“Eve of Destruction,” the famous folk-rock protest hit from 1965, isn’t usually regarded as a specifically Jewish song. Or even a religious one, for that matter.
It’s a litany of anguished complaints about the problems of the temporal world of the time — civil rights marchers repelled in Selma, Ala., the imminent danger of nuclear war, the threat from a militant “Red China.” It struck such a chord with a teenage audience worried about the future that it reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, a youthful crie de coeur against the political status quo. It became an extraordinary pop-cultural event in its own right.
But the long-missing-in-action writer of “Eve of Destruction,” 61-year-old Los Angeles resident P.F. (Phil) Sloan, cites his studies of Jewish mysticism as a key source of inspiration. After decades of fighting physical and mental illnesses that ended his professional career, Sloan is back with a new CD, “Sailover,” recently released on Hightone Records. Only his sixth album since 1965, it includes versions of “Eve” and other songs he wrote in the 1960s, plus new folk-rock compositions. And he performs at Largo in the Fairfax district, where he grew up, on Sept. 27.
After his bar mitzvah at Hollywood Temple Beth El, Sloan’s rabbi recommended him for early kabbalah training, especially study of the mystical writings and Torah interpretations in the Zohar.
“It is rare because you’re supposed to be 40 [to study],” Sloan said, speaking by phone from Chicago where he was performing at a club. “My rabbi suspected I was an old soul.”
He studied for about 18 months, he said, providing him with “a greater, deeper understanding of Judaism and its relationship to people.”
But at the same time, Sloan was also interested in rock ‘n’ roll. In 1964, while still a teenager, he and friend Steve Barri wrote and recorded “Tell ‘Em I’m Surfin'” as the Fantastic Baggys. His “P.F. Sloan” persona appeared in 1964, when in response to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, he wrote several protest songs, “Eve of Destruction,” “The Sins of the Family” and “Take Me for What I’m Worth.” It took a full year before the growlingly, deep-voiced singer Barry McGuire, fresh from the New Christy Minstrels, released “Eve” on L.A.’s Dunhill Records — also Sloan’s label — and it became a hit.
Sloan feels the song was “directly attributable” to his kabbalah studies.
“The song was a divine gift,” he said. “I was given information about the history of the world through that song — not that that’s unusual in mystical Judaism. It was quite a wonderful gift at age 19 to be given that. I knew it was special and knew it would change things.”
Sloan sees the song as his dialogue with God.
“I say to God that ‘this whole crazy world is just too frustrating,’ and then God says to me, ‘But you tell me over and over and over again about these problems I already know,'” he said.
“It’s an endless dance around this razor’s edge about what God is saying every time I sing this song,” Sloan explained. “He’s telling me, ‘Don’t believe we’re on the eve, I’m not going to allow it.’ And then other times when I sing it, I get the message he’s going to allow destruction to happen. Every time I sing it, I get an insight into what’s going on.”
Sloan’s parents moved from New York, where he was born as Philip Gary Schlein, to Los Angeles for his mother’s arthritis. But when his father had trouble getting permission to open a downtown sundries store under his name Schlein, he changed it to “Sloan” to avoid anti-Semitism.
Working with Barri or alone, Sloan wrote hits for other pop stars in the 1960s, including “Secret Agent Man” for Johnny Rivers, “Where Were You When I Needed You” for The Grass Roots and “Let Me Be” for The Turtles. But his attempts at becoming a successful singer-songwriter like his idol, Bob Dylan, didn’t work out. He says his record company was reluctant to support him at the time and that he signed away his songwriting royalties.
And from roughly 1971 to 1986, he said, he was incapacitated by undiagnosed hypoglycemia that led to depression and catatonia. He lived with his now-deceased parents until they found an apartment for him and helped him get nursing care.
But in 1986, he also started visiting Sai Baba, a controversial Indian guru who claims healing powers, at his ashram. He has gone back every two years and slowly started to recover. He said by 2001 he felt good enough to start performing again. In 2003, for instance, he participated in a tribute concert to Jewish religious singer and songwriter Shlomo Carlebach at Congregation Beth Jacob.
“I’m now walking 1 1/2 miles a day,” Sloan said. “I have a huge amount of energy. It’s like God has touched me and just given me a tremendous amount of love and energy. I feel like I’ve been reactivated.”
P.F. Sloan will be at Largo, 432 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. Doors open at 8 p.m. $5-$20.
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