The Secret Life of Larry Sloman


Larry “Ratso” Sloman with Mike Tyson


In his intro, David Safran mentioned the significance of “Dying on the Vine.” It really has become a classic – John Cale’s most acclaimed solo song after his cover of “Hallelujah.” Can you discuss the history behind that song? Also, how did the musical collaboration with John Cale happen?

That particular song was born in my hotel room at the Continental Riot House on Sunset Boulevard. It was a strange time for me. I had just come off the Rolling Thunder tour with Dylan and Joni et al and I was manic. Did things like staying up all night until I crashed wherever I happened to be – one time it was in a booth at Ben Franks diner in L.A. I was hanging around then with Tom Waits and Chuck E. Weiss. One day they were both visiting me in my room at the Riot House. Marty Feldman, the actor, came around for a few minutes and then left. One of us then suggested we all write a song together by alternating lines. I suggested we call the song Mother’s Day at the Orphanage. Well, we started and got through the first verse, which I don’t recall at this time, and it was my turn to start the chorus. “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,” just poured out of me. Years later, I had met John Cale who had been coming to see Kinky Friedman play during his residency at the Lone Star Café. Cale and I hit it off and we decided to write some songs together. This was the early ‘80s.

I had actually written lyrics for that great rocker Rick Derringer shortly after the Rolling Thunder tour so it wasn’t my first rodeo. Cale and I began by writing two songs together, Where There’s A Will There’s a Way and Caribbean Sunset for his album of the same name. It was an easy collaboration so I started working on lyrics on my own. That’s when I came across some old hotel stationary with the lyrics to Mother’s Day at the Orphanage. Around that time I had just begun a relationship with this totally enchanting but just as totally crazy artist named Judy. I actually had fallen for her younger sister but she proved to be pretty elusive so I started hanging out with the older sister who had a lovely little daughter. They were temporarily staying at the Chelsea Hotel because the lady in question had just broken up with her abusive husband. We seemed to have great chemistry but every time we were together she always had all these other friends hanging around. She seemed to be still very fragile from that last relationship. After a while I felt like I was on some quest to save this poor maiden. So I went home one night and started writing:

I’ve been chasing ghosts and I don’t like it
I wish someone would show me where to draw the line
I’d lay down my sword if you would take it
And tell everyone back home I’m doing fine.

And after a couple of verses, that chorus I had written years earlier for the Waits-Chuck E collaboration seemed perfect. I finished the lyrics, gave them to Cale and he immediately changed “living out in Hollywood” to “living like a Hollywood” and we had our song.

It’s funny you mention “Hallelujah” in talking about “Dying on the Vine.” Cale was asked to contribute a song to a tribute album for Leonard Cohen and he asked me what song he should cover. “Hallelujah” I said, without hesitation. A couple of days later, John called me up. “He’s got two versions of that song!” he said. It was true. Leonard had recorded one version, replete with the biblical references, but in concert he had been singing a much more secular version of the song. “What should I do?” John worried. “Combine them,” I said. Why not? Leonard had told me that he had tortured himself writing that song, sitting in hotels rooms in his underwear going through forty, fifty, a hundred verses. So Cale combined the two versions and it was spectacular.

You recently co-authored Mike Tyson’s new memoir Undisputed Truth, Michiko Kakutani said “Parts of it read like a real-life Tarantino movie. Parts read like a Tom Wolfe-ian tour of wildly divergent worlds.” This seems like a fitting description for a number of your books. How do you choose projects? Does a subject’s “likability” matter, or is the overall narrative more important?

I’d had the luxury and good fortune to only work on projects that I was totally enthusiastic about. That’s been true ever since I started writing music reviews for the Daily Cardinal campus newspaper when I was in graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s funny but that background in deviance and criminology seems to have informed all my subsequent work. Editing High Times and the National Lampoon, touring with Dylan and chronicling it in a book, following hockey players around for a season, writing about the history of reefer in America, all deviant subcultures. Sometimes the projects choose me. I did Reefer Madness: The History of Marijuana in America because the late great Tuli Kupferberg had been approached by Bobbs-Merrill to write a history of grass and he didn’t want to do it and he suggested I write it. But in terms of working on celebrity books, the “likability” factor has to be there. I wouldn’t want to waste my time or theirs working with someone I had no simpatico with.

Continue reading…

Pages: 1 2 3

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.