|P.F. Sloan at Fromin's Delicatessen & Restaurant|
At Fromin's Delicatessen & Restaurant
1832 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica (310) 829-5443
P.F. Sloan’s musical path can be traced to one specific point of origin: the day his father took him to Wallichs Music City, the famous record store formerly located at Sunset and Vine in Hollywood, to buy a guitar.
“When I was 12, I met Elvis Presley there, and he gave me a guitar lesson,” the L.A. singer-songwriter remembers. “He took an interest in me right away, gave me a guitar lesson and within six months I was on an R&B label making records at 12 and a half.”
P.F., who has penned such hit singles as “Secret Agent Man” and “Eve of Destruction,” has a life story that is indeed far from ordinary, and he takes some time to share some of his experiences and talk about his first new album in nearly a decade, My Beethoven, with me at one of his neighborhood haunts, Fromin’s Delicatessen & Restaurant. Fromin’s has been serving deli favorites like Corned Beef and Cabbage and Reuben, Pastrami and Brisket sandwiches to Angelenos since the 1970s. P.F., however, has called Los Angeles home since the late 1950s when his family migrated from New York.
“My father was a pharmacist but couldn’t get his license here right away, so he opened up a sundries store in Downtown on Flower and Wilshire. It took a toll on him because he was a professional man, but he had to support his family, so it put a little distance between us,” he admits.
Although no one in his family was musically inclined, P.F. would pluck out songs at home on a small ukulele that only had one string on it and sing along to music he heard on the radio. That is, until the day he got a guitar and made the acquaintance of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. The R&B label he refers to was Aladdin Records, and by age 16 P.F. joined the songwriting staff and became head of A&R for Screen Gems music publishing.
“[At Aladdin,] they asked if I could write songs. I said, ‘yes,’ came up with four songs that week and went in and recorded them. That was the beginning. Music is divine when it’s done right. It changes people’s lives, as well as your own. First and foremost, it changes you inside. It’s a great life to have except it’s like this [motions up and down], and most people want a life like that [even, flat]. That’s why they find musicians interesting. I found musicians interesting because they all had a great sense of humor, and I really wanted to have that. You’re hanging around musicians who are so open, honest and so funny – it just seems like a great life. I was working with a professional bunch of musicians as a kid, and I got to learn a lot of things, which was great.”
Some of the personalities P.F. met at the time were Steve Barri, who became his songwriting partner, and Screen Gems executive Lou Adler, who hired the duo as backup singers/musicians for a band he managed, Jan and Dean. P.F. and Barri wrote on Jan and Dean’s next albums, composed the theme song for the T.A.M.I. Show and other tracks such as Round Robin’s “Kick That Little Foot Sally Ann.”
“It was all fun. The only pressure I felt was to keep myself from having to become a pharmacist,” confesses P.F. “As soon as they started paying me $10, $15 a week I knew that that was enough money to keep me from going to school.”
P.F. continued working with Adler at Dunhill Records where he wrote hits like “Eve of Destruction,” “Secret Agent Man,” the Turtles’ “You Baby” and “Let Me Be” and Herman’s Hermits’ “Hold On!” and “A Must to Avoid.” He also created and played the guitar intro for the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’.”
“You can’t imagine what it was like in those days, we had 60 new records coming out every week – a new Supremes, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan. This was week after week, with each getting better and better for two or three years. A catchy two-and-a-half minute song hit all these buttons of emotion within us, and their message was new. There were feel-good songs, but then there were message songs about the state of the world, how a wise person should be dealing with life,” recalls P.F. “First we had Elvis Presley to teach us how to kiss, be kissed and what a man expects from love and life. Then along come these teachers/philosophers like Lennon, Jagger, Dylan. This was a way different idea of what music is supposed to be versus Benny Goodman. It was actually teaching, waking up the consciousness of people that were fast asleep.”
This awakening definitely captured P.F.’s interest and influenced the songs he was writing. But it soon became the reason he would part ways with the music industry for several decades.
“That awakening was something the music business, my label, nobody wanted. They refused to publish anything that I wrote along those lines, and that’s fine. I don’t think any one thing is better than another. A pop song is equal to any folk song per se, but there are outstanding songs such as ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ that are going to live forever,” he explains. “When you’re growing up in music, you don’t think that it’s something you can shoot for, but there is an awakening that became the beginning of all my problems.”
At this point in our conversation at Fromin’s the waitress comes by for our order, and P.F. says he normally gets a bowl of soup and half of a sandwich. I mention that whenever I visit a deli I have to order matzo ball soup, so we both order a bowl. Fromin’s version stands out from others because of its big chunks of chicken, a dough ball the size of a baseball and noodles.
