I was thrilled to be given the opportunity do a phone interview with Howard Kaylan concerning his new book SHELL SHOCKED, about his life in the world of music. We spoke for about 45 minutes, had some great laughs, and talked about his interesting life. If you haven’t read the book or don’t know a lot about him, some of these questions may seem quite obscure, but for fans like me, this was a great opportunity to ask more than the traditional basic questions. If something in this grabs your attention and you want to know more, get the book! I highly recommend it.
MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I have been a fan for so long and it’s an honor to be talking to you. What made you decide to write a book now?
HOWARD KAYLAN: I had always planned on writing a book when it was later in my life but then I looked around and realized that it was later in my life, and if I didn’t tell stories now, I’d probably never get to tell the stories at all. I’d get too old or feeble or alzheimer’s would set in or lord knows — so I decided to get it all off my chest. What are they going to do to me now?
VENTRELLA: You kept a diary all your life which helped a lot.
KAYLAN: I really didn’t need it until I got up until the ’80s and then it just all became a blur, as most of the ’80s did for those of us who lived through it.
VENTRELLA: I definitely enjoyed SHELL SHOCKED and one of the things I liked about it was that it answered a lot of the questions I was going to ask you–
VENTRELLA: (laughs) Which brings me to a point, about the sense of humor. The book is full of humor, of course, but so were the Turtles and your entire career. Was that unusual, especially when you were first starting with the Turtles?
KAYLAN: It’s unusual now. In any era to have a band with a sense of humor. Mr. Zappa used to say that America wasn’t ready for music with a sense of humor. In his case, he was mostly right. He proved it by lack of commercial success, in his early works especially. After us, he later made it his mission to get on the charts as many times as he could, he did really well at that.
But yes, sense of humor is very important in music. It drives me crazy to hear bands that are supposedly carrying on a sense of humor and they don’t really have one, or it’s a fake one. I don’t think it’s something you can learn.
VENTRELLA: I agree, and one of the things I enjoyed about my Turtles albums was that you sound like you’re having so much fun. And then you do songs like “Eleanor” which is almost a satire of your earlier work …
KAYLAN: Well, if you don’t have an attitude about your work and your life, then people know. It’s not like they have to look at the whole body of your work to understand that some things are a little tongue-in-cheek, they just have to understand from the get-go that not everything they see is quite as it seems. I mean, the Turtles have never held back a sense of humor. From “The Battle of the Bands” to our B sides: “Can You Hear the Cows” all the way back to “Umbassa and the Dragon” — we’re talking 1966 — we were trying to do humorous, Stan Freberg kind of B sides on Turtles records and wondering if there was an audience for it. And years later, people discovered these things. Yes, there’s an audience and all of those things are on i-tunes and as I go through my BMI statement at the end of the year I cannot believe how many people have downloaded “Can You Hear the Cows” or “Umbassa and the Dragon” or these bizarre “throw-away” B sides that we did. Trying to generate a little sense of humor out there!
If you go to a Turtles concert now as part of the “Happy Together” concert you’ll see –and I hope somebody out there does this summer — it’s our 7th year. We’ve picked up more and more shows every year and this summer is just going to be ridiculous as far as the amount of cities that we’re going to and the shows themselves … But you’ll notice at least in our portion of the show (I don’t care about anybody else), there is a huge sense of humor. We don’t get that much time to show it off in between hits because we have to get on with the show, but we show people that we still had a sense of humor, that we still look at this career of ours as just something that fell from outer space and not something we earned like a bunch of arrogant pricks.
There are people out there that are doing music in their 70s and 80s that charge you $350 a ticket (I won’t name names) and they come out, they do their hits, they do their happy little show, they won’t talk to the other members at all, they all come in separate limos and when the show is over they all go back to their little Canyon homes maybe $10 million richer — but let me tell you something. If you got to spend that kind of money to watch a bunch of guys in flannel shirts pretend they had a good time once in the Canyon someplace and you’re being forced to absorb that now … well, if you think that’s fun, then your idea of music in a live sense is severely lacking. And I recommend that you go out and see a show where you can smile through it — where you’re not going “Jesus, I can’t believe I paid for this.”
Ultimately you’re a lot better off just buying the CD and putting your headphones on. If you want the concert experience, do that. Don’t spend the $350.
