Sunday, June 2, 2013

Shell Shocked: A Tortoise and Hare Story

A turtle. It was the most harmless pet you could get, and your mother would probably fall for it… once. It didn’t do much, snapped at some lettuce, rolled over a bit, maybe, sunned itself on a rock. Kinda boring. So why would a cool bunch of rock’n’rollers name themselves after these dull critters? Maybe because The Turtles weren’t that exciting either. They had a fat guy with crazy curly hair and glasses who, together with a slightly slimmer guy sang all the songs, and some other guys whose names I never really knew. And I had a whole pile of their records. 

The Turtles
One of them was even produced by Ray Davies of The Kinks. That was cool… but it didn’t make The Turtles cool for some reason. Maybe they sang too pretty. “Elenore, gee I think you’re swell!” Goofy, but gorgeous. “Happy Together!” Instantly memorable. They appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and a whole lot of other TV shows like The Smothers Brothers, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, these adult-oriented talk shows were the only place a teenager could get a glimpse of rock’n’roll back in the day. You’d watch dancing bears, jugglers, maybe an interview with Talullah Bankhead or a song by Sophie Tucker and then The Turtles would sing “She’d Rather Be With Me”. Still, these guys didn’t look very cool… they looked more like… ME!

Their songs were written, at the beginning at least, by the songwriting partnership of Alan Gordon and Garry Bonner. “Happy Together “ knocked The Beatles’ “Penny Lane” out of the #1 slot on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart and was named one of the Top 50 songs of the 20th Century by BMI after generating over 5,000,000 performances on American radio. And still The Turtles were not cool. They had more hits, some written by Kaylan and Volman, some by other writers. Then The Turtles broke up, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (the two hefty singers) were on their own. They were forbidden from using The Turtles as a group name, and in fact they couldn’t even use their own legal names due to a law suit. They chose the nicknames The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie and sang backup for any number of top recording stars. Frank Zappa invited them to add vocals in The Mothers. All of a sudden they were cool. 

The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie, or is it Eddie & the The Phlorescent Leech

Howard Kaylan, who was supposed to be the Phlorescent Leech until somebody in the graphics department at Reprise Records flipped the negative for the cover photo, became Eddie and Mark Volman (of the curly hair and glasses) was Flo. Check the buttons on Volman’s shirt for confirmation! Or look at page 176 of Shell Shocked where Kaylan describes the mistake, “We could have stopped the release, I suppose, but since no one knew who we were anyway, it seemed like a dumb thing to do.” How honest. How humble. How cool.

The book is subtitled My Life With The Turtles, Flo & Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc. and co-written with rock journalist Jeff Tamarkin, and it is one of the most refreshing memoirs I’ve read from a member of a 60s rock band. Kaylan tells it like it was. The TV shows, the radio airplay, proud parents, disturbed parents you name it, it’s in the book. Did I say disturbed parents? Listen to this memory, “[My mother] looked up at me as only a mother could and said, ‘What the hell was that? You go from singing like an angel on Ed Sullivan to making this Zappa garbage? I can’t tell my friends about this crap. I can’t write about this in the local paper. What are you doing with your life?’” 

And then there’s the sex and drugs part of rock’n’roll! There’s plenty of that, including the broken marriages and family troubles that come with constant touring. Kaylan seems to have remembered most of it, and he puts it down on paper in an entertaining way filled with humour. Shell Shocked captures several eras of music beautifully. Volman and Kaylan began as sax players in a band called The Crossfires where they “learned the hits of the day and spewed them back at a waiting public with great accuracy and passion.” After The Beatles hit the U.S. in 1964, the search was on for American bands who could do the same sort of thing. The Byrds were first, with a rocked up version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” so The Crossfires jumped on the bandwagon and covered another Dylan tune, “It Ain’t Me Babe”, but the name had to go. This unnamed band was on a new unnamed label, until promoter/DJ Reb Foster said, “Your new name is…the Turtles!” Their reaction? “We laughed at him. Right out loud. We rolled on the ground and held our sides…Turtles are fat and ugly and cold and stupid. Why the hell would we want to be called that?” Well, it took a little while but it was a hit and there was no turning back.

Kaylan is a gifted storyteller (thanks are due to Tamarkin for compiling the memories) who doesn’t take himself too seriously. That’s part of the charm of this book. Through the highs and lows, both physical and financial, Kaylan maintains a light posture that serves him well. Whether meeting a grumpy and pompous John Lennon under a table in London, or telling tales of sex on the road with Zappa, Kaylan just tells the unvarnished truth. His description of the Harry Nilsson/John Lennon recording sessions that led to the Pussy Cats album in 1974 confirmed my suspicions. “Harry spoke of the primal screaming contests that John [Lennon] would coerce him into. ‘I can scream louder and longer than you!’ and John could. But, sweet, gentle Harry couldn’t do it. He tried. The competition was fierce, and by the time Lennon returned to London, abandoning May Pang and the lost California ears, it was too late, the damage had been done. Harry’s vocal cords were abraded beyond repair and the new stuff was scratchy and desperate. Harry cried.” There’s real sadness in these pages as Kaylan eulogizes over Nilsson, Lennon, Zappa and others. After living through so many generations of music, he had met many of the big players.

Shell Shocked is a quick read but a fascinating one. Its candid stories of success, loss and manipulation shed new light on the business of music. Where else can you have your own name taken away from you? A mention must be made of the cover design by Cal Schenkel, who provided so much of the artwork for Frank Zappa’s oeuvre. His cartoon portraits of Eddie, Flo and all the rest match the same tone as Kaylan’s text. The story is timeless, honest, fun and it definitely takes the Turtles to a new level of cool. Who knew that Turtles could be this interesting?

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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