The Secret Life of Larry Sloman

LRS Portrait MK 2014

Portrait by Margarita Korol

Written by David Safran. David is a writer, singer, musician, occasional essayist, jingle composer for advertising, and dissolute Chicagoan in well-tailored suits and giant cougar rings.

Rated PG-13
One of the greatest lines in pop music: “I was thinking about my mother / I was thinking about what’s mine.” Funny, honest, charmingly selfish. A two-liner triumphantly approaching Philip Roth territory. I was 14-years-old when I first heard John Cale’s pungent masterwork, “Dying on the Vine.” I’m now 30 and just as knocked flat. The song’s lyrics were written by Larry “Ratso” Sloman. This was my introduction to Ratso, by way of a sneering Welsh icon. Actually, I had heard of Ratso even earlier. For a few years in the early 90s, it seemed every American father owned a copy of Howard Stern’s Private Parts. Millions of curious children sneakily flicked through Private Parts. It was essential reading – a kind of Tropic of Cancer for ten-year-olds. Ratso was its co-author.

I admire Larry Sloman for many reasons. Here’s one: his own voice – that fast, boisterous, kibitzy, unrestricted, perceptive voice – has remained clear and unswervable over his long, wide-ranging career. He’s characteristically Ratsian whether as a cult writer with a vigorous presence in mainstream culture; as the co-author of best-selling celeb memoirs; as a music journalist of enormous influence (Bob Dylan described Ratso’s Rolling Thunder Review book as “the War and Peace of Rock and Roll”); as an effusive champion of new artists; or just eating a large coal-oven pizza with Nick Cave. Incidentally, Ratso’s human voice is just as distinctive as his writerly one. It’s a great voice – like a vibrator with a Brooklyn accent.

Ratso and I have been corresponding for about a year. Scrolling through my email, it’s impossible to miss his messages: they arrive in large font; his full name in capital letters. This is another reason why I admire Ratso so immensely: his jolly, large-print emails. At any rate, one more story before the interview: Promoting the unputdownable “Secret Life of Houdini” (Leonard Cohen to Ratso: “Please don’t talk bad about Houdini – he loved his mother”), Ratso appeared on The Leon Charney Report. After Charney mentioned the mega success of Private Parts, the gruff host and billionaire real estate tycoon questioned Ratso’s clothes – sunglasses, dark blue t-shirt, a boxy windowpane patterned sport jacket – and tycooningly asked, “So how come you don’t dress better?” A half-pleased laugh and then a quick reply: “Because I’m Ratso.”

The following interview was conducted by Emma Morris, Jewrotica’s managing editor, with David Safran. For more with Emma and David, check out The Life of an Amorous Man: A Conversation with Singer-Songwriter David Safran

In some of your works, you remain unseen – you are known as a preeminent ghostwriter – and in others you insert/assert yourself as a character. How do you make this authorial decision? And to what extent is it collaborative?

I really hate the term “ghost”. My aim isn’t to haunt, it’s to channel. I’d much prefer being thought of as a “medium”. Because the book is written in the voice of the celebrity, I rarely insert myself as a character unless I’ve actually taken part in the action. For example, I don’t think I’m in the Howard books except for the acknowledgment where Howard says that I was so dedicated to getting the book done on time that I eschewed sex except for getting a blowjob while I was at the computer. That’s only half true, by the way. It wasn’t at the computer. I don’t appear in any of the other books except for the Tyson book. I accompanied him to see Barbara Streisand perform in Vegas and we wrote about that. Also, I corrected him every time he used the word “schmuck” and pronounced it “smuck.” But in a note on the lexicon in the end of the book, Mike asserts that I was wrong because he was coining a new term – smuck – which is a person so pathetic that they’re only half a schmuck. In my own books, I often take part in the action, gonzo style. In the Dylan book, On the Road with Bob Dylan, the book is written in first person until Joan Baez dubs me Ratso, because I reminded her of the great character Ratso Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy. At that point the book shifts into third person and Ratso gets a life of his own.

What is your writing process? How do you get in someone’s head? Is it empathy or puppetmastery or somewhere in between? (Or something else entirely!)

It’s really just doing your homework. First, I read everything I can about the person I’m working with. Watch all their videotaped interviews. Then I find it useful to interview a lot of the close associates of the person I’m working with. After that, it’s just rolling tape, hour after hour. You have to know when to stop, pause and regroup. That was especially true with Tyson who is an incredibly sensitive guy. Bringing up some of the more traumatic moments in his life was very difficult for him, so I’d get out of his face, stay away for a day or so and then we’d reconvene. I must have interviewed him for over 120 hours and it wasn’t until the very, very end of the process that we discussed the tragic death of his four-year-old girl. By then we had really built up a solid relationship and, although it was still difficult to talk about, he opened up. Of course empathy plays a huge part in building that relationship but when it comes to writing, after hearing that person in your head for all those hours, you begin to think like them and you get their cadence and idiosyncratic forms of expression down. Ideally I like to have so much primary material from the tapes that I never have to write anything but if I have to I can approximate my subject pretty well by then.

