The Turtles: The Raunchiest Band of the '60s?
Two Titantic Turtles: Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (aka Flo & Eddie)
Even the most voracious reader or rock-music biographies and autobiographies would be hard-pressed to find a better opening sentence than Howard Kaylan, lead vocalist of The Turtles, has in his new memoir Shell Shocked.
"I was snorting coke on Abraham Lincoln's desk in the White House," it reads. This sets the scene as the band -- hired to play Tricia Nixon's birthday party in 1969 -- finds them using Honest Abe's former crib as a dressing room. And this was after the Secret Service had confiscated a metronome, thinking its tick-tick-ticking was a bomb that the longhairs had smuggled in.
"It was a little bit sensationalistic, yeah, it was pretty much a panic reaction," Kaylan says from his California home at 8 a.m. Texas time, the end of his normal waking day. "Half of me was like 'Put that shit away!' and the other half was 'Yeah, up my nose! So I was conflicted."
And the sex and drugs stories fly throughout Shell Shocked in a way that you might not expect from the guy who sang on a bunch of classic pop hits like "She'd Rather Be With Me," "Elenore," a cover of Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe," "You Baby," "She's My Girl," and "You Showed Me."
Oh, and a little ditty called "Happy Together." The Turtles' version became one of the most recognizable anthems of the '60s, despite the tune's having been turned down by both the Vogues and the Grass Roots.
And it also lends its name to a package tour coming to the Stafford Centre this coming Tuesday, June 11. The lineup includes the Turtles (with Kaylan and longtime co-conspirator Mark Volman), ex-Three Dog Night vocalist Chuck Negron, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and Mark Lindsay, the voice of Paul Revere and the Raiders.
When asked when he realized that "Happy Together" transcended just being another hit record, Kaylan is quick to respond: immediately.
"I would say we knew from the first minute that we heard it played back in the studio that it would be the biggest record we ever made and a No. 1 song. And that's pretty arrogant for two teenage mutant ninja Turtles!" Kaylan says of his and Volman's initial reaction. "We had a few hits before, but we knew something was magical about that particular song."
All the more impressive when you realize that the pair were still teenagers at the time and that by the time he was 22, the original Turtles had broken up.
Rock luminaries also appear throughout Kaylan's narrative, culled from his meticulously-kept diaries (vastly needed for fact checking, given the copious amounts of drugs he ingests throughout).
So readers get anecdotes about performers like Neil Young, Eric Burdon, David Crosby, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Tom Jones (who we learn nicknamed his penis "Wendell"), Micky Dolenz, Harry Nilsson, Ray Davies, and Jimi Hendrix.
But it would be hard to top the tale of the Turtles' first day in London on their debut English tour. The band gets to the hotel to find a phone message from Graham Nash, who has invited them over to listen to the then-unreleased acetate of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band -- with Donovan also in attendance no less.
Later, they travel to a pub favored by London's rock elite to find themselves sitting and drinking at the same table with three of the Beatles themselves -- though a combative and insulting John Lennon sends Turtles rhythm guitarist Jim Tucker (and subsequently the band) out of the pub with his withering tongue.
"Any introduction to the Fab Four would have been incredible. And though I had been warned about Lennon, I wasn't ready for him. He was a jerk and nobody stood up for Jim, though we wouldn't have cared, honestly," Kaylan recalls. "In recent years, I've tried to put myself in their place as kings of the world, and I would have been a jerk as well."
Still, Kaylan says that when he looks at the picture of Lennon he has in his home today, it gives him "ambivalent" feelings.
"I want to remember him as the 'Imagine' guy, the 'War is Over' guy, but then this other image pops up at what kind of a jerk he was. Even idols have feet of clay."
Coming up in Part II, Kaylan discusses the golden age of '60s radio, his work with Frank Zappa and Bruce Springsteen, and why he won't be spending much time with Volman this summer offstage.
Shell Shocked: My Life with The Turtles, Flo & Eddie, and Frank Zappa etc. by Howard Kaylan and Jeff Tamarkin. 304 pp., $24.99, Hal Leonard Books.
The Turtles and the other acts of the "Happy Together 2013" tour play the Stafford Centre, 10505 Cash Rd. in Stafford. Doors open at 8 p.m.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.