of retirement from rock journalism and did an article about it for Spin magazine.

A friendship is born! Having spent a bit of time with you and Nick together, I could see how fond of you he is. 
And me of him! Nick is one of our greatest songwriters. And the greatest showman. He’s getting better and better with age. Plus, he’s a real mensch.

The sole cover on Stubborn Heart is a doozy: Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.”
It’s one of my favorite Dylan songs. And very few other people have done it: Joan Baez, Richie Havens …

Havens’s sort-of disco version beggars belief.
Dylan was a brash 24 year old when he wrote and sang “Sad-Eyed Lady.” I thought it would be interesting to record that song from the perspective of somebody who had “been through the wars,” who had a modicum of maturity. But I wasn’t fooling myself. I knew that an 11-minute song of me singing 10 verses and five choruses was too much for anybody to bear. So I said, “How cool would it be if I got five different women and have each one do her own interpretation of the chorus?”

Ultimately you chose Imani Coppola, Eddi Front, Vin’s wife Magali, Ruby Friedman …
Ruby’s no relation to Kinky, but she’s a real rock ’n’ roll diva—the Jewish Janis Joplin, I call her.

… And Lebanese singer/songwriter Yasmine Hamdan, whom I believe is one of the best young musical artists of our time.
I met her through my friend Jim Jarmusch. She appeared in a performance sequence from his film Only Lovers Left Alive. Yasmine’s incredible. Such a natural. She said she hadn’t sung in English in 14 years, but she just nailed it. To hear her with that Arabic accent sing, “My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,” it was just so fucking cool! And when she recorded back-up vocals to my song “I Want Everything,” Yasmine went into this seductive chanting of “Aman, aman.” We asked her what this word meant and she talked about existential joy. It sounds so great.   

Any ideas for covers for your next album?
“Motorcar, What A Day” by my friend Jake Jacobs. In the early ’70s, his group Jake And The Family Jewels put two great records. Another cover I want to do is “You Set The Scene” by Love. And when I perform live, I’d like to do Nick’s song “Skeleton Tree” as a tribute to his late son Arthur.

You’ve kept in touch with Dylan down all the decades. Is he aware that you’ve made Stubborn Heart?
He is. The last time I saw him was in Vegas, after one of his gigs. He knew I was there, working with Tyson, so he told his manager to invite me. I remember I was wearing one of my Soul Train-fashion zoot suits, and when Dylan got off the stage, he got closer to me to take a good look and he said, “Oh, man, Ratso—you should be dressing me.”

Another career for you?
Anyway, we start talking, and I tell Dylan, “Hey, Bob, guess what? I’m doing my own album!” He goes, “What?” I say, “Yeah, I have a duet with Nick Cave.” Bob goes, “You have a duet with Nick Cave?” And then I say, “And I want you to … ”

Uh-oh.
He tenses his body, like he’s just waiting for me to drop the hammer and ask him to play on the record …

Bracing himself!
And I finally say, “I want you—to write the liner notes!” And he’s relieved, but says, “I don’t know if I can write liner notes.” I say, “How about on your album World Gone Wrong?” And he says, “Yeah, they were good.” 

I know you’re planning on performing soon. Can we expect a full-throttle Ratso world tour?
I don’t want to tour. At my age, the idea of getting in a little Ford Econoline van and driving 300 miles a day to do another gig and crash on someone’s floor. Besides, what kind of rider would I have? “I want brown M&M’s, a quart of matzoh-ball soup, two pills of Flomax—extended release.” I’m too old for this shit!

***

Obviously this last statement of Ratso’s is untrue. Rock ’n’ roll, like hope, springs eternal. Stubborn Heart was released today. Tonight, Ratso will be doing a Q&A and record signing at the Rough Trade store in Brooklyn. Whether his “first groupie” will show up there—that “distraught” woman wearing Mylar who pulled a knife on him and called him her “husband”—no one can say. But like all newly minted would-be rock stars, Ratso will need to be ready for absolutely anything.