Larry “Ratso” Sloman has been a fixture on the New York City music scene since the 1970s. Along the way he was befriended by Bob Dylan, The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, Nick Cave and many others. He was given his moniker “Ratso” by Joan Baez herself, chronicled Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour — which has been immortalized in a Martin Scorsese-directed film and 14-disc box set (and vinyl reissue package) — in his must-read, instant classic book On The Road with Bob Dylan. And, of course, he collaborated with the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis on his amazing memoir, and Howard Stern on his best-selling books.
Recently, Sloman released his first album, Stubborn Heart. Featuring duets with some of the hottest names in music – including a scorching one with his pal Cave – Sloman now finds himself on the other end of the tape recorder, fielding interviews from major outlets and taste-maker blogs alike, and preparing for his first live shows, and the aftermath of the premiere of Scorsese’s Dylan film, which just might make Sloman an unlikely movie star.
Rock Cellar caught up with Sloman for lunch in New York City’s Chinatown, where he talked about his new album, and his memories of Dylan, and the Rolling Thunder Revue tour.
Rock Cellar: In late-1974, you’d covered Dylan’s sessions for Blood On The Tracks for Rolling Stone, you had gotten to know him, you’d fallen in love with the early test pressing of the album. Talk to me a little about ’75 and the couple of months leading up to Rolling Thunder and what was going on, and how you ended up in Bob’s orbit again, and part of the Rolling Thunder entourage.
Ratso Sloman: I was hanging out with (Roger) McGuinn. We went to Chinatown to eat. This was an all-night place. I said to him, “McGuinn, let’s go to The Other End. Maybe Bob’s there. He’s supposed to be there every night hanging out.” So we go there, and we walk in the place, and we don’t see him. We walk to the back, and around a corner, at a table in the back, is a bunch of people. I know that Jacques Levy was there with Bob, and Bob is there and goes, “Roger! Hey!” And Bob starts talking about this old-time Medicine Show review he wanted to do and how McGuinn had to come along. Then we started talking.
I said, ‘I’m Larry Sloman.” He goes, “Oh, you’re Larry Sloman! Why don’t you come on this tour? I’d rather have you than anyone else.” He was paranoid about the press or whatever. So we spent a great night, hanging out that whole night. After The Other End, we got in this rented cherry red El Dorado convertible, and Bob was driving it drunk off his ass. So that’s how I got enlisted.
Rock Cellar: So Desire was done at that point, then? Or it was in the works?
Ratso Sloman: It was in the works, I think it was still being recorded. I didn’t go to any of the recording sessions.
Rock Cellar: And so did you go to any of the rehearsals? The rehearsals that are in the film and on the box set?
Ratso Sloman: Yeah, 100 percent.
Rock Cellar: The rehearsals in the box set, and in the film, they’re very loose. But the shows, as long as they were, those performances are really tight. Was it just a really great band who knew what to do? From the first show, you’re in Plymouth and you’re watching what’s going on. Was it that good, that first time?
Ratso Sloman: No, first show was kind of sloppy. It got tighter and tighter.
Rock Cellar: Didn’t take long though, it didn’t seem.
Ratso Sloman: No, no. I mean, at first, I think it was such a mish-mash of players up there, with Mick Ronson and Steve Soles, two of the best guitarists, and loads of other folks. But it took a while to gel, but then it clicked. It really was like just a great caravan, though. Everybody was playing, no matter whether it was onstage, afterwards in the hospitality suite, in the morning, on the bus. They were constantly jamming. And I think, compare that to the tour he did with the Band previously. It was like they tried to make it seem like home. They put a lamp on stage, an easy chair, stuff like that. But they were playing hockey arenas. And there were such high expectations. Dylan with the Band coming back after all those years?
So this was much looser, at least in his mind, to him, I think.
Rock Cellar: And Rolling Thunder wasn’t promoted ahead of time. He was basically just rolling into towns with a couple of days’ notice. People didn’t even believe that Joan Baez was going to be there. Or that Bob was going to be there, for that matter.
