The are writers that for obvious skills, luck and fate succeed the best way possible. Larry “Ratso” Sloman did great interviews, with Leonard Cohen for instance; did great scoops, like attending to some of the recordings for Blood On The Tracks (1975), the famous Bob Dylan album; wrote amazing books, like On The Road With Bob Dylan (1978), dedicated to the Rolling Thunder Revue; had important song collaborations, John Cale (Velvet Underground) and Nick Cave among the others; formed lasting friendship, like with the writer and songwriter Kinky Friedman (the only writer in the whole word that can tell to be the favorite of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush). Beside all that, he has been also a journalist for Rolling Stone and editor of the legendary High Times and then he made his way with excellent biographical books written with Howard Stern (the two volumes they wrote together back in the 90s broke all the selling records), Anthony Kiedis of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Mike Tyson (Undisputed Truth is the book on which is based the Broadway piece/TV show by Spike Lee starring Iron Mike).
This year he is on the footlights again for his record debut (would you believe?) with the very beautiful Stubborn Heart (special guests: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, Shilpa Ray, Sharon Robinson, Imani Coppola, etc) and for the Martin Scorsese film-documentary about the Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, where Ratso is a co-star and one of the main narrators. Of all these things and much more we talked with him in this long and exclusive interview he granted us. Set yourself comfortable and have a nice read.
The first question is the obvious question: you are 68… how come you released your debut album now? Never had the idea to cut one in your 30s or 40s?
«Actually I’m 70. It’s been reported that I’m 68 because that’s what it says on my wikipedia page. And you can’t argue with the internet. So I took a circuitous route to doing my own album. I first starting writing songs on the Rolling Thunder Revue. I had spent a few days researching the area of the Combat Zone in Boston for the film crew. They wanted to shoot a scene for Renaldo and Clara with a lot of hookers and strippers. That’s where they congregate in Boston. I got to know every strip club owner, every dancer and a large number of call girls. When that scene was scrapped, I complained to Bob and he told me to write a song. So I wrote the lyrics to a song called The Combat Zone which devoted a verse to each of the interesting women I came across there. When I showed Bob the lyrics on a train ride from Toronto to Montreal he really liked them and compared the song to his song Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues. So I had gotten the blessing from the bard and when the tour was ended, I actually performed the song with Roger McGuinn on guitar on the Bob Fass radio show. After the tour, I started working with Rick Derringer, who lived near me, and we did about twenty songs together where I wrote the lyrics and he provided the music. Then my friend Kinky Friedman, the great Texas Jewboy, introduced me to John Cale who was coming to see Kinky play at his residency at the Lone Star Cafe. We decided to write songs together and we did that for a few years. Then John moved to L.A. and that was the end of my song writing career, I thought. I went back to writing books».
I know the album took quite a while to be ready, you worked on it few years. Tell us the process that brought to Stubborn Heart…
«About five years ago, I co-hosted a podcast with my friend Mark Jacobson, a senior editor for New York Magazine at the time. We did it live at the KBG bar in the East Village. We often had young indie musicians on as guests. One night we had an author on who did a book on Gram Parsons. He was smart enough to bring a few musicians on with him to actually play Gram Parson’s songs which certainly livened up that segment. When the show as over, the two musicians, Tim Bracy and Elizabeth Nelson, who were pretty well known in the Brooklyn indie music scene, came over to me. “Ratso! We had no idea you were the co-host of this. We grew up on your Dylan book! We’re big fans”. Well, flattery gets you everywhere with me and Tim and Elizabeth invited me out to Brooklyn and were my ambassadors into that scene. And it thrilled me and reminded me of the old DIY days in the West and East Village, especially the Anti-Folk scene that congregated around Lach at the Sidewalk Cafe. I met an amazing singer/songwriter named Shilpa Ray, and I introduced her music to Nick Cave and he took her on tour with him. Through Shilpa I met her ex-guitarist Vin Cacchione who had two groups, Soft Black and Caged Animals. I went to a few Caged Animals shows and then I approached Vin and asked him if he wanted to write some songs together. I gave him some of the lyrics I had from the Cale days for a song called I Want Everything and he came back with some great music. So it was on. But all that said, I never had any intention of being the vehicle for these songs. I wanted to take a page out of the Kinky Friedman playbook and do a tribute album to myself, getting my famous friends to cover my songs. Kinky had done two of those and I thought it would be a great way to get the songs out, which is all I wanted. But after Vin finished recording my first demo, an early version of Our Lady Of Light, I was all set to send it out to one of my famous friends to record it when Vin interceded. “Man, you should sing your own songs. You have a unique voice,” he said. My NY paranoia immediately kicked in. “Unique voice?” I thought. “Unique like Florence Foster Jennings?”. So I took the demo to my pal Hal Willner, the legendary music producer who produced Ginsberg, Burroughs, Lou Reed, etc etc. I played it for Hal and when it was done I asked him if he thought I should sing my own songs. He took a deep breath and looked at me and said, “What are you waiting for?”. So I took that as a yes».
