Ratso: Best Old New Artist

Interview with Larry “Ratso” Sloman | By Nicholas Senior | William Beaucardet

They say you have your whole life to write your first album and two years to write your second. Typically, artists don’t actually take the first part of that mantra to heart, but Larry “Ratso” Sloman isn’t exactly your standard fresh act.

The man from New York City is a legend of the written word, having collaborated with Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Leonard Cohen, not to mention writing best-selling memoirs for Howard Stern, Anthony Kiedis, Mike Tyson, and David Blaine. In fact, it was while on Bob Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue as the tour’s official scribe that “Ratso” was christened. Activist and singer-songwriter Joan Baez created the moniker due to Sloman’s disheveled appearance, and a legend was officially born.

The man born 70 years ago and officially made on that famed 1975 tour never let his love of music go. It’s that adoration for the power of music that fuels his debut, Stubborn Heart, out April 5 on Lucky Number. The album has a timeless quality that speaks to the soul like all the classics do, and considering Ratso’s renowned wordplay, it’s no surprise that it has some wonderful stories to tell along the way. It’s lyrical and evocative but grounded and human in the way those with a rich, storied life are especially able to capture. Stubborn Heart feels like a record imbued with the power of shared experience. Featuring collaborations from Nick Cave—“Our Lady of Light” is a masterpiece—Warren Ellis, Yasmine Hamdan, Ruby Friedman, and Imani Coppola, it’s a testament to Ratso that the guests enhance the songs without taking over.

Ratso is frank when comparing his past to this present work. “Writing lyrics is quite different from writing the nonfiction books that I’m most known for,” he says. “It’s a different form of storytelling, where I can take my experience and transmute it into snippets of a story that hopefully will connect with people on some level. As for doing an enterprise like this at my age, I can hold out hope to be the Jewish Susan Boyle. A ‘Best Old New Artist’ award would be great!”

“Those [nonfiction works] were all fun projects,” he continues, “but there’s something different when you’re writing lyrics. It’s similar in that you start staring at a blank page, trying to come with some word, but once you marry those words to music, you’ve created something transcendent. Whenever I would walk past the window of a bookstore—remember those?—and see my book on display, that was always a proud moment, but when I was sitting in the back of the Bottom Line club in NYC and listening to John Cale [from The Velvet Underground] onstage singing my lyrics, that was a transformative experience. [It] actually gave me goosebumps!”

Working with friends on the album only magnified Ratso’s experience with Stubborn Heart. “It certainly was a thrill to be sitting in a studio in Los Angeles watching Nick Cave sing my lyrics on our duet, ‘Our Lady of Light!’” he exclaims. “Yasmine Hamdan was a delight to work with. We whisked her out to Brooklyn to the studio, and she laid down some incredible Middle Eastern chanting on ‘I Want Everything,’ but then I persuaded her to sing a chorus of ‘Sad Eyed Lady [of the Lowlands]’; it was the first time in 15 or so years that she had sung in English and she killed it. Imani was fun to work with, especially when we urged her to let fly with the final notes she sings on ‘Caribbean Sunset.’ And we didn’t have to prod the dynamic Ruby Friedman to let it all loose on the final chorus of ‘Sad Eyed Lady [of the Lowlands].’ I think she broke a couple of [producer] Vin [Cacchione]’s glasses hitting that note.”

Lyrically, the album is imbued with a series of personal vignettes that crackle with personality. Taking Stubborn Heart as a whole, the story of a life well-lived and appreciated comes through. Ratso concurs, “I’m glad you picked up on that sense of appreciation. There was definitely some pain that was memorialized in some of these songs, but like the personal trainers say, ‘No pain, no gain.’ The process of going through hardships or heartbreaks sharpens the senses and helps you experience life at its fullest, if not lowest.”

“Because of the way the album came together over the years,” he elaborates, “there was no master plan when it came to the individual songs. Of course, the album had to end with some words from my mentor, Bob Dylan. Remarkably, he was in his 20s when he wrote ‘Sad Eyed Lady [of the Lowlands].’ I think revisiting that song as a septuagenarian only reminds us how precocious he was, and it seemed to be the perfect coda to these songs of innocence and experience.”

It’s that fullness of life’s experiences that enriches Stubborn Heart. Ratso may be the Jewish Susan Boyle, but he’s too coy about the depth and greatness of his first musical expression. This is something special because of who wrote it, not in spite of or regardless of. Ratso’s joie de vivre is the heart of this wonderful release.

Purchase Stubborn Heart here

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