Posted June, 2013
If you’re, say, oh, I don’t know, over the age of eighteen and claim to love music and, yet, also claim to have never heard Elenore or Happy Together by The Turtles, I would have to say that the person making the claim is lying – either about loving music or having never heard the Turtles tunes. I mean, c’mon! One would have to be living under a rock to have never heard either of those songs – especially Happy Together. That song is everywhere!
In 2009, I had the privilege of seeing the two founding members of the Turtles, Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, perform these hits and others during their hosting of Hippiefest that included other legends from the sixties. My daughter and I were fortunate enough to be able to hang out backstage for a bit and I met, among other people, Kaylan and Volman. Great – and gracious – men, both!
Fast forward to a few weeks ago.
I was thrilled to be able to get an advance copy of Kaylan’s autobiography, Shell Shocked: My Life With The Turtles. I was further stoked when Howard’s publicist hooked me up with the lovely, talented and highly organized Mrs. Kaylan to arrange a phone interview with her legendary husband.
Once the arrangements were made, at the appointed time I called Howard at his home in the beautiful Seattle area. I was immediately impressed with how well-read and articulate this legendary performer was. In making small talk about meeting him backstage four years ago and how much fun my daughter and I had at the show, he gave me an inside look at the evolution of that tour.
“Well, thank you! We’ve been doing it every year with one guy or another. We kind of mutated from Hippiefest to the Happy Together Tour a couple of years after that. We thought that the Hippiefest direction was kind of going dark. I mean, it’s one thing to say ‘Flower Power’ and to represent your stuff as being that good time relief in your busy summer day so you can forget your troubles. It’s another thing to listen to down and out blues at the end of a two and a half hour set.
“No one wants to leave the auditorium feeling like you want to kill yourself. You know, that’s kind of a downer for your night, especially if you just bought yourself a couple of tie-dyed shirts and you’re expecting to leave there singing a happy tune. Then, you go out thinking, ‘Awe, life’s just not worth it!’ That’s not quite the attitude that we want our tour to have so things are lighter and brighter these days. The past few years we’ve had incredibly good results by taking the tour out under the name ‘Happy Together Tour’ and bringing out with us some of the all-time best artists that we possibly could. If you’re not smiling by the end of our show – certainly the end of the five of our shows put together – then you’re dead!”
With tours like Happy Together continually successful, I asked Kaylan why these kinds of classic rock tours – whether they’re a caravan tour like Happy Together or just some of the legacy acts still touring – that they’re still quite an audience draw and how long did he think that they’ll continue to be.
“Well, I think they’ll continue to be a successful draw for ever and ever as long as there are enough acts that feel that going out together would be a lot better than going out separately. I mean, you have to admit that the draw here is that you’re not going to see just one act and either be elated or disappointed. If you don’t like the act you’re seeing at the present time, hang around for thirty minutes because they’ll be gone and somebody else is going to come on.
“So, what this is – as the Happy Together Tour – really a greatest hits of the sixties. We’re not giving you a chance to not like one second of this show. To that end, we’ve taken painstaking turns to make sure that everybody you’re seeing is the original guy that sang the song. It doesn’t make any sense at all to have the bass player from Iron Butterfly, the drummer from Steely Dan and then the guitar player from The Blues Project. So what? They were never a band. You put them on stage together and they’re probably going to play seven different songs. So, as far as I’m concerned, that doesn’t make a group. The talent alone doesn’t make a group. Playing together makes a group or, at the very least, you’ve got to sound like the record! These are memories!
“As far as the Turtles are concerned, I fully understand that this is probably the first – and maybe the last – time that this audience is ever going to see us. If you don’t sound like your record this time around, then you’re messing with their memories and I’m not going to do that! For all the humor we try to stack into the show – for all the frivolity that we, as an act, try to put into our performance – this stuff has to sound like the original record or it just won’t fly. That’s why Gary Lewis is going to sing six of his biggest songs and he’s had twenty huge songs in his career. It’s the same with all of these acts - Gary Puckett and, oh my god, Mark Lindsay and Chuck Negron and ourselves.