My personal feeling is that all over the album there is the ghost of Leonard Cohen. I know you had a strong friendship with him that goes way back…
«Yes, I first interviewed Leonard back in 1973 for Rolling Stone Magazine and we stayed friends for all these years. People have compared the songs to Leonard or in some cases to Bob and I take that as the highest compliment. The two titans of songwriting in my lifetime! How could I not be influenced by them? I actually wrote one song on the album, the title track Stubborn Heart as an homage to Leonard. And the great American novelist Jonathan Lethem wrote that Dying On The Vine was the best Leonard Cohen song that Leonard didn’t write. Leonard never got to hear the finished version of the album, but I sent him the first track we finished and he wrote me back, “I dig the mood”, which was so nice to hear».
Also with Nick Cave you have a deep friendship that is lasting for 25 years now – and he is on your album singing a duet with you, Our Lady Of Light…
«I put Nick right up there with Bob and Leonard. He’s holding that torch high. And what’s scary is he’s getting better as he ages. He’s just a triple threat — songs, books, the Red Hand blog posts. I don’t know anyone working today who’s as plugged into the zeitgeist as Nick is. So naturally I asked him to sing a duet with me on the album. And I knew that he’d have an affinity for Our Lady Of Light. It was right in his wheelhouse».
Let’s talk about who is not on the the album… for instance, John Cale with whom back in the 80s you wrote about 15 tunes, including the whole Artificial Intelligence album. In Stubborn Heart you take back three of those songs but Cale is not around…
«Well, John has been pretty busy the last few years circumnavigating the globe playing those complete solo albums of his. But he’s been very supportive of the album. I sent him Dying On The Vine and he wrote back, “Move over Leonard. Are you getting fitted for your trilby hat yet?”. He’s got a great sense of humor. But I was touched when he told a reporter who was doing a feature on me for Billboard, “There are not many people with a natural bent for absorbing mood prose – even less that seem to walk in shoes as august as those of Bob Dylan”, Cale says, remembering the process of writing his 1985 record, Artificial Intelligence, an album that featured Ratso-penned lyrics. “For that moment in time with Ratso, an album [was] made with a lyrical co-conspirator of the highest order”».
When I got the news of your debut album, I thought that your friend Kinky Friedman would have been involved. But he is not… and he is, like Cohen and Cave, someone you have a lasting friendship with…
«We didn’t have a budget to travel around and Kinky is a technophobe so he’s not on the album. But he did write a nice blurb which is on my website and he’s going to cover Matching Scars soon. And talks are under way for me and Kinky to tour together in the Northeast this fall».
I think the choice to cover Bob Dylan’s Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands is very brave… I count very few covers of it throughout the years since Blonde On Blonde came out: Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Steve Howe of Yes, Jim O’Rourke, the French band Phoenix and not many others I can think of. First album –and Ratso does it…
«Yes, Nick thought that was very audacious of me. But we pulled it off! Thanks to my wonderful band and the addition of the great Warren Ellis! I sent Warren the track and he added some beautiful fiddle and, in his own words, “some Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid flute”. But what makes the track is the five beautiful females voices on the choruses. God knows, the world didn’t need me singing ten verses and five choruses of the song. So I came up with the idea of getting some dynamite ladies involved, the Sad Eyed Ladies, to sing the choruses. We got Eddi Front, Vin’s wife Magali, who plays most of the beautiful violin on the album, and then I got Yasmine Hamdam, the great Arabic singer, to sing in English for the first time in years. She had the most authority to sing those words “my warehouse eyes my Arabian drums” for sure. Getting Sharon Robinson was a thrill. She was doing a book of her photos of the last two Leonard Cohen world tours and Leonard suggested to her that she get me to do the introduction. I told her I’d do it for nothing — as long as she would sing the chorus. And the song is rounded out with the bombastic stylings of Ruby Friedman, no relation to Kinky, who I like to call the “Jewish Janis Joplin”. She just sends the song into the stratosphere on that last chorus. It’s amazing that the walls in the studio didn’t fall down».
