The old adage goes: "May you live in interesting times." For Larry "Ratso" Sloman, this has never been a problem. A ubiquitous and well-loved presence on the New York literary scene for five decades, Sloman is a decorated journalist who has written for Rolling Stone and Spin, collaborated on bestselling memoirs by Howard Stern and Mike Tyson, and once served as editor-in-chief at High Times. As a longtime friend and chronicler of Bob Dylan, Sloman wrote about the enigmatic singer with unparalleled insight in 1978's On The Road With Bob Dylan and later produced the video for 1984's "Jokerman". He once spent a year traveling with the New York Rangers (the resulting book, Thin Ice: A Season In Hell, is a classic) and wrote songs with the Velvet Underground’s John Cale. In short, he's done more amazing things than can be easily recounted. On the occasion of the publication of his new book with Tyson Iron Ambition, we spoke to Ratso regarding his thoughts on boxing, music, Dylan and Stern, and how all of this happened to him.
This is your second book collaboration with Mike Tyson. How did you decide on Cus D'Amato (Tyson's trainer and adoptive father) as an organizing principle? Tyson has a reputation as a tremendous historian of the sport, although his feelings about it are understandably ambivalent. What was your impression watching old fight film with him?
We were having a celebratory dinner after the first book with our U.S. publisher David Rosenthal at Blue Rider Press when he mentioned that the book was doing so well, both critically and in terms of sales that we should do a second book. At that point, I piped up, “This is a 580 page book about Mike. What’s left?” And without missing a beat, Mike’s lovely wife Kiki said, “Why don’t you guys do a book about Cus and all his techniques for success?” It was a brilliant idea, and from that discussion we soon realized that the book would include that but also would have to go deep into Cus’ life to understand his situation when Mike first came into his orbit. So that’s how we can up with this hybrid approach in the book.
Mike is a knowledgeable historian of boxing, so it was enlightening to go back to YouTube videos and watch fights together. He has no ambivalence about his love for the old boxers and he admits that if he comes into contact with even a granddaughter or tenth cousin of one of them that’s it for the evening: he’s all over them for tidbits about that boxer’s life. He’d be the first to admit he’s a huge fanboy of boxers in general. I think his ambivalence comes from the business machinations of guys like King and from the damage on his body that boxing and training wrought.
Building on that, Tyson's career reinvention as a performer and beloved public figure is nothing short of astonishing and seems to be one of the sports rare happy endings. In some ways, Sonny Liston was Tyson before Tyson — a hugely intimidating heavyweight from a crime-addled background who, unlike Tyson, was ultimately never able to outrun his past. I'm curious if you talked about Sonny Liston and if Tyson in any way believed him to be a sympathetic figure?
Mike admired Sonny a lot. As Mike says, “Sonny Liston made me look like a boy scout.” Mike would tell his pal Mac (a famous barber who knew all the fighters in Vegas) how much he worshipped Sonny, and Mac would yell at him that Sonny was an asshole and then tell him Liston stories — how Sonny would go into bars, take guys’ drink, and then smack them! Liston would park his car in the middle of the street on the strip in Vegas because the cops were too scared to object! Mike told me that he’d seen a documentary on Sonny where he once broke a cop’s jaw. “This was back in the ‘60s, where a black man’s life ain’t worth shit, and I see him up in a cop’s face talking shit like he’s a boy!”
Mike also identified with Sonny because he was misunderstood, too. But the difference between Sonny and Mike was that Mike, thanks to Cus, was always around educated, sophisticated guys like Norman Mailer, Budd Schulberg, and Pete Hamill, and Mike emulated them and was able to get some positive role models in his life, unlike the gangsters that hung around, and owned, Sonny. I think that the public can perceive that Mike’s obviously not a Neanderthal, but an interesting, smart, sensitive guy, and that’s why he’s been embraced.
Among many other events in your extraordinary career, you wrote the definitive on-site book about Bob Dylan's remarkable 1975 "Rolling Thunder Review" tour. I’m curious, as you reflect on that time if you knew in the moment that you were witnessing the stuff of timeless legend? Do you keep up with many of the folks from that era who were on the tour?
