Author Larry 'Ratso' Sloman releases Dylan, Cohen-inspired debut album
Larry "Ratso" Sloman
He’s chronicled Bob Dylan, coauthored best-selling memoirs from the likes of Howard Stern and Mike Tyson, written songs with John Cale and Rick Derringer, and been a key character in outlaw country music star Kinky Friedman’s prized series of mystery novels, and now, at age 70, Larry “Ratso” Sloman is releasing his first album.
Stubborn Heart, which London’s Lucky Number label releases on April 5, contains eight Sloman originals and a closing track cover of Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Produced by singer-songwriter Vin Cacchione (also leader of indie pop band Caged Animals) at his studio in Brooklyn, the album centers on Sloman’s singing, with support from friends including Nick Cave, Cave collaborator Warren Ellis, Leonard Cohen backup singer Sharon Robinson, Yasmine Hamdan of Lebanese electro-pop band Soap Kills, and singer-songwriter/violinist Imani Coppola.
Cave appears on Stubborn Heart’s first single “Our Lady of Light,” while Hamdan is on second single “I Want Everything.”
“I never thought I’d be the vehicle for these songs, so I took a page out of the Kinky playbook,” says Sloman. “He got his friends to sing on two tribute albums to himself, so I figured on getting mine to sing my songs—never conceiving that I could sing them myself. But after I did a demo of ‘Our Lady of Light’ with Vin and suggested sending it to Kinky or Tom Waits, he said I should do it myself, since I had a ‘unique voice.’”
But that ambiguous observation only made him “paranoid,” Sloman says. So he brought the demo to another friend, the renowned producer Hal Willner, and asked for a second opinion.
“He sat back, closed his eyes, listened to the track, then leaned forward, took a deep breath and opened his eyes and said, ‘What are you waiting for?’ in response to whether I should sing. I took it as a `yes.’”
Some of Stubborn Heart’s originals go back to the 1980s. In his liner notes, New York native Sloman recalls how Dylan, whose legendary 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue tour Sloman covered for Rolling Stone (then wrote the 1978 book On the Road with Bob Dylan), encouraged him to write songs on the tour—during which, incidentally, tour mate Joan Baez gave him his Ratso moniker.
Back in New York following the tour, he began writing lyrics with rock guitar hero Rick Derringer, and after an intro from Friedman (another Rolling Thunder Revue tour mate), the Velvet Underground’s John Cale; “Mother’s Day at the Orphanage,” which he wrote with help from Tom Waits and Chuck E. Weiss, later evolved into Cale’s signature solo song “Dying on the Vine,” which inspired two novels.
When Cale left New York for Los Angeles, Sloman returned to writing books and editing High Times and The National Lampoon magazines. Years later he co-hosted a radio show with New York magazine senior editor Mark Jacobson at the KGB literary bar in the East Village.
“Some young indie rockers from Brooklyn came on and afterward said they grew up on my Dylan book! Flattery gets you everywhere with me, and I started checking out the whole Brooklyn indie scene and was introduced to Vin, who was a big Dylan fan. I gave him my book and my music juices started flowing again.”
Sloman had songs he’d written with Cale, songs he’d written by himself, and some new lyrics. Cale collaborations that made it onto Stubborn Heart include “Dying on the Vine” and “Caribbean Sunset”--the titletrack to Cale’s 1984 album.
Sloman also began writing with Cacchione: Their “Listen Little Man” and “I Want Everything” are on the album, as are Cacchione’s arrangements on Sloman’s “Our Lady of Light” and “Stubborn Heart.”
He was able to enlist Hamdan on “I Want Everything” after meeting her at a party celebrating the premiere of his friend Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive, in which she appeared.
“She’s huge in the Middle East, and Jim brought her in from Paris—where she lives—to perform at the party,” recalls Sloman. “She said how much she liked Leonard Cohen and flipped out when I said we were friends, and next time she came to New York I picked her up and drove her to the studio to sing on the album and she did some incredible chanting on that track.”
The Cohen connection is further manifest in Sloman’s darkly intoned poetic recitative singing style, as well as Sharon Robinson’s participation on his bold remake of “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Kinky Friedman, in his album blurb, says that it “may well be the best version” of Dylan’s “underrated masterpiece,” which originally took up the entire fourth side of his 1966 Blonde on Blonde double-album.
“As much as I was encouraged to sing, I didn’t think anyone would want to listen to me sing 10 verses and five choruses!” says Sloman of “Sad Eyed.” “So I thought, ‘Why not get some great female vocalists to sing the chorus as the Sad Eyed Lady?’ Then I got a call from Sharon, who had finished two tours with Leonard and was doing a book of photos. He told her to call and see if I’d write the intro, and I told her I wouldn’t charge her anything in return for her singing on the album.”
Hamdan also sings a chorus on “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” her first time singing in English in 15 years. And just as Sloman evokes Cohen’s vocalizing, so, too, does he sound at times like Dylan.
“Are you kidding?” he responds when told of the resemblance. “These are the giants who influenced me!”
Stubborn Heart’s titletrack, in fact, was written as a tribute to Cohen, Sloman adds, and in the album’s liner notes he credits the late singer-songwriter for “inspiring my songwriting and for mentoring me in the art of growing old gracefully.”
Sloman, who of course appears in Martin Scorsese's upcoming Netflix documentary Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story and whose 2006 book The Secret Life of Houdini is being made into a feature film, now hopes to become “the Jewish Susan Boyle.”
“If you would have told me when I was covering Dylan's Rolling Thunder Tour for Rolling Stone that 44 years later I would be releasing my first album, I would have laughed and asked for a hit of whatever it was you were smoking!” says Sloman, who up to now, observes Penn Jillette in a Stubborn Heart liner notes essay, “has always been kind of a ghost musician.”
Now suddenly audible as well as visible, Sloman singles out his new album track “Listen Little Man.”
“It’s my attempt at social commentary,” says Sloman, “and a tribute to the late, great Wilhelm Reich [the controversial psychologist whose writings include Listen, Little Man!, a 1945 essay on his libertarian socialist beliefs]. I wanted to write a song that addresses the political atmosphere now that was uplifting--and showed a way to transcend these horrible times.”
“Like the Sufis say,” Sloman concludes, “this too shall pass.”
"Our Lady of Light"