KAYLAN: We’ve always contended that if you see us having fun on stage, you’ll have fun in your seats. That’s one of the largest reasons that we don’t do sound checks, that we don’t do rehearsals. Everybody’s flying in to our first show which is the Hard Rock Casino in Biloxi on June 8th and I’m coming in the day of the show. I don’t want to rehearse. I don’t want to see the room first. I don’t want to meet anybody that I’m working with. That keeps it new for me.
I’ve been doing this for fifty years. When people ask “Why do you even bother?” “Is there anything new for you?” “Is there anything left for you?” “Are you bored silly doing the same show for forty-seven years?” I tell them, “No, because quite frankly, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I really don’t, and that’s the way I want it. It’s the only edge I’ve got left. It’s the only thing that keeps me on my toes. I don’t want to be bored. I want to have as much fun every night as I hope the people in the audience have, because for most of them, that’s the only chance in their lifetimes to see us.
VENTRELLA: You’re doing a huge tour this summer. Are you meeting people afterwards and signing the book?
KAYLAN: I will pre-sign the book. Meeting people is difficult to deal with because we’ve got hundreds of miles to go to the next show and we’re leaving right after the show ends. It’s not because I’m anti-social. But I’ll pre-sign all that stuff; records too, and CDs.
We’re also selling a box set of 45s this summer which should be a very interesting experience to those vinyl lovers out there. For those who aren’t quite sure if their turntables still work, we’re including a special Turtles/Flo and Eddie spindle so you can play the 45s on your existing record player. But that’s the kind of guys we are.
VENTRELLA: Let’s go back to talk about “The Battle of the Bands” which is one of my favorite albums. I remember getting that and at first being confused because I thought it really was a bunch of different bands — but I was twelve. That was your first album that really was dedicated to being an album as opposed to a collection of singles and songs. And you had quite a few hits on there and a remake of “Chicken Little Was Right” which was one of those B sides you talked about… I think that album has stood up over the years.
KAYLAN: That was our only concept album. I don’t know that it did us any good but you’re right — we did have a couple of big hits off it. It was a lot of fun and if you paid attention to it and got the fact that there we were on the inside of the record dressing up like twelve different groups and sounding like twelve different groups … I’m not sure that the public understood it but I’ll tell you, Zappa did.
VENTRELLA: I also want to talk about a couple other of your old songs before we discuss Zappa. “Sound Asleep” — you talked about that a bit in the book about how much work went into it. That’s kind of like your “Good Vibrations.” I’ve got to tell you how happy I was when I finally found a stereo version back in the late 70s because it just sounds so much better. Are you disappointed that didn’t do better? To me, that should have been another of your huge hits.
KAYLAN: I don’t think so. I think any time you put a bunch of clucking chickens and saws and trees falling from speaker to speaker — which in stereo you’ve got to admit makes a big difference as opposed to the mono version of “Sound Asleep” which is “What’s that? What is that noise? Is that a frog? Is that a ratchet? I can’t tell…” — so there are a lot of sounds. We weren’t consciously trying to do anything like “Good Vibrations.” If anything, we wanted to create a sort of a little mini rock opera but we didn’t know what the hell we were doing.
It was the first time we didn’t have any studio supervision. We had no one telling us what we could do or couldn’t do. So we made a record as if we were doing it for ourselves. We didn’t care if it worked. All we were trying to say to White Whale records was “We’re sick and tired of your corporate producers. We’re going to do it ourselves and if you don’t like it, you can bring in somebody else and we’ll try him out.” They didn’t take us seriously so we gave them “Sound Asleep” and it had a logo on it at the time saying we were the producers and all of a sudden, after so many years, they were forced to buy in to whatever we gave them.
It turned out well eventually but it took a minute for us to get our sea legs. We wanted to be The Beatles so we became Blimp. We were just a bunch of kids and we didn’t know what we were doing. By the time we figured it out, we got it to work in our favor. We had three separate periods of hit records during the years that were separated by periods of anxiety. Every group goes through it. That’s when you need a sense of humor.
VENTRELLA: What do you think is your most under-appreciated Turtles song that you wish had gotten more attention?
KAYLAN: “She’s My Girl.”
VENTRELLA: That’s a great song. Another one that changes tempo and does a lot of interesting things in stereo.
