Most of us hear the name P.F. Sloan and think of the many hits he wrote for The Grassroots, Barry McGuire, Johnny Rivers, The Turtles, The Searchers, Herman and the Hermits, The Fifth Dimension, and Jan and Dean. All this and more is discussed in Sloan’s new autobiography, What’s Exactly the Matter with Me? Memoirs of a Life in Music. (It’s reviewed here.)
But when it comes to Sloan’s new My Beethoven, you can forget all that. With just a cursory listen, you’re more likely to think of names like Sondheim and Webber. Of course, you’ll be thinking about Ludwig Von Beethoven as the disc is all about Sloan’s vision of the composer he thinks of as Louis (after the French translation of his name, pronounced “Louie”).
Since 2001, in collaboration with noted playwright Stephen Feinberg, Sloan has been working on a musical drama called Louis! Louis! It includes all the songs on My Beethoven with passages of Beethoven’s own works woven into the mix. Not surprisingly, My Beethoven feels very much like a theatre piece with one voice—Sloan’s—telling the story of a composer we only thought we knew.
According to publicity for My Beethoven, Sloan was inspired to research the composer’s biography after he heard a concert in L.A. Sloan felt a spiritual connection after he learned Beethoven loved to play in bars and the Ninth Symphony originated from a favorite drinking song. Beethoven played guitar, wrote hundreds of folk songs (including in Hungarian and Russian), and set poems by the Scottish Robert Burns to music. Beethoven arranged the version of “Auld Lang Syne” we sing today.
Beyond these lesser known musical connections between Beethoven and the popular culture of his time, Sloan was struck by Beethoven’s tragic life. As a result, My Beethoven is less a collection of songs in the traditional sense, but rather musical narratives where “Louis” tells his story via Sloan’s interpretations. These include the realization Beethoven kept his deafness a secret as, at the time, the church would condemn him as cursed as such inflictions were considered divine judgments. Contemporary critics thought him a Mozart “wannabe.” The magnificent works we revere now were penned by a penniless man barely able to afford paper, ink, and food. In Sloan’s words, in his latter years, Beethoven must have felt the music “yet to be” lies between the notes he’s playing because he no longer hears thunder, “children down the line,” but rather “golden silence” dropped on him by “heaven’s crazy game.”
It’s not difficult to understand how this story would resonate with Sloan. He was closely associated with the folk rock of the late ’60s, was considered by some as a Dylan “wannabe,” was robbed of many of the royalties due him, and spent a decade as an outcast from the music business in a catatonic state. In short, My Beethoven is lyrically and musically the story of a man Sloan could relate to due to his own personal travails but also shared mutual triumphs.
Supporting the lyrics, Sloan performs on a Yamaha grand digital piano with lush and arty sections played by members of the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra. From the opening passages of the first track, “The Black Robed Spaniard (Beautifully Blue),” it’s more than evident Sloan should be recognized for being a performer as much as songwriter. His vocals are reflective and emotional, his piano fingering is more than up to the task of invoking the musical styles of the Romantic era. While the compositions are largely Sloan alone, one choral track, “In Celebration Of,” was a collaboration of Sloan with Procol Harum’s Keith Reid. While short quotes from Beethoven appear throughout, the most obvious full collaboration Sloan put together with his master is “Contemplating Chaos” with new lyrics sung over the Fourth Movement (“Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony). Referring to that piece, the final cut, the beautiful, extended instrumental “The Joy of the Ninth” is where Sloan really shows off what he’s learned over the decades about the range of possibilities in those black and white keys.
With the notable exception of the contemporary-sounding “This Love,” no one should expect many catchy melodies or memorable hooks in My Beethoven. Instead, listeners should expect to bathe in a musical journey that can’t be fully absorbed in one casual sitting. I have but one complaint. One could wish the disc was accompanied by a booklet with the lyrics as they can be appreciated on their own merits. Sloan’s Beethoven has much to say:
“Fate is a puppeteer
The trick is knowing when to dare it
You must listen to your soulful guide
Or be deaf to the higher meaning of our lives
I climb that mountain every day, every day!”