There’s Nothing the Matter with P.F. Sloan

PF SLOAN jacket

In mid-August 1965, while thousands of young black people, tired of being harassed by the Los Angeles Police Department, staged a rebellion in the southern part of the city, a song written by a white, Jewish folk/rock and roll performer started its unlikely ascent to number one on the Hot 100 charts. 

Composed a month before the Watts riots, and recorded by Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction” was almost absurdly topical for the suburban kids who would be its main consumers. In the immediate aftermath of attacks on white motorists, widespread looting and burning, and 34 riot-related deaths, when frightened families in such communities as Glendale, Lynwood, and Studio City had wondered whether Watts was the beginning of a race war, the song must have seemed like a brilliant political prophecy. It was all over AM radio mere weeks after many whites had purchased guns and ammunition and waited anxiously for the rioters to head north or west.

But the guy who wrote “Eve,” P. F. (Phil) Sloan, 20 at the time, says today that he was “surprised” by the Watts riots. In fact, added Sloan during a recent interview in Santa Monica, “all the riots surprised me.”

Along with its simple, single-string guitar opening, wonderful independent clauses (“The Eastern world, it is explodin’,” “Hate your next door neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace”), a melody that flows like waves on a calm sea, and interceding harmonica, the genius of “Eve of Destruction” lies in its universal application.

In 1966, the song described the escalation of the war in Vietnam. In 1968, who could disagree that it was about the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the Chicago Democratic Convention and, if you were a staunch liberal, the election of Richard M. Nixon as president of the United States? A listener of any age who goes online today and clicks on “Eve of Destruction” will likely think of it in the context of climate change and global terrorism.

“Eve” occupies that rare space between nostalgia and immediacy — the dark past and the grim future. It is a song for a particular time and a song for the ages.

Now, the composer has collaborated with playwright S. E. (Steve) Feinberg on “What’s Exactly The Matter with Me?” described as “Memoirs of a Life in Music (Jawbone Press).” The title comes from the intended “A” side of the “Eve of Destruction” single, and it’s indicative of Sloan’s offbeat sense of humor, especially the inclusion of “exactly.” How many 20-year-olds would use a word that comes right out of a psychiatrist’s playbook to contemplate the condition of their own unsettled minds?
The book is less a sustained narrative as it is a series of scenes, vividly reconstructed by Sloan and Feinberg, who is primarily a playwright. The combination of Sloan’s precise memory and Feinberg’s experience writing dialogue produces some marvelous exchanges.

Here, for example, is the account of Sloan peddling songs to Barry McGuire, who was a member of the New Christy Minstrels:

“I like it Phil, (“Eve of Destruction”) but it’s not what I’m looking for.”

“‘I’ve got some other songs,’ I told him. I played ‘This Mornin’ knowing in my heart that he had to like that one.

‘I like the song, Phil. I just don’t think it’s for me. Sorry.’”

‘That’s all right,’ I said.”

I played seven or more songs with the same reaction until Barry’s face lit up with a grin when I played him ‘What’s Exactly the Matter With Me?’

“That’s what I’m looking for, man!’” he exclaimed. “That’s the song!’”

You can picture this scene occurring early in the first act of a major musical as our protagonist attempts to establish his artistic credentials in the cutthroat, flaky record business. There will be disappointments to come, of course, perhaps even a crash and burn, but at this moment, the world is beautiful.

Through reconstructed dialogue that has the bounce and groove of a good pop single, we come to root for Sloan as a character, trying to remain alert and sane while others seek to control his product and destroy his spirit. We are outraged when he’s bullied, deceived, humiliated, and ripped off by a gallery of industry rogues such as Lou Adler, Jay Lasker, and, believe it or not, “gentle” John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas.

PhilThat confrontation is one of the most memorable scenes in the book. Sloan had contributed the famous guitar opening to “California Dreaming,” and it apparently rankled Phillips, more and more over time, that people felt the riff was critical to the massive success of the song. At a planning meeting for the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival held at Phillips’ Beverly Hills estate, he called Sloan into the kitchen and proceeded to wave a sharp knife inches from his face while simultaneously belittling his musical contribution. (Was it this incident that influenced the famous scene in “Chinatown” in which Jack Nicholson loses part of his nose? Word of Phillips’ menacing act must have circulated in and around Laurel Canyon, where pop stars and young Hollywood freely mingled.)