KAYLAN: “Interesting” was the idea. We were interesting, but the label would give us things like “Who Would Ever Think That I Would Marry Margaret.” And I’d say “Wait a minute; I’ve got as much sense of humor as the next guy but I will not throw my work out into the street like that.” That’s just crap. Even listening to it all these years later. That was the most bullshit record I have ever been a part of. I wasn’t wrong.
VENTRELLA: And it wasn’t a hit, either.
KAYLAN: That’s why we left the company. That’s what it meant to us. They had us by the short and curlies but they were never the bosses of us. And we walked. And we gave them “Lady-O” — one final song — and we knew it wasn’t going to chart. I just wanted it to be the last thing we said. It had a luscious arrangement. And that was our last record. It was posthumous, but we didn’t care.
VENTRELLA: One of the things I liked about the book is that you name names. You’re not afraid to name groupies, ex-wives, friends, enemies — Anyone objected to that yet?
KAYLAN: Oh yeah, everybody! What are they going to do? I mean, what is their recourse here? Are you going to take me to court? Are you really going to call attention to yourself by taking me to court after all this time?
Ex-wives will come to me and say “What are you thinking?” First of all, they’re surprised to hear that they’re in the book. I would say to them, “What do you mean you’re surprised? I married you. What, I’m not going to talk about it?” That would be dumb. Obviously, you’re in the book. “But I was a naughty person back then!” Oh, were you? Well, own it. “But my kids are grown up and they’re going to read that!” Well, Honey, they’ll realize that their mom had a sex life and it’s better than they thought. And she was cool way back when. So I think that’s a credit to you. And besides, you had my name and according to my lawyer, anybody who had my name? Fair game, baby.
VENTRELLA: And then you went on to work with Frank Zappa of all people. That was very successful at least in my mind. You called him a “father figure” in the book, which kind of surprised me but I can understand. I mean, he wasn’t that much older than you but he had that sort of authoritarian but yet gentle nature about him. Am I reading too much into that?
KAYLAN: Well no, you’re absolutely right. He was a very gentle man and he did not threaten. He was not that kind of a guy. He was very soft-spoken. Any criticism he gave you was well-intentioned. He was never mean for the sake of it. He was not at all that sort of authoritarian. He was just a perfectionist. This was his music and this was his band, and we had to understand when we joined Zappa that you rented yourself out, body and soul.
We knew it. The earlier Mothers should have known it. They were still bitching and moaning that they hadn’t gotten paid for their recordings. Well, get used to it, boy. You’re signing off.
And part of Frank’s genius was to take the folklore of the band, take whatever he heard and take whatever he saw around him — in the dressing room, backstage, on stage — and turn it into script. He’d turn it into stuff that he would recycle. Just like the words from “200 Motels” that came back to haunt Jeff Simmons. All of his words eventually were recycled into script that became a very good part of the show half of the time. It was a 50/50 proposition. Once Frank heard it, it never went away. And you stood a real good chance of having your words shoved back into your face. We were in no position to regret it — we said it! And so you had to own it and it was fun! It created a great bond between all of us. We were a band! We could share that kind of thing. It was fun.
VENTRELLA: Was “200 Motels” mostly scripted or was there any improvisation? Because it feels like it’s improvised in various parts.
KAYLAN: It truly wasn’t improvised. It was tight little script.
We never shot the ending, though, as I pointed out. There weren’t very many chances at that stage to improvise. The improvisation had all been done on stage or in the buses or the dressing rooms. The entire story of “200 Motels” and indeed the ending that never got filmed (which turned out to be the end of the “Fillmore” album) cohesively made that one total groupie story. “Do You Like My New Car” all the way to the end. There was the “Penis Dimension” stuff and taking it into the penismobile which was designed and totally functional and ready for scripting and we never got around to doing it because we ran out of time. Frank then composed that finale very very quickly. We learned it in a day and we shot it the same day. That was the end of the movie. We had no choice.
They threw us out of Pinewood Studios and we crossed our fingers and hoped they could edit it into something. You tell me if it worked.
VENTRELLA: I’ve seen it probably about three times, although admittedly not in the past twenty years or so. When you do “Strictly Genteel” at the end, was that scripted as well? Because it certainly doesn’t sound like it.
KAYLAN: What particular part are you talking about?
