Early in his freshman year at UCLA, Howard Kaylan told his father he was quitting college to make music. His parents were naturally livid but he promised them that if he didn’t have a hit record within 6 months, he’d go back to school. It didn’t take 6 months for his first hit record, it took only 4.
50 years later, Howard Kaylan has written his autobiography Shell Shocked: My Life With The Turtles, Flo & Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc., written with Jeff Tamarkin, with a cover by the great Cal Schenkel and an introduction by Penn Jillette. If you know his music, then you already know this is a great read. If you don’t know his music, allow me to fill you in on his amazing career.
You see, I’m a lifelong Howard Kaylan fan. I grew up watching The Turtles on TV in the 60s. I saw the Flo & Eddie edition of Frank Zappa and The Mothers live at the Fillmore East. I’ve got every Flo & Eddie album and can vividly remember their show at the Bottom Line in New York in the 80s. They’ve sang back-up for everyone from Marc Bolan to Bruce Springsteen to the Ramones. They’ve interviewed every other rock star in the world on radio and TV.
[Full disclosure: I was provided with a free ebook download for review purposes. Both Howard Kaylan and Jeff Tamarkin are Facebook friends, though I don't know either of them "in real life."]
Howard Lawrence Kaplan was born in The Bronx (is that one reason I’ve always liked him so much?) in 1947 and spent a mostly angst-free childhood in Brooklyn and upstate New York and finally Westchester, a part of Los Angeles near LAX and not far from Santa Monica. As a child, he rapidly developed a love for both music and comedy. He started playing saxophone while at Westchester High School and one day found himself in the school choir standing next to another class clown, one Mark Volman. It may not have been as momentous as the day that Mick Jagger met Keith Richards, but it wasn’t far off either. The two of them have been singing together for more than 50 years.
In high school, Kaylan was already in a band called the Crossfires. Volman became their roadie (to the extent that a high school band has a roadie) until the day that his father insisted he should be part of the band as well. The Crossfires became The Turtles and rock & roll history was made.
The Turtles had a hit the first time out of the gate with a cover of Bob Dylan’s It Ain’t Me Babe. I believe that The Turtles were the first ones to have a rock/pop hit single with a Dylan song. (Their cover predates The Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man by about six months, earlier Dylan cover hits were all more folk than rock.) Their other hits of course include Happy Together, Elenore, and She’d Rather Be With Me,
Kaylan’s recollection of The Turtles era is filled with wonderful stories of sex and drugs. Most prominent perhaps is his tale of their first trip to London, meeting everybody including Lennon and McCartney, getting asked for his autograph by Brian Jones and throwing up all over Jimi Hendrix. This was the basis for a feature film in 2003 that Kaylan wrote – My Dinner With Jimi.
Here’s a brief excerpt from the book recalling the time he met Dylan in 1980 (Dyaln was in the audience when they were singing back-up with Springsteen and he came backstage after the show):
And there he was – after all these years – backstage, just milling around, Bob fucking Dylan. I had to approach him.
“Mr. Dylan,” I sputtered. “Hi. I’m Howard Kaylan from the Turtles. Thanks for writing our first hit.”
“Was it any good?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“So we both made money then?”
And he shook my hand. “Well then, I thank you. Let’s do her again sometime.” And that was it. Four sentences in fifteen years.
There was a dark side to this as well. The Turtles were young and trusting. People stole a lot of money from them and they eventually discovered that they not only didn’t own the name “The Turtles” or any of their recordings but that, thanks to a swirl of lawsuits that took more than a decade to resolve, they couldn’t even perform or record under their own names.
So poor management and legal squabbles meant the Turtles were over. A chance run-in with their old friend Frank Zappa found them joining Zappa and the Mothers, appearing on several Zappa albums as well as Zappa’s film 200 Motels. Since they couldn’t perform under their own names, they somehow decided to call themselves The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie – the nicknames of two of their roadies. Kaylan was the Phlorescent Leech (but later it would get flipped around on them when the cover photo on the first Flo & Eddie album was flipped).
As I mentioned earlier, I saw this edition of the Mothers play at the Fillmore East and to this day Fillmore East June 1971 remains one of my most frequently played Zappa albums. They were with Zappa at the Casino de Montreux when a fan burned it down (an event immortalized in Deep Purple’s Smoke On the Water). A week later, playing the Rainbow in London, a fan attacked Zappa on stage, badly injuring him. With Zappa out of commission, Flo & Eddie’s time with the Mothers came to an end.