“Everybody here is trying to condense ourselves because none of us can do all of our hits in the amount of time we’re given. You leave the auditorium or the theater or the lawn or whatever venue we’re in in that town and you’ve seen two and a half hours of nothing but the lead singers of all of those bands that you remembered from your growing up days or your parents days or you just found them on a record, God knows, and it’s wonderful however you got there – but nonstop! I mean, just nonstop! It’s a barrage of 40, 50 songs in a row that are just mind boggling and you do leave the place humming all of these tune and you’re not hit with a bunch of feedback at the end and going, ‘What the hell was that?’
“The worst thing in the world that can happen at one of these shows – or before the end of one of these shows – is that you start looking at your watch in my age bracket or my kid’s age bracket, thinking about your babysitter or the fact that you’ve got to get up early in the morning because it’s a week night or whatever it is, certain things come into play as an adult that would’ve never crossed your mind as a twenty year old but now, with responsibilities, you’ve gotta make the concert really, really exciting and I don’t think we disappoint. We’ve been doing this year after year and every year the tour grows. We started out doing twenty dates and we’re up to around fifty-two this summer. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for much else.”
When I offered that it’s also what they represent – that the music stands quite well on its own, is positive and not anti-war; that their music shows up on the latest video games and movies, and is what people gravitate towards, Howard replied, “Well, we were a backlash to the war, certainly. We were not ‘Eve of Destruction’ protestors. We were trying not to take that stance because we realized that, as white middle class kids, we had nothing to protest, really. Had we been as adamant about our politics as Barry McGuire had been – yeah, he might have had a number one record but that was the only song this guy was ever gonna have. There was just no doubt about it. You put out a song that strong and you’ve made a political statement. We didn’t want to be political in any way, shape or form. We never were. We just wanted to make the music. We still just want to make the music.
“The fact that it’s been able to – like you said – morph into all different formats that, yeah, we are in Rock Band and we are in all these video games that you can buy as authentic Turtles songs. That’s a great feeling! And no matter how the audience of five generations learns a song like Happy Together – whether they’ve learned it from The Simpson’s or Adaptation or Shrek or however they come to know it, I don’t care as long as I can see people my age and their kids and their kids and their kids all singing, ‘I can’t see me lovin’ nobody but you’. You see fifty thousand people singing it at a time, it’s like We Are The World. That’s really gratifying! That’s incredible. Certainly the internet and satellite radio and downloads have been a huge plus for us.
“We’ve never been more successful as far as sales of our catalog than we are right now. This has been a boon for us. The internet is the best thing that’s ever happened to the Turtles. Maybe we’re the exception instead of the rule in that Mark and I own the Turtles catalog and most of the people from the sixties and seventies still don’t. I mean, Peter Noone doesn’t own his stuff. He has to go in and re-record if he wants to sell that stuff. Mark and I were unfortunate enough to have to go through an awful lot of lawsuits to procure ours but, in the end, we came out with our name and the ability to sell this stuff – or lease it, as the case may be – in perpetuity so we’re doing great! It’s sort of an annuity both mentally and physically forever. So, Lord bless the internet!”
Shifting the focus of the questions to Shell Shocked – which is an incredibly interesting, informative and well written book, by the way – I asked Kaylan what the reaction to the books as been up to this point.
“From what I can judge, it’s been pretty good. I don’t know the market place. I’m not Dean Koontz. I didn’t expect this thing to come out and be sold in airports or anything. It’s gratifying to see it in the bookstores that still exist. There are stacks of books at Barnes and Noble where it is on display. You can go to Amazon and it’s discounted and they’ll ship it for free. For me – we haven’t even put out a real serious record since the last Flo and Eddie thing in, like, 1976. So, this is really the first thing that I’ve had to push in a great many years and it’s gratifying to know that, at least critically, it’s being well responded to. Sales-wise, there are so many factors involved and so many people. It’s not going to compete with the great summer novels or the next Harry Potter and that’s what book people are all about.
“I really wanted to do something in print before the medium disappears. I’m a huge fan of print. I love books. I love the way they feel. I love the way they smell. I love turning the pages. I love having something tactile in my hands. And, while they’re e-book versions of this book that already exist – you can download them for Kindles and for iBook. I did an audio book that I finished last week that will be available in the next two or three weeks, I’m sure. That, to me, is a crowning achievement. That’s great!
