Sathya Sai Baba: Sloan Sails On

Sloan sails on
Singer-songwriter makes a return 40 years in the making
By Paul Freeman

The word “genius” is bandied about far too often in the popular arts. But it’s a term that applies to P.F. Sloan.

Sloan penned the archetypal protest song, “Eve of Destruction,” a No. 1 record for Barry McGuire. He wrote hits for the Turtles, Association, Jan & Dean, Grassroots and Herman’s Hermits, as well as the ultimate spy TV series theme – “Secret Agent Man.” He co-produced the first Mamas & Papas debut and played that unforgettable guitar opening to “California Dreamin’.”

His record label buried his brilliant work as a solo artist. As a singer-songwriter, Sloan deserved to be ranked with Phil Ochs, Tim Hardin, Eric Andersen, Tim Buckley and, yes, even Bob Dylan. But because he had been associated with commercial pop-rock, he didn’t receive that level of respect.

The label didn’t want him to tour. They preferred to keep him chained in the hit factory. He was pressured to sign over all of his royalties. Hypoglycemia helped send him into a downward spiral of depression and catatonia. He vanished from the music scene for decades.

But Sloan has risen. This mythic figure is touring for the first time, including stops at Petaluma’s Mystic Theatre and San Francisco’s Cafe Du Nord. He has a new album, his first in 30 years. It’s called “Sailover.” And it is a masterpiece.

“I wanted to go back to music, but I had to wait until I could do it in a safe way, in a good environment,” said Sloan, as he tuned up backstage at the Mystic. “I didn’t want to take the chance, if there was a possibility of it being another negative experience.”

A nurturing environment was supplied by producer Jon Tiven, an accomplished songwriter and performer who has produced albums for Wilson Pickett and Frank Black, among others. Sloan and Tiven were surprised to learn that they both shared the same guru – Sai Baba. Their collaboration seemed destined.

To unobtrusively complement Sloan’s work, Tiven enlisted gifted guest artists, including Black, Lucinda Williams, Buddy Miller and Felix Cavaliere.
They found a perfect home for “Sailover” at Oakland’s HighTone Records. Label head Larry Sloven remembered as a teen hearing Sloan’s single “Sins of a Family” on the radio and being riveted by its controversial tale of a girl driven to the depths by a poisonous home life.

Tiven said, “There aren’t a whole lot of record companies out there (that) let you make your record the way you want to make it and (that) are willing to get behind somebody who’s over the age of 23. HighTone welcomed Phil.”

Tiven met Sloan by chance 15 years ago and had been trying to talk the reclusive artist into making a record ever since. “His sound was contemporary and timeless, at the same time,” said Tiven.

“Phil (P.F.) had to feel like he himself was ready to take that step. He had a lot of issues in his life he wanted to resolve before he put himself on the firing line again,” Tiven said.

“Sailover” exudes emotional and intellectual power. Sloan proves to be a riveting force, whether expressing sensitivity, on “From a Distance” and “Soul of the Woman,” or venting, as in the righteously fed-up “Violence.” The new songs hold their own with exciting renditions of classic material, such as “Eve of Destruction” and “Sins of a Family,” both of which resonate with startling relevance.

Sloan had never stopped writing, but didn’t feel his efforts were worthy of a return. That changed the instant he finally said yes to Tiven. “It didn’t seem that there was anything left, any talent there for me to work with,” Sloan said. “Songs didn’t come out whole or intact. I was struggling with too many pieces.

“Within a day or two of agreeing to do the album, three songs came out that I couldn’t have written a week before. I realized that the songwriter was alive and well, conscious and eager. I was open and ready to allow that to happen.

“I see within myself, this thing, the writer called P.F. Sloan, and I hadn’t been in touch with that muse at all, for a good 30 years.”

Born Phillip Gary Schlein in New York, he moved with his family to Los Angeles at the age of 5. At 12, he was signed by Aladdin Records. “I never dreamed of a gold record. That seemed out of reach. I just wanted to show my dad that I could earn enough that I didn’t need to go to pharmacy school,” said Sloan smiling.

By 19, Phil Sloan, as he was then called, had become a hitmaker, writing and producing for Dunhill. The label teamed Sloan with the older Steve Barri and they churned out hits. As a recording duo, they released surf tunes as The Fantastic Baggys.

After the Kennedy assassination, Sloan, who had admired the socially conscious songs of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Dylan, found P.F. In one night, he wrote five songs, including “Eve of Destruction,” “Sins of a Family” and “Take Me For What I’m Worth” (a hit for the Searchers).

“That was an occurrence that I had never in my life experienced,” Sloan said. “This was a different consciousness. I wanted to have a different name for this consciousness.

“Phil Sloan was only interested in writing songs that were popular. P.F. Sloan was only interested in moving himself, friends, family, this country, the world, into the light of consciousness. That’s what the ’60s were really about, in my opinion.”

“Eve of Destruction” became a phenomenon, despite radio bans. Its indictment of war and hypocrisy still rings true.

By 21, he had written 27 chart songs and countless album cuts. Sloan felt he was just beginning to flower. But his label and publishing company turned against him. “When a person loses their family, it’s traumatic. I thought they were my family.”

Sloan became an outcast. He frightened the pop world and folk-protest purists rejected him. “I expected to be allowed to grow,” he said. “But that wasn’t the situation. I wasn’t getting much respect. You couldn’t pick a worse person to be, at that time.”

Bitterness over his treatment has faded. “I learned to forgive and forget, simply because not forgiving someone for what they did, really takes it out on you, not them. It’ll eat you up inside.”

There were those who revered Sloan. Jimmy Webb paid him homage with his 1970 song “P.F. Sloan.” Sloan said, “It meant that somebody got me, knew that I cared, that I really loved music and people. It was a great song that helped put a star on my name.”

Sloan had serious health issues to overcome. Hypoglycemia took a long time to diagnose, even longer to properly treat.

He found the answer in an ashram in India, with Sai Baba. “None of the doctors could heal me. He began rebuilding me. He sent me love. I could feel it, touch it, breathe it, live it. And that healed everything. Then when I became completely healed, he said, ‘I want you back in music.'”

The time is right for Sloan’s return. “Eve of Destruction” feels like it was torn from today’s headlines. “It seems like we’ve gone two steps backwards,” he said. “The upcoming elections will be very telling.”

Sloan is now being showered with the respect that should have been his 40 years ago. At 62, Sloan is a self-assured, revitalized artist hitting full stride. His opportunity to serve as spokesman for a generation may be in his future, not his past.


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