After almost 20 years on various major labels, Pete Yorn is finally doing things for himself. It’s quite the feat for any “mature” artist to experience that sort of industry-financed longevity—especially these days. It’s also worth noting that Caretakers (Shelly Music) is Yorn’s most overtly catchy set of tunes since musicforthemorningafter. Even so, it’s a very different record from his 2001 debut—one more apiece with 2009’s Back & Fourth, minus that effort’s earnest indie-folk leanings. For Caretakers, Yorn got together with Day Wave’s Jackson Phillips, who nudged him in a prolific direction while encouraging him not to sweat the simple stuff—and even revel in it. The result is a wistfully introspective album that finds an effortless common ground in classic ’60s pop and ’80s new wave. Prior to heading out of Los Angeles for a vacation with his wife and young daughter, Yorn provides additional juicy details on an album that almost didn’t happen.
So how’s family life treating you? My daughter’s going to be four at the end of this month, and it’s moving along. It’s definitely the greatest joy of my life.
From the beginning, you’ve always found interesting folks to partner with: R. Walt Vincent, Frank Black, Saddle Creek’s Mike Mogis. And there’s your side project with Scarlett Johansson. Looking at the whole picture over the years, I prefer it when it’s me and one other person running the show, and we bring in a few people here and there. I like the tightness, and I move really fast that way. The flow I instantly got into with Jackson on this new album was reminiscent of those early sessions with Walt—getting hyper-creative and building the songs up.
How did you and Jackson hook up? We meet at a birthday party in the fall of 2017. It was date night, and we got a babysitter. It was late, and party was way out in Malibu. My wife left, and I stayed. Things got blurry after that because we started doing shots. I met Jackson there, and we hit it off. His older sister was crankin’ my stuff when he was a teenager, and I was familiar with Day Wave. We talked about getting together at his studio in Echo Park, where all those young hipster kids hang out. [Laughs] A few months later, I went out to his house and we talked about recording an EP.
Apparently, it turned into more than that. Before we knew it, we had more than an EP, and we were having such a great time working together, basically recording a song a day. We have 25 songs we’re really excited about, and this is just the first installment. We’d say to each other, “Let’s just keep going until we make something we hate.” And we’re still going at it.
In terms of sound and mood, there’s a unified feel to Caretakers. It’s us playing everything—very focused. I’d typically get there at 11 a.m. Then I wanted to be home at 7:30 each night to tuck my girl in bed—and I live in Santa Monica, which is a 40-minute drive. We almost always had a new song at the end of each day. So, in that regard, it was very fast. But we worked over a long period, starting in January 2018.
Is it true that this album almost didn’t get made? We started recording three days after I told my brother at lunch that I wasn’t looking to make any new music. I was really focused on my daughter. Then, out of nowhere, I got an email from Jackson’s team.
There is a bit of an age gap between the two of you—he’s in his 20s, and you’re in your 40s. How did that play into the creative process? There’s this tendency—unless you really go out of your way—to listen to less and less music as you get older. Sometimes it takes a younger person to remind you about stuff you used to be into. Jackson is such a huge fan of music. If you were to ask me what his influences are, I wouldn’t be able to tell you, because he listens to so much different stuff. He’s always digging around on Spotify and those endless playlists. I remember he was playing something that reminded me of Guided By Voices, and he didn’t know that much about them. We really bonded over GBV.
As a guitarist, vocalist, actor, model and humanitarian, Japanese artist Takamasa “MIYAVI” Ishihara is a hyphenate extraordinaire, thrilling audiences worldwide with his unique and virtuosic slap-style approach to the guitar and his passionate performances in films such as 2014’s Unbroken (directed by Angelina Jolie and co-written by the Coen brothers). The 37-year-old MIYAVI shows no signs of slowing down, as he has a new LP (his 11th), No Sleep Till Tokyo, due out July 24, a summer North American tour and a role in the Jolie-starring Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil, in theaters this October.
The new album is fantastic. The lead-off track, “Stars,” seems like a quintessential MIYAVI song, with funky slap guitar, huge choruses and a synth-like 8-bit guitar lead. Your last two albums were collaborative efforts with other artists. Please talk a little about your vision for this LP. Does the title No Sleep Till Tokyo have anything to do with the fact that between recording, touring, acting and your other work, you seem like a man always on the go? Thank you. My last two albums were collaborative projects, and it was an inspiring process to learn from such a diverse group of talented and innovative artists. As a guitarist, I have always enjoyed performing with great singers/rappers. However, for this new record, I wanted to focus on creating something 100% within MIYAVI’s world. As a Japanese artist, I have kind of been rediscovering the greatness of Japan especially after I moved to Los Angeles. Moving away gave me a new appreciation for how great and unique Japan really is. For example, I have tried to sing in English in the past but realized that I prefer to sing in my native tongue. I am encouraged by hearing songs in Spanish and Korean on the radio today. As long as a track has a high sound quality, foreign audiences are more willing to be open to your music in a different language.