So they launched on their own, as the Phlorescent Leech and Eddie, later simplifying it to just Flo and Eddie. I still feel their first album on Warner is one of the great pop-rock albums of the 70s. The second album was produced by Bob Ezrin, years before he climbed The Wall. All four albums have some brilliant pop songs, songs that clearly build on the legacy of the Turtles’ best work. The later albums all mixed these brilliant pop songs with parodies of the then-current rock scene. But as George Kaufman said, “Satire is what closes on Saturday night” and these albums never made much of a dent on the charts. By 1976 they found themselves without a contract and out of work. (There would be a final record 5 years later, a reggae album, believe it or not, recorded in Jamaica with some legendary Jamaican studio musicians.)
They managed to keep working, in no small part because everyone wanted them as back-up singers. They were especially close to Marc Bolan (listen to Electric Warrior and try to imagine it without Flo & Eddie’s vocals, it just wouldn’t have worked as well). And there was Springsteen, Roger McGuinn, Stephen Stills, The Psychedelic Furs, the Ramones, Duran Duran … the list goes on forever. They were also a hit for awhile hosting a nationally syndicated radio talk show thanks to support from their friend Howard Stern.
Finally in 1984, they got the rights back to use their own names and use The Turtles name and they got the rights to all of the original Turtles recordings. There’s big money to be made from licensing old records, especially ones as perennially popular as Happy Together. And of course now they could tour as The Turtles (featuring Flo & Eddie), doing their own gigs as well as joining packaged 60s tours. Life would finally work out.
Today, Kaylan keeps busy in other ways – he’s released one solo album and has turned his talents to writing science fiction. He’s also recording a new album with former Mother Jeff Simmons.
Shell Shocked worked for me on a variety of different levels. The first is as a collection of some truly hilarious tales. It’s like you’re sitting with Kaylan having a beer (or, more likely, a smoke) and he turns to you and says, “Did I ever tell you about the time that Tom Jones waved his enormous schlong at a bunch of teenyboppers from the tour bus?” ”Did I ever tell you about the time I got Zappa to smoke weed with us?” ”Hey, lemme tell you about the time we snorted coke off Abe Lincoln’s desk in the White House.”
But there’s more to it than that. Because this is a tale of survival. This is the story of a man who hit it big before he was 20 and who lost it all – several times. And yet he was never defeated, he was down but he was never counted out. He never comes across as bitter or morose, he just kept plugging away, having faith in himself and his talent and sure enough, in the long run things more than worked out for him.
I don’t know Kaylan. I’ve never met him and I’m not likely to ever meet him. But I sure as hell liked him after reading the book. And I have this theory – that just about everyone who ever worked with him liked him, and that’s one reason they kept calling him up to record with them, to tour with them, to hang out with them. Look, when you’re David Bowie, you can work with anyone you damn please, so you might as well work with people you enjoy being with, no?
What I also love about the book is that there are no regrets. Howard Kaylan won’t be going on Oprah any time soon to cry and talk about how he found religion and doesn’t want people to make the same mistakes he did. There’s none of that phony bullshit here. Either accept him on his own terms or not, it’s your choice, he’s not meeting you halfway. And I love it.
The book is definitely Kaylan’s voice. It says “with Jeff Tamarkin” but both Kaylan and Tamarkin insist the words are all Kaylan’s and that Tamarkin’s contribution was to help him put it all together and shape it into a cohesive narrative.
The one thing that I felt was missing was that there actually isn’t much about Mark Volman in the book. You’ll learn much more about Frank Zappa and Harry Nilsson and Marc Bolan than you will about the man he’s partnered with for 50 years. (Actually, the parts of the book describing his final visits with both Zappa and Nilsson are heartbreaking.) I’m guessing that Kaylan decided early on that this was his story, not theirs, and that Volman would be free to tell his own side if he ever wanted to.
So don’t come to Shell Shocked expecting great philosophical lessons. It ain’t that kind of book. What it is is a very funny read. If you already know who Howard Kaylan is, you probably wanted to read the book before you read this review. If you didn’t know who he was, hopefully you want to read it after reading this.
And if you don’t know the music and want to hear it, I’ve done up a Flo & Eddie playlist on Spotify. It includes my favorite songs from the Turtles, Zappa and the Flo & Eddie albums, as well as a few tracks on which they contributed background vocals. (Note that some of the Zappa tracks are NSFW.) Do give it a listen, especially the Flo & Eddie album tracks. (Note that when you click on the Spotify link, you’ll have to install the Spotify player if you don’t already have it. But then you’ll be able to stream this playlist, and about 20 million other songs, for free.)