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108th comeback tour

Legendary, reclusive songwriter returns with strongest album yet

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"I feel like I'm the caretaker of his work," Phil Sloan says of his "alter-ego," the legendary songwriter/singer/producer known as P.F. Sloan. He's responsible for an amazingly eclectic cache of classic songs from the early- to mid-1960s -- many permanently etched on the mental hard drives of generations of astute music enthusiasts. "It's a part of myself that's witnessing and watching and has perspective on life in the world beyond what I, in my everyday world, see."

An often overlooked but fascinating pioneer of the Southern California folk-rock sound, Sloan is known for songs and performances made famous by the Mamas and Papas, the Turtles, the Grass Roots and many others. A real-life Zelig of the '60s, he bridged folk, pop, rock and soul with gentle ease. Decades later, his prophetic and controversial war anthem "Eve of Destruction," his contributions to Dunhill Records' stable of artists, and his role in the surf scene with Jan & Dean and the Fantastic Baggys -- as well as his four ultra-rare solo albums -- continue to resonate with listeners and collectors.

The recently released Sailover, his first official album since '72 -- and his best solo work to date -- finds the Dylanesque performer in fine form: relaxed, healthy and surrounded by a band of well-known guests.

"I basically did this album for the fans," he says by phone from his home in Los Angeles. "I promised them I'd validate their faith in me." His legion of hardcore devotees contains an impressive cross-section of writers, critics and musicians. Admirers including the Pixies' Frank Black, Lucinda Williams, Buddy Miller, Cheap Trick's Tom Petersson and busy producer Jon Tiven all contribute to the collection.

Since a brief run of shows in New York City in the mid-1980s, the reclusive Sloan spent most of his time getting his life together. Finally touring to support the disc, he's having his first real opportunity (outside of a few New York and Los Angeles gigs) to get out and perform live.

"I call it my 108th comeback," he laughs.

On the road, he says he often runs into people who "think their life is over and they know it all, they've seen it all and they've lived through the 'greatest times,'" he says. "But they're depressed and want to give up. They don't like the music that's out today and don't feel that they have much to listen to." His message to them is simple: "It's all happening right now. You really don't know what life is all about yet. Life is great, God is great and you can't even think about retiring."

Much of his newfound peace and blissful well-being comes from the teachings of Sai Baba. For the past two decades, he's made regular pilgrimages to visit the guru in India. In the mid-1980s, Sloan, long suffering with physical and mental problems, had a breakthrough.

"A holy man came to me in a dream and said he understood I was ill and that he would heal me," Sloan recalls. "I got on a plane. And I've been going back ever since. The process of healing has taken a good, long time, but the promise of healing has been fulfilled."

Happily back at work and in demand, Sloan's recent appearances include guest spots on Frank Black's Fast Man Raider Man and a Jan Berry tribute project. But don't expect the man who created the signature guitar licks on "California Dreamin'," "Secret Agent Man" and collaborated with many of the seminal figures of the '60s to look back -- much.

One vivid memory he relishes is his uncredited production work with the Rolling Stones on their session for "Paint it Black," released in 1966: "It's one of the only things I have a movie of in my head. I can actually see Charlie Watts putting down his flashlight -- he was reading a novel in the darkness of the studio -- I can see him just putting down the flashlight and book and picking up the sticks. After hearing the song just one time when Mick played it on the guitar in the studio, he very nonchalantly went into that riff. Two takes and it made magic. With the Stones it was right there.

"It was like it had already been done, like watching it happen again -- for the first time."

Lee Smith talks with P.F. Sloan.

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