Ratso Sloman: Right. But, you know, once you’re out there, the competitive juices start to flow. He was going out every night and just fucking killing it.
Rock Cellar: He certainly did. And the amazing thing is, with all these other things going on – filming Renaldo and Clara, driving the camper, and whatever — onstage he’s as good as he ever was. People who say Bob can’t sing, whatever, they just need to see this film. They’re some of the most electric and intense performances anyone’s ever given.
Ratso Sloman: Don’t forget part of that also was because of the material. He was writing these theatrical songs. Epic songs. Like “Isis” and “Romance In Durango.”
Rock Cellar: And reinventing the older stuff too.
Ratso Sloman: When he’s singing “Isis” in the documentary, he’s completely in the character of the song. He’s emoting. It’s chilling, because they have that great, right up his nostril camera angle. It reminds me of the end of my Dylan book, On the Road with Bob Dylan. We’re sitting around at The Other End, back at The Other End. It’s the same scene. All of the sudden a jukebox is playing, and somebody played “Like A Rolling Stone,” probably in tribute or something like that.
So somebody plays that song on the jukebox, and it’s kind of weird. I went, “Man, you didn’t even do your best songs on this tour.” And Dylan turns to me and goes, “Hey. Did I ever let you down onstage?” And I said, “No, man. You didn’t.” He was electric. Also, I’ve never seen him ever since then that comfortable in his own skin.
Rock Cellar: You just released your first album. You’ve been a fixture on the New York music scene forever, but this is the first music you’ve ever released, and it seems as though it came about because you got involved in the music scene in Brooklyn. Is that because it’s like the Village in the seventies?
Ratso Sloman: No. There’s all these DIY places -– ramshackle places, where you walk up a million steps to a loft, and there’s a little table set up with five bottles of booze and plastic cups – where bands play. Everything I went to, I was by far the oldest person there. Whenever I would say I was on the guest list, they probably thought I was the father of somebody playing there. I’d be wearing my Soul Train fashion, and walked in like I owned the place. I remember the first time, after one of the opening acts, this girl comes over to me and says, “Man, you have a lot of style for an old man.”
So one thing led to another. I met Shilpa Ray, who I met through my friend Steve Bernstein, who had put on a tribute concert to Sly Stone. And one of the people performing was this little Indian girl playing the harmonium, singing “Everyday People.” When she opened her mouth, it was like the most amazing, huge voice came out of her; this tiny little frame. And I thought she was just fantastic. I started going to her shows.
I turned the Cage on to her. Nick put her on a tour with him. She’s really that good. And so she introduced me to Vin Cacchione from Caged Animals. Such a sweet guy; big Dylan fan. I liked the stuff he was doing with his band. So I said to him one day, “I have some lyrics that have just been laying around for years. Do you want to try to write some songs together?”
Rock Cellar: How do you collaborate? You just kind of turn the lyrics over? You wrote some music with John Cale way back, so maybe start there.
Ratso Sloman: It depends. With Cale we did it every way possible. After late nights at Marylou’s, or whatever it was. We would go to my place after the bar, fucked out of our minds. I had a Casio electric piano, and he’d be noodling around. We’d be taping stuff and writing songs together.
Rock Cellar: I hope you have all those.
Ratso Sloman: I do have them. Or, another way we worked was he’d give me some music, and then I’d write lyrics to it, which was really a lot of fun. It was awesome. I had the lyrics to this song called “I Want Everything.” I said, “Why don’t you write some music to this? I kind of see it as a Byrds-type, ‘Tell Me, Momma’ Dylan rocker.” And he did it. He did a version. And he gave it to me, and it was okay, but maybe it wasn’t what I wanted.
Rock Cellar: Of course. Had you recorded much of your own stuff at this point? Anything at all?
Ratso Sloman: No.
Rock Cellar: Even demos at home?
Ratso Sloman: Yes, I had done a couple of demos when I was working with John. It would be somebody talking to four chords on guitar. And I have a tape at home called “The Penthouse Tapes,” because I’m on the sixth floor. A lot of the songs from the album are on it. I had two songs that I never gave Cale — “Our Lady of Light,” which is a duet I do with Nick Cave, and “Stubborn Heart” itself.