In the videos I’ve seen online, your slap-guitar technique always catches people off guard; it’s so innovative. I believe you developed this style of playing pretty early on and that you might have been influenced by the sound of the shamisen. Is that correct? Yes, I got the fundamental idea from the shamisen, which is a traditional Japanese guitar. As a Japanese guitarist, it was important to me to find my own distinct style different from any other guitarists, and so I started slapping the strings. I was also influenced by great bass players such as Marcus Miller, Larry Graham and Louis Johnson. It’s all about the passion you put into every slap.
Your music is very original but also blends many styles from funk to hip hop to rock … I even hear some blues changes in an older song like “What’s My Name?” Please talk a bit about how you compose songs and your approach to mixing different influences together. It’s important to evolve as an artist and to continue to challenge myself to record new styles of music. Otherwise, I run the risk of getting stuck in a box, and that would be boring.
“Butterfly,” from the new album, really grooves. I don’t think of you as an artist who writes songs for the dancefloor, but that’s probably putting your music into a box. I’m guessing you don’t think of your music as belonging to just one genre. Is that the case? Correct. I just go with the flow. It’s all about a message and a groove. People wanna sing and dance. As a creator, it’s my job to capture the listener’s attention while relaying a greater message across through my music.
The song “Samurai” talks about “doing it like a samurai” and that it’s “all or nothing ‘til I make it.” The word “samurai” conjures up certain images among western audiences that are probably not culturally accurate. I know you are sometimes billed as the samurai guitarist. Are you talking about yourself on the track, your audience or both? And what’s the meaning behind this particular tune? An attitude. “Samurai” is such a serious word for us Japanese, and I don’t want to use this word without any purpose. On this track, I just wanted to sing about an attitude and determination. Focus and dedication. Loyalty used to be the most important value to my people, but that’s changed. True value is always inside you, and a dedication to that life motto is the beauty of Japanese culture.
As a guitar player, you embrace a wide variety of tones from acoustic to Telecaster twang to the processed sound on your leads. Am I hearing the new Fender Acoustasonic on some of the tracks? Yeah, the Fender Acoustasonic is an incredibly unique instrument that has both acoustic and electric qualities. When I first played the Acoustasonic, I was blown away by this guitar’s potential. Throughout music history, there has always been cooperation between artists and guitar brands to create new tools. I really appreciate Fender’s creative spirit and the company’s desire to challenge musicians by developing innovative products.
When it comes to percussion and beats, you’re not afraid to use acoustic or programmed drums. Is it a question of using whatever best suits the song? By the way, I love that you added in the early-’80s Syndrums on “Under The Same Sky.” So cool! Thank you. I have been trying to make some new guitar-oriented music for the current generation. It’s hard to make rock ‘n’ roll fresh, and so I try to innovate while also paying respects to all the rock stars who paved the path for us. Now it’s our responsibility to record music that can be a bridge to the next generation. On “Under The Same Sky,” I tried to sing mostly in Japanese as a message to all my fans who have been so supportive over the years. Even if you are away from whom you love, you feel close when you realize that we are all under the same sky. Sometimes we share pictures of our skies so that we feel close knowing that we are living on Earth.
Speaking of percussion, in the more recent live clips I’ve seen, you have a pretty minimal setup with just a drummer, a DJ and backup singers. That would seem to put a lot of pressure on your guitar work, which has to cover much of the rhythm and melody parts by itself. What attracts you to this arrangement? I’m not afraid to use any recorded track for my shows. The most important thing for me to share with the audience is passion and explosion at every single moment through a performance. I play the guitar, sing, perform, jump and dance. Everything I can do to be connected with the audience. That’s my mission every time when I hit the stage. I’m not just a guitarist.
OK, last question. Who do you think will win in next year’s Godzilla Vs. Kong movie? It’s too bad they couldn’t find a way to bring your Kong: Skull Island character Gunpei Ikari back from the dead for the sequel! It’s really cool to see iconic Japanese brands like Godzilla cross-over culturally. Feel free to start a petition to bring my character back from the dead!
