By: Anne M. Raso
I was lucky enough to catch up with the legendary classic rocker Howard Kaylan in New York recently when he was in town promote his revealing autobiography Shell Shocked: My Life With The Turtles, Flo And Eddie and Frank Zappa from Backbeat Books (available on amazon.com). Howard and longtime Turtles partner-in-crime Mark Volman are currently touring all summer long as headliners on the Happy Together Tour where they mix their megahits like “Happy Together,” “You Baby,” “It Ain’t Me And More” along with their comedic chatter about everything from the primetime talent shows like American Idol to recent celebrity scandals to joking about what it is like to have lived through the 60s.
I am personally super-excited about getting to see The Turtles at the Mayo Center in Morristown, NJ on July 31st at 8PM and I’m a veteran of at least six Turtles shows. I most recently caught them in Brighton Beach, NY two years ago so I need my fix. (For more info on the show in Morristown, go to www.mayoarts.org.) Other classic rock acts on the bill include Mark Lindsay, Chuck Negron formerly of Three Dog Night and Gary Lewis & The Playboys. The tour actually goes all the way through October 5th this year.)
I sat down with Kaylan for two hours over blueberry crepes at a little European style coffee shop at Tribeca’s Cosmopolitan Hotel and he elaborated on many of the more interesting stories in his book—plus gave me some “inside info” not included much to my delight. He admits that The Turtles do not rehearse (he and Volman have been together as an act for 50 years now) and is thrilled that the grandkids of The Turtles original fans from 47-plus years ago are coming to the Happy Together Tour every summer.
HK: I remember that trip cross-country distinctly because I had not yet turned 10 and Disney Land had just opened up. I had been watching the television program (The Mickey Mouse Club) from Utica NY and I wanted to go so bad. I hated the snow up there and the stupid marshmallowy snowsuit I had to wear. It was a hard trip but along the way we stopped in a Las Vegas lounge show, which had no admission; even kids could walk in and watch the lounge acts. My parents did me a big favor by taking me to see Louis Prima with Keely Smith and Sam Butera & The Witnesses. It was the greatest favor they ever did for me and I did for them. I learned how a show business act works as a team. Here was this woman trying to sing and her idiot of a husband was tickling her and trying to distract her. It did not register until years later until I went over to my new friend Mark Volman’s house and he had albums by Louis Prima. It is hard to have two lead singers in a group--unless you’re the Beatles--and not be forced into a situation into a straight man and clown situation like Martin & Lewis or the Smothers Brothers. Once I hooked up with Mark after being in a surf band, he was distracting me while I sang by chatting with girls in the audience or in the wings or by falling off the stage or whatever. It established our dynamic from age 15 onwards. We knew exactly what our roles were going to be then and it still defines us. Mark is still the clown of the band. I am still the straight man.
Q: In a way, I don’t think you are the straight men in The Turtles though because both you and Mark seem to be having a ton of fun up there onstage and both of you say funny things to the audience. I always thought that the appeal of the group was not just that you have great material but that you always look like you are having a great time 24/7.
HK: We do. That is the key to our success. There is a reason we are still touring after 51 years and for some of the same promoters. If you are rehired once, that is great, but if you are rehired 50 times, you are really doing something correctly. I value these summer tours because not only does it put us in touch with our audience if they are still alive (laughs)—but it helps us realize the impact our music has had and how it will long outlive me. I don’t know how many years I have left on this planet to suck air but if “Happy Together” is (as they say) one of the Top 50 songs of the last century, then I have nothing to worry about as far as leaving Neil Armstrong footprints in the sand. I have done that and I think I have established enough of an annuity cash-wise for my kids and their kids to be ok. That was more than I expected but we have been doing this for a very long time. We have known each other so long that we don’t have to be with each other to “get it”—The Turtles do not rehearse. The Turtles never do sound checks. I never do any of that crap and the reason that I don’t isn’t because I’m the anti-Springsteen or something, I just figure that on a Happy Together type of tour, we’re the last act on the show and if the sound and lights people haven’t gotten it down in the last two hours, they’ll never get it down for us. (Laughs.) If the band doesn’t know the songs now after 50 years, there is nothing I can do this afternoon to teach them. (Laughs.) And if I am stupid enough to go to the sound check, I am going to be totally depressed by the showbiz bullsh*t around me so I am going to stay in my hotel room until 8PM. At 8PM, I get picked up along with the act on before us. Last year, Micky Dolenz and I got picked up at 8; this year it’s Chuck Negron and I who get picked up at 8. My partner Mark goes directly to the theater no matter what time of day or not it is. He can’t really rest in a hotel. He doesn’t feel comfortable there so he will go to the dressing room of the theater even if it is ten in the morning and sleep there and he will eat the crew lunch—and he will walk around and meet people and do the sound checks if necessary (although as I said, they are not necessary). I am usually there in a theater and hour or hour and a half but the way I look at it, they’re not paying me to do the show--they’re paying me to travel to the next one. That’s the inconvenience of my life. By the time I get to the next town, I am so full of angst that is I don’t do a show I will implode. (Laughs.) They pay me fore the ten hours it took me to get there overnight and the fact that the schedule is screwed up and that I am not sleeping in my own bed—and that I am not with my wife or my dog or my kids. I am sometimes saying, “Why am I doing this? I will be 66 years old.” I refuse to be the guy like John Entwhistle or Bobby Hatfield who die in a hotel room. Those clowns were stupid enough to think they could do drugs in their advanced years. I have never seen anything as stupid as that in my life. Both of those guys were morons and I loved them both but that’s insane.
