By Mike Greenblatt
Depending upon who you ask, P.F. Sloan was riding high in the 1960s. He was a teenage singer, songwriter, musician, producer and arranger. His songs were recorded by Barry McGuire, Johnny Rivers, The Mamas & The Papas, Jan & Dean, The Searchers, The Turtles, Herman’s Hermits and The Fifth Dimension.
He was The Grass Roots in the band’s first formulation. The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan came to him for help. The Beatles, a band he helped bring to Vee-Jay Records when he was 16, didn’t play the Monterey Pop Festival partly because of him. Brian Epstein wanted to manage him. Ahmet Ertegun and Clive Davis wanted to sign him. He helped give The Byrds their signature sound. He was cheated out of his royalties and had to flee Los Angeles due to death threats against him and his family by Dunhill’s Jay Lasker [1924-1989]. Then Papa John Phillips pulled a knife on him. Heroin and a severe case of catatonic withdrawal from all this kept him away — deep away — for decades.
“The only good about that is that I missed the whole disco era,” Sloan jokes today.
No one knew where he was. Jimmy Webb even wrote a song called “P.F. Sloan” about the search for the musician that became a hit for The Association. When questioned, Webb said he made it all up.
Then Sloan’s story really gets weird.
In his absence, a charlatan known as Dr. Eugene Landy [1934-2006] — while treating Brian Wilson — claimed that he, himself, was P.F. Sloan!
It took the real P.F. Sloan many trips back and forth to India to sit with a holy man to get his head back on straight. When he came back to the business in the 1990s, a tribute was held at The Troubadour in West Hollywood.
Then he disappeared again. He discovered Beethoven and spent 17 years in seclusion working night and day on “My Beethoven” (MsMusic), an album so convoluted and gorgeous, it could only be compared to Brian Wilson’s “Smile” or the collected works of Van Dyke Parks. It is his masterpiece.
Funny thing is, Sloan has no recall whatsoever of writing it. Those 17 years? A blank.
Sloan shares his tale in the book, “What’s Exactly The Matter With Me” (Jawbone Press), written with S.E. Feinberg.
Like a rock ’n’ roll Zelig (Woody Allen’s fictional character who shows up at every major historical event), Sloan’s story may be hard to believe.
But who’s to say which reality is the true reality? There are frequent author’s notes added to this interview; ponder them as you wish.
GOLDMINE: What is exactly the matter with you?
P.F. SLOAN: Nothing ... now.
GM: But there was?
PFS: It’s embarrassing.
GM: Lou Adler discovered you, right?
PFS: I forced myself on him at 17.
GM: And that’s you doing the high harmony on Jan & Dean’s “Little Old Lady From Pasadena” and not Dean Torrence?
PFS: Yes, and on every hit after that, too. First it was Dean & Arnie. But Arnie quit the business early on.
[Author’s Note: Arnie Ginsburg went on to invent the portable batting cage.]
GM: You wrote the theme song for rock’s first great concert film, “The T.A.M.I. Show,” starring James Brown and the Rolling Stones.
PFS: Yeah, and Lou Adler didn’t even let me go to the concert.
GM: Why not?
PFS: Lou Adler didn’t want me meeting the stars because then I might ask him for more money.
GM: And you wrote, performed and recorded the legendary guitar intro to “California Dreaming.”
PFS: I was producing The Mamas & The Papas. Dunhill didn’t see anything in them at the time, so they were being used as Barry McGuire’s backup band. We originally recorded the song as his follow-up to my “Eve Of Destruction.”
GM: You were in The Grass Roots?
PFS: I was the Grass Roots. Dylan gave me exclusive rights to record “Ballad Of A Thin Man.” I did so, renamed it “Mr. Jones,” and put it out as The Grass Roots.
GM: How did you feel when Eugene Landy claimed to be you?
PFS: Since the word was out via Jimmy Webb that P.F. Sloan didn’t exist, Landy stepped into the role. It turned out to be his downfall. Within a week, he lost his license to practice medicine. I was disappointed Brian Wilson didn’t step up to offer to get me back on my feet again despite me being in such dire circumstances for 35 years. Now Landy, Lasker, Epstein and Phillips are all dead.
GM: Lou Adler’s still around. He’s the guy who sits next to Jack Nicholson at Lakers games.
PFS: And I don’t want to say anything bad about him. I have to tread lightly. He’s so entrenched in Hollywood royalty with millions and millions of dollars, and I’m barely surviving. I don’t want to throw stones at royal class windows.
[Author’s Note: When contacted, Adler, through his representative, Howard Frank, declined to comment “on anything P.F. Sloan has to say.”]
GM: Are you bitter?
PFS: No. Bitterness is like battery acid. It eats away at you. I’ve spent the last 27 years going back and forth to India to sit with a holy man who changed my life for the better. Through his help and love, I’ve been able to simply let it go.
