On Nov. 8, 1975 in the city of Burlington, Vermont, on the grounds of the Shelburne Inn, Larry Sloman had an epiphany. Looking like shit and not smelling much better, Sloman pulled up to the hotel where Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue caravan had decamped and where a game of volleyball was in progress. Sloman was on assignment from Rolling Stone to cover Dylan’s road show. Drug-fueled drives in pursuit of the tour bus, last calls at dive bars and little sleep were taking their toll. Sloman was long overdue for a clean-up.
Dylan’s return to touring was a big deal back in ’75. He had reunited professionally with his former love interest Joan Baez and assembled a cast of characters that included Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, Allen Ginsberg, Sam Shepard, and a film crew shooting Renaldo & Clara, a movie that would eventually run for four hours, get a limited release, poor reviews, and a legacy of litigation that keeps it under lock and key until who knows when. Conceived to play smaller venues and promote the release of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was imprisoned on a murder charge, Dylan and crew were barnstorming, showing up with little notice, keeping the venues secret until the very last possible moment, which, naturally, made the press more eager than ever to find out as much as possible about the goings-on.
Sloman was the beneficiary of a personal invitation to follow the tour by Dylan, who knew him from around the folk-rock scene. But when the tour got underway, it became apparent that, though he had a personal invitation from the artist himself, management was going to be less than helpful. In fact, Sloman’s status as insider/outsider put him in a special category of nuisance, a necessary evil perpetrated upon them by Dylan in a moment of weakness. “I became a joke option,” Sloman later wrote in On the Road With Bob Dylan, his gonzo-esque real-time account of the historic tour, considered nothing more than a “sleazy little prick” with press credentials.
One day, when Joan Baez saw the hygiene-challenged Sloman stepping out of his smelly rented Granada looking ratty and disheveled, she called out to the others: “Hey, it’s Ratso,” a reference to Midnight Cowboy, in which Dustin Hoffman played a bedraggled, homeless bum living on borrowed time.
“You calling me Ratso because I remind you of Dustin Hoffman?” asked Sloman disingenuously.
“No, because you remind me of Ratso Rizzo,” she said.
And that’s when it happened. That’s when Sloman had the realization that would come to shape his identity.
“I was Ratso,” he writes. “I realized, rolling with the punches, licking my wounds in auxiliary highway hotels, stuffing my frayed dreams into a tattered suitcase. … And why not, if I couldn’t cover the tour in a more prescribed fashion, why not become a sort of spiritual mascot, part fan, part scribe, part pharmacist, part jester?”
It’s been more than 40 years, but the photos on his Facebook page touch on just how well this shtick has worked for him. There he is tucked in between Mike Tyson and Rudy Giuliani, with Nick Cave, and with Charles Bukowski from back in the ’80s. In Kinky Friedman’s dressing room at B.B. Kings. With members of the New York Rangers and many more that could be here like Howard Stern, Bob Dylan, Anthony Kiedis, David Blaine, George Lois, Leonard Cohen. Anyone who lives in New York, works in media, and been to as many parties as Sloman has could have amassed a shitload of photos like these with “friends” in the social-media sense, meaning someone you got a quick snap with at a staged event. But that’s not the case here. In addition to writing books with Stern, Tyson, Kiedis and David Blaine, his improbable CV includes stints as the editor-in-chief of High Times and National Lampoon. Some of the biggest names in showbiz, cultural arbiters and a Nobel Prize winner among them, are now all intimates of the 68-year-old man everyone calls “Ratso.”
No longer the dirty, striving, middle-class Jewish kid from Queens named Larry, he’s transcended time and place.
“My father was the kind of Jew who would always be afraid that there would be knocks on the door, that there would be a resurgence of Nazism,” says Sloman. “That sense of, ‘Don’t make noise. Keep it quiet. Don’t draw attention.’ They changed their name from Slonimsky to Sloman.”
To appease his family, Sloman adapted a strategy of being an excellent student while indulging his growing fascination for the counterculture on the sly. As long as his grades held up, all was good. The hippie scene had started in the East Village, and the siren call was getting louder. “I was leading a schizophrenic life. On the one hand I was wearing surplus army jackets, growing my hair long and going to anti-Vietnam-war marches, rebelling as much as I could, and on the other hand, I was a Phi Beta Kappa magna cum laude student in Queens College.”
For a curious kid from Queens, there was a lot to take in. Singled out by teachers for his writing talent, he naturally gravitated to places like Ed Sanders Peace Eye Bookstore and the office of the East Village Other, the underground newspaper then chronicling the counterculture and the radical-performance-politics of the Yippies, led by Abbie Hoffman.
“He was one of my first Jewish role models,” Sloman says of Hoffman. “Before that all my role models were athletes. Mickey Mantle, Andy Bathgate of the Rangers, and now all of a sudden my hero was a rebel Jew, a Jew of the likes I had never seen. Nothing like any of my Jewish friends in Queens.”