The great triumvirate of 1960s rock, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones, was intrigued and to some extent concerned by the success of “Eve of Destruction.” As many in their core audience became involved with the civil rights movement and, later, protests against the war in Vietnam, these performers were under some pressure to write hit singles that at least acknowledged the rapidly changing circumstances of youth politics in America. Sloan got there first, with a folk/rock number that name checked actual events and places and maintained a somber mood, which was thought to be the death of any 45 geared toward a pop audience.

The superstars wanted to meet the guy who had pulled this off. Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, represented Sloan when he came to England. Epstein was grateful that Sloan — well before “I Want to Hold Your Hand” — had recognized the potential of the Beatles.

Through Epstein, Sloan and McGuire were invited to the exclusive St. James Club in London. They sat in a booth with Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger while records were being played at deafening volume over the club’s sound system. The book relates what happened next:

“I sat next to Paul, who was waving at George.”

‘Is it true what you wrote?’ he asked. ‘That we’re on the eve of destruction.’

‘Why do you ask?’

‘Because if it’s true, I need to get my money out of the investments that we have.’

‘He’s not kidding,’ Mick said. ‘I’m happy that you finally made it over here.’

The most memorable Sloan/Dylan meeting was like the counterculture version of a bawdy businessman’s convention in Las Vegas. As Sloan sits on a couch in Dylan’s Hollywood Hotel room, sometime in 1965, the composer of “Blowin’ in the Wind” is behind closed doors, loudly berating David Crosby of the Byrds and, it’s suggested here, slapping him occasionally. Suddenly two topless blonde women enter the room, sit on either side of Sloan, and ask for “Mr. Zimmerman.” Before “Mr. Zimmerman” finishes with Crosby, the women are gone, along with a guy dressed as Zorro.

That story in particular makes me extremely happy Sloan didn’t forget everything that had happened around him in the 1960s.

Other than “Eve of Destruction,” Sloan’s best-known composition is probably “Let Me Be,” which was recorded in the fall of 1965 by the LA-based group the Turtles. The song means just what it says; no verbal tricks, obscure references, or self-satisfied irony in these words. Through the years, “Let Me Be” has touched many listeners who needed to hear the triumphant, unambiguous message that there was nothing wrong with them. Sloan wrote in the book that he has heard from closeted gay men, abused women, children of dysfunctional families and others for whom the song was a lifeline, if not a lifesaver.

Sloan also wrote hits, including “Where Were You When I Needed You?” for the Grass Roots, another band to come out of the extraordinary pop and rock scene in Los Angeles during the latter part of the 1960s. To fans of the music of that era, Sloan’s versatility was and is a blessing: The more of his work they hear, the better.

But the music industry prefers to put composers and performers in specific categories. Marketing departments don’t regard artistic breadth as a virtue. Sloan’s overlords didn’t like that in his songwriting, he was here, there, and everywhere. In that sense, Sloan’s artistic range didn’t help his career. Still, he has no regrets. “I was not discretionary,” he said, “it’s all music.”
* * *
Before the hits, before the bum business deals, and before the drugs, Sloan was just a Jewish kid living in the middle of LA in love with the rock and roll of his adolescent and teen years. Typical of a guy who always did things a little differently, the first rock and roll song Sloan recalls hearing, at the age of 10 or 11, was “I Was the One,” the “B side” of Elvis Presley’s 1956 release, the famous “Heartbreak Hotel.”

The record belonged to Sloan’s 16-year-old sister, who responded to Elvis, Little Richard, and other first- wave giants as if she were the quintessential bad girl in a youth exploitation movie. “That music turned my sister from a sweet angel into a motorcycle mama,” recalled Sloan.

By contrast, Sloan was too young to succumb to rock and roll in the 1950s but not too young to fall hard for it. One of his early heroes was Ritchie Valens, the teenage Mexican-American prodigy from Pacoima, who died at the age of 17 in a plane crash along with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper.

