Larry “Ratso” Sloman, who turns 70 on July 9, talks about the highs and lows of his illustrious career in an April, 1999 interview with Carlo McCormick.
In a medium cluttered with hacks, Larry “Ratso” Sloman has always been something of a visionary. Whether it’s Thin Ice (1984), the Spinal Tap of sports books, or his classic tour diary On the Road With Bob Dylan: Rolling With the Thunder (1978), a book somehow beloved by its irascible subject (Joni Mitchell gave Sloman the moniker Ratso, but it was Dylan who made it stick), his work is epically hilarious. And let’s not forget that Ratso is also the secret collaborator behind Howard Stern’s best-selling books, Private Parts (1993) and Miss America (1995). 1999 ushered in two more mighty tomes from Ratso’s prolific pen: Steal This Dream: Abbie Hoffman and the Counterculture Revolution Against America, an oral history of the Yippie warrior, and a much overdue reissue of his landmark marijuana history, Reefer Madness.
Ratso served as editor-in-chief of High Times during the magazine’s lean years, from 1979 to 1984, after which he moved on to National Lampoon. He took a hopeless situation and made it worse. It’s easy to look down at the dark ages of Ratso’s reign as a drug-addled dance with oblivion, but against all odds he kept a pulse and a sense of humor, not only for himself but for the beleaguered magazine, so that, like the most scurrilous of criminals, both could live to fight another day.
High Times: How did the Reefer Madness book first come about—was it a direct result of your having been the editor of High Times?
Larry Sloman: Not at all. I actually wrote it before I took the job at High Times. The book came out in 1979, which was the year I took over the magazine. It was also reissued once before, in 1983 by Grove Press, which is where the William Burroughs introduction in this edition comes from. Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs was asked to do a book on marijuana for Bobbs-Merrill. He didn’t really want to do it, so he hooked them up with me. I had a kind of academic background, with a master’s in deviant criminology. So I had some training to do this. I started doing research and spent a lot of time in two places. One was Pennsylvania State University, where they had the archives of Harry Anslinger, who really helped demonize the weed. He was a very interesting, complex guy, because he wasn’t a moral entrepreneur. He was an ambitious bureaucrat who knew how to stay in power, no matter who was president. He was a lot like J. Edgar Hoover in that regard. I also went to the Drug Enforcement Administration, where I spent months going through their files in the DEA library. I found amazing shit there.
How did you manage to pull that off?
I had a letter of introduction from a legitimate publisher, and the librarians in the DEA were all these career bureaucrats and they were really nice. I’d show up to work every day and spend hours going through all these old papers, transcripts from the hearings they had before the Marihuana Tax Act was passed in 1937. They said just go Xerox it, so I ended up walking out with some of the best stuff. Apparently they were supposed to set up something where there was a DEA agent with me and the files at all times. They never did that. One time I went into the Xerox room and there was this DEA field agent in front of me at the machine. He was copying these diagrams of a house I guess they were planning to raid and he mistakenly left them behind. So I said, “Excuse me, you left this here,” and I gave them back to him. Fifteen minutes later a guy comes up and asks, “Who are you? What are you doing?” and drags me into this room and gives me the third degree. Finally, one of the librarians came and explained that I was a legitimate researcher and had been working there for months. She literally saved my ass. God only knows what would have happened to me in the bowels of the DEA building. He said from now on I had to let him know when I was going to leave, call him and he would check through my papers to make sure I wasn’t walking out with anything. But I did manage to get some pretty incredible items. It was a trip.
Give me an example of the “amazing shit” you found there.
Well, for instance, that George Washington grew hemp and separated the male from the female plants. Unfortunately, he threw out all the females, so I don’t think he was smoking it. On the other hand, I think Jefferson might have been. He was also a hemp farmer, and judging from the recent revelations of his relationship with Sally Hemings, who knows, he may well have been toking.
A big part of marijuana prohibition was a race issue, wasn’t it?
In fact, the whole thing was a race issue. Basically, its use was amongst Mexicans and blacks—migrant workers and jazz musicians. The only early whites who were smoking were carny workers and the lowest levels of popular entertainers. Anslinger played the race card to a tee. The most famous case was a Cuban kid, Victor Licata, who chopped up his mother, father and sisters to death with an axe. They said he was under the influence of marijuana when he did it, which he might have been. But the fact remains, when you do a little research into his case, nowhere did they mention marijuana as being a determining factor. After his arrest, when he was incarcerated in a mental hospital, he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. He had a background of family disputes and the local authorities had wanted to put him in a mental hospital years before. This was an example of what I call the Gore File, which was how they used fear to get the federal legislation against marijuana passed.
Burroughs argues in his introduction that it was a conspiracy. Do you believe that?
Well, I think it’s pretty hard to find the smoking gun. You could argue it was the liquor interests, the petrochemical industry or any number of other forces, but I’ve never found any direct and conclusive link where you could say, “Aha, that’s it!” A lot of it was defined as a problem by the Hearst newspapers. They were the ones who picked up on these stories and blew them totally out of proportion to sell newspapers. In 1937, when marijuana was made illegal, hardly anyone knew what it was. It was a subcultural phenomenon.
As much as your book is political, I can’t help but see it in the context of your other work—at High Times, National Lampoon, the Rangers book or your collaborations with Howard Stern—as something quite comic.
