Larry ‘Ratso’ Sloman: The songs that made me

The writer, raconteur and now recording artist shares stories behind the music that made the biggest impact on his life (Bob Dylan features)

For decades, Larry ‘Ratso’ Sloman has been witness and companion to the greats of popular culture. He documented Bob Dylan’s legendary Rolling Thunder Revue, drank with Charles Bukowski and was a close confidante of Leonard Cohen. Now, he is releasing his debut album, Stubborn Heart, which includes collaborations with Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, and Cohen’s muse Sharon Robinson.

The Wayward Wind – Gogi Grant

I grew up listening to early rock ‘n’ roll on a little tinny transistor radio, but the first song that really stands out, that actually moved me and gave me the chills was a song by a female vocalist called Gogi Grant called The Wayward Wind.

I was eight years old when I heard that one. This plaintive song about a restless soul that she hooks up with but can never pin down. The description is beautiful, they met in a border town and he vowed he’d never part, but he just couldn’t settle down. The chorus is:‘The wayward wind is a restless wind, a restless wind that yearns to wander. And he was born the next of kin, the next of kin to the wayward wind.’

These days you’d probably say it was male privilege but I think it gave me a template or a role model for being the outsider always on the move. One way or another, I had that idea in my head the rest of my life.

Old Shep – Elvis Presley

Contemporaneously I was also a huge fan of Elvis Presley. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Elvis’ rock ‘n’ roll songs but I also loved the ballads. I guess at heart I’m a sentimental fool. A song that would always make me cry was Old Shep, about a guy who has to put down his dog. I didn’t have a dog, my parents wouldn’t let me have one so I lived through that song the idea of bonding to an animal like that and the tragedy of losing it.

Like a Rolling Stone – Bob Dylan

The most important song in my life, the song that really changed me and defined me was Like a Rolling Stone. When you’re growing up then you were either a Rolling Stones fan or a Beatles fan. The people who joined The Beatles fan club were very conventional. The people who joined The Rolling Stones fan club were real rebels. I was a card-carrying member of The Rolling Stones fan club. One day I’m walking down the street past my favourite record store – remember those? Each week they would post the top ten singles and about number five on that list was a song, ‘Like A Rolling Stone, B. Dylan’. I said to myself, who’s this B. Dylan ripping off The Rolling Stones?

I’d never heard of him. I didn’t know the folk stuff, the protest stuff. My parents would listen to novelty songs. They were very square.

So I go into the record store and I buy the single. I go home, listen to that song and literally that changed my life. In my experience, there had never been a rock song like that. The lyrics were so literary, so engaging and so deep and profound. And really a great sociological view of a subculture, probably the pop art scene around Warhol back then.

I was too young to drive so I immediately got my father take me to Flushing, about half an hour away, to Alexander’s department store which had the album Highway 61 Revisited on sale for $1.88. I bought my mono copy, came home, listened and was hooked. These were just mind-bending songs to a young kid.

Dylan really became my role model. I was on track to be a nice Jewish accountant or a lawyer, whatever my parents wanted me to be, and hearing that song and that album changed the whole trajectory of my life.

Kill for Peace – The Fugs

Around that time there was a group called The Fugs and they had a residency in the West Village called The Player’s Theatre. The Fugs were basically beatnik poets who decided to use rock ‘n’ roll to subvert the minds of the young generation. And they did it! They sang songs about sex, drugs – rebellious songs.

They were very political, one of their great songs was Kill for Peace. It was an anti-Vietnam song, and they actually dressed up in army fatigues, with a helmet and a fake gun and sing that song ‘kill, kill, kill for peace’. A devastating look at the US policy in Vietnam.

As I got older that was the major issue of the day. That was where the country really divided and a lot of young people followed the lead of people like The Fugs.

Mother of Pearl – Roxy Music

A few years later I fell in love with an English group called Roxy Music. Bryan Ferry to me epitomised what a great rock ‘n’ roll frontman should be like. He was elegant, dressed in evening attire, very sophisticated. And he was a brilliant lyricist.