“I’m sixty-five. I’m still doing things that are brand new to me and fields that I’ve never gotten into before in my life. So, if you can still say that and see another horizon ahead and see another kind of book that you haven’t written or another kind of script or screenplay that you haven’t taken on and you get somebody to go, ‘Yeah! I’ll bankroll that! That’ll be fun! Let’s do it together’ that’s wonderful! It keeps the plates spinning. It keeps me interested in what I’m doing and it makes those three months of touring in between not seem like something that is repetitive. There is nothing less creative than being recreated. To recreate those memories – like Brian Eno said many years ago; it was something, at the time, he refused to do and I had a lot of respect for that attitude. He didn’t really follow through with it and he made a billion dollars in his own way. But what he said and the principle behind it, I think, is really, really important: You still gotta remain creative. Recreating what you did is not enough! It certainly ain’t art and it may pay the bills but you’ve got to have some sort of outlet or you were never as creative as you said.”
Speaking of creativity, I asked Howard if the book was tough for him to write and put together.
“Hard, man. It was hard! It took the better part of a year. I was trying not to write from notes. I started from birth with this thing. Until I got up to about the eighties, I was fine. When I hit the eighties, things got a little foggy and I did have to rely on the daily diaries that I’ve been keeping ever since 1968. I didn’t need them. I really didn’t need them. I knew the high points of every year that I went through and they’re based either on marriages or songs or houses or cars. You remember things – everybody does in their lives – little bookmarks or touchstones or whatever. That’s the way I sort of wrote this book. I just wanted it to read like I was talking you.
“I didn’t want it to be like it was crap like it was a VH1 movie because that’s just fraudulent. I’m a linguist. I’m a fan of the language so I tried to write it with a bit of intelligence and a little bit of humor. Even though some of the situations that I got myself into were very, very sticky and not much fun over the years, you’ve got to write about this stuff with a little bit of empathy for yourself or else you’re going to be a miserable guy.
“I personally found that by opening as many doors as I did writing this thing, you can’t just close them. I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t wind up in therapy twice a week because of this. I figure that I’ve influenced a lot of people for better or worse in my life. You can either ignore that or move on or try to make yourself better for it. I just figured that it ain’t too late. I’m just going to attempt to do what I can here.”
Our conversation shifted towards one of the more comical and interesting stories that Kaylan shares in his book: Puking on the late, great Jimi Hendrix. I asked Howard if he thought that, with the release of his book, he would now go down in history as the only guy who can make that claim to fame.
“I’m not sure it’s something that anybody else would want to claim. I’m not really proud of it but I thought I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell the story. I was young and I was a punk. It was our first night in London and I had already met the Beatles and sort of got beat up by them at their table. It wasn’t fun. It really wasn’t fun. We thought that they were rock gods. One guy in particular, John Lennon, wound up being a jerk. I mean, he was a little tipsy and you can kind of excuse him because of his position in rock and roll. He was a king. But, you know, kings can be nice, too. He just kind of wasn’t. It affected me psychologically. It affected the band. It sent the night into a tailspin.
“I wound up having a dinner with a guy that I had never met before that a new friend, Brian Jones of the Stones, had introduced me to. It was this guy, Hendrix, and I had never heard of him or seen him and we just started talking. We started talking about success and women. He was playing Monterey Pop and he didn’t know what to think about it because he’d been away from the States for all these years and he came from Seattle. This Monterey thing was a really big deal and didn’t know how the U.S. press was going to respond.
“The entire time we kept drinking and drinking and eating and drinking and eating and smoking and drinking and eating. It got to be a point at about four o’clock in the morning where I’m, like, ‘I just don’t think that I can even make it to the bathroom, man’ and I just blew chunks, as they say. It was horrible. He changed from this soft spoken guy to this mad man and he jumped to his feet and he was cursing at the top of his lungs and I just passed out at the table. That’s all I remember. You can’t be proud of a night like that. I still don’t know how I got back to the hotel, though, and unless somebody reads this and answers me, I’m going to go to my grave not knowing how I got back to the hotel.”
While that was one of the biggest, surprising stories to me in the book, I asked Howard what other feedback he’s getting from people as to what they have found surprising.