VENTRELLA: When you say “See that man over there? He’s making me do all this. Frank’s making me do all this!”
KAYLAN: No, that was not scripted. (laughs) I thought my mike was off! I thought the only guy that could hear me was in the recording room. I didn’t think Frank would ever listen to it. In fact, I’m positive he didn’t listen to it for a very long time. I don’t know how long it took him to get to that bit but I know that he was pondering what he was going to do for the ending and he really didn’t have it. I don’t think he had even opened up that mike yet; I don’t think he had found that track.
But that sort of pulled it all together at the end and turned it into a Mothers of Invention thing again. Why are we out here? When do we get paid? You know, it was just repeating what Jimmy Carl Black had been saying. And that’s what Frank wanted. That was the theme of the movie. Touring can make you crazy.
Look at me! Here it is, all those many years later — Frank is no longer with us, but I’m still on the road.
VENTRELLA: One of the charms about Zappa is that his music is so tremendously tight and yet at the same time it almost feels as if they’re making it up as they go along. You take something like “Billy the Mountain” which seems to be just telling a story and then all of a sudden without a cue, things change and it’s obviously very well practiced. Right?
KAYLAN: Well, you know, we worked twelve hours a day every day. We did not take holidays off. We didn’t do that. We would work as long as it took to get it absolutely perfect.
Now, “absolutely perfect” to Frank meant on any given night, particularly on “Billy the Mountain”, we had to figure out where we were because we had to throw in an awful lot of local references. So we had to learn the cities where we were, what the local hot spots were, where the kids went to make out, what the supermarket chain was, so we could throw names in that were familiar to a crowd in San Antonio or Minneapolis or Shreveport or whatever and personalize the show a little bit. It made for a lot better audience experience and it made Frank laugh! If you read the book, you know that’s the key — making Frank laugh was always the best thing we could do.
VENTRELLA: Absolutely. Then you had that terrible European tour where Frank got hurt and there was the whole “smoke on the water” situation. After that was over and he recovered, he redid his band and he did not ask you back. Was that because he was trying to go in a different direction or do you think there was something else there?
KAYLAN: By the time Frank reformed anything, we had gone on and signed our deal with Warner Brothers and taken the old band with us. There was no hope of reforming Frank’s band because Flo and Eddie’s drummer was Aynsley. Flo and Eddie’s keyboard player was Donnie. Flo and Eddie’s bass player was Pons. That was the band!
We were the guys. And they were tired of waiting around to hear from the Zappa office just like Mark and I were. We didn’t hear from anybody there, Frank included, for eight months. I don’t know about you, but I can’t live without knowing where my next meal is coming from for eight months, just waiting by the telephone and hoping somebody would tell me we’re a group again.
I knew it wasn’t going to happen and the main reason it didn’t happen was that we had been a tight-knit little bunch and it cost Frank dearly. In his time of his recuperation, the only person who had his ear was the lovely Miss Gail Zappa. She put it into his ear that it wasn’t a really good idea to get close to a group anyway because that would only be a heartache situation somewhere down the line and it was better off not having the Mothers at all. It would be better if he was just Zappa for a while.
I know that later we were certainly approached three separate times through members of Zappa but I can’t do that. I have been my own guy for a lot of years. Nobody wants to be in a band named Kaylan. And I certainly wouldn’t! I pity the fool who would do that, because I know what the situation was at that point, when you’re somebody else’s vocalist. It’s different. It will never be a group any more. I had been spoiled as far as working with Zappa was concerned. If I couldn’t have it that way, I didn’t want it any other way. Gail had ways of making sure that there would be a distance between us instead of the closeness we had.
VENTRELLA: Speaking of band names, you ended up with Flo and Eddie, which you were not very happy with as far as identification, but it was too late to change it at that point, right?
KAYLAN: What would you do?
VENTRELLA: I don’t know!
KAYLAN: Well, Warner Brothers thought it was a brand name worth keeping. By the time we got to Columbia, they felt the same way. It was years and years later. We had a lot of FM radio cred. We were huge on college. When you look at today’s market, for instance, and see a band with a huge college following and it still works — like Yo Lo Tengo — they can stick around for fifteen or twenty years and only appeal to college audiences, then you’ve got something. That is gold. I see those guys work it and it’s amazing to me.
