Friday, July 26, 2013

The Howard Kaylan Interview - How a Turtle Became a Mother


Howard Kaylan

The Interview

How a Turtle Became a Mother


Howard Kaylan is one of the greatest singers in the rock & roll pantheon yet he is fated to be an obscure footnote lost in the drift of time. He is a pebble that causes a ripple in the waters of fame. He was the lead singer of the Turtles, a great hit-making pop machine that fooled the critics with clever tongue-in-cheek lyrics and heavenly singing. The switched musical genres like a change of clothing. It confused the public and critics alike…are they folk rock, pop, rock & roll or rock opera savants…or none of the above. Kaylan is a one-of-a-kind vocalist with a voice that stretches above the sky like clouds that embrace the canyons where only eagles fly. He gained fame in the seventies as the lead singer in Frank Zappa’s greatest band. He recorded eight albums as Flo & Eddie with his long time musical partner Mark Volman. Though critics were quick to pounce on Flo & Eddie’s irreverence, they begrudgingly acknowledged their ability to craft amazing rock & roll anthems such as Rebecca, Feel Older Now, Hot, Moving Targets and Cheap. The following is a rare interview with Howard Kaylan upon the release of his autobiography, Shell Shocked.



I’ve seen the Turtles and Flo & Eddie and I loved the book.


Thanks, man. I appreciate it. Thank you, Bo.

Yeah, man. You know, this was a book about truth so I couldn’t hold anything back as you might have suspected.


 It was fascinating life to have lived, a rock and roll lifestyle but then coming up clean and sober.

Yeah, you’ve got to. I mean at my age It’s not exactly like I want to check out like Bobby Hatfield or one of those guys, and with the daunting thought of a three-month summer tour ahead of me,

Truly the last thing you want to do is, you know, leave the ghost behind at the Holiday Inn or something. That’s really not the idea.


 I’m from Saginaw, Michigan, and you did a “Happy Together” tour there. There’s a local girl, Laurie Seaman Beebe, and she played on that tour


I’m not that shocked. I still talk to Laurie Beebe. She’s in San Diego now, she and her husband Chuck live there. I correspond with them often and when we’re in San Diego or any place in southern California, they usually come down and see the show. She’s still in touch. She still sings. She still sounds great.


 I read where you had reams of material and you kept notes. Why did you write the memoir now?


Well, I tell you, sir, I was going to write two books actually. I thought in the course of my life I would get two books done. One of them, the first one that I intended to write, was kind of a how-to book, or more precisely, a how not-to book, not that I have a stellar place in history to look down from, and that’s exactly the point of this thing. The book was going to be called, “How Not To Be Me.” I had written the first four chapters of it, and it was sort of a parental guide really, a book for kids who were trying to come up in the music business. This would show you what I did and what I did incorrectly and what I should’ve done and gave advice along the way. Ahh, I don’t know, man. It was kind of like back when I was singing folk rock music and I didn’t really believe it, so we stopped doing it. And that’s the way I felt about where this book was going. So I finished four chapters of it, re-read it, and I looked at it, and I went, “No, I don’t think so.”  


The second book was going to be a tell-all. It was going to be every single thing I had to say because at that point in my life, after the first one had come out and done whatever it was going to do, I felt that then there would be time when I could talk about the people that screwed me over and the people who, unfortunately, I screwed over. By the time I looked around, hell, I was 65 years old, and I felt that there were not going to be two books in my future, that instead I better get it all into one, and it better be everything I knew without hosing anything down. So that’s why I wrote the book and I don’t think I would have done it on my own. I think I needed some prodding, and that’s why I brought Jeff Tamarkin into the project because I always worked better with a canceled check in my hand (Laughter). I needed that, and I needed a shove and a push. When I wrote “My Dinner With Jimi,” I had Harold Bronson, the producer of the movie, prodding me every day for new words, new chapters, new pages. I liked the pressure of working under a deadline. That’s good every once in a while to a person as undisciplined as I am. It puts me on track. Tamarkin, really that was his job as a co-writer to kind of beat me over the head every day and then look at what I’d written and cross the T’s and dot the I’s and make sure that if I was insulting anybody, it wasn’t a libelous thing I was getting us both into.