Any plan to bring the album on the road? If yes, in which terms?
«We will play select venues, for sure. But don’t expect to see me climbing out of a Ford Econoline van to play a gig in Bumfuck, Idaho. I can just see my rider for the tour: Mr. Ratso requires all red M&Ms, a quart of hot matzoh ball soup at every venue and a bottle containing six Flomax pills. No, you want to see me play you better come to someplace within two hours by car of NYC. Unless we go to Europe of course».
Talking about Dylan, we see you all over the new Martin Scorsese movie Rolling Thunder Revue and of course you wrote the legendary book On The Road With Bob Dylan about that tour. Are you pleased with the result of the movie? What effect did it have on you seeing on screen all that you had the privilege to taste “first hand” back in 1975?
«It was very surreal to see myself and my cohorts back in 1975 when we so much younger then. We’re older than that now! But I thought Marty did an amazing job of capturing the spirit of the tour. And I was particularly taken by the close ups on Dylan during the music numbers. I couldn’t get that close on the tour itself so it was revelatory to see how amazing he was emoting up on stage during those songs».
Rolling Thunder Revue mixes up real facts with a lot of fiction and made up stuff, which I find very interesting and very challenging both from Dylan and Scorsese. What was your reaction when you first saw the movie? Did you ask yourself why they took that path of confounding reality, to say the least, and gave yourself an answer?
«I’ve seen the film four times now. When I first saw an earlier cut up at Scorsese’s screening room, I was confused when that film maker Van Dorp claimed that he was ripped off. I didn’t remember him from the tour and I worked with the film crew. But Marty gives a lot of hints at what’s to come at the very beginning of the film. In the opening credits the film is called Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Re-vue: A Bob Dylan Story and there’s that scene of a cheesy magician “disappearing” a woman seated in front of him. So I realized that Bob and Marty were playing with the idea of a straight documentary and mixing in some phony characters – or real characters with phony claims like Sharon Stone. It isn’t as if Bob never told tall tales about his background from the minute he appeared on the scene in the Village».
I also find the movie very political at various levels, not only related with then but also and strongly with now. What’s you impression?
«Well, it’s not blatantly political, unless you want to count the urgency to get Rubin Carter out of jail on a trumped up murder charge. That’s consistent with Dylan through the years, Hattie Carroll, Medgar Evers, George Jackson, all songs protesting the underlying racism of America. But I think the film does present an alternative way of life to the grounded culture – an embracing of the artistic as avatars for social change. Any film narrated by Allen Ginsberg’s got to be pretty political».
Do you think that to understand better the Scorsese movie people should go back to watch Renaldo & Clara?
«They’re complementary films really. Marty’s movie is like Renaldo and Clara without Renaldo and Clara. But anyone who wants to really watch a movie with a ton of fake characters than by all means watch Renaldo and Clara. Where else can you see Ronnie Hawkins play Bob Dylan?».
Did it surprise you not to find interviews made for the movie of essential names for the RTR that we can seen on the historical footages – I’m thinking of T Bone Burnett, Patti Smith, Scarlet Rivera, Louie Kemp, Rob Stoner, Joni Mitchell…
«Scarlet’s a pretty major character in this film. But I wasn’t surprised that T Bone and Rob weren’t in the film as talking heads. This wasn’t an episode of Behind the Music, it was a film documenting the cultural events surrounding the tour. I don’t think Joni ever sat for an interview. So I was extremely pleased that Marty chose me to “introduce” Joni. And her version of the Coyote song that she wrote on the tour was one of the highlights of the film for me. She was making the case that she made to me that I describe in the film – “Don’t categorize me as a female songwriter. I’m as good as the boys – Bob, Leonard, Kinky – that you talk about”. And she was right. As for Patti, she wasn’t even on the tour. Although it did seem like she was auditioning pretty hard in that scene at the party where she corrals Bob and compares him to Rimbaud».
Another interesting thing about Rolling Thunder Revue is that it seems to go on a totally different way if compared to No Direction Home, the first Scorsese movie on Dylan, where everything was put together quite chronologically and mainly did stick with history as we knew it before…
«They’re both great films. And Marty sure had a lot to work with both times. What better subject for a rock doc or two than Bob?».