Looking back, Travis frontman Fran Healy is still in awe of the enormous U.K. love fest touched off by 1999’s The Man Who—its first kiss embodied by the Scottish outfit’s breakthrough performance at Glastonbury that same year. Craft Recordings has just released a 16-track document of the Glastonbury show, along with an expanded 20th-anniversary reissue of The Man Who, one of the finest albums of the millennium’s first decade. The Glastonbury renditions of The Man Who tracks lack some of the drama and subtlety of their studio counterparts, mainly for reasons Healy explains below. But the massive progression from the charming-yet-indistinct Britpop of its self-titled debut is evident. With help from producers Mike Hedges and Nigel Godrich, Travis locked into the vaguely theatrical loud/soft dynamic that would serve the band well for the next several years.
MAGNET touched base with Healy, who reflects on The Man Who’s 2.8 million units sold, the perceived shit show that was Glastonbury and the group’s more personal connection to American audiences.
As reissues go, the Glastonbury performance makes a nice companion piece to The Man Who. At the time, we thought Glastonbury was shit. We thought we’d blown it. We left the stage patting each other on the back … like, “Better luck next time, guys.” And we got on our buses and went home.
Apparently, there were those who felt otherwise. I remember walking through the front door after the show, switching on my television and hearing my name before I even had a chance to sit on the sofa. There were these two BBC Radio 2 presenters sitting around a campfire at Glastonbury waxing about how wonderful our performance was. And then they showed a clip of our performance, and I was like, “Wow, this is pretty good actually.”
What bothered you most about the show when you walked offstage? There were two things. First, I couldn’t hear myself onstage. Imagine feeling the vibration in your throat and your teeth and your mouth, but the sound is being sucked away by the volume. It’s the weirdest feeling. When I finally got in-ear monitors, it really saved my life. Before that, I’d come offstage after every single show totally depressed because I didn’t know whether I was in tune or out of tune. It probably ruined about 10 years’ worth of gigs for me. The second thing was that it pissed on everyone. We looked at the audience and thought, “This is going to crap because it’s raining.” Everyone looked pretty miserable.
Twenty years later, what’s your perspective on The Man Who? The Man Who was the first big comedown record from Britpop—the hangover. It introduced people to this less arrogant, more introspective sound. On our first record, there was AC/DC, Oasis, a bit of everything. But at the end of (1997’s) Good Feeling, you begin to hear what we’d become. It weaves very nicely into The Man Who.
What are a few memories that stick out from the recording of The Man Who? We started out with Mike Hedges. We wanted to work with Nigel (Godrich), but he was recording Kid A at that point, so he was super-busy. Mike is a veteran producer who did the Manic Street Preachers and all the early Cure stuff. The stuff didn’t quite hit the ground running like we wanted it to, but we did keep the vocals from “Turn” and “Why Does It Always Rain On Me?” from that session because they were really special. Then we did get Nigel involved, and the first thing we recorded, I think, was “Writing To Reach You.” I remember sitting behind him and watching him get a sound together in the studio—he didn’t even have an assistant engineer. He was soundchecking the drums with Neil (Primrose), and he’d say, “Could you hit the snare drum?’ Then he’d say, “Stop,” go move the mic about two millimeters and come back and say, “Hit it again.” He’d do this about six times until the mic was in the perfect position. Bare in mind that he did that with absolutely everything, and there was no EQ anywhere on the board—it was all mic position. I remember being like, “Wow, he hasn’t touched a single knob. He’s just listening.” Another big part of his technique is that he gets the band to play together. He records the take and tweaks tiny little bits of it. It’s all about the performance with him.
The Radiohead connection must’ve loomed large, yes? For us, OK Computer was such a massive record, and Nigel and I were getting along really well. So it was nice having a laugh and hanging out while I was watching one of the greatest engineers who’ve ever lived.
It seems like, with The Man Who, the Travis sound came into full focus. We weren’t really trying to go out and find a sound. But I remember opening the front door of my house in London and my two managers standing in the doorway like tax collectors. We were getting to the end of recording, and they sat down and said, “Listen, the album is quite depressing. Could you write a couple of singles?” So I went away, and the first one I wrote was “The Blue Light,” which is about domestic violence in a cul-de-sac in northern England—not really single material. But “Driftwood” did come out of that. If you have a good song to record, it will make you sound like it wants you to sound. We had those songs for The Man Who.