VENTRELLA: “Moving Targets” came out when I was in college. I was the program director of my college radio station, and I must have played “Keep it Warm” every time I was on the air.
KAYLAN: Thank you! And you played the “Keep it Warm” from the album with all the real verses in it, not the truncated bullshit 45 that Columbia released where they took out all the good verses, made the most uncomfortable edits I have ever heard, did it on their own, didn’t call me, just did it, and it was really really bad. They didn’t give us a fighting chance.
VENTRELLA: Well, I’m glad I’ve never heard that version.
KAYLAN: Well, I’m glad it made it to FM radio. It still gets played on FM radio. I see who plays it; I see who downloads it. We do much better now than we have in the last decade or two.
VENTRELLA: “Guns” was another of my favorites off that album that I’d play a lot.
KAYLAN: Great song! Credit where credit is due — Jim Pons had a lot to do with that song. And Graeme “Shirley” Strachan from Skyhooks was wonderful. Australian dude, really helped on that.
VENTRELLA: In the meantime, you did a film called “Dirty Duck.” I remember seeing that when I was in college, too, and I must say I was not impressed. That one looked improvised.
KAYLAN: That one kind of was improvised. We had a very loose script, and the guy who directed it knew what he wanted to do and knew what the characters were going to look like. We told him from the get-go, “You’re out of your mind. There’s no way you’re going to make money with this!” He said, “I’m cool; I don’t care.”
This is the same guy who, within the production of “200 Motels” made everyone say “This guy is crazy” and then he came back with Strawberry Shortcake, thank you very much. So they weren’t that nuts.
This was a flying shot in hell. It was a personal flavor of love for Chuck Swenson, the guy who did it. Now, a fine artist. You can see his stuff online now. He is the artiste, man. He doesn’t know from cartoons any more. But at the time, that’s what he wanted to do. He knew what those voices were going to sound like and knew Mark and me from the movie so he knew exactly what kind of characters he could create for us. Me, once again the straight man, the Louie Prima of the group, being Williard Isenbaum the insurance salesman and Mark being The Duck, as he is in life. He’s sort of my real life nemesis! It was closer to his personality than he wanted to hear …
A lot of those throw-away lines whether they were to your liking at the time or not — well, I dare you to go back and look at that movie now and not get a few really good laughs because there is some pretty cool shit in there. So I’m pretty proud of the movie that would up as “Down and Dirty Duck” or whatever it was called in your X-rated theater.
But I do know that the executive producer of the movie was Roger Corman, who I was thrilled to meet and work with over the course of this thing. He’s a wonderful man and I love and admire him dearly. But he had no idea what to do with this picture. He had it opening up in XXX theaters and downtowns all over America next to XXX porno movies because he didn’t know how to sell it.
VENTRELLA: We saw it as a midnight showing at our college.
KAYLAN: Instant cult. If it has the name “Corman” on it or it says “New World Pictures” in it, you know you’re in for a night of thrills. I’m always thrilled to work with new directors, new producers, people I haven’t worked with, just to see how they work. And I didn’t even mention Roger Corman in the book at all, but I’ve got to put him right up there with one of the big influences on my life. Getting to work with him was stellar! There’s an extra bonus story that isn’t in SHELL SHOCKED that I’m just now recalling for my own self.
VENTRELLA: I’ve got an exclusive!
KAYLAN: That’s a blogosphere extra.
VENTRELLA: Thank you. Now, Strawberry Shortcake is the biggest surprise in your book. Well, maybe the White House story. But the fact that you were writing the songs for Strawberry Shortcake. That must have been a nice little paycheck.
KAYLAN: It was glorious! Truly. It wasn’t just the records. It was a TV show and they ran that thing into the ground, and then the album got very, very popular. If you grew up in the ’80s, you know those songs. You were forced, especially if you were a little girl, to listen to that shit. I know an entire generation of girls that grew up on that who still kind of melt when you sing those words. I guess I can be a “father complex guy” for a night; what’s your pleasure?
VENTRELLA: The idea that the man who sang “Penis Dimension” was doing “Strawberry Shortcut” was kind of interesting …
KAYLAN: You got to wear a lot of hats in this business, Michael!
VENTRELLA: Of course! Of all the people you’ve met — you have some great stories in the book about Lennon and Hendrix — and a lot of sad losses, too, with Nilsson and Bolan and Zappa … Is there anyone you wish you could have worked with that you didn’t?
