A boy wonder who, early on, was snapped up by Los Angeles entertainment entities like Screen Gems and Dunhill Records to pen hits for their artists, P.F. Sloan’s words grace the gammut of the 1960s catalog. From surf-rock to girl groups, from protest anthems to jangly folk, Sloan’s ability to transform his craft is what stamped him as a prodigy. Working alongside songwriting partner Steve Barri, Sloan scored a number of hits, most notably Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” which hit #1 in 1965, and Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man.”
He was a powerhouse, a shape shifter, and, above all, an enigma who was an artist in his own right, writing, recording, and releasing albums not under Phil, his layman name, but as P.F. Sloan, his muse and alter ego. His disappearance from the music industry in 1967 only added to the mystique and led Jimmy Webb to pen a song in his name, pleading, “I have been seeking P.F. Sloan / But no one knows where he has gone.” In fact, no one realized that Sloan had been driven out of Los Angeles by Dunhill co-founder Jay Lasker, betrayed by Barri, forced to give up his rights to royalties, and black-balled in an unforgivable fashion — for seemingly no reason at all.
Long-since returned to LA, Sloan spent years shuttled in and out of psychiatric facilities. Yet, through the writing of his memoir, What’s Exactly the Matter With Me?, Sloan made peace with his demons — and those of the people around him. Today, he relies on spirituality (often found through his many trips to India) and plays out occasionally, but mostly finds musical satisfaction through “popera,” namely the score he’s composed for a (hopefully) upcoming musical based on the life of Ludwig van Beethoven entitled Louis! Louis!, which can be heard on his latest album, My Beethoven.
I spoke to Phil (as he prefers to be called — I asked) about the book and his life now, including whether or not the years of mental strain were ultimately worth it.
REBEAT: You had such a tumultuous ride in the ‘60s, and now you’re such a spiritual person. Do you feel like there was purpose to everything that happened?
P.F. SLOAN: That’s a really good question. Yeah, it doesn’t preclude the idea that I would question what the purpose of all this was. As the experience is happening, we as human beings just don’t have the foresight to see that what seems like a terrible event turns into a blessing later. We’re pretty much living in the moment, so we don’t really see what the idea of all this is until later, and say, “Whoa, if that hadn’t happened, then this wouldn’t have happened,” and you really get the idea that you’re being moved around exactly where you’re supposed to be.
In the book, you talk about an almost other-worldly spiritual encounter with your muse, a.k.a P.F. Sloan, during which you wrote four huge songs, including “Eve of Destruction” and “Sins of a Family.” It’s amazing to me, particularly, as a non-songwriter, to learn about the muse’s birthing process, as it were.
What I learned is that the so-called muse really demands absolute devotion. It’s something you don’t realize at the time. I definitely got the feeling many, many times that if I didn’t act the way the muse wanted me to act — that means like, getting up at four o’clock in the morning on a freezing night and writing down something that’s been given to me — the muse says, “Well, okay, fine, but if you don’t get up, this is going to Billy Joel.”
Do you still feel sort of pulled between the two personas (Phil Sloan and P.F. Sloan), or is it kind of all together now?
It’s not an intellectual thing; it’s more like an experiential thing. If it were just merely intellectual, I could put it to rest. I could say, “Okay, this is my intellectual point of view on the matter.” But it’s more experiential, dealing with things I deal with as P.F. Sloan the songwriter that I don’t deal with as Phil Sloan. I respect and admire that consciousness, but it’s really not with me when I’m not working , per se. There have been periods in my life where I haven’t worked for 25 years and have no idea.
I’ve spent so much time battling to protect P.F. Sloan, but that basically disappeared from my life. I had no idea that that consciousness would ever return to me. I really don’t know what the psychological reality of it is. I mean, many songwriters over the years have tried to explain — Bob Dylan, for example, saying, “I’m not Bob Dylan, I’m Robert Zimmerman; I’m only Bob Dylan when I’m writing.” Many songwriters say, “I didn’t write this, it came through me,” but I find how the public reacts to that is like, “Oh, you’re just channeling, that’s really easy,” but it’s not like that. It’s not channeling. It’s really having an open-door policy for that consciousness to find you worthwhile to do the work that you’re doing. You have to live a certain kind of life where it just appears. Maybe that’s the only way I can explain why some songwriters just really haven’t written anything really worthwhile after the first run of hits. It’s an interesting psychological thing,
We’re given the information that there’s this higher self within us beyond the mind and the intellect, and we’re told that that is our real self, our higher self, and many people are working at establishing contact with that higher self. What I’ve discovered was that it came to me, you know, I wasn’t seeking it. It just came to me. And then it seemed to be my obligation to defend it and protect it.