Jeff Tamarkin helped out


Yeah, he used to do Goldmine and then he did the Jazz Scene. He’s been around for a long time you know, doing mostly editorial stuff. I figured he would be the perfect guy because I really wanted to write this book in my voice “because it better fucking sound like I’m talking to you.” (Laughter) You know? If it doesn’t come off in that exact tone, then you know that I didn’t write it, that it was an interview or somebody put it on tape or it’s some bullshit that’s glossing over the situation. I’ll be damned after hitting the age of 65 if I wanted to churn out a fucking VH1 movie. You know, that’s not what my life was. It wasn’t the clean-cut guys from high school and “Oh now look, oh, they’re into drugs. This is bad,” and “Oh now look, they’re out of drugs. Everything’s going, and now their career is back on course.” That’s not the way it ever happened. It didn’t really happen that way to the Beach Boys or Jan and Dean or any other stupid VH1 movie that they’d ever done. And I would be damned if I was going to turn my life into one of those glossed over, Pollyanna, Hollywood bullshit versions of what really took place. There were a lot of people, ex-wives mostly, who were not too thrilled with what I had to say, and other people, agents and promoters and people in my life that I don’t think have done very well in theirs. That’s my problem. “If you’ve got a problem,” as I told my second wife, then you write your own damn book (Laughter). She was really on my case because she’s got grown children now, and she didn’t want them reading about her sex-capades back in the ‘70s. I had to say, “Hey, first of all, baby, your name was Kaylan. I can say anything I want. Second of all, baby, own it, and third of all, baby, your kids will probably respect you more now that you actually have a life.”


I have the Rhino VHS tape of you doing the history of the Turtles, and it was great in all kinds of ways. It’s funny and I could see your facial expressions, hear your voice. You don’t get that in the written word, so some of the nuances could be lost…


This is why the good Lord invented audio books and that’s why you can get my “Shell-Shocked” in about a week and a half from It was a labor of love going in and recording this thing, and if you want to hear the nuances or the subtleties or the snarkiness or whatever the hell you read in the printed page, if you can’t picture what I would sound like saying it, this is a hell of a lot easier, and I’m speaking my own words. I mean, it’s all about attitude. I didn’t want anybody coming in as a co-writer and then screwing things up by trying to make things vanilla.

I respect the people that learn how to do it correctly, the guy that co-wrote the Keith Richards book, for instance, did a brilliant job in capturing his voice. If Keith could string together that many sentences in a row, I’d know exactly what he would sound like.


It was a great book.


I give that guy a lot of credit because that was really well done, you know. In my case these are my words, and Jeff had to just say, “Are you sure you want to say that?” “Fuck yeah. Leave it the fuck alone.” (Laughter) That was my contribution to the editing process. You see, I really don’t like when my shit is messed with, and I really wanted to make sure that this book came out that this is not Simon and Schuster.


 White Whale forced you to record Who Would Ever Think That I Would Marry Margaret. They’d give you songs to record that you didn’t want to do, and it makes sense to me that you wouldn’t want to be put in that position now with your book.


You’re right, you know, but it’s a different business, and you’re dealing with a different bunch of screwheads, although the similarities are so frightening that it scares me as a recording guy, a guy who has been around the record industry sharks all my life. It’s quite interesting to see that all they have to do is to put on a different suit, call themselves publishers and they can do it all over again, you know, and they do. I’m convinced that in the record business, it’s the same assholes at the top of the chain that have ruined it for everybody else. In my business, the recorded business, that is, it’s the same four guys that’ve been around since the ‘60s that are still running the show. If anybody thinks that independent’s got a foothold in this era and that people are all carving out their careers on the Internet, I would check to see who is really running their labels lately, you know, because the CBS group is still there and as long as Clive Davis is on the Planet signing people, it’s a dangerous place to live. (Laughter)



A few years ago I bought a fantastic LP by the Turtles entitled Shell Shocked and the title of your book is “Shell-Shocked.” Did you pick title?


No, I was doing everything in my power to keep the publisher from using the name “Shell-Shocked.” It just didn’t work. I had thousands and thousands of entries over the course of last summer because I wrote the book in the car literally, traveling at night between shows on the “Happy Together” tour. It pretty much got written during the course of the summer, and my deadline date to turn the book in, in fact, was August 30, the last day of the “Happy Together” tour. That’s when they got their book.


