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.
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.
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.
In addition to being an author or co-author, you're a lyricist, screenwriter, and journalist. Is there a specific style that you're most attuned to/comfortable with? Are there works you have written but chose to, or had to, publish without credit or under a pseudonym?
It's all words. Each genre presents its own challenges. But I have to say that the greatest thrill, even greater than seeing your book in the window of Barnes and Noble, is sitting at a music venue and hearing John Cale sing your lyrics. Writing, on the whole, isn't easy. I can think of a million things I'd rather do. So when I do produce something, I'm certainly not going to publish it anonymously. I'm going to stand behind the work. Although, come to think of it, I have made some snarky comments on websites using a nom de computer.
Is there a writer or musician whose work was a turning point? Can you discuss your influences, and how those influences shaped your career?
Where do I start? Influences abound. Academically I was drawn to humanistic sociologists like Becker and Goffman. I always loved academics that got their hands dirty in the real world. So it was a natural step from there to journalism. Hunter Thompson, of course, was a great influence, as was Jimmy Breslin. I admired Charles Fort and John Keel as writers. But that being said, my world was turned upside down by musicians. I would probably be an accountant living in Westchester if it wasn't for Bob Dylan and the Fugs. Leonard Cohen taught me a lot about discipline. Keith Reid, Bryan Ferry, Jake Jacobs and Kinky Friedman were major influences on my lyric writing. And Nick Cave never fails to inspire me.
I'd love to know more about your upcoming solo album. What prompted this terrific project? When will the record be released?
While John Cale and I were collaborating on songs, I started learning to put a few rudimentary chords together and started writing both the music and the lyrics to a few songs. But I filed them away and went back to writing my books. About five years ago, I started co-hosting an Internet radio show with the great New York magazine editor/writer Mark Jacobson. One night we had a guest who had written a book about Gram Parsons and he brought up a few musician friends to play some of Gram's songs. They were Tim Bracy and Elizabeth Nelson. Tim was in a legendary indie group called the Mendoza Line. After the show Tim and Elizabeth came up to me and told me they were great fans of my Dylan book, On the Road with Bob Dylan. We started hanging out and eventually wrote some songs together.
That got my blood boiling again. About a year later, I met Vin Cacchione through a mutual friend. He's a very talented singer songwriter who fronts two great groups, Soft Black and Caged Animals. By then I was revisiting my old songs and lyrics and was determined to finally do something with those songs I had written back when I was working with Cale. My idea was to emulate my old friend Kinky Friedman: get some famous friends to sing my songs and put out a tribute album to myself. Kinky's done two of those. I approached Vin and asked him if I could come over to his place, Duct Tape Studios, which actually was the front room of his apartment in Bushwick, and do a demo. We did a version of "Dying on the Vine" and when we played it back,Vin said, "Why don't you just sing on the whole album? I love your voice." I really hadn't even considered that. The only public singing I had ever done after I swept them off their feet at my bar mitzvah was to do a Dylan impression on a song "Knocking on WBAI's Door" which was a send up of Dylan's great song that was used to raise money for WBAI, a nonprofit Pacifica radio station in NYC, during their fundraising drive.
I still didn't have the confidence to commit to singing throughout the album so I brought the one track to my friend Hal Willner, who's a great record producer. We listened to it in his studio and I asked him, "So do you think I should make a whole album of my songs?" Hal thought for a second and said, "What are you waiting for?"
So Vin and I sat down and went to work. We recorded one of my old unrecorded songs, "Our Lady of Light" and asked my pal Nick Cave to do a duet with me on it. We recorded his part in L.A. while he was finishing up the soundtrack to Lawless. Vin assembled a great band of Brooklyn musicians including Andrew Hoepfner, Magali Charron, Pat Curry, Kyle Avallone and Jon "Catfish" DeLorme on pedal steel. Zachary Cole Smith from DIIV contributes some searing guitar on one cut, an homage to Wilhelm Reich called "Listen Little Man". The great sax man Paul Shapiro plays on two cuts. The album consists of a few songs that Cale and I collaborated on, some new ones, two collaborations with Vin and a countryish song that Tim Bracy and I wrote. So all the material are originals except for one cover. For some insane reason I decided to cover "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" in all its eleven minute plus glory. Nick was impressed with such an "audacious" move, as he put it. We are still in the process of recording that one and I have some great female back-up singers lined up for that cut including Eddi Front, Imani Coppola, Sky Ferreira and, fingers crossed, Ronnie Spector. And the great Bad Seed, Warren Ellis, contributes some haunting fiddle and flute on that epic track. We're going to finish up the album as soon as Caged Animals gets back from their European tour. So we're looking at a late 2014 release. I'm aiming to be the oldest best new artist in Grammy history. Susan Boyle is my role model.
Lastly, David and I were watching a video clip of you at Leonard Cohen’s Plaque Dedication at the Chelsea Hotel. You were asked about Mr. Cohen's many female admirers/devotees/worshipers/maniacs whom you deliciously called "schtuppies." A fabulous word! We both just wanted to thank you for adding to - and enriching - our Yinglish vocabulary. We don’t have a question here. Just our gratitude.
As Kinky Friedman often says, "If we can reach one person [or in this case, two], we feel we've done our job."
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