Is there any profundity at all in the fact that P.F. Sloan’s name is on the book and not Phil Sloan’s?
Well, it’s really the story of P.F. Sloan, of how Phil Sloan came to experience P.F. Sloan. To be honest with you, Phil Sloan, the singer-songwriter at a very young age, did very okay work, but I don’t think anything remarkable happened until P.F. Sloan showed up.
That’s interesting, because I remember you mentioning in the book that there was definitely some merit in the material you created as Phil for the Fantastic Baggys, Jan & Dean, and the pop and surf scene of the early ‘60s. Looking back now, do you think what P.F. Sloan wrote was more everlasting or substantial?
Probably. Probably. You know, though, when it comes down to the human experience, it’s the difference between Bob Dylan and the 1910 Fruitgum Company. But if there’s something that helps society, we have to honor that, whether it’s poetry or art or music or films, whatever. It’s just a very fine line between what they, the artistic world, calls art and what we, the people, call art; there seems to be a battle between the two. It’s an ongoing, ever-changing kind of deal.
Does the early part of your career seem like a high point, or does it seem like just part of the job you were doing at the time?
No, it was really a high point. It was great and exciting; it was fun. There was a lot of energy, lot of dreams, a lot of hopes, and the beginning of getting to explore oneself through songs. Up to that point, I was basically writing follow-up songs. So there was some amount of introspection to the Baggys’ stuff, just talking about personal loneliness and stuff.
And you talk about Jan Berry as a producer, getting to watch him work. Even though he was intense in the studio, it must’ve been very cool to have been a part of that.
With Jan, you were really getting to watch a master at work. It wasn’t that way with Brian Wilson. Brian was sort of like a student of Jan Berry. He didn’t really have any power in the studio. It was mostly his engineer, Chuck Britz, who was doing all the work. Jan Berry was tyrannical for sure, but you had to appreciate that he got what he wanted from the musicians.
What I found from the musicians, being way older than I was and earning their living at this, was that they were happy to give if someone really wanted, you know? It was sort of like a baby — the mother will give when the baby cries. The musicians were really accommodating if you knew exactly what you wanted. They were very slow to give when the producer said, “Well, what do you think should be here?” They didn’t really think that that was their job; it was the producer’s job to do that. I learned from Jan Berry that you really had to know what you wanted, and they’d give you extra. It was fantastic watching a master at work.
You have to wonder where he would’ve gone had the accident not happened.
Well, he was heading for destruction.
It was inevitable, you think?
Yeah, it was inevitable. You know, when the political thing came about, and Jan came out with Folk ‘n Roll and rewrote “Eve of Destruction” to be sort of right-wing. [laughs] There’s nothing wrong with the right wing; it’s his opinion, and that’s fine. I have to respect that, but people weren’t interested in hearing his personal political beliefs saying, basically, “America, love it or leave it.” It hurt him deeply, it really did, and I think that that set the wheel moving. I think that he saw that he had no more place.
Do you have a favorite version of one of your songs by the many artists that recorded your material?
That’s a tough one. You know, however this may sound, I was extremely grateful for anybody that did one of my songs, and what I’ve discovered is that basically whoever did it the way I had envisioned it did very well. Producers that changed it around didn’t do well with those songs. It seems like the song itself was an organic entity, and it had to be done pretty much the way the composer had set it out to be. It’s curious.
I thought the book gave a great snapshot of the music business in the 1960s. It’s easy for us to forget how fast-paced it was. You mention how Barry McGuire became sort of a has-been three months after “Eve of Destruction,” and how, if he’d released that now, he could rest on it for three years. It was constant output, which was probably a lot of pressure.
We were young, and we didn’t know. When you’re in that bubble, you think it’s normal; it’s only later that you find out that time was so compressed. An artist today can go without making an album for five years and it’s not a problem. They haven’t lost a step. It’s phenomenal to think of the output that was coming out in those days, and, you know, I can’t see that ever happening ever again.
Jay Lasker really becomes a kind of manipulative, vindictive villain in the book. Did you ever think, “I can’t write anything until Jay Lasker dies”?
You’re asking me to really look at the amount of courage that it would take [to have written the book while he was still alive]. And that’s difficult because I’d like to believe I had the courage, but in a lot of ways, I kept my head down out of way of the bullets flying. I may not be particularly proud of it, because I don’t believe that surviving at any cost is worthwhile at this point. Just surviving is really not important, but it was at that time, because I had allowed [the record company execs] to drive me into a state of disrepair and bad health, which I had to deal with for close to 15 to 20 years.
