Book Review: Shell Shocked by Howard Kaylan with Jeff Tamarkin

Actual cover by the actual Cal Schenkel

SHELL SHOCKED; My Life With The Turtles, Flo & Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc. . . .
by Howard Kaylan with Jeff Tamarkin

A few years back my buddy Alan scored some tickets to Hippiefest, the Rock and Roll nostalgia show then schlepping across ‘Merka during the Summer of Love, aka 2009. As is our wont when attending concerts, we went early for the people watching.

It could have been was the name “Hippiefest.” Or else it could have been the fact that Hippiefest included, along with The Turtles featuring Flo & Eddie, Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night, Felix Cavaliere of The Rascals, Joey Molland of Badfinger and Leslie West with a tribute to Mountain; all ’60s icons. Regardless, the audience was a veritable sea of tie die. Alan (who is 13 years younger than me) and I laughed and made fun of all the old, decrepid Hippies wallowing in ponytails and nostalgia — until I realized I was one.

Howard Kaylan, of the aforementioned Flo & Eddie’s Turtles, has now written his life story, which turns out to be a very funny book about far more than Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll — although it’s got plenty of that, too. This is a book about the very continuum of Show Bidnezz itself, filled with unexpected twists and turns and populated with cameos by the unlikeliest of people, including Soupy Sales, Ian Whitcomb, Aston “Family Man” Barrett, Care Bears, Johnny Carson, Jerry Lewis, Orson Bean, and Twiggy, just to name a few. And, of course, the book is also jam-packed with stories about those in the music business that you’d expect, like Marc Bolan, Frank and Gail Zappa, Ray Davies, John Sebastian, Chip Douglas, Bob Ezrin, Alice Cooper, The Beatles, Brian Jones, and Jimi Hendrix, among many others. [The last 3 encountered on the same magical night.] The list of cameos goes on and on, but none of it comes off as name-dropping on Kaylan’s part. He’s just telling his stories.

Flo & Eddie’s Turtles at Hippiefest during the Summer of Love of 2009

For me the most revealing scene takes place near the beginning of the book. Howard was still a kid and he’s on his first great Road Trip, riding in the back seat as his dad drove clear across the country to take a job with General Electric in Los Angeles. The Kaplan [sic] family stopped in Las Vegas and took in the free lounge show of Louis Prima and Keeley Smith. Kaylan admits:

Louis and Keeley invented a style of cabaret that my singing partner Mark [Volman] and I later adapted (all right, we took it, okay?) and still use in every single performance. Louis would clown it up, big time, while the lovely Indian maiden, Keeley, would stand as stiffly as a mannequin and sing in her mesmerizing style, seemingly oblivious to her husband’s mad antics. Only eight or nine short years later, those two fat front men in the Turtles were cashing in by doing the very same thing. If you don’t know who they were, maybe you remember David Lee Roth’s big hit “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody”? That’s a note-for-note cover of Louis Prima’s arrangement. Seriously, if you are still drawing a blank, get a DVD or go on YouTube and check out their nightclub act from the ’50s and ’60s. They were amazingly ahead of their time. Hey, Sinatra loved them. The whole business loved them. They molded me.

[Full disclosure: “Just A Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody” is a song that I have nailed many times during drunken Karaoke nights. I always do the Prima version, even though the Karaoke machine thinks it’s David Lee Roth’s version.]

By the time you get to the end of Shell Shocked Kaylan has detailed several more Road Trips, each more hilarious than the last. However, it was Kaylan’s stories about The Business of Show, like the Prima/Smith tale above, that gave me a new view of the entertainment industry. I had always viewed the invention of Rock and Roll as The Great Dividing Line™ between then and now. The Brill Building had figuratively burned down. Nothing was ever the same. However, Kaylan’s life story comfortably straddles that line between Old Show Biz and Everything That Came After. Show Bidnezz is, and has always been, a continuum, with Kaylan’s memoirs just the latest piece of the puzzle.

One of the most amusing stories in the book is also the subject of “My Dinner With Jimi,” the 2003 movie about Kaylan’s first visit to Swingin’ London, flush with his earliest Turtles fame. I won’t give anything away other than to say the telling of the story in the book is much funnier than the movie (written by one Howard Kaylan, tackling his first full-length movie script). I don’t know if it was the direction, the silly ’60s costumes and wigs, or the barely adequate acting, but the movie never grabbed me. However, Howard’s telling in the book makes it clear why someone wanted to film that story. It’s HIGH-LARRY-US. As a Show Biz Raconteur™ Kaylan delivers the goods time and time again in Shell Shocked.