Without disrespect Scorsese work, which is of course wonderful, myself I always thought that the perfect director for a movie on the Rolling Thunder Revue would have been the great late Robert Altman. Actually, there are few clues that make me think I am not the only one with that idea: I mean, Dylan used Ronee Blakley, star of Nashville, on Desire and on the tour – and now Scorsese used in this movie Michael Murphy that was the main actor on Tanner ’88 and Tanner On Tanner both by Altman, the later with Scorsese himself as actor. What do you think?
«I think you’re reading too much into it. Altman did the Prairie Home Companion movie with Lindsay Lohan. We got Sharon Stone in the Scorsese film. I think we won out in that deal. And Ronee, she just happened to be there that’s all».
Still talking about Robert Altman, I find another connection or else that the RTR was very much a choral thing – and Altman was a true master of choral movies, stuff like M*A*S*H, A Wedding, Nashville of course, Thieves Like Us, Short Cuts, The Player, Beyond Therapy…
«I can’t really add much to these questions. Altman probably could have done a movie about RTR but he never did. Don’t think that the Altman connection was why Bob invited Ronee on the tour. She was hanging out at the Other End and they were jamming and that’s where the relationship was built up».
As far as you know, should we expect a Rolling Thunder Revue Pt. 2 movie since there’s of course the second part of the tour that isn’t considered at all in this movie? By the way, did you attend also the RTR 1976 as you did for the 1975 one?
«I think you’ll see Chronicles Pt. 2 before you see another Rolling Thunder film. The second tour didn’t have the same feel as the first. It was a difficult period for everyone. But I didn’t go on the second leg, I was back home writing On the Road With Bob Dylan».
You said the second tour didn’t have the same feel as the first. I personally know many people that would say the 1976 RTR was even better, seeing it from the documentaries that were done and listening to the plenty of bootlegs. Say, also the music arrangements were different and much of the setlists were radically different from 1975. Plus, Kinky was there…
«As for the second tour, I’m only going by what others told me – musicians, promoters, etc – and what I’ve read. Nobody suggests that the spirit was the same on that second leg. Bob was going through some personal issues and the music took on a much heavier, coarser feel. I enjoyed Hard Rain but don’t think I would have had as much fun on the second leg as I did on the first, even with Kinky being there».
You helped out such as diverse artists as Anthony Kiedis of RHCP, the famous dj Howard Stern (twice) and Mike Tyson (twice) to write their autobiographies. How did you end up doing that job? Were you friends with them before or did it come trough the publishing company?
«I heard Howard Stern talk about writing a book on his radio show and I contacted his attorney and got the job. After the two huge selling books, I told my agent to go after Anthony and then Mike. Those were books that I really wanted to do».
Especially the work with Mike Tyson must have been interesting, thinking about how troubled he is as a person. Tell us a bit about the experience to share the ring with him for two books…
«It was amazing. Mike is a tremendous person, not very well educated but really smart. And he was willing to open up and tell me the real deal. I really got close to Mike, his wife and all his children. He is truly one of a kind and I wish him the best always».
You had experiences as a journalist with Rolling Stone and High Times when those magazines were very counter-cultural. Now they seems to be very integrated with the mainstream – Rolling Stone most of the times puts on the cover girls half naked and for High Times, well, the green stuff is liberated in many states of you country. How do you see all that?
«Well, when I was editor of High Times I was trying to get the drugs out of the magazine and make it more counter-cultural. I had Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs write for me. I gave Charles Bukowski a column. But I realized that all that audience wanted to see every month was that centerfold photo of pot. I’m glad that marijuana is moving towards full legality and that now we can fully explore the medicinal benefits of that complex plant. As for Rolling Stone, they’re putting people like Ariana Grande on the cover now. Enough said».
What’s next for you? Another album? New books?
«I’m helping develop two television shows. One with Hal Willner and a second one with Jeff Lieberman, the film director, starring my old pal Penn Jillette. And I’m about to start working on the screenplay for a music biopic about a very special musician. I’m writing songs for my second album and I’m writing a proposal for my own memoir. No rest for the weary!».
Ratso, sincerely, it’s been a real honor to have the chance to interview you…
«Thanx to you!».
(to know better https://dvl.oyn.mybluehost.me)
Photos: Participants in the 1975 Rolling Thunder Review included Allen Ginsberg (second from left), Roger McGuinn (center), Larry “Ratso” Sloman (in sunglasses, seated), Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (third from left) Bob Dylan and (at right) Denise Mercedes. © Ken Regan
Larry “Ratso” Sloman and Nick Cave
Ratso and Kinky Friedman
Ratso with Mike Tyson and Rudolph Giuliani
Stubborn Heart by Larry “Ratso” Sloman