Sloman then launched into the story of one of their earliest encounters. “Come on,” Hoffman told him. “We’re going to Wall Street, you gotta cover this.”
At the stock exchange, a group of hippies arrived. As Hoffman led them to the door, a security guard blocks their way. “Where you going?” he demanded.
“We’re going to the visitors’ gallery,” which overlooked the Stock exchange, Hoffman replied.
“Well, you can’t come in,” retorted the guard.
And Hoffman says, “You saying we can’t come in because we’re Jewish?”
Sloman rounds the story out: “The guard goes, ‘oh, no no’—as they march past him and up to the gallery.”
Hoffman and his buddies went on to rain dollar bills onto the floor of the exchange and howled with delight as the brokers went crawling after the money. “Outside Abbie did some interviews with the local press and then we heard sirens,” Sloman told me, “and this really impressed me: As soon as we hear sirens, Abbie hails a cab and we get in and leave everyone behind to deal with the cops. We go right back to Abbie’s apartment in the East Village and watch the news reports that night. I was in awe.”
Sloman was “too straight” and “balanced” to tune in and drop out. Nor was he willing to risk being drafted into the Army. Instead, he joined the service organization VISTA for a year before accepting a scholarship to the sociology department at University of Wisconsin in Madison to study deviance and criminology. Sloman earned a master’s degree but an academic career wasn’t in the cards. The counterculture was still going strong, with music being the primary entry point into the politics of the time. Sloman became the music editor of the college paper and started thinking of himself as a writer pitching freelance stories to Rolling Stone.
Back in New York, the city had changed. The East Village was inundated with speed and heroin, and a Tompkins Square Park regular was accused of serving the homeless a stew cooked up with human flesh. The Vietnam War was over, and Sloman moved into an apartment on Prince Street vacated by the yippie Jerry Rubin, who was moving to California.
As friends became addicted and some even died as a result of their extreme behavior, Sloman continued to pursue his life as a quasi-sociologist on the front lines of the cultural revolution, both immersed in its lifestyle but intellectually distant. “I always had that reserve,” he says. “I was more looking into the world of deviants but not in it.” The balancing act he practiced while keeping one foot on the ground and another in the spacey counterculture served him well. “I always maintained some distance as the sociological participant observer,” he says. “Somewhere in my head, I heard my father saying, ‘You’re going to get arrested. You’re going to ruin your life.’ ”
One night, Sloman went to see Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys perform at the suggestion of the great blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield, whom Sloman met in Madison when he was working on a late-night TV show with Ben Sidran. Sloman would interview visiting musicians like Bloomfield and write skits that he would perform. Sloman had a way with the far-out Jews who came his way. “Bloomfield was saying, ‘You gotta see this guy Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys.’ So he plays at Max’s Kansas City, and I go. It was such a cool atmosphere because of everyone on stage riffing, insulting each other. They were all doing shtick. So I got into the spirit and I got into heckling them, throwing in Yiddish things, making requests for country songs like ‘play Tea for Tsuris.’ So when the show was over I went backstage to say ‘Bloomfield told me to say hi.’ And when I did, his brother, who was road manager, said, ‘Were you the one that was heckling? You were the best heckler yet. Come and meet Kiki.’ The rest is history.”
Indeed, these days Sloman and Friedman are intrinsically linked in the minds of many who know of Ratso as a character in Friedman’s series of detective novels. Sloman’s real-life quest to find his birth mother serves as the plot for Friedman’s God Bless John Wayne. Sloman’s parents were both Ashkenazic Jews born in Manhattan, his father a salesman in the garment district and his mother a bookkeeper. At an early age, Sloman was told by his mother—much to his father’s distress—that he was adopted. Going through his father’s papers after he died in 1992, Sloman learned that both his biological parents were also Jewish. A recent DNA test revealed that he was 98.5 percent Southern European. “Twenty-nine percent Italian and I’m fuckin’ 40-something percent Balkans.” He was shocked. “At first, I’m going, ‘Maybe I’m not even Jewish and this whole thing was a fucking charade!’ So I immediately type ‘Balkan Jews’ on Google. Apparently, all Sephardic Jews when kicked out of Spain went to Balkans and Italy. Who knew? I had no idea. I’m Sephardic!”
After the Dylan book, Sloman wrote Reefer Madness, a cultural history of marijuana. Thin Ice: A Season in Hell with the New York Rangers followed in 1982, as did stints as editor of High Times and National Lampoon, roles in film, and writing music with John Cale.
But it wasn’t until the 1990s that he hit on the thing that would really put him on the map: Private Parts.
By this point, Howard Stern was one of the hottest commodities in media. His radio program had made him a star and the bane of moralists who objected to his sexual banter and outspoken views. Millions tuned into his morning show, including Sloman—who was then working on a script in an office where the Stern show was required listening. “Every day we’d sit in the office and listen to Howard,” he recalled. “One day I hear Howard say he wants to write a book. “I said, ‘Fuck, I should write that book.’ ” His writing partner knew Stern’s agent, who made the suggestion to Stern’s camp. When his manager was told that the writer’s name was Ratso, he said: “Ratso. I love it—Ratso and Howard.”