I wasn’t alone. I ran across a lot of people from Dunhill Records that would show up at my door like flotsam, broken people whose spirits were just absolutely broken by these people. Take a guy like Chuck Negron from Three Dog Night; they found him in an alleyway shooting up for 20 years. People loved him and you’d hope that that love would carry him through, but on some level, it’s part of an artist to demand that the label respects what you’re doing. That wasn’t there, and it destroyed a lot of lives. It destroyed John Phillips for sure.
It becomes a little bit Stockholm Syndrome-y.
Yeah. Maybe it was that way with Steve Barri — that he was kidnapped and had no escape and fell in love with his captors.
It seems hard for me to believe that somebody who had worked with you so closely for so long could abandon you or sell you out in such a heartless way. Do you think Steve knew the ultimate consequences of what he was doing, that he was essentially exiling you from LA, cutting you off from royalties and your family and friends?
I’d like to believe that he wasn’t aware of the full extent of the punishment, but you know what I’ve found in life so far is that people make choices very early in their lives, and if you’re searching for security in your life, you’re going to make choices for security purposes. I honestly believe that’s where he was coming from.
I’m really being open and sincere with you in saying I don’t think he really believed himself to be talented, and so he was really taking any opportunity to find security. He was married at a very young age with a child, and these were the choices that he made. Obviously, I forgive him for it, and I still love the guy, but I understand that people who choose security over love exist, and they’re going to pay a price for it.
You talk about not speaking to your parents for a year when you were forced to leave LA, but did any of your friends try to contact you or find you in New York?
No one? Nobody even called around to see where you were?
No. As you can well understand, it was a really double-sided sword. It was really the first time I was on my own, and I really greatly appreciated that at the same time as overcoming the fear. It felt wonderful on some level to take a stand for my art, right? “Okay, fine, I’m going to live the life of P.F. Sloan at this point” — something I really didn’t have to do in LA. It’s sort of like coming out of the closet on some level, you know?
It’s just intriguing to me that you got in your car and drove across the country and no one even attempted to figure out what happened. Then you heard Jimmy Webb’s song on the radio, which was probably super surreal, especially having been gone for so long.
Yeah. [laughs] So much of it is surreal. You begin to realize, or think you’re realizing, that this is a movie. There’s a part of you that still wants to live a normal life, and all of these surreal things keep pushing you away from what your idea of a normal life is. To be honest with you, Steve Barri is “a normal life” — get a paycheck, and you’re lucky to be in music. It’s not like having to go out on a limb. But the rewards are so great going out on a limb in terms of awareness of what life actually is.
The rewards may not be there financially, but I’m so rich with wisdom and experience and that’s, like, super fantastic considering the fact that I was put into the world of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s way beyond Ph.D. and way beyond college stuff. There’s a reason I’m existing, and it’s way beyond what my ego might like to think it is. It comes down to the cliché that there’s a plan in all of our lives; these are things that we grew up hearing about. It’s fascinating to experience it, and you slowly begin to start surrendering to that force that’s moving us in our lives and realize that you have to trust in it. You have to allow it to move you and not try to move it yourself.
And after a pretty tough few decades pulling yourself together after the ’60s, was your spirituality what brought you back to life?
Yeah, absolutely. It was love. Love is a really dirty word in this day and age. The whole idea of love is it’s a ’60s thing, and it didn’t work, is what they’re basically trying to say out there. Love didn’t work; what really works is power and money. And yet, it’s really everything that we’re made of, and it’s everything that we need, and it’s everything that we’re looking for. It’s just that the forces of darkness that are out there right now are saying that love doesn’t work, you know? And what I found that brought me back from death was love. Just unconditional, unbridled love.
A lot of musicians and artists I talk to who’ve written books say it was a total catharsis. Do you feel that way about your book?
No, not really. I think the catharsis really came from the forgiveness of all the players involved, no matter how villainous they were. The only thing that I’m experiencing is that I don’t have to question anymore, like, way in the back of my mind, was this real? Did I experience this? As I was telling the story to my writing partner, I was looking at it sort of objectively. I said, “Really? Did I really do that?” That kind of thing, you know. There’s, like, an echo of an experience.
It’s actually refreshing to hear you say that, because a lot of folks treat that period like business as usual without regard to the bigger picture.
It was a fascinating time. It was fantastic to see that you were connected to your generation and the generation before and a little ahead. But, you know, love is love, life is life, and just the idea of living inside of music is a real gift.
(Cover photo via American Songwriter.com)