You have this wonderful voice (one of the best in history of rock). Was it something that you developed, that you worked on, exercised?


I don’t exercise it at all. I don’t do vocal exercises of any kind. I don’t warm up my throat before a show. We don’t do rehearsals. I don’t believe in sound-checks, and I don’t go to those either. I don’t know why my voice sounds the same way it did in 1965, but it does, and we never changed any of the original keys on any of the songs that we do in concert. But they just stay the same. I don’t know why, but I’m not going to tempt fate by changing my pattern now, and mooning into the future. You know, that’s not something I do.


I want to talk about the Turtles in ’69 because I saw you guys at Central Michigan University and it was a great show. I recall reading that you felt the Turtles weren’t a great band, but I thought you were powerful.  You only had a three-piece, and the sound was pretty damn good. Of course, you and Mark’s vocals just put it over the top. I thought it was a great performance.


 The Turtles were always a great band. I never doubted that the Turtles were a great band. We were just made up of not-so-great players. I would have to say that we were a garage band from the get-go, and I really don’t believe that Al Nichol sat in front of a mirror trying to be Eric Clapton. That was not his style. However what Al was really good at and he only got good at after the trip to England. We had to go down from six players to five. It was up to Al Nichol now to play both the rhythm parts and the lead parts, and he developed a really interesting style where he could almost divide his brain up as if he were playing keyboards and play rhythms on the lower notes and almost leads, at least high, chimey things on the high notes and really fill out the chord. We never had a keyboard player, and after Tucker left, being humiliated by John Lennon, we never bothered to get another rhythm player. We continued it like you say, as you saw us, a five-piece band, so it was a trio with two singers. It was a very unusual thing to see, two lead singers was a very unusual thing to have. 

And except for the Beatles and the Righteous Brothers who I can think of locally as an LA kid growing up, there aren’t a lot of bands to this day that have two lead singers or two guys in front at all. 



Tell me about Happy Together Tour 2013


It works for the same reason that the rest of the “Happy Together” Tour works. That’s the one and only Chuck Negron, that’s the one and only Gary Lewis, that’s the one and only Mark Lindsay, that’s the one and only Gary Puckett. I mean, what do you want? Those are the guys that sing the songs. It drives me crazy when I see one of these classic rock shows where it’s the drummer from, you know, Blue Cheer is the only original or it’s the rhythm player from…who? what?   That, to me, makes me go, “Huhhh?” But if it’s the guy, if it’s the real guy, if that’s the singer that sang that song, then he’s the guy I want to hear, you know, those are the real voices to me. Those are the voices of rock and roll. Those are the ones that jar your memory and stir your soul and bring back to your mind whatever you were doing in those days or the first time you heard the song.


Yeah, it sure is. I was going to ask about Zappa. Was there ever a moment during a session or show where you could say, “This is It. I get it and Zappa gets me?”


Well from the get-go, Zappa got us. I think Zappa got us before we were in the band. He got us when we released the “Battle of the Bands” album. He saw what we were capable of doing vocally. I don’t think that he had kind of noticed us before in the rock pantheon particularly. Once that album came out, and it wasn’t like we were attempting to be him, but it was our idea instead of doing Sgt. Pepper and just sort of introducing a show and then coming in at the end and saying, “Hope you liked it. Good-bye.” We were going to be all 12 of those bands, you know? Each one of them was going to be represented by a different incarnation of the Turtles, that we were going to portray them not only musically but in costume, you know. As you know, we got into it and produced a record that we didn’t think had any hits on it. It was totally tongue-in-cheek, and it wound up having two of our biggest hits on it. A lot of the Turtles’ talent was figuring out what we did best and not letting any other person, producer, record company or manager tell us differently. If they did, we knew they were overstepping their boundaries or at least putting their noses into our affairs, and that’s not where they belonged. Frankly, we wanted to be in charge of the music and everything else and wound up running the show after a couple of years. I think it was probably the smartest thing we ever did. Mark and I still, since the ‘70s, have no manager. It’s ridiculous for us. No one can manage us. No one’s ever been able to tell us what to do (Laughter).


