Howard Kaylan is one of the greatest singers in the rock & roll pantheon whom ironically is fated to become 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. They switched musical genres like a change of clothing, which confused the public and critics alike leaving them to ask were they folk rock, pop, rock & roll, 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 andCheap.
The following is a rare interview with Howard Kaylan upon the release of his autobiography, Shell Shocked.
Review: I've seen the Turtles and Flo & Eddie and I loved the book.
Kaylan: Thanks, man. I appreciate it. You know, this was a book about truth, so I couldn't hold anything back as you might have suspected.
Review: It was a fascinating life to have lived a rock and roll lifestyle but then coming up clean and sober.
Kaylan: 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 leave the ghost behind at the Holiday Inn or something. That's really not the idea.
Review: 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 with The Buckinghams.
Kaylan: 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.
Review: I read where you had reams of material and you kept notes. Why did you write the memoir now?
Kaylan: 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 - 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. 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 I was 65 years old, and I felt that there were not going to be two books in my future, but 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, and 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 used to do Goldmine magazine 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 sound like I'm talking to you. 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 BS that's glossing over the situation.
I'll be damned after hitting the age of 65 if I wanted to churn out a 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 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 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.”
Review: 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.
Kaylan: You're right, 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. It's the same four guys that've been around since the '60s that are still running the show. If anybody thinks that independents 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, 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)
Review: 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?
Kaylan: 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. 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.
Review: You have this wonderful voice (one of the best in history of rock). Was it something that you developed, that you worked on, exercised?
Kaylan: 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.
Review: 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.
Kaylan: The Turtles were always 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. 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 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.
Review: What about Frank 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?”
Kaylan: 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 also in costume. 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).
Review: You're a multi-media artist and have 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.
Kaylan: I like it. I'm bored 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 theVentures 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. 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.
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?