Larry “Ratso” Sloman is the author of one of the best music books ever (On the Road With Bob Dylan — get it, you won't regret it), and the hardworking writer of everything from a countercultural history of weed and a biography of Houdini (soon to be adapted by Hollywood) to projects co-written with Anthony Kiedis and Howard Stern.
That's why we were surprised when one of our favorite indie CDs this week, by a ballsy, female-fronted, Shangri-Las-by-way-of-the-Ramones (and glam rock opera) combo, bore an unlikely Ratso endorsement. We asked Sloman to tell us more about Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers.
1) The Velvet Underground corrupted Shilpa at a young age.
Shilpa grew up in a strict Hindu family, with Western music banned from the home. Her father made her take classical-Indian voice lessons and she accompanied herself on the harmonium. But then Lou Reed came into her life. “I discovered a Velvet Underground album at the Lawrenceville Public Library when I was in middle school in New Jersey,” she says. “I was never the same again. They were my gateway drug.”
2) Shilpa based a song on a character from a Thomas Hardy novel.
“I used to read voraciously, but I slowed down a bit as an adult. I'm currently reading Ecce Homo, the most narcissistic book ever written besides Dostoyevsky's Notes From the Undergound. Who knew Nietzsche was a first-class comedian? Who knew Nietzsche was such a tough name to spell? But Thomas Hardy is the man. The song you're referring to is called “Erotolepsy,” a term coined in his book Jude the Obscure for a condition where someone is so obsessed with love that it's fatal.
3) Shilpa weighs about 90 pounds dripping wet and is barely 5 feet tall, but one music critic compared her to “a steaming mad old hag juiced up on something so grotesque and so awful she could peel the skin right off a grown man's chest.”
So where does that massive voice emanate from? “It's genetics. I come from a family of loud talkers with husky voices. I've been accused of faking my voice, but that's absurd. If I were to fake my voice, I'd want to sound like Mickey Mouse, the dude from Creed or Kermit the Frog.”
4) Nick Cave is a huge fan.
I can take credit for this. I gave Nick a copy of Shilpa's first CD, A Fish Hook an Open Eye, he loved it and he touted it in an interview online, and his endorsement went viral. When the opening theremin player on the recent Grinderman tour broke his instrument, Nick called me from Washington, D.C., and pleaded to get Shilpa to rush down with her harmonium. Cave, who never watches opening acts, was enthralled. “She's one of the most phenomenal things I've seen in a long time,” he told me. “She's gonna be huge.” After four dates on the tour, Nick and the boys essentially adopted Shilpa, taking her out to dinner, giving her career advice. Which blew Shilpa's mind. “I'm still dumbfounded by that one. Nick Cave is one of the most hardworking and humble people I've ever met. I'd like to be better at how I execute my ideas. I'm more in love with the process than the end result. He's kind of the same way, except he's a genius and his work is perfection.”
5) In an alternate 9-to-5 universe, Shilpa is a wily, experienced shopgirl.
“I'm a shop bitch. I sell clothes to rich people or the aspiring rich. I know about a million ways to tell a woman that she's not fat. I'm just that good.” So good that Hal Willner asked Shilpa to tackle the tough job of singing “Pirate Jenny,” the brilliant Brecht-Weill collaboration from The Threepenny Opera about a chambermaid with grandiose revenge plans, on his forthcoming Rogue's Gallery sequel. Shilpa drew on her myriad retail-abuse experiences to put “Pirate Jenny” over brilliantly. “I've never connected to a character so purely. As much as I complain, I do take a sick pleasure in being a scrappy broad.”
6) Shilpa was called a “nigger” growing up in a lily-white suburb of New Jersey.
“As much as it hurt as a child, I think it's kind of funny now. Racism is a human trait that has existed throughout history. To me it just proves how inferior humans are. We're no better or more intelligent than animals or the environment. We are, however, the greatest bullshitters this Earth has ever experienced.”
7) “Well I got my free will and nobody's gonna be my man/so thank God if all I take is your money.”
“Those are lyrics to a new song I'm working on. I'm writing songs for the third record now, so if you see me on the street looking constipated and cranky, you'll know what's up.”
Shilpa's being modest here. Her lyrics are one of her strong points, and these new lyrics are fabulous. And when they emanate from, in Warren Ellis' comparison, one of the most unique voices since Karen Dalton, one can only paraphrase Jon Landau: “I have seen the future of rock & roll and it's a skinny little Desi girl from New Jersey.” Meet the new Boss.
Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers' debut CD on Knitting Factory Records, Teenage and Torture, is out now. They open for Man Man (see Music to Pick Up/Download) on May 13 at El Rey Theatre.