GM: There are definite similarities between you and Beethoven. He was looked upon as a wannabe Mozart; you were seen as a wannabe Dylan. He had problems with the music industry in his day, as did you. You both played guitar, liked to go to bars and wrote folk songs. In the writing of “My Beethoven,” did that enter into it at all?
PFS: Yes, I believe it did. Plus, he experimented with all kinds of music, as did I. And we were both abused by our mothers. He was told by his own mother that he’d never be as good as his grandfather. He had to fight all of his life for recognition and the money he so needed and wanted. I could relate to his suffering. Of course, his mother didn’t physically beat him up like mine.
GM: She stopped only when you threatened to chop off your own finger.
PFS: The abuse I suffered at the hands of my mother had a profound effect upon my world view. I worked on this Beethoven project for 17 years by myself with no money. I lost all my friends who felt I had gone insane. The funny thing is, I worked all day and all night for 17 straight years on this album, but I have no recall of any of it. I believe I was used as a divine instrument which is the only way I can rationally understand it. During that period of time, I seemed to be fluent in French and Italian. Luckily, during the actual recording, I kept studio notes. Looking back on those notes today, though, they’re so complex, I can hardly understand them.
GM: You and Terry Melcher locked yourselves in a studio room with the master Byrds tapes and, as history would have it, gave The Byrds their signature sound?
PFS: It was our interaction. Terry didn’t know what was missing. It was a long time ago, but the key to it all was the guitar solo I had done on Melcher’s “Summer Means Fun” single, recorded under the name of Bruce & Terry. We put so much reverb on it that it brought the guitar to life. I mentioned to him that that was my favorite solo. We listened to it again, and that’s how we arrived at the conclusion that what we needed was that triple reverb.
GM: Then they practically knocked down the door and said, “Hey, you kids, get out of here!”
PFS: They kicked us out of the studio. But not before we changed the sound of The Byrds into what we know and love today. Columbia didn’t really want The Byrds to begin with. They hardly wanted rock ’n’ roll on their prestigious label at all.
GM: A&R head Mitch Miller infamously hated it.
PFS: They only put up with Melcher because Doris Day was his mother.
GM: Tell me about Stephen Stills getting the idea for “For What It’s Worth” when you two were on a street corner together and a riot broke out. Did Stills really say to you, “There’s something happening here!”
PFS: That’s correct. And then he saw the guy with the gun telling people to beware. He was looking at this riot with a journalist’s eye, but at the same time, we were fearful. He was actually writing the song in his mind as it was happening.
GM: What about Mick Jagger calling you in the middle of the night to co-produce “Paint It Black.” You’re the one who suggested the sitar?
PFS: Yes. I got the call and ran down to the studio near my home in Los Angeles. I saw the sitar in its case and suggested it be used. And it was Keith who played it, not Brian — at least that night. Maybe Brian overdubbed it later, but I saw Keith playing it that night.
GM: And Dylan?
PFS: I admired him as a Jew and an artist. The fact he admired me, too, and wanted my opinion on his album was my greatest confidence builder at the time. He heard “Eve Of Destruction,” and while people like David Crosby were putting it down and saying it was fake, he didn’t. He was very scared. Columbia was trying to get rid of him. They considered him a big mistake. They thought he was like Pete Seeger. They thought he was a Communist. They were looking for any excuse to boot him and “Highway 61” might’ve been the excuse they needed. He needed my opinion. He knew that I knew the music world. He knew I would hear of any influence in there that would be deemed Red. I told him there wasn’t any such influence. It was art. He seemed greatly relieved and offered me the song of my choice to cover. I chose “Ballad Of A Thin Man,” but Dunhill wouldn’t let me release it under my own name, so I recorded it as The Grass Roots.
GM: Then Crosby showed up that very day you were hanging out with Dylan and picked a fight with you?
PFS: Crosby and I never got along. Terry Melcher had asked me to shepherd The Byrds’ first performance. When they showed up in full hippie regalia, they freaked everyone out. No one had ever seen anything like it. I don’t know why David and I didn’t click. I think he considered me to be a fake. I was a guy who wrote surfing songs; what was I doing writing serious folk music? But I’ll tell you. The line I wrote in “Eve Of Destruction” that went “you’re old enough to kill but not for votin’” made America sit up and take notice. At that time, you could be drafted into the Army at 18, go to Vietnam and be ordered to kill people, but you couldn’t vote until you were 21. They changed that law soon after my song. But getting back to Crosby, he was a much more alpha male than I was. Dylan clued him in and told him, “There’s more to this guy than you realize.”
GM: At least he wasn’t a total monster to you, like Papa John Phillips was. Brandishing a knife and threatening to kill you? Damn!
