He’s put destruction on hold

Times Staff Writer

P.F. Sloan sat in his small dining room and smoothly played some guitar licks to the recording of Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World” coming from the CD player.

It’s a song close to his heart, the kind of early rock ‘n’ roll hit that inspired the L.A. teenager to go into music in the early 1960s. And as it happens, the song was co-written by Lou Adler, the founder of Dunhill Records.

That’s where young Phil Schlein, with his musical partner Steve Barri, developed a golden touch as a songwriter and studio player, with a hand in dozens of hits for that label and others. The Mamas & the Papas, the Grass Roots, the Turtles, Johnny Rivers and Herman’s Hermits were just a few of the acts to benefit from the team’s contributions.


It’s also where he came up with “Eve of Destruction” -- the granddaddy of ‘60s protest songs, a No. 1 hit for Barry McGuire in 1965, a cultural cause celebre that made him an icon and triggered two decades of torment.

In that chasm, Sloan has assumed the contours of one of the Los Angeles music world’s lost geniuses. His output might not have the weight of Brian Wilson’s or the late Arthur Lee’s, to name two others who came back from troubled sojourns, but his return might be more surprising than either of those.

“I was ill I guess for a good 20, maybe 25 years. I suffered from mental illness,” Sloan said evenly, smoking a cigarette on the deck in his backyard. “It’s been overcome and there’s hope.... I mean, depression and hypoglycemia, it’s a tremendous battle.... Catatonia for a long time.

“It really feels good to be back, especially meeting people,” Sloan said. “It’s a very small world that I live in -- very small, very small, very enclosed -- so getting out and talking with people and exchanging ideas and finding out what other people are doing, feeling and thinking is very nice.”

An aura of sadness hung over Sloan, 60, as he gazed at the wide, sunny and serene yard of the secluded Westside house where he lives by himself. But it was tempered by the exuberance of renewed activity.

Sloan has recorded his first album in 12 years, and only the sixth of his rocky life. “Sailover,” which includes new compositions and remakes of some of the old ones, including “Eve of Destruction” and “Halloween Mary,” comes out today on the HighTone label, a decade after Sloan experienced what he terms a divine healing after visiting guru Sai Baba at his ashram in India. And he’s charged up.


“I feel very good, very safe, very open, my heart is open,” said Sloan, who will perform at the Largo on Sept. 27. “This is like a 20-year-old’s dream.... This is beyond my own imagination.... My energy is 120% right now.... I walked into a club in London and did an impromptu 2 1/2 -hour set, 75 songs, in 110-degree heat.”

Record producer Jon Tiven, who met Sloan in the mid-’90s and pestered him to make a new album until the reluctant singer finally came around, calls him “a great natural intelligence. He’s a tremendously insightful guy and spiritually in-touch person.... The fact the he was deep-sixed was a great loss to the music business.”

But was Sloan the victim of a clash between old-line music business and a new generation’s imperatives, as he contends, or of his own demons and stresses?

“He was always a sensitive kid,” his old boss Adler recalls. “He was a little shy, looking out of the corner of his eye more than straight ahead.... ‘Eve of Destruction’ is really when the sensitivity which wasn’t able to surface in those pop records came out. It doesn’t surface quite as much when you write a Herman’s Hermits song.”

Howard Kaylan, co-leader of the Turtles, a band whose list of hits is stocked with Sloan-Barri songs including “You Baby” and “Let Me Be,” said, “I think he really did love being sort of a messiah. And since that wasn’t going to come again to him in his career, that might have soured him toward everything....

“I don’t think anybody’s ever questioned that he’s a really, really good writer,” Kaylan said. “As far as performing his own songs and being a Dylan to the generation, which he aspired to be, I think if he lost his brain, it’s because he never got there.”


By Sloan’s account, “Eve of Destruction” and four other songs came to him unbidden in one writing session, when he was visited for the first time by an entity called P.F. Sloan.

Barri and the Dunhill executives were aghast at “Eve of Destruction,” he says, with its attacks on American militarism and segregation in the South, and immediately wanted to “get rid” of him. He says that right-wing forces pressured the label and Billboard magazine to get the record off the charts, and that Dunhill President Jay Lasker used death threats to force him to sign away his royalties.

Up until then, it had been smooth sailing for Sloan, whom Adler paired with Barri to be a West Coast counterpart to New York songwriting teams such as Gerry Goffin and Carole King and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.

“He was the kind of guy, put a guitar in his hand and put him out on stage, he was a killer,” Barri says. “Had he not had his problems, trust me, I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years, and he’s one of the most talented.”

Barri has different memories about “Eve of Destruction,” saying that he had no problem with its political statements and pointing out that he produced Sloan’s first folk-rock album, 1965’s “Songs of Our Times,” hoping that his partner would thrive as a solo artist.

And rather than hating the record, he says, Dunhill’s Lasker was so bullish on it that he rushed to L.A. radio station KFWB-AM with a preliminary recording featuring a rough McGuire vocal. While the singer was home practicing for the final recording, KFWB put it on the air, and that became the hit version.


Lasker died in 1989, and Barri won’t speculate about what happened behind closed doors between the exec and the artist. He knows that Lasker pressured Sloan financially to return to pop songwriting and that the label didn’t support his solo ambitions.

“Jay was a tough, tough cookie, really a tough guy,” Barri says. “I always got along with him, but I had a big problem with the way he would treat artists. He wasn’t a people person.”

Whatever happened, Sloan changed:

“When Phil went with Barry McGuire to England to promote ‘Eve of Destruction,’ when he came back he was never really the same person,” Barri says. “There was no more joking around. Everything was very serious, and he was angry. After a while he just broke off all relationships with everybody and we lost contact for many, many years.”

The past still seemed immediate to Sloan as he recounted his story. Sensitive to slights, he can’t mention his Grass Roots hit “Where Were You When I Needed You” without adding that a member of the Bangles said it was written by “an immature songwriter” when that group recorded it.

He also was bitter about the lack of recognition for “Eve of Destruction” from the purist folk world, which he attributes to his image as a songwriter for hire.

But now he’s finally feeling some support, with guest appearances on the new album by such acclaimed contemporary figures as Lucinda Williams, Frank Black and Buddy Miller.


“He was so excited when he recorded the vocal duet for ‘Halloween Mary’ with Frank Black,” says Tiven, the CD’s producer. “Phil said, ‘This is the greatest day of my life since 1965.’ ”