“Well, a lot of people are amazed at the very first sentence of the book and the cojones it took to say what I said, let alone say it first right off the bat and that was referring to the White House incident in Abe Lincoln’s dressing room (and involved tooting some cocaine). We were bad boys back then and we weren’t really fans of Richard Nixon at all and there were drugs involved. That’s all that I really can say. We were clowning. We were kids. We really didn’t expect that there would be cameras or guards. Good thing that there weren’t so we got away with murder, so to speak, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
“But we had some interesting adventures. The Secret Service unpacked our equipment and they set off an electric metronome that started ticking. They thought it was a bomb. We all hit the ground and they soaked the thing in water and pried off the faceplate and then said, ‘It’s a metronome’ and we said, ‘We told you it was a metronome” and they sent us a check for seventeen dollars by government check. It’s one of those things you keep, you don’t cash.”
I couldn’t resist asking Mr. Kaylan if he thought there might have ever been coke snorted in the White House since the Turtles were there.
“Since we’ve been there? Oh, absolutely! I could give you a list of people that I probably suspect of being involved since. I gotta say that we were the first rock band to ever play there so we set the stage for, I’m sure, an amazing array of drugs that were yet to follow. I mean, Willie (Nelson) has played there! Everybody’s played there!”
In Shell Shocked, Howard tells of the surprising storing of getting high with the late, legendary Soupy Sales. Say it isn’t so!
Oh, man! Not Soupy!
“And it’s not like I had to supply the drugs or anything. I gotta tell ya, man, that guy was the biggest surprise of my adult life because, as a kid, I had really worshipped that guy. I had grown up watching all of those shows. I was such a huge fan of Pookie and Hippy and White Fang and Black Tooth- they were like family to me. I couldn’t believe it when my good friend invited his neighbor from across the hall to come over. I thought it was going to be some plumber or something – no offense to plumbers. In walks Soupy Sales. Soupy f-ing Sales - and with a stash that I could not even believe. Just an incredible array of ‘What? And you’ve got what? What’s that? That does what? Oh my god!’ He was just unbelievable.
“He was in the business a very long time and, evidently, I was a newcomer compared to him. So, the first night, especially, we proceeded to – I can’t tell you how high everybody was. He goes, ‘Wait, wait, wait!’ and he runs across the hall and he came back with Pookie!’ Come on, Man! He came back with POOKIE! I nearly lost it. That was it for me, man. I was in hog heaven. We worked with him many times. When asked who we wanted to open a show, we would check to see if he was still around and doing it (comedy) and, if it was a comic on the circuit, we would always say, ‘Soupy Sales!’ He wound up doing quite a few shows with us over the course of his life and we got to know him quite well.”
I’m a business geek and love learning the business side of anything. I wanted to bring our chat back around to something Howard already alluded to earlier in our conversation and that was the Turtles’ legendary ownership of their own name and catalog when so many artists from their time don’t own their own. I was first made aware of this a few years ago during my interview with Sam Andrew from Big Brother and the Holding Company. Here’s what he said in that interview, " . . . The Turtles are a BIG draw. There for a while, every movie that came out had that song in it. Remember that song, "So Happy Together"? Every movie! And there was one movie that had it in the title! (Laughs) I know how much you make on those things and they made a lot of money."
I asked Mr. Kaylan to give Boomerocity readers a Reader’s Digest version of how he and Mr. Volman wound up pulling off the business coup of rock music history.
“Well, every cloud has a silver lining. In this case, our cloud was huge and monstrous and what it was was our record company – a little independent called White Whale Records in Los Angeles had owned us for five and a half years – all of our hit records were not on a major label. They were on this little, tiny label. So, we were kind of brats. We recorded what we wanted to, when we wanted to and we were a bratty as kids could be and they were as ‘a-holey’ as guys could be on the other end of the spectrum. They were ‘suits’ in the worst possible sense of the word and thugs and that was born out in court.
“In one six month period of time – we went in and did an audit on those guys – and we discovered a $685,000 discrepancy in 1969. That wasn’t really in our peak earning period, even, but it was a six month period of time. Extrapolated over the amount of time that they were given, we sued them for two and a half million bucks and they countersued – which was their right to do. Anybody can countersue on any claim. It was part of their countersuit, however, that the contract we had with them that signed us not only as the Turtles but signed each and every one of us individually. They had separate contracts with each of us. We didn’t sign a group contract; separate contracts with each of us so that I couldn’t make a record, Mark couldn’t make a record.