KAYLAN: George Harrison. I never even met George Harrison. It’s just bizarre. It would have happened had I not been carted off from that party on Blue Jay Way that night in 1966. I could see him —
VENTRELLA: Through the window, yes —
KAYLAN: I could have waved had I not been handcuffed. But that was as close as I ever got to George. So I never was given the pleasure of meeting the man. I would have flown myself anywhere in the world to put my voice on his records.
VENTRELLA: The Hendrix story is one of my favorites but you’ve regaled that a couple of times in other interviews. Any other stories you’ve thought of since the book got out that you want to share?
KAYLAN: No, I’ve decided I’m done! I’m not going to do any more stories even if I think about them even if encouraged to do like you just did moments ago. I’m done, I did it. I’ve had a million nights and a million days like that, with short little brushes with danger. I never told my little happy Phil Spector story about him and his posse coming to see us at the Hard Rock Hotel — wasn’t really a hotel, it’s just this dump on Sunset Boulevard. Whatever they call it. Cafe! And he brought his bodyguards and he had this upstairs private room and there were guns on the table. It was outrageous! And we’re only talking maybe seven, eight years ago. Some of these things you don’t even want to talk about. I’m more worried about what Phil Spector can still do to me than I am what names I’ve actually called out in the book.
VENTRELLA: Got it. Understood. Now, the best news is that you eventually got the rights to the Turtles name and catalog, which has to be one of the best investments ever. You’re doing the “Happy Together” tour which also is very successful. Do you have any other plans? Are you ever going to record a new album?
KAYLAN: No, I don’t have any other plans and that’s the best part of my life. If I had plans, I’d feel like I was back on an itinerary. Except for the three months in summer, I have no plans.
We’ll see what happens ultimately but my plan is to finish this summer. I’m writing another book during the course of the summer.
We’re taking a bunch of interns with us like we did last year to handle the equipment, to do the lights, tour bus, all that crap with us. They’re from Belmont University. They pay the tuition, they come out for the summer and they get to go on the road with the Happy Together tour. It’s a very bizarre thing we do that I’m not sure anyone has ever done before. It’s a book unto itself, actually. Nonetheless, that’s what makes touring fun for me in that I get to involve myself in the creation of something else and then I do a show! Then I get back into my fantasy world …
I don’t know yet if I’m going to be working on an autobiography or rather a biography for somebody else that I’m close to, or was close to, and was mentioned in the book, or whether it will be a work of fiction. I don’t know if it’s going to work. But I’m doing it just to keep myself busy. I think that’s the most important thing. If you can just keep yourself busy then you can hang out for the rest of your life doing what you like.
VENTRELLA: Well, you’re a good writer. You were obviously the smart kid in your school so I don’t think you’ll have any problem. I’m looking forward to reading it. I’m also looking forward to seeing you when you play at Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, which is near me. I plan on being there this summer, so I’ll wave to you.
KAYLAN: Where is that? Where the hell is Jim Thorpe? I didn’t know there was a town named that.
VENTRELLA: Isn’t that amazing? It’s a place called Penn’s Peak.
KAYLAN: How big is this town?
VENTRELLA: It’s very small but it’s a big tourist area — I don’t live in that particular town, but it’s pretty central to other areas and lots of colleges and you might have a good crowd!
KAYLAN: That sounds great! It’s a really good tour this summer. We’re often judged by the people we bring in with us, for some reason that’s OK with me. I’ll take credit or blame for the lineup this year, because I think it’s really strong. There are acts that people haven’t seen in a long long time, myself included. I’m thrilled to be touring with a bunch of people that I have respect for. These are the guys that did the singing. This isn’t some rip-off thing. I’m pleased to always be associated with this particular tour. It has the “Happy Together” Stamp of Approval as far as I’m concerned because if it says “Happy Together” without my Stamp of Approval, I’ll fucking sue ya.
VENTRELLA: And with that, I’ll thank you very much for the interview unless you have any final comments you want to make.
KAYLAN: Done, sir. Done, done done.
VENTRELLA: I really appreciate it. I’ve been a fan of yours for so long and so glad that you were willing to talk to me. Thank you very much.
KAYLAN: My pleasure, Michael. Good luck to you!