PFS: Although you can’t take away his talent, it was drugs and a lust for power that made him like that. I was in on the meetings with him and Lou Adler when they planned Monterey Pop. We wanted to invite The Beatles, and they wanted to come. But then Lennon found out that Phillips pulled a knife on me through their publicist, Derek Taylor. Lennon was told the fest was all about love and peace, but when he realized it was only all about Phillips and money, money, money, he convinced the rest of the band to pass.
GM: Another Beatle story in the book is that you were also right there on the street corner in Haight Ashbury when George Harrison showed up.
PFS: I was hanging out with [the Grateful Dead’s] Phil Lesh when the limo pulled up and George came out wanting to see what the scene was all about. Funny thing about that is it was the start of those hippies becoming more like zombies on drugs, and George had no idea. He thought they were fans rushing toward him. We beckoned him back into his limo. The American government had introduced a very dangerous drug into that neighborhood to thwart the scene and had turned all these wonderfully sweet people into zombies. This can’t be proven, but we all knew it. It was, streetwise, common knowledge. The government was simply not going to stand for this love generation. It was stamped out within a year.
GM: You say Lasker and Adler prevented you from becoming a huge star at every turn. Finally, Lasker shows his mobster side by threatening you with pictures of corpses. “This is what will happen to you if you don’t play ball.” That’s when you escaped to New York and became a junkie?
PFS: He was a megalomaniac. What he actually said was, “Is this what you want your family to look like?” Lasker went way out of his way to make my life miserable at Dunhill Records. But he did that with a lot of people.
GM: I’m finding it hard to fathom a motivation for the head of a label to not want you to become a big star, because your success would’ve been his success.
PFS: No, that’s the rationale my Jewish mother would say. He wanted power. He wanted me to kiss his shoes. He didn’t care about success or money. He made millions on The Beatles.
PFS: I brought him the Beatles for Vee-Jay Records.
[Author’s Note: “Introducing The Beatles” came out on Vee-Jay Records Jan. 10, 1964, 10 days prior to “Meet The Beatles!” on Capitol Records.]
They were looked at as Everly Brothers wannabes. But I knew they were more. The hair on the back of my neck stood up when I first heard them. I immediately went to Lou Adler, who thought they were garbage. Hell, I was 16! I was very happy with $10 a week. I didn’t expect anyone to believe in my opinion. Why should they? But when you look at what Dunhill Records could have had? I brought them Buffalo Springfield. Lou Adler turned them down. They had The Mamas & The Papas, The Grass Roots and Three Dog Night, but they could have had The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Buffalo Springfield, as well.
GM: So you reach New York, hook up with a junkie girl who puts a monkey on your back. You lose your voice at a Bottom Line gig and Elvis, long after he dies, helps you and sings through your body — this after you had met him at a music store at the age of 12 and he gave you an impromptu music lesson.
PFS: He was a divine being. No one fully understands this. We understand the hormonal and vocal impact only. I prayed in my dressing room for help that night, because I knew my voice was shot. Elvis answered. He said, “You just open up your mouth, and I’ll sing for you until you get your sea legs.” That’s what he said to me. I was so blown away from what I was hearing coming out of my mouth that I remember stopping and asking the audience, “Is it just me, or am I hearing Elvis?”
GM: So you get through the gig with Presley’s help, then Clive Davis comes a callin,’ wanting to sign you.
PFS: He asked me to write another “Eve Of Destruction.” I was broke at the time while Steve Barri, my former songwriting partner, got all my Dunhill royalties and was living in a big mansion in the Hollywood Hills. So I gave him “Eve Of Destruction ’90” for the World Wildlife Fund.
GM: I must admit, you meeting James Dean three years after he died is rather hard to believe.
PFS: I was 13. All I could tell you is what I believed I experienced. I don’t know any more than that. I know that a guy who looked exactly like James Dean drove up to me in the exact car James Dean drove while I was selling the Herald Examiner on the street corner. He asked how many papers I had. I said 20. He bought them all but brought them all back so I could resell them. But there was a story about James Dean he had cut out of every paper. Between you and I, I had further experiences with James Dean which I did not put in the book. I know it’s bizarre.
GM: You also went to India to study with a holy man, and it changed your life.
PFS: My only obligation now is for self-realization.
GM: During the time you were away from the music scene, where the hell were you? You had a big tribute concert in 1993 at the Troubadour in Hollywood upon your return. Were you locked away in a strait jacket somewhere?
PFS: I was put into a mental institution, Cedars Sinai in L.A. There was a psychiatrist there who was fond of lobotomizing patients. I left this out of the book. He just wanted the Medicare money. I was told the night before he was going to lobotomize me that I should get out of the hospital immediately. I tried to escape but couldn’t. They wound up giving me these lobotomy pills and sent me home to live with my mother, where I stayed all of that time in my room. GM