“We decided that, not only that we had it with the rest of the guys in the band, but we were also knocking our heads against a brick wall with the record company, White Whale, and decided to just disband the group. We found that it was easier to form a band than it was to break one up. We were a California corporation. We employed a great many people – indirectly or directly. The suits started flying in our face. It wasn’t only them, it was management suits that came back to us over the years and divorce proceedings that were going on at the same time. So, literally, there was a period there at the end of 1970 where I was in court, personally, almost every day that we weren’t out on the road. A great, long period of time – maybe two and half years of constant depositions and constantly going to L.A. County Court and fighting for our name.
“We wound up winning the White Whale lawsuit. We wound up winning our name back. We won the right to be the Turtles and to be ourselves again. This was only after our having renamed ourselves Flo and Eddie. As part of the lawsuit, we were awarded all of the Turtles’ master recordings. In the years in between the Turtles’ breakup and the settlement, all of the other band members decided that there was no future in owning any piece of an old band like that. Mark and I had been able to borrow money from other people – like Alice Cooper’s manager and Frank Zappa’s manager – and, literally, buy those guys out for pennies – several thousand dollars. They were gone so Mark and I wound up being the only two guys who were responsible, at the end of the day, for owning the name and everything that went with it. That took place in the mid-seventies or so and ever since that time, when you hear Happy Together played on the radio or any of the other Turtles songs that have come out in the part of a Flo and Eddie, Inc., catalog, that’s us! There’s no record company in between and it’s been an incredible thing.
“Like I say, when people hear it used in a Simpson’s or used in an Adaptation or a picture like that where it’s used in an opening or closing credits, that’s huge. That’s a great, great thing for us and it revitalizes that song and the catalog for another year or two. It makes people remember, ‘Oh, yeah! Those guys! They’re still around!’ We managed to still be around in a lot of people’s minds and that’s sort of kept us alive for all these years.”
With his unique experience and perspective of the industry, I asked Howard what he would do if he was Music Czar, tasked with fixing the music business.
“The first thing I would do is I would make sure that every radio station played every kind of music that there was to play so that you didn’t have to make a judgment before you listened to something whether or not that was your genre or not. Back in the day, you used to have a Turtles record and an Otis Redding record and a Supremes record and a Gary Lewis record and a Matt Monroe record. God knows, Dusty Springfield, Monkees, whatever it was, played back to back to back on the same radio station. It was great. Everybody was educated. Everybody knew what the music was.
“Today, unless you’re talking about a very narrow band of hits radio stations, whatever that means, you’ve gotta kind of make your mind up as a listener before you even turn the radio on as to what you want to hear. You can listen to the hip hop station. You can listen to the adult contemporary station. You can listen to the urban station. They’re all different. Country stations are different than top 40 stations. Active adult contemporary is different than regular adult contemporary. I mean, what the hell are they talking about? It used to be that a song is a song is a song. I don’t want to learn what’s popular by watching cover versions done on American Idol or The Voice. That’s not the way I want to hear my music.
“Fortunately, I don’t get involved very much with contemporary radio. Unless stands out to me as an entertainer like Rhianna or Adam Lambert or somebody who’s there for a reason and has earned their place, I don’t care. I just really don’t care. I’d rather stick to the people – present or past – that I’ve enjoyed listening to all my life and I don’t go all the way back to classic oldies. I’ll go back as far as the first Foo Fighters album. I really don’t take it that very far back. I’m an alternative radio kind of guy. I went through the eighties listening to The Replacements and Soul Asylum and Hȕsker Dȕ – bands like that and I’m still really into bands like that. Yo La Tengo are friends of mine and I love those guys. I see them constantly. That’s the kind of music I like to listen to.
