I Was There: The Story of Rock Writer Larry 'Ratso' Sloman's Debut Album at Age 68
In Tod Browning’s 1931 film adaptation of Dracula, title star Bela Lugosi hears some wolves howling outside and exclaims one of the most famous lines in movie history: “Listen to them, children of the night, what music they make!”
Larry Sloman samples that immortal line on his song “Living in Moonlight,” coming in at about midway through his debut album, Stubborn Heart. The LP, out this Friday (Apr. 5), will be released under the name Ratso, a nickname once given to Sloman by Joan Baez while he was covering Bob Dylan’s famed Rolling Thunder Revue (the subject of Martin Scorcese’s upcoming documentary, in which Ratso prominently features) in the mid-1970s.
The 68-year-old Ratso – who began his career as an author, writing On the Road With Bob Dylan about the aforementioned tour, and later co-writing autobiographies with Anthony Kiedis, Howard Stern, Mike Tyson and more – is perhaps the living embodiment of one of those eternal children of the night. For decades, he’s been a perennial participant in New York’s underground scenes, whether in the 1970s West Village folk scene or in the DIY spaces across the Williamsburg Bridge in Bushwick, Brooklyn this decade.
“The thing I like about [the Brooklyn music scene] is the inquisitiveness and the experimental quality -- as opposed to those staid scenes that you get sometimes in the West Village, especially after the Dylan era,” Ratso explains. “In some ways, it brought me back to when I was growing up and going to experimental jazz clubs on Avenue C with beautiful storefronts. For me, it helped keep me young.”
His constant fascination with new music is something blatantly obvious upon walking into his cramped apartment in Soho, Manhattan, where his walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of CDs and records. But you can also see it when looking at the diverse set of players on Stubborn Heart, an album that includes songs written in the 1970s with Tom Waits and Chuck E. Weiss, in the ‘80s for John Cale, and new compositions. Finally recorded between 2012-2013 with Caged Animals and Soft Black frontman Vincent Cacchione, who produced the record and serves as its heart and soul, the resulting album features legendary acts including Nick Cave, Warren Ellis and Leonard Cohen’s co-writer Sharon Robinson, alongside contemporary Brooklyn stalwarts Darwin Deez and Shilpa Ray.
In fact, without Ratso’s constant interest in new music, this record never would have seen the light of day; his lyric sheets would still be collecting dust in various boxes in his closet.
It all began when taping a radio show towards the tail end of 2008 at East Village literary pub KBG Bar, hosting writer David Meyer to talk about his then-new biography Twenty Thousand Roads on Gram Parsons. Meyer, in turn, brought along Brooklyn-based musicians Tim Bracy and Elizabeth Nelson to perform some Parsons tracks. The two of them, huge fans of Ratso’s Dylan book, excitedly talked to the author after the show concluded, eventually inviting him out to their shows, leading Ratso to check out the burgeoning Brooklyn music scene for the first time. One thing led to another, and Ratso happened to catch indie punk act Shilpa Ray the next summer, a local act that was beginning to get some buzz for her band Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers.
“I saw Shilpa play with a friend of mine and it was a tribute to Sly Stone and she did ‘Everyday People,’” Ratso reminisces. “I went backstage afterwards, met her manager and met her and went to a couple of her shows. She worked at a jean store, Adriano Goldschmied in Soho – I remember going in and I said, ‘Man this album is so fucking good. I’m going to send it to my friend Nick Cave.’ She said, ‘Oh yeah’ like she didn’t believe me. I sent it to Nick and [soon afterwards at a live appearance, Cave] goes, ‘Yeah, I bet I know somebody that you don’t! A girl named Shilpa Ray!’"
Ray ended up releasing her 2013 solo debut to Cave’s label Bad Seed LTD after opening for him and playing in his backing band throughout his Push the Sky Away tour. As things with Cave began to give her a career a much needed boost, she decided to introduce her Bob Dylan-obsessed friend Cacchione from her anti-folk SideWalk Café days to the man who literally wrote the book on him. “‘You’ve got to meet Ratso!’” Cacchione remembers Ray exclaiming. “‘You’ll love each other!’”
That initial introduction at Ratso’s Soho apartment would change the course of both of their lives, cementing a resulting close friendship that pushed both men out of their comfort zones, directly leading to Stubborn Heart’s recording. Soon after, Cacchione, who had played in Brooklyn-based bands for about a decade while producing and performing on many records from local acts, was bringing his new friend Ratso to DIY clubs all over Williamsburg and Bushwick. Perpetually dressed up in what he calls his “Soul Train fashion,” complete with loud and brash-colored suits, Cacchione showed the sexagenarian the new underground indie scene, at places like the now-shuttered 285 Kent, Glasslands, Death By Audio, Shea Stadium, Big Snow and more.
Despite feeling like most people at the shows likely assumed he was “just a father of one of the bands,” he laughs, it ended up being a truly transformative musical experience. This resulted in pushing Ratso in more experimental directions when he and Cacchione wrote their first song together in his Bushwick apartment in 2011. That track, “I Want Everything,” a brooding and atmospheric almost-spoken word rumination, leads off Stubborn Heart.