P.F. informs me that his mom was an extraordinary cook, and he also enjoys cooking. His specialty is his mom’s recipe for tomato sauce that “even Frank Sinatra wanted to buy.”
He currently lives on the West Side, but has lived all over Los Angeles. His family had originally moved to West Hollywood and settled in Mid-City West, and he admits that he has never felt comfortably at home anywhere other than his parents’ house. Yet, he has found one refuge in this world, although it’s literally across the globe.
“India is the place for me. I was blessed to first go in 1986 [to meet his guru], and it transformed my life completely. India is an enchanted place, like no place else on Earth. One can find enlightenment there; the energy is so full of love and charged with positive things,” he describes. “I go there often, and I can get snippets of being there in meditation to keep myself moving and going.”
It was at the urging of his guru that P.F. returned to music in the early 1990s, and this reemergence also had a lot to do with seeing Beethoven’s music performed for the first time at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
“It was like I was hearing music for the first time; it was that beautiful, a religious conversion. Beethoven, to me, is like trying to describe chocolate ice cream to someone who has never tasted it. It’s that good. I was never open to Beethoven before. I was given the talk that Beethoven and Shakespeare were for the nerds, and I was into rock ’n’ roll,” he offers. “But after I had done it all seen it all, I was completely burned out on music. There was no new revelation in pop music, it was just the same hormones, loneliness, angst. Whatever kind of enlightenment they were giving was for a whole new generation of teenagers who hadn’t experienced life yet to know what’s real and what’s not real. So the worst thing in my life happened, I didn’t have music anymore.”
Experiencing the live performance of Beethoven’s pieces renewed P.F.’s passion for music and piqued his curiosity about the composer’s own life.
“All I knew about Beethoven was that he was deaf and grouchy, so I read everything that I could get my hands on about him for the next six years,” he says. “This was before the internet, so I went to every library to find out why he wanted to commit suicide (because I was feeling suicidal) and why didn’t he commit suicide. I just needed to know the answer.”
As he delved further into Beethoven’s history, P.F. discovered that they had much more in common than their shared deep depression.
“He’s so misunderstood, and I feel misunderstood as well. Who doesn’t? But when you have the world’s greatest talent and he’s still not understood … As a matter of fact, most things that people know of him are lies written by a guy [Anton Schindler] who was basically using him. I found the real Beethoven in a book, Canto [Memories of Beethoven: From the House of the Black-Robed Spaniards], written by the son of Beethoven’s childhood friend,” he begins. “I also found books of his letters and his journals, and there was a lot I had in common with him so I thought we could be friends. He was considered a Mozart wannabe until the day he died, and I was always considered a Bob Dylan wannabe. I was abused as a child, and he was beaten as a child. He played guitar and wrote 400 folk songs. He carried a guitar with him everywhere, taking poems from Robert Burns and writing music to them.”
Their commonalities began to inspire P.F. to create compositions of his own, but there was one hurdle he had yet to overcome.
“I didn’t know how to play piano, so I began listening to Beethoven’s work played by Glenn Gould, who said that it was his life goal to play every note exactly as Beethoven played it, so when I was listening to Gould, I was listening to Beethoven, hearing a song exactly as he would have played it,” he tells. “I slowly began to learn how to play piano. I worked on one song, ‘Beethoven’s Delight,’ in 1994, but it was horrible, so I spent the next 20 years trying to reach the place where beauty exists in all of us.”
After years spent researching Beethoven’s life, studying piano, composition and orchestral arrangement, P.F. enlisted musicians from the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra, and My Beethoven began to come together.
“Learning to play the piano took me seven years, and I started getting money to get Pro Tools together to work on one song for eight years. Another thing I found attractive about Beethoven was that he erased everything, he struggled over every note for weeks. The fact that I love to rewrite made me feel like I had a partner, that it was OK to rewrite because that’s where the polish comes from,” he says. “B.B. King once told me, ‘Ninety percent of everything that you write is going to be crap, but most people fall in love with their own crap and can’t tell the difference anymore.’ It’s rare that you can throw away what you think is your best, start from scratch and find another level that’s never been touched by filters. It’s a fantastic process.”
My Beethoven was finally released in May, and also resulted in a pop opera P.F. created with playwright Steve Feinberg.
“By the time I finished nine songs, Steve Feinberg found me. I took him to my studio, played him the music and he said, ‘This is a play as well!’ We spent the next two years writing a play. I called it ‘Louie Louie.’ The French called him ‘Louis’ [pronounced ‘Louie’], and he loved it, so his close friends would call him Louie,” he says. “Beethoven really has become a dear friend. He transformed my life, filled it with beauty, love and music. I can’t imagine a day without him.”
My Beethoven is currently available. For more information, visit sloanpf.wix.com/-pf-sloan-memoirs.