Valens was the first bona fide rock and roll star to come out of Los Angeles. As would be the case with Sloan, Valens was both a prolific and eclectic composer. “Donna” remains one of the greatest romantic ballads in rock and roll history; “Come On, Let’s Go” is a beautiful, loud cacophony of messy guitar licks, powerful drum beat, and joyous vocals. And “La Bamba” achieved the minor miracle of selling hundreds of thousands of copies to consumers who didn’t speak a word of Spanish.
“I used to be able to imitate him perfectly,” said Sloan of Valens.
After Valens’ death, Sloan, maybe 15 at the time, auditioned for Bob Keane, who been the young singer’s producer — part as a tribute and part as a serious attempt to get signed to his first deal. “I wanted to be in the same room Ritchie Valens was in,” said Sloan.
Knowing Keane was anxious to find the next Valens, Sloan who in those days had no fear or filters, figured why shouldn’t it be a Jewish kid from Fairfax High? He didn’t get the gig — Keane’s loss.

Traveling with Sloan through the 1960s and early 1970s, we witness the psychological and physical deterioration of a guy both too trusting and too naïve to withstand the combined strains of the rock business and the counterculture. Bad things keep happening to him, and he never seems to know how or why.

There was the woman who takes in Sloan during an especially low period and turns him on to heroin. Later, robbers break into his New York apartment, steal his guitars and a gold record, and attempt in an unusual way to get rid of him.

“Because I had seen their faces, the robbers decided that it was necessary to kill me. They shot me up with a huge amount of heroin and left me in the chair to die, believing it would be seen as an accidental overdose. I sat there knowing I was dying yet unable to do anything about it. I desperately needed to hang onto consciousness.”

As Sloan recounts in a droll scene, three beautiful women walk into the room, assess his condition, and nonchalantly discuss whether anything can be done to save him. Eventually, they untie Sloan and put him to bed, covered by an American flag. He wakes up hours later and walks to a nearby coffee shop to get some breakfast. His presence freaks out a few people who had already heard he was dead.

Wasted through much of the late 1970s and into the 1980s, Sloan had only vague recollections of events during that period, including the election of Ronald Reagan as president and the murder of John Lennon.

His life didn’t turn around until he went on a spiritual pilgrimage to India, in the late 1980s, an idea that came to him in a dream. No “Sexy Sadie” here; Sloan returned to Los Angeles with his soul and spirit invigorated and renewed. He was now not just in a good place but the best place:

“(In India) I was experiencing something I thought had been lost to me forever. I was happy inside — truly happy — and almost every time I saw Sai Baba (spiritual leader) I was filled with bliss. It was a state of absolute knowingness, without thoughts of any kind filling my mind. I could do whatever I felt like doing in that state for hours.”

Near the end of the book, Sloan lists the names of several people who in earlier chapters made his life miserable and writes that he now forgives them. Readers who have been on Sloan’s side throughout may not be feeling so magnanimous. In the case of a few of these guys, I had hoped that there would be some kind of karmic payback.

For the past several years, Sloan and Feinberg have been working on a musical, “ Louie!, Louie!,” which envisions Ludwig van Beethoven as a folk singer of his day, sitting at the piano and performing his own songs for patrons at coffee houses in Vienna. Sloan seems to have spent as much time on the music as he did writing all those marvelous songs in the 1960s.

“I’ve broken every rule that I’ve ever considered sane in doing this project,” he explained. “When I met Steve, I’d been working alone in a room for years, 14 hours per day.” The musical was recently performed at a theater in London.

Though Sloan does not consider “Eve of Destruction” to be a political song, there was a time not long ago when he would watch MSNBC for five and six hours at a stretch. “I felt like I was doing something worthwhile,” he said. The habit ended when he began working on the musical, and he has not returned to anything like that level of involvement.

Still, Sloan notices things, just as he did in 1965. In the middle of our conversation, he suddenly lowered his voice and moved his head ever so subtly in the direction of a middle-aged man sitting alone, eating a sandwich. “Isn’t that Supreme Court Justice (Antonin) Scalia?” he inquired, with a smile. I looked over quickly; the guy was too young, and besides, Santa Monica doesn’t seem like Scalia’s kind of town, but he sure had the same distinctive features as does the leader of the hard right conservatives on the court.

Here’s hoping Sloan has many more songs to go.