Of course I realized the cultural import of that tour! Dylan, Baez, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, and the rest barnstorming into towns and blowing people’s minds. And Allen Ginsberg along for the ride writing a daily tour newsletter! It was insane. Dylan had never performed better on that tour, night after night. That’s why I was fighting with the Rolling Stone editors who had assigned me to cover the tour and then kept complaining that my stories weren’t getting at the “essential” facts, like why did they start playing bigger venues and charging more? You’d think RS was the Wall Street Journal! Plus when they weren’t onstage or on the buses, Dylan was shooting a full-length docu/drama that eventually became the much maligned but fascinating film Renaldo and Clara. At some point on the tour, I quit Rolling Stone, cajoled Bob into giving me a room and per diem while I helped out with the film crew by pulling in weirdos to film, and eventually I documented the tour in my book On the Road with Bob Dylan. I used the Warholian technique of tape recording everybody I came into contact with, and the original manuscript was massive. I sent a copy of it to Dylan and Joni Mitchell, who I had gotten close to on the tour. Dylan gave me a blurb and called it “the War and Peace of Rock ‘n Roll.” Joni’s reaction wasn’t as positive at first. I got a phone call from her a few days later at 6 a.m. my time, 3 a.m. her time in L.A. “Ratso, how can you have me saying all those things in the book,” she said. “Because you said them!” I replied. I told her to go back and reread the book, and she did and she called back and said she loved it! It wasn’t until years later that I ran into Howard Alk, who directed Renaldo and Clara with Bob, at a show at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. He told me after he and Bob read my book, they decided to scrap their whole first cut of Renaldo and Clara and redo it more in the spirit of my book. I was blown away. I’m still in contact with some of the people on that tour, mostly through Facebook, but too many have left us way too soon. R.I.P. Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Mick Ronson, Howie Wyeth, Jacques Levy, Mel Howard, David Myers, L.A. Johnson. The list could go on and on.
You later were conscripted into producing the music video for Dylan's "Jokerman" in the early '80s. It's an extraordinary track from the underrated masterpiece Infidels. What was your experience like working with Dylan during that process? He seemed ambivalent and even intransigent about the process of video making at the height of the MTV era, but the end result was pretty magical.
I loved that album! In fact, Bob had come over to my apartment and asked me to help him find the right sound for what would be that album. I played him a bunch of records that I loved including a lot of Dire Straits. I also played him some Sly and Robbie. Eventually Bob had Mark Knopfler produce it and used Sly and Robbie on the album. After it was cut, I got a call from Bill Graham, who was managing Bob at that time. He wanted me to get in touch with my friend, the legendary adman George Lois, and come up with a video idea. Bob had met George on the Rolling Thunder tour because George was instrumental in forming the star-studded committee to get the boxer Hurricane Carter out of jail.
I met up with George and we both agreed that “Jokerman” was the standout cut on the album. So being the adman that he was, George began storyboarding the video. We felt that so much of Bob’s appeal was his incredible lyrics so we’d blow them up and “put them in your face” as George said. Then George began to amass incredible images from his art collection and popular culture to illustrate the words. A few days later they were all up on the wall of his office at his ad agency and Bob and Graham came up and were blown away.
But the idea for the choruses became a bone of contention. George wanted to shoot Bob full face, lip synching the lyrics wearing a white T-shirt and a white sports coat. Bob didn’t seem so thrilled about that, but he showed up for the shoot at a studio on the Upper East Side. We began filming, and George shot take after take, but Bob kept his eyes closed each time. George would take me aside and go, “Rats, tell him to open his eyes,” and I’d dutifully go over to Bob and relay the message and he’d nod. After about four takes, George dispatched me again. “Bob, you got to open your eyes and stare at the camera,” I pleaded. Bob waited a beat and then said, “I’m trying!” If you watch the video today, Bob keeps his eyes closed on all of the choruses until the last, when he finally squints, then glares at the camera with those baby blues, and boom! It was magical. We cut the video and sent it out to Columbia Records and to Bob. Columbia flipped out and loved it. But then I got a call from Bob. “I don’t know about those shots of me in the white coat. Why don’t you come out to Malibu and we’ll go on the beach and you can shoot me with a hand-held camera doing the choruses.” I told George, and he exploded. “Fuck him! My client is the record company and they loved it!” So we didn’t change a thing, and the video won all sorts of awards, and years later Bob ran into George on the street in Manhattan and told him that the video was great.
How would you characterize the experience of working with Howard Stern on the Private Parts memoir? Do you have a relationship with Stern at this point?
Working with Howard opened up a whole new career path for me: famous ghostwriter, which, of course, is a contradiction in terms. But Howard was promoting our first book Private Parts every single day for a year on his daily radio show. “Robin, Ratso came over and we worked all weekend…” He put Ratso on the map! I’ll never forget the day the book was published. I went up to the studio and right after the show, we got into Ronnie’s limo for the short drive to the Barnes and Noble store where he was to sign books. We were going down 53rd Street, and Ronnie turned to us and said, “There must be some accident on Fifth Ave. It’s bumper to bumper. Why don’t you guys get out and walk the last half block.” We did, and when we got to the corner of Fifth Ave, we saw the “accident” – tens of thousands of fans spilled out into the street, waiting in line to get a signed book. I felt like Murray the K, the Fifth Beatle! It was madness, but Howard sat behind a desk and didn’t budge for nine straight hours and signed every last book.
What people don’t realize about Howard is what a workaholic he is. Forget James Brown, he’s the hardest-working man in show biz and he deserves every inch of his success. He’s also incredibly loyal and it was a pleasure to work with him on both of the books we did together. We have completely different schedules: I’m waking up just as he’s getting off the air, but we stay in touch, mostly via email, and in the summers my wife and I see Howard and Beth at the best Hamptons parties! Long may the King of all Media reign!
