Howard Kaylan – Shell Shocked (Backbeat) BOOK REVIEW

August 21, 2013

UnknownFINALLY, I CAN catch my breath. Kaylan, former Turtle, Mother Of Invention and Flo (of Flo and Eddie), keeps such a furious pace in his musical memoir that I was at once immediately gratified and unfulfilled.
I guess the furious pace would have been co-author Jeff Tamarkin’s idea, and it may have dawned on him as an apt resort to disguise the fact that there’s really little of any depth in Kaylan’s recollections.
It’s an amazing story, and I would have willingly read it for any one part of Kaylan’s adventure in popular (and sometimes not so popular) music. I mean, The Turtles were one of the finest pop bands to have come out of LA, and I have a well-worn copy of that incredible sarcastic pop classic ‘Elenore’, purchased by Gary-as-a-boy in 1968, to prove it. How was I to know that the two main Turtles would later join Frank Zappa, and figure hugely in my adolescent years in a very different context? But I digress…
The biggest problem with Shell Shocked is that it’s a musical memoir with so little music in it. This, from one of the finest voices of pop, imageswho has played with some of the most musically proficient and adventurous artists in popular music history.
He really does tell a good story, or really, a dizzying array of mini-stories that proves totally compelling, and propels you through the book at a cracking pace. Unfortunately, it’s a bit like chasing rainbows, and it always feels like you’re getting no closer to the heart of it all, until it becomes a little bit like one of those chance encounters in a pub where you meet someone who at first seems amazing, but who, within hours, becomes that drunken oaf you can’t wait to get away from.
I’m sure Kaylan was never a drunken oaf or a bore, although he does talk an awful lot about getting stoned, and how much of the decades he spent getting tanked and munted. I just wish that sometimes he’d slow down a little, reflect on life and people a little philosophically, and act like the music mattered to him.
kaylanzappaThe most shocking thing about Shell Shocked is how much sex he got. If anyone ever thought that less attractive rock stars seldom got the girls, this book will put you right. He goes into details, comparatively speaking, about what happened on the road and when and with whom, while seldom mentioning much about the performances… the musical performances, that is.
Perhaps he wrote the book thinking about Zappa fans and how his routines during his few years with the Mothers very much revolved around smutty tales of on the road antics, like that true story about the Edgewater Inn, Vanilla Fudge, and the fishy things they did to groupies there.
photo-2In many ways, the early sections are the best, because he sounds less jaundiced writing about a period in which he was still incredibly naïve. The Turtles’ success turns out to have been more bizarre than I had imagined: these guys were in their mid-teens when the group got going, and Kaylan was only 17 when he was propelled to stardom with the group’s first hit in 1965. There are many unusual facets of The Turtles story, not least the fact that they didn’t have the typical pinup features, or that they were run by a small independent record label set up by comedian Bill Cosby!
Then there’s the bizarre fact that ‘Elenore’ was written as a sour joke when the record company demanded another ‘Happy Together’: Kaylan literally turned the melody line of that song around to create ‘Elenore’, complete with piss-taking lyrics that no-one seemed to pick up on. And it was another massive hit.
The Turtles’ English tours are captured vividly, fixing on escapades with Jimi Hendrix (who Kaylan ended up puking on) and John Lennon (who was so mean to the group’s Beatles-adoring bass player that he left the music business).
The duo’s time with Frank Zappa is insightful in a different way, and revelatory in Kaylan’s assertion that the famous anti-drug figure smoked the evil weed with them not once, but several times. Theirs is a respectful portrait of Zappa as a musician/band leader/nice guy, although it’s no-holds-barred when it comes to the groupie action, and surprising in its contention that Zappa would sometimes take an on-the-road conquest back to the basement of his family home after the tour “until he didn’t need her to be around anymore. [Zappa’s wife] Gail and her family were devout Catholics, as were Frank’s parents. The word divorce wasn’t in their vocabulary.” Etc.
Unknown-1But that part of the story ends too soon, as the ‘Flo & Eddie’ version of the Mothers was over in 1971, on the famous ‘Smoke On The Water’ tour, when Zappa was thrown off the stage by an angry punter, and required many months of hospitalisation.
The final chapters are filled with drug and alcohol problems, endless problems with wives and girlfriends (Kaylan is on his fifth marriage) and Turtles reunion tours. It’s entertaining enough, but in retrospect, I wish he’d lingered on those early years, because so many of the stories and characters go by in a paragraph or not much more, leaving you panting for just a little more extrapolation.
As a light and frothy rock culture story, Shell Shocked is very entertaining, and especially for those who put Los Angeles at the rock and roll epicentre in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Just don’t expect much, er… depth. GARY STEEL


Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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