Oh yeah, it’s meant to be funny, and I think it has to do with the fact that Anslinger had a sense of humor about what he was writing. He had a great pulp style—in fact, he wrote articles for the pulp magazines of the day. Of course, what’s so depressing about it is that nothing has really changed in the twenty years since I wrote the book. If there is a common thread connecting everything that I’ve written, it’s all grounded I believe in my study of deviance: Dylan’s Rolling Thunder tour, Abbie Hoffman and the ’60s counterculture, Howard Stern and ice hockey, which is the most deviant sport you can imagine in the US, though not so much in Canada. I get up at three in the morning to play this sport because that’s when we’ve got our ice time booked at this rink out in New Jersey. We go out there and knock the shit out of each other. All of that I think is informed by my interest and participation in deviant behavior.
For society to maintain its sense of normalcy it needs its freaks. We define ourselves by what we are not, and in some ways it was very handy having Abbie. We needed this clown parading about so that all of America could feel, “But for the grace of God we’re not this crazy New York Jew radical.”
But, on the other hand, he also moved consciousness in America to the point that people actually changed their minds on some very significant issues. You could look at Abbie and think, “What a pathetic guy—he killed himself in his fifties, he died broke and he had a horrible relationship with his son.” But you can also look at the positive things: In terms of the Vietnam War, race and women’s issues, there’s been a remarkable change. Sure, at some point a lot of radical, fringe ideology gets co-opted, but I wouldn’t be so pessimistic.
Isn’t Howard Stern the epitome of that process?
I don’t know. People forget that Howard is a satirist. People hear him say things and they think he’s being serious. You have to put everything he says into the context of it being a humor show. If you deconstruct what he says, you’ll find that it’s not at all surprising that he ran on the Libertarian ticket for governor, and that while he’s spanking strippers, he’s very politically correct on women’s issues. He’s a very weird eccentric hybrid of ideas.
Speaking of the weird and eccentric, we probably should talk about your tenure at High Times. You started in 1979, right?
Yeah, I ran the magazine from 1979 to 1984. I had written a couple of things before then, like a long article on Valium. But when I was there it was a weird period. Tom Forçade had blown his brains out and Gabrielle [Schang], his widow, took over the magazine. She realized she couldn’t run a magazine and asked me to take over as editor. One of the things we tried to do was de-emphasize drugs in High Times.
Oh really? I seem to remember your era as the heyday of cocaine photo spreads.
That was later. When I first took over we increased our cultural coverage a lot. We got Allen Ginsberg to write for us. Charles Bukowski did a regular column. We did a story on this flying-saucer expert and had Frank Frazetta do original art for the cover (May ’81). During the second half of my tenure, the magazine shifted back to not only covering drugs, but all those trendy drugs, so that you had cocaine centerfolds.
I remember the mythic stories of yore that everyone had bowls full of cocaine on their desks back then.
I wish. It certainly was never like that for me. I had already been dosed, when I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, with a joint laced with PCP. I had one of the most horrible anxiety attacks/dissociative experiences, which made me so paranoid that I didn’t smoke pot for years after that. So I was the editor-in-chief at High Times, with all this incredible bud at my disposal, and I didn’t even smoke. It sure made me popular with my friends who I passed it on to. When the whole coke thing came in, it was really much more about advertising revenue than anything else.
What were the ads for?
It was for all this bizarre paraphernalia. Things you use to grind coke up with, sophisticated coke spoons and contraptions where you could take a snort on the back of a motorcycle while standing on your head. There was no sense at the time that coke was that addictive or harmful. It was the chic drug, and there certainly was nothing that approximated the whole cocaine and crack horror stories that came later. And crack was nothing but a really cynical marketing campaign by a bunch of South American drug lords who decided to target inner-city lower-class people with this really addictive cheap stuff. And if you think about it, the reason we’re sitting here in New York now enjoying this incredibly low crime rate has nothing to do with [Mayor] Giuliani’s Gestapo tactics and everything to do with how communities realized that crack was destroying them and got it out of their neighborhoods.
Beyond the less-than-flattering hindsight with which we may look upon all that cocaine hype, part of the problematic legacy of your tenure at High Times is that the magazine nearly went belly-up then. Why do you think that was?
We were putting out the magazine with an editorial budget as low as $500 a month. I paid Ron Rosenbaum, the dope connoisseur, $400 a month for his column and Charles Bukowski $100 a month for his column. Everything else was traded off and bartered in one way or another. If Paul Krassner had a book coming out, we’d get a chapter from it in exchange for an ad.
How could you run the magazine so cheaply?
It wasn’t a matter of being cheap; we had no budget. As far as I knew there was no money. The company was dodging and running from creditors back then. Plus, there was this organized opposition from the government against the magazine. They were always looking for ways to put us out of business.
You mean by generally fucking with advertisers, distributors, subscribers and the printer in any way they could?
Yeah, but it was the printer who literally kept that magazine alive. He basically assumed a lot of the debt. But they were harassing all the paraphernalia advertisers so much that there was a period when all the ads literally dried up. There was absolutely no ad revenue coming in at all.
What’s your next project?
I’m writing a movie for Ellen Barkin, with her brother George who used to work with me at High Times. She’s producing and starring in it. And I have a couple of book proposals out.
Are you pissed that pot is still illegal 20 years after Reefer Madness came out?
It’s the same situation as impeaching Slick Willie. Legislators are so far behind the will of the people it’s ridiculous. The issue has been crystal clear for the last 50 years. It’s a benign plant. Legalize it already!