For some reason, probably because I wrote the music and the words, I didn’t want to give him 60 percent of it. So somewhere in the back of my mind I must have thought –
Rock Cellar: “I’m going to do something with this.”
Ratso Sloman: Right. But meanwhile, it took 40 years. But I thought the songs were really worthy.
Rock Cellar: Were you playing them for people?
Ratso Sloman: No. My goal was just to do what Kinky (Friedman) did. Twice. Kinky made two tribute albums to himself, where he’d have Willy Duke on his songs, and Lyle Lovett doing his songs. Just more famous artists, to get them heard. I figured I’d do the same thing. I went into the studio with him and we recorded a demo of “Our Lady of Light.” And he finished the demo, and I said, “Great. I’m going to send this out.” He goes, “Wait. What are you doing? You should be singing your own songs. Are you crazy? You have a unique voice.”
Right away, paranoid New Yorker. Unique? What does unique mean? I can’t sing? So I brought the demo to Hal Willner, and I played it for Hal, at Hal’s studio in midtown. And Hal leans back in his chair, while he’s listening to the music with his eyes closed, because that’s how he takes in music, and when the song’s over, I ask, “Hal, what do you think? You think I should be singing my own songs?” And he sighs and kind of moves forward in his chair, opens his eyes, and goes, “What are you waiting for?” So I took that as a yes.
Rock Cellar: So that was five, six years ago.
Ratso Sloman: Yeah. And so then, we just started gung-ho. But it wasn’t like –
Rock Cellar: No deadline.
Ratso Sloman: No deadline. No pressure. Working in Vin’s house with his wife, Magali, coming in. I got Magali to play violin. She was a violin prodigy as a kid, classically trained. Vin said we need violin. I said, “Come on, Maggie.” And she fucking nailed. She played violin on “Our Lady of Light” and “Diana Dying.” She fucking nailed it. So we took our time. Five years.
Rock Cellar: So what’s your reaction to the reception the album has gotten? It’s been very positive.
Ratso Sloman: It’s been incredible. First of all, I’m writing in a style that’s completely timeless. Although the songs, most of the songs are from the eighties, it sounds like they could fit in any time, any place. I like the fact that I found that there was a generation, the younger generation now, that’s picking that style back up. But the reception has been incredible.
I like the description –- New York legend. Because like Kinky said, you do anything long enough, you become a legend. But it’s been beyond belief. And people are comparing it to Leonard Cohen and Bob. Some have said, “He’s imitating Leonard Cohen,” or “He’s imitating Dylan.” A couple of people. But one reviewer wrote, “We’re not going to get a Leonard Cohen album this year, so this may as well be it.” Things like that. Incredible compliments.
To me, you know, a couple songs on that album, like “Stubborn Heart” and “Dying on the Vine,” well, “Dying on the Vine” is the best Leonard Cohen song Leonard never wrote.
And “Stubborn Heart” is a tribute to Leonard. It’s a song I wrote in Leonard’s voice, as much as I could muster up that kind of thing. Just like when Cale and I did on Artificial Intelligence, there’s a song, “Fadeaway Tomorrow,” which is a Stones tribute to Bryan Ferry. Because we both loved rock music. So that song was an homage. But the reception has been crazy. It certainly validates my own ideas about getting the songs out.
Rock Cellar: Are you sorry you didn’t do it sooner?
Ratso Sloman: Well, you know, everything in its time. I mean, it might’ve been fun –
Rock Cellar: Because the economics of doing this have changed considerably. In the mid/late seventies, you could’ve made a living out of it. Now, it’s more you’re doing it for enjoyment and artistic satisfaction more than anything else.
Ratso Sloman: 100 percent. Plus, I mean, look, I guess it would’ve been fun to get in a van with all these guys and tour, but that ship has sailed. I’m not — can you imagine? But now I’m getting stopped on the street! There’s all these older people, because they read the article about me in AARP Magazine. 28 million people get that fucking magazine!
Rock Cellar: That’s a big deal.
Ratso Sloman: I know!