Does it bother you that the album didn’t do nearly as well here as it did in the U.K.? Epic initially passed on it. Then it came out in Britain in May 1999, and three months later, we were up to 300,000 records. By Christmas, we were up to 1.5 million. Then Epic said, “Well, maybe you can come over here and try to do this thing.” In the UK, Travis became so fucking massive so quickly. One in six households had The Man Who, and the press hated us because we were so massive. We were getting played too much on the radio. We came to America almost a year later. But the interesting thing is that we never crossed over. We were this little island that a lot of people clambered onto to get away from Limp Bizkit and Britney Spears. Our career in England should’ve been what our career was in America. I’m not complaining—don’t get me wrong. But we reside in a really nice locale in America. People were desperate for something that wasn’t shit in the late 1990s, and we were lucky and honored enough make that record.
With his new album, I Need A New War (Partisan), the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn wraps up a solo trilogy that began with 2015’s Faith In The Future. Given the textured tunefulness and frequent glimmers of hope that marked 2017’s We All Want The Same Things, War feels a little like a somber slap in the face. The detailed character studies continue, mostly set to the unflattering backdrop of Finn’s adopted hometown of New York City and its damaged mystique. Saxophones burb, trumpets moan, and the backup singing duo of Cassandra Jenkins and Annie Nero do their best to calm frayed nerves. But there’s something even more unsettling about Finn’s hapless protagonists this time around—as if they’re treading water with one hand. Can one guy really know so many desperate souls, or is he just making this stuff up? We inquired.
I Need I New War has an uneasiness to it that took me a little off-guard. It’s definitely a darker record. We were trying to do something different. We All Want The Same Things seemed super empathetic. With this one, we were laying things a little more bare. Then again, the years between the two albums have been sort of dark—not necessarily on a personal level, but on a macro level. It also has a sort of nostalgic feel—especially tracks like “Indications” and “Magic Marker.” When (producer/musician) Josh (Kaufman) and I were recording this album, we started talking about this idea of days gone by—not as a focal point but more as a wistful feeling to try to capture in some of the music. It harkens back to something, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. We were also searching for a groove you could move your body to. Things like “Something To Hope For” and “A Bathtub In The Kitchen” have that sway to them—more of a pulse.
Is it safe to say that the characters in these new songs are composites? Some are more real than others, and some are more fictitious. I wanted to do something that’s about people today. When I’m writing for the Hold Steady, oftentimes the characters are engaged in bad behavior or bad decisions, and big, tragic things are happening to them. But the desperation I’m trying to write about on these last three solo records is more often about people who’ve done the right thing—or tried to—and it still hasn’t necessarily worked out for them. There’s less overt bad behavior and more of a struggle with the modern world. The modern world is changing quickly—too quickly for these characters—and they’re having difficulty keeping pace with it and kind of getting ground up in it.
So is it a conscious thing—the way you write differently for the band than you do for your solo work? With the Hold Steady, I’m often writing to parts the other guys give me. And when it’s Tad (Kubler) or Steve (Selvidge) with these big guitar riffs, it feels like big things have to happen. It doesn’t feel like a reflection of a vulnerable character who’s tired from work or whatever. The stuff on the solo records starts from a smaller place and builds outward, creating a different world that may be a little more introspective, with vulnerable characters who might be moving a little slower.
Are there any key differences in the way this album came together, as opposed to the previous two? The big difference is that we brought in Cassandra Jenkins, and her and Annie Nero sang together on one microphone. We were thinking of those Leonard Cohen records where there’s almost an answer with the backup vocals—that whispering in your ear, “It’s going to be OK.”
The brass seems more pronounced, too. What am I hearing? Sax, trumpet, clarinet and trombone. Stuart Bogie is a good friend of mine who’s worked on all three records. I’ve been writing more with his parts in mind and leaving more space for him.
So, now that the trilogy is complete, where do you go from here? I’m always writing songs, so I guess we’ll see. A trilogy wasn’t something I set out to write. It’s more of a way of me understanding these three records together. The nine Hold Steady singles you’ve released over last few years almost amount to a full album. They’re almost like dispatches. We haven’t been touring, but we’ve been doing these weekends where we play shows in one town. It takes some of the travel out of the equation, makes things way more musical and underscores the community around the band. So I thought, “What if we dropped a single beforehand, and then it’s attached to that weekend.” Also, with a lot of our favorite bands—from the Beatles to the Smiths to the Clash—their classic record was a collection of singles. The music industry feels pretty broken, so I think it’s a mistake to do everything in a traditional manner. We already know where our fans are.
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 kahunawhom 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.”
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.