RNRG talks to the legendary rock journalist about his recording debut
Journalist Larry “Ratso” Sloman has been writing about music for most of his professional life. He’s done interviews, record reviews and long biographical pieces on Lou Reed, George Harrison, Leonard Cohen and other A-list musicians. He wrote about Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue for Rolling Stone magazine and turned those features into his first book, On The Road with Bob Dylan. It was on that tour that Joan Baez began calling him Ratso, because of his unkempt appearance.
He became friends with Nick Cave, Rick Derringer and John Cale, helping Cale craft the lyrics to his 1985 album, Artificial Intelligence. He was the editor of High Times and The National Lampoon and co-wrote best selling memoirs for Howard Stern, Anthony Kiedis, Peter Criss and Mike Tyson. Along the way, he was composing lyrics and writing songs for his own amusement.
VIDEO: John Cale – Everytime the Dogs Bark – from the album, Artificial Intelligence, c0-written with Ratso
Last year, Ratso sang one of his songs for Vin Cacchione, the writer/producer of Caged Animals. Cacchione asked Ratso if he’d like to make an album. “I didn’t have the intention of doing my own album,” Ratso says. At 70 years old, he felt he was too old to become a new artist. “I’d asked Vin if we could demo some songs, so I could have some of my famous friends record them. I just wanted the songs out. But Vin and my pal Hal Willner, the legendary record producer (Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Lou Reed), convinced me I should sing them myself.”
The result is Stubborn Heart, a solid nine-song collection of folk rock tunes – eight originals and a cover of “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Ratso is an impressive singer, with a youthful voice and a style that draws heavily on the sing/speak inflections of Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Cacchione’s arrangements add gravitas to poetic lyrics that illuminate Ratso’s unique word view. Stubborn Heart is a great album, a remarkable debut for a senior citizen making his first venture into the singer/songwriter world. He shared his thoughts on the album’s creation with his usual combination of candor and attitude.
How did you connect with Vin Cacchione?
I met him through my friend Shilpa Ray. His studio is in the front room of his apartment in Bushwick. Nice equipment, some foam rubber on the walls, a loud air-conditioner and an even louder street scene. But we made the best of it. It sounds like it could have been recorded at the Record Plant!
Why did you choose “Stubborn Heart” as the title track?
That was one of the two songs I wrote completely by myself, so I always had an affinity for it. I thought it would make a great album name and sum up the ideas that are percolating throughout these songs.
Have you performed your songs for anyone before? Have you ever played open mics?
My cousin just reminded me that I did a solo appearance at my aunt’s apartment in the Bronx, sometime in the early ’60s. I sang Bobby Darin’s version of “Mac the Knife.” That was pretty much it, except for two short appearances at Folk City playing a song I composed on the Dylan tour in 1975.
How did the arrangements evolve?
When it comes to the music on this album, it’s all Vin. He co-wrote two songs, did all the arrangements, played most of the instruments and mixed the album. I had two demos of songs I had written by myself – “Our Lady of Light” and “Stubborn Heart.” The beauty of this record is that we did it as a labor of love. There was no record company involved at first, no A&R person saying we needed a shoe gaze song. This was done at our leisure, over a period of years. The only time we added elements to what was recorded at Vin’s, was when I flew to L.A. to get Nick Cave to sing his part in the duet of “Our Lady of Light.” I sent the stems of “Sad Eyed Lady…,” the Dylan cover, to Sharon Robinson [Leonard Cohen’s co-writer and long time backup singer] in L.A., so she could sing her magnificent chorus, and sent Warren Ellis the same song, so he could put on some beautiful fiddle and flute.
What will a live show be like for you, or will you be playing any dates to support the album?
I put together a band, mostly guys who played on the album, along with fiddler and singer Imani Coppola. We did an under the radar show in a basement venue in Bushwick a few months ago. It went great. I got some free drinks from the owner afterward and met a world class documentary filmmaker, Paul Szynol, who’s now making a documentary about me making this album!
Tell us about your collaboration with John Cale. How did you start writing songs with him?
We met through Kinky Friedman. We started hanging out together at a bar in the Village named Marylou’s. It just seemed natural for us to start collaborating. I was a huge fan of the Velvet Underground and I respected John’s solo work. When we started writing songs, we did it every which way one could. We sat in a room together and wrote songs, while he fiddled around on a Casio electric piano. Sometimes he gave me music he had and I filled in some words. That was fun, like doing a crossword puzzle. Other times, he took whatever lyrics I had and came back with completed songs. That was the way the Artificial Intelligence album came about. It was really fun to work with John. He’s a brilliant guy, really funny, and totally unpredictable. When he left NY and moved to L.A., that was it for my lyric writing career. He was definitely a hard act to follow.
Any thoughts about “Dying on the Vine” becoming one of Cale’s signature songs?
That’s the song we collaborated on that I’m proudest of. It was a highlight of his live shows. It inspired not one, but two, novels including one by the great Jonathan Lethem. You couldn’t ask for more from a song. Well, maybe a nice spot in a first-rate movie. Hear that, music supervisors? It’s hard to see each other because John is either in L.A. or globetrotting playing shows, but we keep up via email.
How did you save all these songs and lyrics?
I had demos of a handful of songs that I wrote the chords for on a guitar. Those cassette tapes were lingering in my closet for years, along with a few manila folders filled with pages scribbled with lyrics. It was fun unearthing them with Vin and making them into little songs that could stand on their own two feet.
How did you get started as a writer? Did you work as a journalist after doing the Dylan book, or did you go right on to co-writing autobiographical books?
After the Dylan book, I wrote a history of marijuana in America called Reefer Madness. I did that while I was the editor of High Times magazine. Then I followed the New York Rangers hockey team around for a season and did a controversial book called Thin Ice. I did that while I was editing the National Lampoon. While I was working on a monumental oral history of Abbie Hoffman and the Sixties counter-culture, I heard Howard Stern on the radio, talking about writing a book. I got in touch with his agent and had a meeting with Howard and his editor. Howard knew my work from the Lampoon and I was hired. Howard’s genius publicity campaign began a year before Private Parts came out, so I instantly became the most famous ghostwriter, which is a contradiction in terms. Then I kind of went between writing my own books, like the Abbie one and the Houdini biography, and cleansing my palate with the celebrity autobiographies. I did David Blaine, Anthony Kiedis, Peter Criss and then two books with Mike Tyson.
When did you start writing songs? Do you play an instrument?
For me, it was always about the words. I’m a writer at heart. I wanted very much to play saxophone when I was a kid, but my parents wouldn’t let me. They were spending a lot of money to correct my bite. My orthodontist thought that blowing a horn might fuck up his work. I had to content myself with a cardboard guitar. I really didn’t start writing real songs until after the Rolling Thunder Revue.
How would you describe your music?
Broken word. Alpha Blues. Rock of Aged. Postmodern crooning. Trance Figuration. My influences are the giants who came before me. Dylan, Cohen, Kinky Friedman. Bryan Ferry. Keith Reid. Nick Cave. Wild Man Fischer. I could go on and on.
Did you ever consider making an album before this?
I never considered making this album. Things just seemed to happen around me and I was in the right place at the right time. It’s all pretty much serendipity. Although I’m told that Nostradamus predicted this album in November of 1565.