“Your exact words were, ‘This is a “Tell Me, Momma”-style Dylan rocker,’” Cacchione remembers of his first instruction as an instrumentalist working with Ratso. “I thought, ‘That’s not right.’ I made another version, which is the version that’s on the record. At that point, we hadn’t made anything together, so I wasn’t sure how he would respond to this music that was a bit more down-tempo and drone-y and weird. My wife was like, ‘You can’t send this to Ratso; he’ll hate it!’ About two or three weeks passed and I listened to it again and I still loved it. I sent it to him and he writes me back right away – ‘What the fuck is this? This is amazing!’ I knew from that point on, ‘Ratso’s down to get weird.’”
Despite covering musicians for decades, and even writing songs alongside them – on top of co-writing lyrics for John Cale and rocker Rick Derringer, he also wrote lyrics for himself for fun, his first of which got Bob Dylan’s stamp of approval – he had never sung on a recording, mentioning that this was the first time he’d sung since his bar mitzvah almost 50 years prior. Ratso initially wanted to take a page out of his good friend Kinky Friedman’s playbook, getting his famous friends to perform on the tracks as a pseudo-tribute to himself.
“It was [Cacchione] that even convinced me to sing,” Ratso says. “I was content sending out a demo and he said, ‘Wait a minute, you should sing! You have a unique voice!’ Unique? What does that mean?”
Soon after he brought one a recording to his friend, legendary producer Hal Willner (Lou Reed, Sonic Youth, Marianne Faithfull). “We sat in the studio, listened to the thing, he’s got his eyes closed listening,” Ratso relates. “It’s over and I ask, ‘What do you think? Should I be singing my own songs?’ And he leans back again, opens his eyes and goes, ‘What are you waiting for?’ So I took that as a yes!”
His voice, reminiscent of the gravelly baritone of his late friend Leonard Cohen’s towards the end of his life, gives the front of a man chock full of experience and world weariness. As someone who has covered both the ritzy glamour of celebrity as well as the seediest places in America -- The Dylan-approved “Combat Zone” was about going out in Boston looking for strippers, and was to be included in the ill-fated, Dylan-directed Renaldo & Clara -- Ratso injects loads of personal stories and real-life events throughout the lyrics of Stubborn Heart.
“[He has] natural talent that was lying dormant and unused,” Cacchione raves. “Ratso’s an actor, and Ratso’s a writer, and Ratso understands how to extract the drama from the line and sing it, which is a big part of what makes a singer good. You can be technically good, but if you can’t sing a line with conviction, you’re a shitty singer. Ratso’s a good singer because he can sing a fucking line.”
After hammering out a couple songs, Ratso and Cacchione began to work on bringing the rest of his older lyrics to life, looking backwards to the songs he wrote for John Cale -- some of which were never recorded by the former Velvet Underground member. “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.”
Those tracks (which included one of Cale’s signature songs, “Dying on the Vine") were completely reworked for Stubborn Heart -- even, in the case of “Caribbean Sunset,” changing the lyrics to include a female perspective. The record also ends with an almost 12-minute rendition of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” one of Ratso’s favorite Dylan songs, enlisting a handful of female singers to take on each chorus.
Once recording launched into full steam, Ratso and Cacchione began to look to their wide network of friends to lend a hand, culminating in a cross-generational mix of artists young and old. Everyone asked was quickly on board apart from two lone rejections – Sharon Van Etten, who initially said yes and couldn’t deliver due to scheduling conflicts, and Bob Dylan, whom Ratso jokingly asked to write the liner notes (an honor that later ended up going to Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller). One by one, more guest artists joined the fray to add specific missing pieces, a night-and-day difference from Dylan’s chaotic mid-’70s Desire sessions -- which Ratso described so eloquently decades prior -- where collaborators were literally picked up on the street and placed into a single room.
“It’s essentially a bedroom record; we made it in my home studio,” Cacchione explains. “We had the opportunity to manicure and curate our sound and be like, ‘We want [Jon] 'Catfish' [Delorme] because he can get some steel on this track and we want Shilpa [Ray] or whoever for whatever color they can add to the tracks.’ It was deliberate and always guided by the songs, the lyrics, the feel of Ratso’s vocal.”
Whether it was someone as famous as Nick Cave or his longtime collaborator Warren Ellis, a legendary saxophonist like Paul Shapiro, Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan, or behind-the-scenes Bushwick indie rock session players, Ratso and Cacchione chose precisely the right artist needed to complete the decades-in-the-making record. Whenever a blues-rock guitar soloist or a warm organist was necessary, they scanned their wide network of friends to select the person person each time.
The resulting record is a stunning and timeless collection of songs, ones that span decades, generations, and New York music scenes, to create a sound that’s unique and simultaneously grounded in the heydays of both Dylan’s West Village and DIIV’s Bushwick. Ratso, forever the music connoisseur, has made Stubborn Heart in their image, finally finding his voice as a musician, despite always being the music journalist on the other end of the recording device since the 1970s.
“I kind of knew something was going to happen,” Ratso says. “I didn’t know how, I didn’t know when, I didn’t know why, I certainly didn’t think that I would be the vehicle for them to come out. But I wanted these songs to get out – that was the ultimate bottom line.”