I read reviews of your music by Rolling Stone Magazine and they were not kind. Jim Miller panned “Battle of the Bands,” and said it was something of a bore and most of tracks were parodies that lacked musical merit. I thought he was off base there.


You know that was the second Rolling Stone review. The first one, when the record first came out, which was somehow mysteriously lost, really liked the record…said it was a brilliant, innovative attempt, and then two and a half weeks later, this other guy’s review comes out, and he calls it a schlock and all this crap. Whatever he called it, that was the record that got Zappa’s attention and put us into that band in the first place, so I thank Rolling Stone for that review. I constantly thank them for it because if they had not brought it up, I don’t know that Zappa would have made the connection. So they gave me a job and a future by that bum review, and I’m thrilled. They always get things wrong. If I went by the Rolling Stone, I wouldn’t own any of the records I have.



I saw you guys in Detroit at Hart Plaza. It was thirty years ago, and it was a great show. You started out with the earliest of your recordings and went into Flo & Eddie. Do you recall doing shows like that…


You know over the last 47 years, I think we have found every possible combination of songs we have ever recorded have been in concert at one time or another. I don’t think any two shows have ever been exactly the same anyway. No, I don’t remember that exact show, but there have been periods of time in our careers where we have tried to do, “Yeah, let’s start out with the Turtle years and take it all the way up to the present.” If we’ve got a show that’s 70 minutes or longer, we can do that. Everything depends on the length of the show. We’ve got shows for 60 minutes, for 30 minutes, for 72 minutes, for 90, for 120, and you do what is contracted. I would do a lot more Flo & Eddie stuff if we we’re doing shows that were longer than the summer tour allows. This particular tour that we have done now for seven summers in a row as the “Happy Together” tour, it’s different. It’s a review and we’re going through the hits as do all the other artists on the show, and the audience is totally sated at the end of two and a half hours because their ears have been assaulted by 40-odd hits sung by the original players, you know. It’s sort of

mind-boggling when you think about it.


And it brings back memories.


A great, great summer concert idea and it’s a great thing for us to do certainly in perpetuity, and it’s been great for us physically to get out there and perform in front of that many people in that short a space of time. My partner teaches school the rest of the year, so we don’t really concentrate on working other than the summer months. That works splendidly for me because it allows me to do things like writing a book or making a movie or doing an album, things that I couldn’t do if we were on the road, and I had to break my life up into sort of bite-sized pieces. I’m not in the mood to do that, and I really like the way my life has worked out for me as far as touring is concerned and compressing it all into a short space of time and powering through it and having the rest of the year to be in the semi-retirement I dreamed of since the age of 17.


Well, you’re a multi-media artist, you’ve released a book, you have a film, radio and recordings. You really have a creative spark that is pretty incredible. Not everybody can do all that.


I like it. I’m bored by things quickly. I’ve got the same case of ADD as the rest of America does. We can’t listen to anything for longer than seven and a half minutes. You know, the length between commercials is about the span of attention that everybody in America shares, so I’m with you guys. In fact, shorter than that. One of the first things that we did as radio disk jockeys when we were just starting out as Flo & Eddie on the radio was to play as

much of a record as we could stand and then take it off because that’s all, kids. We used to call it the “Hey, Paula” philosophy.

Once you’ve heard the initial, “Hey, hey, Paula,” that’s it. It starts to suck bad after that. So it was our figuring that you could do 10 seconds of a song, and if that was the best 10 seconds of it, you didn’t need to hear any more of it. So we did 10 seconds of that song on the left speaker, then the best 10 seconds of “Kicks” by Paul Revere on the right-hand speaker, and then we would bring President Kennedy in the middle, giving his inaugural speech at the wrong speed while we started out, “Walk, Don’t Run” by the Ventures and then played the “Martian Hop.” It didn’t make any difference to us. It was just radio. It was just a sonic assault. It was something that the ears and the brain couldn’t really process, although you were totally familiar with all the elements we were trying to put together for ya. We would make these little sonic sets in regard to maybe 50 to 100 records for every 5 minutes that we were on the air with music. It was insane. We would go through our own record collections on a weekly basis, and that was the show that we syndicated in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and we were all over the country with that thing.