How did you come to meet John Cale and co-write the great song "Dying On The Vine"? Were you a Velvet Underground fan? You are an accomplished songwriter, as well as a decorated prose writer — how do you think the two disciplines compliment one another and how are they different?
I started writing song lyrics shortly after I got back to the city from the Rolling Thunder tour. I was hanging out with my friend Liz Derringer, and her husband Rick asked me to work with him on some songs. We did quite a few collaborations that were pretty good, like “Sitting By the Pool”, “Party at the Hotel”, “When Love Attacks”, “I Just Wanna Dance” and “Big City Loneliness.” I met John Cale a few years later when he came to see my old pal Kinky Friedman play at the Lone Star Café. One thing led to another, and we began to work together on some songs. I had been a huge Velvet Underground fan, so this was a dream gig for me. Also, we didn’t have one process, we experimented with different ways to collaborate. Sometimes John gave me some finished music that needed words and I filled them in, just like doing a crossword puzzle. Other times we’d hang out in Marylou’s bar in the Village, get soused and indulge in other recreational mind-altering substances and then come back to my place or John’s and write together. “Dying on the Vine” came about because John was going to England to produce a Nico record and his plan was to finish the album promptly and then piggyback his own sessions with the studio time that had already been paid for! So he asked me for all the lyrics I had lying around and six weeks later he came back to the States, came over, and dropped off a cassette of Artificial Intelligence, a whole album full of those words and his music. I was stunned.
There’s an interesting backstory to “Dying on the Vine” though. That song was born in my hotel room at the Continental Riot House in Hollywood in 1976. I was hanging out in my room with Tom Waits and Chuck E. Weiss, and we decided to write a song with each of us trading off lines. I came up with the title, “Mother’s Day in the Orphanage.” We got through a verse about an orphan named Timmy and it was my turn to start the chorus, and I just wrote, “I was thinking about my mother, I was thinking about what’s mine, I was living out in Hollywood, I was dying on the Vine,” a play on Hollywood and Vine. Well, nothing happened with “Mother’s Day in the Orphanage,” but years later, when I started working with Derringer and Cale, I found the hotel room stationary that had those lyrics. I really liked the chorus, so I used it in a song that I was writing about a new girl I had met that I wanted to connect with but obstacles always seemed to be in the way. That became “Dying on the Vine.” Cale’s genius was to change the chorus to “I was living like a Hollywood”. That became a signature song for John’s solo career and it’s actually inspired two very good works of fiction: Jonathan Lethem’s novel Girl in Landscape and a short story called “Dying on the Vine” by Elissa Shappell. That’s pretty cool.
Writing songs, for me, is a lot easier than writing books. First of all, I write nonfiction books, which means a ton of digging. My book on Houdini took three years to research! With lyrics, it’s a chance for me to write fiction. Sure there may be some actual humans inhabiting those songs, like the girl in “Dying on the Vine” but it’s not reportage, it’s an alternative landscape. It’s funny, after John Cale moved out of New York, we stopped collaborating, and I went back to writing books. But years later, I had a radio show with my pal the writer Mark Jacobson, and we did it as a podcast from the fabled KGB literary bar in the East Village. We had a lot of young musicians on the show, and after one show, two of them, actually you, Tim, and Elizabeth Nelson, came up to me and were excited to meet me because you both grew up on my Dylan book. I was flattered, as all writers would be, and I started hanging out in the alien indie rock scene in Brooklyn. And that got my juices flowing and I started writing songs again. I was spending a lot of time with Vin Cacchione, who had two great bands, Soft Black and Caged Animals, and we decided that he would produce an album of me doing my own songs. A few years later, we finished Stubborn Heart, which includes a few songs I co-wrote with Cale, some songs I wrote with Vin, one song that you and I wrote together, and an audacious cover of all 11 minutes of Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” There’s a great duet with my pal Nick Cave on it and some incredible vocal work by the great Arabic singer Yasmine Hamdan, as well as a duet with Brooklyn’s own Imani Coppola. It’s exciting to start a new career at my age. I’m aiming to be the Jewish Susan Boyle.
Reflecting on your long and successful career, you've been almost a Zelig figure — turning up to record and be a key part of seemingly every interesting New York-centric event for four decades. To what do you attribute your long and fascinating career? What's left that you haven't done and would still like to do?
I attribute a lot of my ability to be in the right place at the right time to my academic training. After graduating Queens College, I left New York and headed to the Midwest, where I went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. It was there that I got my Master’s degree in Deviance and Criminology. The study of deviance has informed my work even since. Dylan, Reefer Madness, even my book about sports, Thin Ice, is a book about hockey, a deviant sport of sorts. I’m just naturally attracted to the margins of society. That’s where the action is, that’s the crack in the culture where, as the late great Leonard Cohen would say, the light comes in. So I’m just going to keep on sending dispatches, either books or songs, from that fertile ground. Oh, and I’m going to write my own memoir, before I forget all those great times I’ve experienced. Maybe I’ll call it Zelig: A Life.