The book you wrote with magic historian William Kalush, The Secret Life of Houdini uncovers a plot against Houdini by a cabal of Spiritualists. You also worked on a book with the magician/illusionist David Blaine. What do you find compelling about escapology and illusionism? Additionally, Houdini and Blaine are both Jews. Do you think there is something inherently Jewish about magic?

After I wrote Private Parts and Miss America with Howard Stern, two of the fastest selling books of all time, I pretty much had my pick of who I wanted to work with. I was channel surfing one day and I saw this guy doing street magic. Typical close up stuff, card tricks and sleight of hand moves like stealing watches off unsuspecting person’s wrists, but what was so wonderful was that this young guy was doing all this in the street, in street clothes, and he was smart enough to figure out that the reactions of the people being duped were priceless. Of course, that was Blaine and we reached out to him and we did a nice hybrid of a book – part autobiography, part magic history, some how-to trick your friends. When we were doing the Houdini chapter I read every book about Houdini and I still felt that his story had never been told properly. Kalush, Blaine’s producer, agreed with me and we began a three year investigation into Houdini’s life that revealed that he had been doing espionage for the Brits and, we suspect, also the U.S. Secret Service. We also uncovered this full on war he was waging with the Spiritualist movement.

My interest in Houdini wasn’t so much in the technical aspects of his escapology – Kalush had that covered. What was compelling to me about Houdini was the way that his audiences reacted to his feats. It’s no coincidence that Houdini struck the strongest note in audiences in countries where the people were under severe repression from their governments. Houdini gave them hope; he was living proof that the human spirit could not be fettered. Houdini became the world’s first superstar, a headlining vaudevillian and then a movie star. And, like Angelina Jolie after him, he actually used his star power for good, exposing the vile Spiritualists who were bilking grieving people who just wanted to communicate with their dearly departed. So that’s a Jewish thing to do, performing little acts of tikkun at every place he played in the last years of his life. Houdini’s father was a self-proclaimed rabbi and Houdini always took his Jewish identity seriously. If you look at the history of magic, Jews are certainly overrepresented going way back to Jesus himself. But there are also more Jewish dentists than there should be so I don’t know if we can make any grandiose statements about illusion, deception, breaking out from that which binds us and the Jewish diaspora.

What is your Jewish background/upbringing? Do you credit Judaism in any way as informing your interest in deviance? You have a Master’s Degree in Deviance and Criminology, after all.

My parents were probably the only Jews in modern history that didn’t eat Chinese food. They weren’t Orthodox or anything, they were just culinary cowards. My mother wasn’t a good cook but she could make a mean matzo brie and lox, eggs and onions. Even though they didn’t belong to a synagogue per se, I was to be bar mitzvahed, of course. Well, I got kicked out of three Hebrew schools, usually for pelting the rabbis with spitballs from a straw. I think I might have defended Jesus one time and that was grounds for dismissal. Of course, now I constantly tell goys that Jesus was just a good Jewish rebel who got whacked by the Romans and I invariably get into arguments when I explain to them that Jesus’s radical movement was taken up by his brother, James. The fact that Jesus had brothers and sisters seems to escape most Christians and puts a little dent into that notion of Immaculate Conception. I believe it was the scholar Paula Fredrickson who theorized that Mary was said to have a virgin birth because she got knocked up before she had her first period. Simple explanation.

Getting back to my bar mitzvah, my parents had to hire a tutor and get me a Haftorah record and I basically memorized my part. When it was time to sing, I did my best Elvis impersonation and the old men in the shul started weeping. They even asked me to study to be a cantor but that wasn’t happening. But I’ve always had a strong cultural identification with Judaism, even if I only go to synagogue once a year, to an old shul that doesn’t charge for the Yom Kippur service. I think the fact that I studied sociology and wound up getting a master’s degree in deviance and criminology was definitely informed by my Jewish background – both in respect to identifying with the underdogs and trying to heal the shitty world we inhabit.

As far as I can tell, all of your subjects have been men. Would you ever want to write, or channel, the voice of a woman? If so, who and why?

It’s funny but my first collaboration was supposed to be with Joni Mitchell. I got close to Joni on the Rolling Thunder Tour and, after the tour, we talked about working on her memoir. But after a protracted negotiation between our respective lawyers, she got cold feet and decided not to write the book. We even began the interviewing process and her stories are fantastic. She’s one of the most important and, strangely, to some extent, unheralded songwriters around. That’s a project I’d love to revive.

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David Safran is a writer, singer, musician, occasional essayist, jingle composer for advertising, and dissolute Chicagoan in well-tailored suits and giant cougar rings. Emma Morris is the managing editor of Jewrotica as well as an author, certified librarian, astrology maven, and volunteer at the Leather Archives & Museum. David and Emma are collaborators, partners in arguments, and ghostwriters of each other’s emails.