Friday, July 26, 2013

Book Review - Shell Shocked by Howard Kaylan.


My Life with the Turtles, Flo & Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc


Howard Kaylan

with Jeff Tamarkin


    This is a long awaited memoir of one of rock & roll’s greatest singers. Kaylan may not be a household name but he is a perfectly endowed insider who can spill the beans on any number of pursed-lipped, groupie groping, self-indulgent Hall of Famers with or without a conscious. Kaylan crafted 34 chapters of hippie truth and lies that reveal the author’s humility and rebel nature. In the Forward Penn Jillette recalls his first rock concert experience in 1971 featuring Frank Zappa and the Mother’s. It was a life changing event, the best show he’d ever seen. He was even aware that the front men were formerly the lead singers of the Turtles, a hot pop hit-making machine. Kaylan’s pre-chapter expose But First: A Rock group Inside Enemy Territory delineates the divide between the freaks and the uptight establishment. As legend has it The Turtles were invited to the White House to perform for President Richard Nixon’s daughter the petite and beautiful Tricia Nixon. They performed their hits and then some, high on weed, coked up and loose as a goose. By Kaylan’s estimate Mark Volman fell off the stage a few times and even hit on Luci Baines Johnson. But that’s only a smidgen of six pages, all pre-chapter musings. It seems to me that Kaylan’s life as a pop star has a Huck Finn quality that turns work into play and play into work...not bad when it pays the bills.

I must admit that I’m a lifelong fan of the Turtles (and Flo & Eddie). I saw them perform at Central Michigan University in 1969 and became a true believer. I’ve never heard anyone sing like the Turtles. They blended their voices to create an incredible pastiche of melody, harmony and perfectly executed leads. We may have heard it all before but not in such a perfect blend of craft and humor. They soaked up the good hygiene of applause and adulation and mirrored it back to the audience. It was a brilliant performance.

Things get dicey in Chapter Four. Kaylan’s first band the Nightriders morphed into the Crossfires and by ’64 they were learning their craft by covering the hits of the Beatles, Kinks and the DC-5 – not too shabby.  After the Beatles first performance on the Ed Sullivan Show every red-blooded teenage folk singer traded in his acoustic for an electric guitar - Stratocaster, Epiphone, Gibson Les Paul, didn’t matter, go electric. Within the span of a week the Crossfires performed their “Farewell Performance” at      It Ain’t Me Babe became a monster folk-rock hit. It was just the beginning of an incredible string of perfectly crafted songs. Like an old smithy that makes objects from gold, The Turtles created a string of 45’s that climbed the upper regions of the charts from 1965 through 1970.  17 top 100 Hits in all.

First off Kaylan is a first rate storyteller as revealed by the 1991 Happy Together VHS tape released by Rhino Records, 90 minutes of rock & roll history that would have otherwise been lost in time. Kaylan and Volman provided first hand sketches of icons such as Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles as well as other obscure rock & roll moments. They effortlessly mix irony and laugh out loud humor with a touch of bathos. I loved the piece on Dick Clark Caravan of Stars Tour when Tom Jones taunts his adoring fans through the bus window about his smiling meat-and-two-veg penis that he named “Wendell.” Another good source is Kaylan’s current spate of interviews on You Tube. There is a wonderful piece on Warren Zevon that you won’t find in this book.  Kaylan is a superb storyteller who can mix deep issues with a nudge and a wink, not to soften its impact but to fill in the spaces. It’s kidding on the square at its best i.e., joking with serious intent (thanks Mose Allison).


Kaylan and Tarmarkin weave an incredible tale of Dionysian excess mixing snippets of music and creativity with low brow tales of sexual exploits. Kaylan makes a point that even fat guys get laid, not just by groupies but by beautiful, intelligent women who may or may not have a clue why they demean themselves…father hunger. Kaylan conveys these stories with some humility, self-effacing humor and a bit of healthy guilt and wonders how his children may feel about it. As a fan of Kaylan’s work I’m more interested in his music than in his sexual adventures. It is hard to get enough of something that almost works such as the next woman…or the next high or whatever. It sets up a weird alchemy that reduces the women and Kaylan to component parts -T & A.

I would rather learn more about the Turtles recording sessions for such seminal songs as The Story of Rock & Roll, Elenore, You Baby, She’s My Girl (a masterpiece) and the great anti-war anthem We Ain’t Gonna Party (No More) as well as the Turtle Soup sessions and the inside skinny on  the mercurial  Ray Davies.

Happy Together deserves special mention. It is the Turtles biggest hit and it is just a great song. The authors Bonner and Gordon shopped it around to anyone who would listen, no takers. But Kaylan and the Turtles heard something the other’s had missed. Kaylan’s singing was inspired and the background harmonies gave it a lush feel. The arrangement was simply brilliant and Johnny Barbata’s backbeat snapped everyone to attention. It will always be on the charts.