“I don’t believe that good music stopped being made when Led Zeppelin quite. I think there are great bands out there to this day. I bring up Foo Fighters because they’re the hardest rockin’ band that I could think of off-hand but there are great players all over. Man, certainly in Texas! I mean, you guys – every block there’s an incredible player! We’re talking about an area that is still yet to be mined all over the place. And, yeah, the internet is great for those people to get a foothold – at least a small following in the business. But they’ve got to remember it’s still the same thing: it’s the record business. The minute you say you’re in music, you’re a champ. The minute you say you’re in the music business, you’ve turned a corner. Now you’re selling yourself already so you’ve got to be ready for the same four guys that were running the music business back when I was a sprout. I’m talking about Clive Davis and his cronies - the same four people that are still running the industry. It’s kind of not fair because there’s all this illusion that there’s been an independent swing and that little labels are popular but that’s not really true. Once you’re on the internet or popular at all on a small label, your label’s bought by one of those four big guys anyway and you’re doomed. There’s no place to go. If you really want success on your level then you’ve got to do it by yourself.”
When I commented that there are only a couple of companies who control most of the venues where acts are booked to play, Howard added, “Exactly so, man, you’ve got to make nice-nice with those people because it’s a monopoly situation where a company like, oh, let’s just call them the ‘Foggy Stations’. Let’s say that Foggy Stations own the billboards that are on the edge of town. They also own the radio stations and they own the bands that are playing at the arenas that they own. Most people would think that’s some sort of trade violation. And, yet, it seems not to raise an eyebrow. So, I’d make friends with those people because anything else would be suicide in that profession and for anybody who would speak against them. You kind of wonder who, exactly, is running this thing and how high it goes. Nobody wants to ask too many questions while they’re still earning a living and their checks are being made out by these incredible people.
“So, no, nothing’s really changed, man, since, maybe the days of Alan Freed and Dick Clark, things really, really haven’t changed very much. The tour busses are a little better. The sound systems are quite a bit better. The halls might be a little bigger. But, as far as I can see, ‘Hey, isn’t that Gary Lewis I hear on stage? Yes, it is.’ It’s 1966 as far as I’m concerned and as long as I don’t see the hall before I walk out there, I’ll never know and I’ll be ready for anything.”
As we wound up our chat, I asked Howard how he hoped to be remembered and what he hoped his legacy will be.
“How do I want to be remembered? Well, you know, this book was sort of written in lieu of the fact that we don’t sit around the camp fire anymore, like cavemen and tell stories. We just don’t. I realized that my grandkids are never going to have the advantage of me sitting around telling stories and making cave paintings and pointing out what I did when I was a youth. This is as close as I’m going to get. I’ve had a couple of people who have approached me and say that they thought it was a little strong and they wished I hadn’t been so frank about some of the stories I told. But it’s not their book. They’ll get their chance when it’s their turn to tell their stories and, if they felt that I was being a little too revealing about my impressions, then they should keep their grown up kids away from this book or own it, on the other hand. Own it and just say, ‘Yeah, I did have a wild life’ and probably get the respect of your kids after all these years. ‘Thank you, Mom. I didn’t know you had a life in the first place! I think that’s just great!’
“I think as far as leaving a lasting impression, none of us do. Happy Together is my lasting impression. This book is just a bunch of notes on a life. If you can leave any footprints in the sand at all, you’re doing great. It’s just sand. It’s going to go away in a minute anyway. The wind comes along and you’re meat. But it’s kind of cool to know that, if there’s anybody out there looking for the Library of Congress in some ‘Planet of the Apes’ future, that my book will be in there.
“It’s kind of great knowing on the night that Elvis died that he was listening to our greatest hits album. I don’t know why. It’s just kind of a historical asterisk but it’s kind of a great thing for me. Meeting the Beatles and going through that stuff was a great thing for me. There were certain little things that I needed to tell people to kind of get off of my chest and purge that would’ve been stories otherwise never told. So, why not tell them? If it’s true that everybody’s got a book in them then don’t wait until it’s too late. Even if you’re just writing the book for your grandkids like I did, the time is now. Do it! Talk it into a tape machine or something. Put a slide show together. Do something to leave a legacy as a legacy for your kids. That’s all that this is, really. It’s not meant to sell anything. Like I said, you can’t compete on this kind of level when nobody knows who you are it’s hard to force them to buy your book. I just want them to have the chance to hate me or to be apathetic. I’m a happy guy. I just want to be the guy that tried it!”