P.F. Sloan died this week. He’d only learned a few weeks earlier that he had pancreatic cancer, and was just at the early stages of deciding how to proceed. He’d already elected not to do chemo, and to choose an alternate route.
Choosing alternate routes, after all, is something he did his whole life. Like most artists, he was not one to take the prevalent path. But before he had a chance to really fight it, the fight was over.
Last time I saw him was when he accepted my invitation to be my first guest on a new web series I was starting with Rob Seals and The Songwriting School of Los Angeles, called Songwriters On Songwriting Live. I knew for my very first show I needed someone great – someone who is a brilliant talker and great performer, and who has written great songs. But also someone I loved, who would make doing this not only easy, but fun. So I thought of Phil.
That day he was already standing in the parking lot of the school, in the sun, smoking a cigarette, when I arrived. We hugged. And no small talk. With that devious look of barely-suppressed humor, he threw out some conversational tidbit – something musical, something funny, something which triggered a conversation, filled with many laughs, that extended through dinner – through our show – and into the night.
Though life wasn’t an easy thing for him to get through sometimes, he did seem to really rejoice in life, and especially in the occasion to connect with his fellow humans. As soon as we started talking there in the sun, I was engrossed. It was about Dylan, about Lennon, about the distant past and the possible future, about implications woven always with wisdom, about folly and pretense, about inevitable heartbreak, about a love of humor and the humor of love, and more than anything, about the song.
He was both famous and infamous during this lifetime. Famous as the legendary songwriter of many classic songs, including “Secret Agent Man,” “Eve of Destruction” and “You Baby,” all co-written with Steve Barri. Infamous for disappearing for more than a decade, a mystery made legendary by Jimmy Webb, who wrote the elegiac song “P.F. Sloan” about him, with the eternal line, now completed: “I have been seeking P.F. Sloan/But no one know where he has gone.”
When I first interviewed the great Mr. Webb back in 1988, I had no notion that Sloan was a real person. I assumed that he was a mythic songwriter invented by Webb as a symbol for the waning spirit of the sixties. I printed my admission in SongTalk, and within days started receiving a deluge of tapes and articles and photos from Sloan devotees the world over, all projecting the same message: that P.F. Sloan was one of the greatest American songwriters of all time. All who wrote me were uniformly dismayed that the editor of a songwriting magazine was uneducated about one of America’s greatest songwriters. But I quickly learned.
There was also another message: that Sloan was in Los Angeles, and was ready to be rediscovered. A mysterious woman appeared in my office one day, late winter, the sun already down by 4 pm. She sounded me out, to see if I genuinely wanted to meet Phil, and, perhaps, if I was worthy. She told me a meeting was in the cards. I had no idea what kinds of cards were involved, nor was I sure she was real. But I wanted.
When the call came in, I assumed it was a joke. It wasn’t. It was Sloan himself.
“I think the universe wants us to get together,” he said. I agreed.
He lived then in an apartment on the west side of Los Angeles, where we met and spoke. His place was filled with light, sparsely decorated, and appointed with Buddhist symbols and wisdom. We drank fresh carrot juice he made. Immediately we fell into a deep conversation – one of those talks that seemed endless- combining song, songwriting, myth, God, religion, Dylan, Simon and much more all into a remarkably cohesive whole. Though his thoughts were widespread, he was never scattered. He had a keen focus on life and his observations of it, but a wide focus – that took in the big picture.
From the start I found a hypnotic look in his eyes, like the deep, oceanic eyes of a gypsy fortune-teller. And not a fake fortune-teller, but the real deal, who can peer deeply into the past and future, and the world beyond. When talking to him, he always seemed to be taking in a lot, a lot I couldn’t even see.
And when he talked about the dark chapters of his life – and left unspoken many of the harsh details that led ultimately to his complete withdrawal – the suffering he projected was profound.
But just as profound was the joy to which he connected when discussing writing songs, the joy of knowing and being known by the “Master Poet,” the source of it all. This was the guy, after all, who famously wrote “Eve of Destruction” on the same night he wrote four other songs, including “Sins of a Family.” And he did it while still living at home with his parents, not even an adult in any way in the real world, yet taking on the weight of the world in these songs, and impacting the world by doing so.
Yet he was castigated by this industry which meant so much to him. He was one of the first to walk the bridge between songwriter-for-hire to singer-songwriter. From craftsman to artist. The industry was only starting then to welcome songwriters – such as Carole King and Neil Sedaka – into the fold of performers. Dylan led the way, and Sloan was in Dylan’s thrall. “Eve of Destruction,” which became a giant hit for Barry McGuire, was Sloan, forever in Dylan’s shadow, dying to step into the light.
“I wasn’t taken seriously as a talent,” he said. “Except by Dylan. Dylan told me that the word was out and they were out to destroy me.”
The interview, upon publication in SongTalk magazine, helped to spark the reemergence of Sloan in the world. He accepted our many interviews to perform, in local clubs and heading our Acoustic Underground showcase, and in December, 1990 in the annual Salute To The American Songwriter, produced with the National Academy of Songwriters. Though many great songwriters performed that night backed by our big band, Phil decided to do it solo. And he blew the room away. With his powerful acoustic guitar playing laying down the groove, he did exquisite versions of “Eve of Destruction,” “Secret Agent Man,” “Where Were You When I Needed You,” and “You Baby.” Complete triumph. Standing ovation. P.F. Sloan was not only back, he was better than ever.