 A big share of Kaylan’s greatest musical moments involve his years with Zappa from Chunga’s Revenge and Just Another Band From LA to 200 Motels and the Mothers Live@ the Fillmore East - June 1971. Kaylan has obvious pride in being part of the Zappa legacy. It is a well-deserved remembrance as Zappa seemed to come alive and reach his creative zenith with Kaylan (and Volman) fronting the band.  As the vocalists, Flo & Eddie became the tie-dyed manifestation of the musical landscape and the embodied spirit of Turtlefucking Mothers.

The Flo and Eddie discography is filled with great music that even Rolling Stone couldn’t totally dismiss. They may have been “masters of drug satire”  but they also created an incredibly lucid and varied body of music that included the following albums; The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie (Feel Older Now, Who But I, There You Sit Lonely), Flo & Eddie (Another Pop Star’s Life, Days, Afterglow), Illegal, Immoral & Fattening (with the exquisite Rebecca and an entire side of perfect  X-rated satire), and finally Moving Targets ( Hot, Mama Open up, and a remake of Elenore). The History of Flo & Eddie & the Turtles is one of my favorite albums.  I would like to have been a fly on the wall during those sessions.

Rolling Stone reviewed Kaylan’s career extensively. The various writers seemed ambivalent at best offering begrudging praise alongside damning indifference and hostility. Here’s a few snap shots rock & roll press at its most mediocre:

·         Jim Miller panned the Battle of the Bands LP as something of a bore. He wrote that most of the tracks are parodies that lack real musical merit. (January 1969)

·         Rob Houghton’s turgid review of The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie album spoke to their identity crisis (Nov 1972).

·         Ken Barnes partial thumbs up for the second Flo & Eddie LP despite his disdain for the comedy bits of the Sanzini Brothers and Carlos the Bull (June 1973).

·         Ben Edmunds review of Illegal, Immoral and fattening seemed like a back handed compliment followed by a slap in the face despite his assertion that it was the party record of the year (October 1975).

·         Ken Tucker review of Moving Targets mixed admiration with reasonable criticism. He asserted that this was their best album due in part by their interesting self-consciousness. He also tagged the heresy of reveling in commercialism that they are contemptuous of (November 1976).

Sometime in the nineties Kaylan and Volman were working at the Miss Universe offices (of all things) with plenty of free time with nothing to do. They were both heavily into coke. By this time in their life they had been using for a great many years. Addiction was taking its toll. For Kaylan  (and all of us) there is always a basis for the need to soothe or relax.  It seems to be an unconscious attempt at solutions to personal problems that are buried in time. So dismissing drugs as a bad habit misses its functionality. There can be functional aspects to dysfunctional behavior…just ask Howard or me. Kaylan wrote about its seductive quality; it increased his productivity and made him more lucid. But his strength became his Achilles Heel. Both of our heroes were sniffling badly – Kaylan’s nose started to bleed. He looked at Mark and asked, “What do you think? Volman Replied, “Let’s do it.” They flushed their vials of white powder down the drain and never looked back.

Howard Kaylan has led an extraordinary life. He’s won and lost fortunes, resided on the outskirts of fame and to this day he’s still working his craft, taking the Happy Together Tour on the road. I’d like to see it again, just one more time. He’s loved well and lost with dignity and a touch of humor. Howard has rubbed shoulders with the Rock Gods and came out of it all with an open mind and honest appraisals of his connection to it all.  He was close with Marc Bolan of T. Rex fame. Several critics that reviewed Electric Warrior credited the soaring harmonies of Kaylan and Volman as integral components to the success of both Electric Warrior and the top ten single it spawned…Bang a Gong (Get it On), the only top ten hit for T. Rex in the states.

Kaylan is capable of great love for others and has sustained long-time friendships. He grieved deeply upon Bolan’s untimely death. Kaylan felt it was the day music died (for him) when Nilsson passed away. When John Lennon was murdered, Kaylan “cried all night for all of us.” In late 1992, Zappa’s cancer was in then news. Kaylan visited his ailing friend and reached a type of closure that he never gotten from his own father. They hugged goodbye and it was understood…they would never see each other again. Frank Zappa died on December 4th, 1993.  Death is the great mystery of life and we may bring our dead back to life through a wishful hallucination and the psychic pain moves us toward a completion of mourning yet we will carry the memories of our friends and lovers forever and keep them alive in our dreams.

Howard married Michelle Dibble in 2005. It was his fifth marriage although Howard may be the first to say he’s not a marriage junkie and Michelle’s not a runaway bride. This time may be the charm.

Kaylan’s Coda: When it’s all over and the piper plays Happy Together one last time, I want to kiss my wife, hug my dog, take a giant toke, and smile my way through the obsidian void.

My end is my beginning: Kaylan’s memoir is akin to a church confessional. It’s worked for 1800 years – and it worked perfectly now.


Bo White

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