Q: So you totally stay away from any sort of personal indulgence?
HK: I don’t even drink. I just don’t like it. I have vices. I have chosen my vices very carefully. My vice of choice is a harmless combustible. Fortunately, I live in a state where even on a commercial level, it is totally legal. So if I didn’t possess a medical card for marijuana—which I do and I have actually used it as a legal ID to get on airplanes when I have lost my driver’s license—it doesn’t matter now, because Washington (state) has legalized it for 7-11’s. That is my only vice and I don’t overdo it. But I haven’t stopped—not one day since the age of 17. I do not think I am any worse for it and I do not think that any brain cells have imploded. I do not think I have lost my memory or my mind. In fact, I think I am fairly rational compared to my friends who have done hard drugs. I am not an advocate but I know it works for me in my life. I just think that there should be a prohibition on this stuff at all. Nothing happens. It’s not a gateway to anything, either…except bad taste perhaps. (Laughs.)
Q: You mean wearing tie-dye all the time? (Laughs.)
HK: Exactly right. If you want to be that guy, you can still be that guy and people will leave you alone—especially in this town (New York). People will just move to the other side of the street to avoid you. So pot is my choice but I am so damn comfortable that I don’t need anything. I could stop today and I would be fine. I am living where I want to live and I am doing great. I do have a few years of touring on state fair level before I cannot do it anymore. Then I know what I am going to do if I start to feel the urge to go out and do public performances—I will do a bit of a scaled down performance and a multimedia presentation where I tell stories and show film clips from The Turtles’ career, I talk about Ed Sullivan and I do a Q&A session. I do not need anyone’s help to do it. I am really happy doing it and the show works. I have done that very same thing promoting my book for the last couple of months.
Q: Obviously, you and Mark are just as well-known as Flo & Eddie (who performed with Frank Zappa) just as much as you are known as the Turtles. Did you worry that Frank Zappa’s audience wouldn’t take to you at the time you joined his band (around 1969)? I know that at the time both of you had passed up taking lead parts in Hair at the Aquarius Theater in LA to be with Frank.
HK: We gladly accepted Frank’s offer and we knew that we would meet with opposition from his fans. We really had to prove ourselves and we did; it was very uncomfortable for the first six months because the audiences were right on the cusp of booing us off the stage. They were like “What are you doing with Zappa?” and “Who are these fat AM radio guys with the hits? We don’t need that crap!” We had to work extra hard to show that we weren’t just AM guys and that we could learn the most complex music in the world and sing it better than anyone that Frank had ever had in the band before. I can’t even imagine where I would be now if we had taken those parts in Hair and not pursued rock and roll. By the time the white record came out, it was the biggest record Frank ever had and it was the only gold and Top 10 record he has ever had. So it worked—we brought him into the pop world or the pop world to him. We were all of a sudden very well respected after that record. We did 200 Motels movie, which was met with confusion by the critics, which it should have been; we didn’t understand it and we were in it. (Laughs.) It was a shoestring proposition and we didn’t get to shoot the end of the movie; we ran out of time. So the ending of the movie was the groupie routine that turned into that white record. It was a band of leaders and we were in a position to tell Frank what to do a lot of the time—and the only person that bothered was Gail Zappa, who still has a big thing for me particularly. She is a very strong person and she rules the Zappa catalog with an iron glove and it is not what Frank wanted her to do.
Q: That I did not know. I have read that you are sorry that you ever used the moniker Flo & Eddie? I know that you could not use the name The Turtles after you sued your old record company in 1969 after auditing them and found something like $650K in funds missing from one six month period of sales.
HK: We found that they owed up about $2.5 million from the previous three years. We sued them for that money and they countersued. As the litigation continued--and it lasted for years—we were not allowed to use our names. White Whale Records owned us individually as well as collectively so not only couldn’t the Turtles make record but neither could Howard or Mark or any of the individual players. We were devastated and did not know what we were going to do. So when Frank Zappa came along, we had to use nom de plumes. When I came up with Phlorescent Leech & Eddie, it made Frank laugh. I wish we had stayed Howard and Mark. I wish we never adopted the names Flo & Eddie because it haunts me to this very day. Why did we have to pick such an off the wall name? It was funny but when we recorded for Warner Brothers, the record company wanted to keep that name. It was one of the biggest mistakes in dealing with them.
Q: Would you say there is one major lesson to learn from your book, Shell Shocked?
HK: If you give yourself something to fall back on, you will fall back.
Photos Of Howard Kaylan By Anne Raso/Tour Poster Shot Courtesy Paradise Artists/Book Cover Courtesy Back Beat Books