Ratso was to be the ghostwriter, poring over Stern’s files. “We worked on that book for a year, and for a year every day on the air Howard is going, ‘Robin, Ratso is coming over to work on the book.’ ” He’s making fun of Ratso and in the process hyping the book. Ratso becomes a character on the show, calling in to kibbitz with Stern. The book became a No. 1 bestseller.
Fame, if not quite fortune, followed. Ratso was famous enough to get VIP treatment from the PC Richards salesman or the local Italian restaurant. Ratso from the Howard Stern show? Sure, I’ll get you that computer on sale from another store. Ratso from the Howard Stern show? We’re closed but for you, we’ll cook something up special.
And then came Mike Tyson.
“Every time he opened his mouth it was fascinating to me. You could see that the guy was head-and-shoulders above most athletes in terms of his creativity and native intelligence. I thought he would be a great book. Nothing censored, just telling it like it is.”
In 1992, Tyson was convicted of rape. “I instinctively felt that he didn’t rape that girl,” Sloman told me. “So I write a letter to him in jail, ‘Don’t let this get you down. I’m sending you a copy of this book that helped me out at difficult moments in my life and it’s called Ecce Homo, Nietzsche’s autobiography. And I said, ‘I think you’ll like this. I just finished the Howard Stern book and if you ever want me to do your autobiography let me know.’ I don’t hear back.”
Years later, Tyson’s team decides to let the boxer tell his story—but instead of giving the job to Ratso, they audition 15 writers. “I sit in a room and describe how I work. It comes down to two people; they flew both of us out to L.A. to meet with Mike.” “We met at the Four Seasons and I’m in the room with him for the first time and I go, ‘I hear you’re a nice guy. Because my wife used to work at Tattoo… [a nightclub that Tyson frequented], and she told me you gave her a $100 tip. And he says, ‘Yeah, that was when I had money.’
“So then I said, ‘I don’t know if you remember but when you were in jail I sent you Nietzsche’s autobiography and he goes, ‘I remember that book! Nietzsche was a very interesting guy. He died in 1900. At the end of his life, he was mad because he got syphilis during his first sexual encounter.’ ”
As the interview ended, Ratso was about to leave the room. “I’m at the door and I hear Mike say, ‘Hey, Ratso, why did you send me that book? Did you think I was Superman?’ I said, ‘Nah, Mike, I sent you that book because I thought you were getting screwed and I thought the book would help lift your spirits.’ And he said, ‘Thank you, Ratso.’ That was it. They hired me.”
For his next act, Sloman’s going full circle, picking up his pension from SAG thanks to a movie being made of a script he wrote back in the early ’90s. Another movie is in the works based on Sloman’s book The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero, which claims that the magician was a spy for America who was killed for his efforts. Most of all, he’s excited about his burgeoning music career. “One of the most exciting times for me was when I was working with John Cale and writing lyrics for him in the ’80s. You can have a book and it’s in the window of Barnes & Noble, but being at the [club] Bottom Line and hearing John Cale sing your words gave me the chills. When I came off the Dylan tour, I started writing songs but I never knew I could perform them myself, never had that conception of myself.”
All that began to change in the course of doing a show called Radio Hour at the KGB Bar in the East Village. “Mark Jacobson and I started doing the show, and we’d have on indie bands from Brooklyn.” Not surprisingly, they hit it off, and Sloman started hanging out on the music scene with people like Vin Cacchione of Caged Animals. Cacchione suggested that Sloman record his Cale classic “Dying on the Vine.” “I still wasn’t convinced, so I played the song for the legendary producer Hal Willner and asked him, ‘What do you think?’ He goes, ‘Ratso, what are you waiting for?’ ” As befits a man who jokes about doing research for a book to be titled The Art of the Schnorr, he had two songs in reserve. “I never gave them to Cale because I would only get 40 percent.” He’s been holding on to them since 1984. Now he’s looking to do a few showcases with a band he’s formed as well as a video of a duet with his friend Nick Cave.
Sloman still revels in his Ratso persona, but it’s a spruced-up version that now comes complete with a stringy goatee and tinted glasses worn ’round the clock. He’s a stylish dude now, albeit an eccentric style true to his brand. On a given night out he’s likely to be wearing a smoking jacket carefully selected from his curated collection or if it’s a special occasion, a customized tie-dyed suit made by a friend in Hawaii “at a very good price.”
After a career spanning some 40 years as a writer, actor, composer, and editor who befriended some of the most dynamic personalities on the cultural front lines, it’s time for Ratso to focus on himself over others. There’s a memoir brewing, and when he gets his band together to sing his own songs, he’ll be bringing it all back home. Does the world need a 67-year-old Jew fronting a rock band? You betcha.
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David Hershkovits is the founder and editor of Paper magazine.