One day while P. F. Sloan was hoping to establish a normal existence outside the music business, he thought he could become a successful life insurance salesman. When he applied for a job, the supervisor noticed he had once been in the music industry. She asked what he had done. He replied, “I wrote songs. I produced songs. I arranged songs. I found songs. I played songs. And I sang songs.” The lady asked if he had been successful. “Depends,” was his answer.
For anyone who ever looked at the songwriting credits for many a hit of the ’60s, that “depends” would be a surprising answer. Who doesn’t know that Phil Sloan wrote “Eve of Destruction,” “Secret Agent Man,” and hits for The Grassroots, The Turtles, The Searchers, Fifth Dimension, and Herman and the Hermits among others? But how many of us know about his work as a producer, arranger, singer, player, or a talent scout?
In fact, I suspect Sloan’s new What’s Exactly the Matter with Me? Memoirs of a Life in Music has more surprising revelations than any other rock memoir you’ve ever read. Did you know Sloan got one of his first guitar lessons from Elvis when he was only 12? Because of Sloan’s early interest in helping the Beatles land a deal with Vee-Jay Records, Brian Epstein wanted to manage him. Not only did Sloan play guitar on many records for the surf crowd, it was often Sloan singing the high falsetto melodies for Jan and Dean we thought were provided by Dean Torrence. Sloan played guitar on the first Mamas and Papas album, including the lead-in to “California Dreaming.” He produced the Stones’ “Paint It Black” and helped pump up The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man.” An early champion of Buffalo Sprigfield, he was with Stephen Stills the night “For What It’s Worth” was inspired. He helped launch Jimmy Webb. He feels The Turtles, who recorded several of his tunes, didn’t get the recognition they deserved.
So, not surprisingly, What’s Exactly the Matter with Me? is chock-full of rock and roll anecdotes on nearly every page. And, also not surprisingly, much of the story focuses on the darker side of the business. In particular, as Sloan spent his most productive years associated with Lou Adler’s Dunhill Records, Adler and his savage business practices dominate much of the story. Far from the visionary you’d expect to helm a pioneering label, Adler was more than reluctant to promote Barry McGuire or sign the Mamas and Papas. As with The Grassroots, Adler stubbornly refused to allow artists to play on their own records. Sloan’s alleged partner, Steve Barri, got credit for many songs he didn’t co-write. Dunhill made Sloan a virtual indentured servant to stay in the business. What did Sloan get beyond empty promises for his work and loyalty? When Adler sold Dunhill to ABC/Paramount, Sloan was proudly given a gold key that opened nothing and had no real gold in it.
Then, a crazed John Phillips accosted him with a knife and tried to ban Sloan from the Monterey Pop Festival. It all ended when literal death threats from a Dunhill executive forced Sloan to flee for his life from LA.
At the beginning of his book, Sloan says rock music comes from cultural “outsiders,” but in his exile, Sloan was not merely outside the business but an outcast. For nearly a decade, he was catatonic or hospitalized and only rescued when Clive Davis thought he could orchestrate a comeback for Sloan. Those plans didn’t jell quite as Davis hoped, but Sloan did find his road to rock and roll recovery. It was part spiritual, part mystical, and, of course, part musical. Happily, the book has a happy ending.
Part of what makes What’s Exactly the Matter with Me? so readable is Sloan’s economical treatment of his personal life, at least in terms of his formative years and romances. He knows what potential readers will be most interested in, which is essentially the trail of hits from surf days through the contrived “idealism” of rock music in the late ’60s. His story is unique. His story isn’t one of drug abuse or sexual excess. Rather, despite warnings from friends like Bob Dylan, Sloan was a man who allowed himself to be bullied to stay inside his comfort zone and turned down opportunities that might have made all the difference. He takes us into the studio where hits were shaped, the rooms where songs were composed, and the offices where contracts were signed and ultimatums delivered. After this whirlwind of activity, most readers will want to see what happened next. Sloan’s decades out of the spotlight become very meaningful and sometimes tragically dramatic.
But while the book is completed when readers reach the final pages, the story isn’t over. The memoir is coming out just as My Beethoven, Sloan’s first new album in nearly a decade, is also being released. 2014 looks to be an intriguing new chapter in the saga of P.F. Sloan. Stay tuned–[amazon asin=http://www.amazon.com/Whats-Exactly-Matter-Memoirs-Music/dp/1908279575&text=Amazon]