Freak Out was the antithesis of bubblegum

What makes Howard’s story so interesting is that he’s far more than just a single thread in the great Rock and Roll tapestry. Yet so few people know him by name. They’ll be familiar with hits like “Happy Together,” “Let Me Be,” and “Elinore,” but The Turtles were not a group known individually.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a Johnny-come-lately to The Turtles oeuvre. Oh, sure I knew the hits, but back in the ’60s I had a predjudice against anything I considered “bubblegum.” That’s why I was a Zappa fan from Day One. Freak Out had one of the ugliest bands I had ever seen on the cover and bought it for that reason alone. I listened to it so much I knew every note and I could quote by heart the liner notes that said:

“I’d like to clean you boys up a bit and mold you. I believe I could make you as big as the Turtles.”
~~~~~A Noted L.A. Disc Jockey

That’s why it was such sweet irony that a few years later the two lead singers for The Turtles, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, had joined Frank Zappa and not the other way around. However, due to what must have been one of the worst contracts in the entire music bidnezz, Volman and Kaylan were not only prevented from using The Turtles name, which is slightly understandable, but were also prevented from using their own names, which is simply incomprehensible. That’s why they were forced to adopt the noms de song of The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie, eventually shortened to Flo & Eddie.

It was only as members of Zappa’s band that I came to appreciate Kaylan’s backstory and the subversive quality to The Turtles music, especially the latter LPs. However, it was as the voices of Zappa, singing about how touring can make you crazy, that gave Volman and Kaylan street cred, not only to me, but millions of Zappa fans around the world. Sadly their connection with Zappa came to an abrupt end when the 1971 tour disintegrated in disaster. First came the fire in Montreux, which burned the stage and all their equipment; an event witnesses by Deep Purple and memorialized in the song “Smoke on the Water.” The band gamely voted to continue the tour with borrowed equipment. A week later, while performing the encore at London’s Rainbow Theatre, a jealous fan jumped onstage and pushed Zappa into the orchestra pit.

At this point in their career Flo and Eddie were forced to reinvent themselves and strike out on their own again. [Even more full disclosure: It was at this low point in their career that I met Flo & Eddie and came to their rescue. I tell that tale in Flo and Eddie and Mark and Howard.] Flo and Eddie albums followed, as did backing vocals for some of Rock’s most iconic artists and songs, and then comes the family-friendly cartoons. Name any other artist talented enough to go from singing about sex with mud sharks to Care Bears.

All of these twists and turns are told with great verve and humour by Kaylan (although he chose to leave our meeting out). Kaylan kept a diary from his earliest days, which must have been an enourmous help, considering the Rock and Roll lifestyle makes many mornings cloudy.


A Zappa era song sung by Flo & Eddie about the Rock and Roll lifestyle.

Any quibbles I have with Shell Shocked are minor: 1). While Kaylan dishes the dirt, with most of the stories being told on himself, the most negative portrayals in the book have to do with ex-managers and other Show Biz people who ripped him off. However, Kaylan avoids naming names. Someone must have warned him about defamation lawsuits; 2). I had hoped to learn more about how he felt during the Kafkaesque period when he wasn’t allowed to ply his trade under his own name. Sadly he doesn’t talk about his feelings here (or elsewhere) in the book; 3). The actual business dealings with Zappa and, post-Frank, Gail Zappa. Gail continues to release posthumous Frank Zappa recordings that feature Flo and Eddie. My understanding is that Howard sees no money from these releases. However, Kaylan was very circumspect in describing Gail in the book and I get the sense he held a lot back.

Howard Kaylan, star of stage, screen, and now book lists

This is mere nitpickery on my part, only realized in retrospect for this review. I certainly didn’t miss it in the reading. From cover to cover Shell Shocked is a terrific, rollicking trip through the world of Rock and Roll. It gets the Aunty Em seal of approval.

SHELL SHOCKED; My Life With The Turtles, Flo & Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc. . . . by Howard Kaylan with Jeff Tamarkin; Backbeat Books, Paperback, ISBN 978-1-61780-846-3 304 pages, index, pictures

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Headly Westerfield
Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.