He was born Phillip Schlein in Queens, 1945 and raised “a wild, corruptible child.” His sister called him Flip, hence the initials P.F. His folks, wanting to separate him from the streets, moved to Los Angeles when he was young. At 14 he auditioned for Alladin Records, and was given a contract. They asked if he could write songs, and he said sure, went home and wrote six.
Teamed up with the elder Steve Barri to write songs, Sloan was in his essence. “I was in electricity. When we would sit down to work, it was magic, it was electric.” They spent two years writing together, with Sloan working 18 to 20 hours a day crafting words and music. Their first record was “Kick That Little Foot, Sally Ann” by Harry Belafonte. Sloan was 15 when it was recorded. They also wrote a string of hits for many groups, including “Take Me For What I’m Worth” by The Searchers, “Let Me Be” and “You Baby” for the Turtles, and “Where Were You When I Needed You” for The Grass Roots.
Sloan, being a great and soulful singer, sang lead vocals on all the demos. These recordings were used as the first record by the Grass Roots. But when it hit the Top 40, the record company did not want Sloan to be the star, and removed his vocal. An existing band – The Thirteenth Floor – was brought in to become The Grass Roots. Here Sloan’s greatest dream was to be the singer of his songs, like his idol Bob Dylan, and it was snatched away. Their biggest hit, “Where Were You When I Needed You,” also a hit decades later for The Bangles, is essential P.F. Sloan. About love, romantic love, spiritual love, and God. As always, his pop songs were deeper and more dimensional than expected.
Not only a gifted singer, he was a great guitarist, and a master of classic riff, most famously in the intro to “Secret Agent Man.” He brought that magic to a lot of records, even those he didn’t write or produce, such as The Mamas and The Papas anthem, “California Dreamin,’” written by John and Michelle Phillips. Produced by Lou Adler, the track was in need of the perfect intro, a suspended chord flourish which Phil both concocted and executed to open the song.
The seeds of his ultimate disappearance remain mysterious. It was during this time, the missing years, that Jimmy Webb wrote “P.F. Sloan,” and it became in 1971 a big radio hit for The Association. Hearing it didn’t buoy Phil’s spirits, quite the opposite. He felt like the phantom star of a circus that long ago left town. “I was forced to play the tragic role,” he said, “instead of the comedic role, which is more to my nature.”
For awhile, the shadows completed obscured the light, and he drew a sharp distinction between P.F. Sloan, the artist, and Philip Schlein, the Jewish kid from Queens. He felt that his connection with P.F.Sloan was a gift from God, and that gift was gone.
But that chapter ended, and he was found again. After our interview appeared, many doors opened for him, and he started writing songs again and more. He recorded a beautiful album of new songs called Sailover. And he spoke of two major projects he hoped to complete, and happily – completed both. One was an album called My Beethoven, about the great maestro, about the majesty of music itself, and about the burden of being a genius in the world. He had so much love and respect for Beethoven that his intent – which he realized – was to weave Beethoven’s own musical themes throughout the song cycle. He did what he did best – wrote songs on a theme – but connected those songs symphonically in a record of great orchestral grandeur. It was one of those projects that could go on for a decade and be incomplete. But he finished it. And it is a masterpiece.
He also said he was going to write a memoir – and he did. A wonderful book co-written with his gifted friend S.E. Feinberg, it is What’s Exactly The Matter With Me? Published by Jawbone Books, UK. It’s a book that reflects the full span of his life and outlook – it is hilarious at parts, heartbreaking at others, sometimes perplexing, and utterly compelling. He even bravely included stories he knew would cause most people to conclude he was a madman, such as the time he met James Dean in Hollywood, some two years beyond Dean’s death. But being called crazy, for him, was nothing remotely new, and he knew if anything, he had to be true to himself.
His love of Dylan, by the way, was powerful and ever-present up to the end. During our last supper together, with that familiar Sloan gleam in his eye, he asked what I thought of Shadows In The Night, the Dylan album of standards. I hadn’t heard it yet, nor given it much real thought. But he did. He had one of those minds – like many great songwriters – which thinks about everything, thoroughly and without end. Smiling, with an expression that happily invites disagreement, always open to healthy debate, he said, “I think it’s his dream album. The album he always wanted to make.”
“Because it showed his love of this craft – this level of songwriting – and lets the singer in him have a field day with these melodies.
Just as a joke, I opened my live interview at The Songwriting School with a question asking him to compare his two greatest heroes, Beethoven and Dylan. Dylan, I said, was clearly the better harmonica player, but who did he think was best over-all? It wasn’t a serious question, but Phil – recognizing the levity – still proceeded to seriously compare the two. That was who he was. Sure, it was a joke. But an interesting one!
He was a man who truly loved songs. He loved writing them, singing them, listening to them, and talking about them. He never stopped writing them, and this world is a better place because of that spirit, which is forever instilled in the words and music of his songs.
That music is eternal – that some spirits live forever – was foremost in his thoughts and his heart, and it sustained him as it sustains us now. “It’s living art captured for all time,” he said. “We were all flowing on that juice; all of us who were subjected to that cosmic rock and roll current that came through, we were all juiced from it. We literally changed the world.”
- Paul Zollo, Los Angeles, CA, November 18, 2015