The song that spoke most to me was Mother of Pearl. It’s just a beautiful evocation of a search for a muse. It’s almost like two songs, it starts out with a frantic intro, which basically describes the vacuum and the emptiness of club life, but then it goes into this beautifully written song about the search for the eternal muse. That song really made an impact on me. I didn’t think then I’d write my own songs.

Ride ‘Em Jewboy – Kinky Friedman

This list could be endless but I have to talk about a song by my friend Kinky Friedman. Kinky is a very interesting phenomenon. He was a satirical songwriter for the most part – ‘get your biscuits in the oven and your buns in the bed’ and ‘they don’t make Jews like Jesus anymore’ – very funny. But the song that, to me, is Kinky’s greatest is a song called Ride ‘Em Jewboy.

That must be a funny song, right? It’s not. It’s a song about the holocaust. And it’s one of the most beautiful – if you can say there’s any beauty in that. It’s a song that commemorates the tragedy and Kinky is talking about how he’s with all the people who died, ‘if he’s got to ride six million miles’.

I know Dylan loved that song because the first time Kinky really met Dylan, he was invited over to Roger McGuinn’s house in Malibu and as Kinky walked up the driveway, Dylan was sitting on a fence strumming a guitar singing Ride ‘Em Jewboy.

For me, it’s how you can write a song about a serious topic and still make it beautiful and evocative. Especially with the rise of a new form of anti-Semitism today, it’s a very good cautionary song for anybody to hear today.

Ratso explains how he got the blessing from Leonard Cohen and teamed up with Nick Cave

Two or three years ago I finished the first demo, a song called Our Lady of Light. I sent it to Leonard and he wrote back an email to me, “I dig the mood.” So I got the blessing of Leonard before we continued with this project.

I met Nick Cave at Lollapalooza in the ’90s. I gave him a copy of my Dylan book, On the Road With Bob Dylan about the Rolling Thunder Revue. Nick and I got friendly, he would come to New York and we would take the kids to Coney Island and go on the rides. We developed a real deep relationship.

We spent two days in Israel when he played two nights in Tel Aviv. Nick got pilloried in the press from shallow people like Roger Waters, he was so against Nick playing in Israel yet he’s happy to tour the United States when we have just as right wing a government. He’s a hypocrite. I wanted to be there with Nick and give him moral support because I know he was getting a hard time just from wanting to go and play. It was an amazing experience. It’s ineffable, there’s no way you can put that into words. The reception was so incredibly warm. People were stopping their cars thanking him for coming.

Nick and the Bad Seeds are at the top of their game. No one is performing with that kind of combination of style and brilliance and musicianship. They’re some of the greatest concerts I’ve heard in my life. I’m thrilled that he’s doing it at his age and he’s getting better and better. He’s an inspiration for everybody.

Ratso on Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue film on Netflix

What will be revealed in Scorsese’s documentary?

I don’t think the documentary will demystify the mythic qualities of the tour but besides the interviews very skilfully woven into the documentary, there’s some of the greatest extended music footage of Dylan performing live. It’s remarkable. It might be the best live music footage I’ve ever seen. It’s a fun documentary, there’s great footage of Allen Ginsburg. Profound stuff. Bob is wonderful, he gives an interview. Of course, I’m biased but I think it’s up there with the top documentaries ever.

When you were a young Dylan fan did you ever dream you’d become friends later on?

No, I can’t say I did. I first did a piece on Bob for Rolling Stone about Blood on the Tracks album and he liked it so much he invited me out on the Rolling Thunder tour to cover it. I realised that others look upon these people as demigods, and they’re just normal human beings, the same foibles and desires and insecurities as we all have. Probably the bigger you are the more insecurities. I found that the way to interact with Bob is to treat him like a normal human being. In fact, sometimes I would even make fun of him in a good-natured way and he would love it.

Stubborn Heart by Larry ‘Ratso’ Sloman is out now. More from Ratso on Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour documentary is on Netflix from 12 June