So go figure. Radio, you’re in a funny business, you know, broadcast journalism and print journalism and all this stuff that is seemingly leaving the planet. Interesting place to be, in your shoes. As a blogger, you at least stand a better chance of making it, you know, forever. The printed word, at least in my perception,

is going away and that’s why I wanted to write a book before it disappeared. That’s why I wanted to make a CD before everything went to downloads and nobody is buying disks any more. You know, I just want to be kind of, if I’m a 20th century boy, I want to be the guy who did all of those kind of century things, before the next generation of technology wipes me out.


And then, everything I’ve ever done is available in iTunes, everything since high school. All I ever recorded is on iTunes. Even the book is all over the place on iBooks and on Kindle and on, as I said, audio. You’ve got to embrace the new technology if you’re trying to be the last of a dying breed. Listen, I don’t know what the equivalent would be, but when you asked why I wrote the book, what I really should have said was that cavemen used to sit around the fire and tell stories, and we don’t have that any more. I’m not physically close to my kids as I should be, although I see them constantly. We’re not the kind of a family that can gather around the communal campfire at night and tell stories about the saber-tooth tigers we killed that day, so a lot of that tribal stuff is going away.Like my dad or my grand-dad. I never got a chance to sit around the fire and tell my grandkid these stories. They’re lost to him forever, and he’s frankly too young to read them now, but somewhere in between the age of 15 and his probable age of understanding this book at the age of 23 or something, he’s gonna go, “Grandpa, oh, I get it. Grandpa, what the hell were you thinking?” (Laughter). That’s the only reason that I wrote this book. I won’t have a chance to sit down with these kids and do that caveman chat, and now I don’t have to do it. I can wrap it all up in a nice little bow and say, “This was what I did.”


I bought Dust Bunnies when it came out and I listened to it several times and loved it.  I brought it out again when I read your book, and I really liked it. I thought the Tim Buckley song was transcendent. Snowblind was a cool Blues rocker. You turned “Have I The Right?” into a love song by dropping that 4/4 poundin’ Dave Clark 5 beat. It was really cool/hot erotic.



When I heard that song I knew it would be better if it were slowed down and given a slightly different treatment and it proved to be correct. In the case of “Have I The Right?” somebody will hear that version one day, and steal it. I’m absolutely positive of it. You know, I can’t say, “You’re welcome,” but I’ll say it then.


a great arrangement.


Thanks, but really this record is what it says it is. These are dust bunnies. These were under the bed. These were little discovered gems off of albums that I knew no one would ever record. I knew that the Turtles certainly wouldn’t, that Flo & Eddie weren’t going to make a new pop record. It wasn’t in the cards, so I was itching to get into a studio, you know? This was 10 years ago. I really was itching. We hadn’t been in a studio, even together, singing backgrounds for a long, long time since I moved to Seattle and Mark moved to Nashville. We don’t get studio work like we did when we were both in LA or both in New York. We could just pop around and do these sessions and leave. Now you’ve got to be deadly serious. Now you’ve got to have money to fly us in to get us to do a date because, you know, we’re in different parts of the country, so it’s not so easy.


I wanted to ask about the photo on the disk of “Dust Bunnies.” On your forehead is another face with teeth. What is that? 


Wow, that’s a very, very strange piece of artwork that was done by a brilliant science fiction illustrator by the name of J.K. Potter. He is known for his photography manipulation. I always just loved the piece. I thought it was really, really strange and a really strange tribute. Nobody had ever seen it before, and it scared the hell out of most people who had seen it anyway. I thought, “What the hell. I’m going to put this on the disk.”


I liked it because I thought it was strange, but I didn’t understand it.


Well, good. Everything I do is kind of strange. Nobody seems to understand any of it. I’m thrilled. (Laughter) I mean, think back, think back of what a boring thing it would have been to get no reviews from these people that you quoted or reviews just saying, “Well, nothing worth writing about here.” At least it created a love/hate thing between the Flo & Eddie band and the critics. You know they’re always finding something that they didn’t understand, and that’s exactly why we did it. I still feel that way. Every song on the radio deserves a “How is the weather?


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