I’ve been enamored by Ratso’s Stubborn Heart (Lucky Number) since I first heard it. By year’s end, I called it my favorite album of 2019. Flash forward to the present, I am delighted that Ratso is the subject of a short film documentary.
The film, I Want Everything, now playing at the virtual Brooklyn Film Festival, is titled after the album’s opening track and was directed by Paul Szynol. It traces Ratso’s emergence as a singer and frontman who at the age of seventy made his first album.
“Definitely keeping hope alive,” someone remarks early in the film.
“If I can do it, anyone can,” he says that’s an affirmation slightly born out of his own bemusement.
It’s an unlikely role for the singer who was last seen on the big screen in Martin Scorcese’s Rolling Thunder Revue A Bob Dylan Story. It was on that tour that Larry Sloman, then a Rolling Stone reporter, became forever immortalized by Joan Baez as “Ratso.”
Whereas archival film footage of the Scorcese film showed the younger Sloman cavorting with Dylan in Greenwich Village on the eve of the traveling rock caravan, the new film captures Ratso four decades later being adopted by the Brooklyn indie scene. (For Stubborn Heart, he collaborated with Caged Animals and was produced by Vincent Cacchione.) Director Szynol captures Ratso as the outset of his journey being transformed from a journalist turned songwriter into a front man, one going through the ritual of vocal exercises and finding fashion fit for the stage.
Ratso, whose lifelong friend includes satirist and singer Kinky Friedman, delivers self-deprecating humor that reminds of the David Byrne line, “Well, how did I get here?” When Bad Seeds drummer and interviewer Jim Scalvunos tries to pose a serious question about Ratso exploring Jewish self-identity, Sloman deadpans: “All of my work is informed by deviance. I have a master’s degree in criminology and deviance.”
Underlying the jokes is seriousness to craft that comes to life in his duet with friend Nick Cave on “Lady of the Light.” In the short thirteen minutes of film, director Synzol hones in on a portrait of the artist at work against the public persona of Ratso, a well-dressed celebrity who Cave describes as a “strange exotic creature who shows up backstage.” (Sloman has authored books with Howard Stern and Mike Tyson and wrote the seminal On The Road With Bob Dylan.)
Director Szynol helps us to get to know Ratso, using the backdrop of New York’s iconic Coney Island and revered place of his youth. In a moving scene Ratso is joined by friend Cave who paired up with Sloman on a visit to teach his sons about America. As Ratso ascends to the sky overlooking the roller coaster tracks, we see a photo of Cave’s son who we soon learn has died. A resulting song in his honor is the soundtrack to the film’s most poignant moment.
As I wrote on these pages, on Stubborn Heart, Ratso dazzles in mystical erotica and seductive forces that power an undying romantic. With an imposing vocal presence set against an expansive but sparse landscape of minimalist electronica and string instruments, he projects his deep commanding baritone using the spoken word and word play that has a metaphysical aspect to it. In the album’s opening track, he uses word play and association that builds alongside a passion play with co-vocalist Yasmine Hamdan. “Caribbean Sunset” is a song he co-wrote with John Cale for his album Artificial Intelligence. Here he updates the song of a dark broken romance to bring a duality in an alternate view of a female character sung by Imani Coppola.
And when he puts himself out there to sing “Sad Eyed Lady of The Lowlands,” Dylan’s eleven-minute homage to then wife Sara Lownds, it’s magnificent and majestic. It’s a soundscape that is reverent and faithful to to Dylan’s vocal phrasing. When he brings in five women to alternate on the repeating chorus, it’s kind of edgy outer world experience, Ratso’s harem from the avant garde sent for worship and adoration of one of the great heroines of song.
The film intrigues and primes us for more just as we see it come to an end. That’s both the beauty and limitations of a short documentary. For a deeper dive, Ratso I would recommend tuning into his series of podcasts Ratso and Friends in which he tells us the stories behind Stubborn Heart and his life’s journey. Mostly I would recommend going out and getting Stubborn Heart. I Want Everything is another reminder why this compelling character and record continues to intrigue..
(To see, I Want Everything, register for free at brooklynfilmfestival.org)