Saturday, May 6, 2017

The P.F. Sloan Book | Lefsetz Letter

They didn’t know what they were doing.

All those legendary hits, played ad infinitum on transistors way back when and Sirius today? The creators were just trying to get ahead, they were just trying to get paid.

I’ve been sifting through books and I came across “What’s Exactly The Matter With Me?: Memoirs of a life in music,” by P.F. Sloan and S.E. Feinberg.

P.F. Sloan, the guy who wrote “Eve of Destruction,” right?

The dirty little secret of these rock bios is they’re terrible. Interesting subject matter, with too often too little revealed (can you say Linda Ronstadt?), but they’re poorly written and even when the celebrity is involved there are glaring factual mistakes and agendas and my plan was just to skim it and toss it, but then I got hooked.

P.F. Sloan hated Lou Adler. Now Lou only gets good press these days, even though he’s been out of the game for eons. He’s the legend that goes to Laker games. But he’s just a guy screwing him in Sloan’s eyes. And Adler went on to much greater success, whereas after Lou…crickets for P.F.

So P.F. is paired up with Steve Barri, who he feels responsible for, since Barri is married with a kid. And neither of those are their real last names, hell, Sloan’s dad renamed the clan from “Schlein” after leaving New York for Los Angeles and there was no big plan, Sloan and Barri didn’t want to become legends, they wanted to SURVIVE!

We forget once upon a time music was a backward business peopled by thieves and crooks where the records came and went and if you were involved you might end up with some fame but very little money.

This is so different from today. Where constructing a hit single is like building a skyscraper. Nothing’s done on a whim, except by the wannabes, but it used to be that those on the bottom could not get a chance, recording deals were rare, so they worked.

They worked as recently as the nineties.

As you are probably aware, Col. Bruce Hampton died on stage this week. And I can’t help thinking how I saw him with Phish back in ’92. And I’m looking up the gig and I’m stunned, Phish is playing across the country every night. With no major record deal and no fame, they were building it as they want along.

But now you cannot do that, because there’s nowhere to play. The clubs have disappeared and those that still exist want deejays and no one will tolerate mediocrity, never mind new music. The audience wants all hits all the time and if you don’t provide them they’ll just immerse themselves in their mobile devices, shutting you out.

So Col. Bruce Hampton paid his dues. I forgot that he was in the Hampton Grease Band, but remembered he opened for the Mothers at the Fillmore, used to see their name on the poster, in an era where you had no chance of hearing most records released, your department store didn’t rack them and you couldn’t afford them.

And Hampton played with Zappa and formed the Aquarium Rescue Unit with ultimately famous players and kept on working until his 70th birthday party which turned into a wake. He never got rich, didn’t even get famous. But if you follow musicians, it was a veritable who’s who who showed up to pay tribute to him the other night.

That’s the way you used to do it, formed a band and hit the road and if you were any good you got more bookings and you got high and got laid and some people dropped out and some sustained and ended up being able to do the same thing today, even though you wonder if you should be home with your wife and kids. This is the life you chose. You can barely even choose this life anymore.

But in P.F. Sloan’s era it was different. There was no glamour. Believe me, everybody didn’t want to be a rock star before the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, what you heard on the radio was ENTERTAINMENT!

But someone had to make it. Someone had to work for bupkes writing songs.

And most of these songs were shite. But you choose a line of work and get better by doing it and then get to know everybody and opportunity opens up. In this case, with Jan & Dean, Adler’s other charges.

But then Sloan starts talking about the studio. Not only the players, but the engineers. What their skills were. Using limiters. How Jan Berry employed multiple units to get that sound and suddenly you’re hooked, you want to go deeper, you just can’t get enough, this is what you lived for.

Yes, we lived to go to Manny’s to look at the guitars.

We wanted to know everybody in the credits. We wanted to know the tricks, how the magic was created.

And you didn’t need a famous father, you didn’t even need an education or money to participate, you just had to move to L.A. and move through the social network, only this one wasn’t online, but virtual. And I’ll tell you every damn day that today is better than yesterday, I don’t want to go back to the pre-internet era with its loneliness and its boredom, but something’s been lost in the transition, kinda like when cars lost their vent windows to a/c… Every once in a while you just want to open the vent.

And if you lived through this era, the early to mid-sixties, you remember. Going to school, having crushes, and being addicted to the radio. EVERYBODY knew the hits, a number one track is a fraction of what it was back then. You felt part of a group, a movement, a tide.

And it was all based on the music and interacting. It wasn’t about accumulating likes but being real friends, actually knowing people that could move you down the board. And when Sloan talks about being locked out of the arena in Hawaii at a Beach Boys and more gig… You resonate. You haven’t played in Hollywood unless you’ve felt left out. He was the bass player, but his friend Carl Wilson, who he hung with in the studio, didn’t remember him. He was scheduled to play but he couldn’t get inside, how big a deal was he? How big a deal are you? How big a deal am I?

And the recently departed Bob Krasnow worked at a label called Domain which begged Adler for songs. Used to be songs were everything and acts didn’t write their own and Krasnow, et al, were always puffing up their image, pontificating about nonexistent sales, because you fake it to make it, truly.

As for the studio cats, Sloan delineates their qualities, their essence, the way Leon Russell could play octave notes on the piano with his left hand and it made all the difference. He was not the Master of Space & Time, he was a studio cat making a living, not getting rich, but having fun.

And then Sloan hears a voice and writes five hit songs in a night. Including “Eve of Destruction.” Who knows where inspiration comes from. Who knows how whacked our heroes are. Hell, this is the same guy who says he sold fifty newspapers to James Dean two years after he died. And we fans can never get over the fact that our heroes are done. They had hits once, now they no longer do. Styles change, people lose the muse, but the truth is music is a business of luck and it runs out very quickly, be stunned you make it at all.

And the people in this book were stunned. They were building an edifice, the foundations of classic rock, music that has lasted forever, and they thought they were building cheap motels that wouldn’t last a decade. Hell, Peter Grant sold out Zeppelin’s catalogue, who’d want to listen to that music decades hence?

And reading Sloan’s book I realize as much as I know I don’t know anything, about the music business, about life. There is no master plan. You just march forward and try to make the best of the opportunities. And when you’re changing the world, you think you’re just earning a living. It’s only with hindsight that you can see what you accomplished. All the rules and regulations, the restrictions you carped about, ironically led to your success. They channeled your efforts and when they were truly inane, you revolted, like Terry Melcher and Sloan, who locked out the Columbia engineer when he wouldn’t link up the echo chambers, they figured they had an hour to make “Mr. Tambourine Man” work themselves.

And they did. With a lot of reverb and effects. Same performances, same basic tracks, but the tweaks turned it into a hit.

I’ve got no idea if Lou Adler is a good guy or a bad one, I don’t know him well enough. But I do know that Brian Epstein sent out a promo kit trying to get someone to release the Beatles in America, and when Sloan liked the four tracks Epstein told Andrew Loog Oldham to send on the Stones. You see it was just that simple, serendipity. And the business was smaller. You knew the players and were not inundated with product.

And you didn’t think you were changing the world.

But you were.

What’s Exactly The Matter With Me?: Memoirs of a life in music


No comments: