Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Book Review: Shell Shocked, by Howard Kaylan with Jeff Tamarkin

 Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2013
Images from the Internet


Shell Shocked: My life with the Turtles, Flo & Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc…
By Howard Kaylan, with Jeff Tamarkin
Backbeat Books (Milwaukee)
An imprint of Hal Leonard
277 pages; $24.99: 2013
ISBN: 978-1-61780-846-3

When little Howie Kaplan grew up, sorta, he was known by many names; but we know him as Eddie, and especially by Howard Kaylan. If you sprouted listening to ‘60s radio, you knew his chubby face, facial hair, and principally his voice.

Sure, he has backed up some of the biggest music stars of the ‘70s, such as Zappa, Springsteen (do you really need a given names?), Marc Bolan, Alice Cooper, and even the Ramones.

While the even more physically memorably hirsute and chunky Mark Volman (aka Phlorescent Leech, or Flo, for short) has been his partner for umpteen years, it’s Kaylan you think of when you hear the pride and joy of “Elenore,” “Happy Together,” “You Showed Me,” “She’d Rather Be With Me,” et-cet-trah.

Starting life as a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, then upstate New York, and finally transplanted in his formative years to sunny SoCal, his life changed – as with so many others of his generation – with the introduction of rock and roll, the Beatles, and then Bobby Dylan (also a man of many names).

Fame came early for Kaylan and Volman, and with quick success and youth, along with the period in history that was exploding around them, also arose what Ian Dury would famously coin, Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll.

I have read a number of autobios of musicians, such as Cheetah Chrome (Dead Boys), Slash (Guns n’ Roses / Velvet Revolver) and Andy McCoy (Hanoi Rocks), and there is a similar trajectory with a difference in that while they were poor and fighting to get off the mean streets, Kaylan grew up middle class and had a relatively decent childhood. And yet they have all had ups and downs in their career, making and losing tons of cash, the involvement of drugs, wild stories on the road, and multiple partners and wives. However, as far as the descriptors go, the bigger distinction is that Kaylan approaches the whole meshugas with a wicked sense of humor, usually pointed at his own faults and failings. For example, from page 76:

So, not to brag or compare myself to an NBA player, but it was astounding to me, as a not-so-attractive teenager, how many women I was able to “be with” – and this continued into the ‘80s: lined up in the hallways, crossing paths in the lobby preceding the shift change… [sic] Of course, with each lady came baggage. I heard more stories about parents and brothers and unfaithful boyfriends and school than I care to recall. In fact, fortunately, I recall none of them. A switch in my brain could accept a certain amount of palaver without even taking it in. Click. Ah! That’s better. Now I don’t hear a word you’re saying. Oh, is that your bra?

Every bio has its own quirk. For example, Slash repeats the line “all things considered” into the ground. For Kaylan, it’s more like a cliffhanger with the verbal tic lines of, to paraphrase, “I should have known what would happen next…” Note that is my observation, not a complaint. It comes across as the reader is on the ascension of a roller coaster, and you’re about to hit the peak of the upward climb leading to, wheeeee.

My one bone to pick is that as well as the good times, I also wanted to learn about the lean. He mentions that he had to go on unemployment a few times, but never really dives into the depth of what that entailed or was like for him. It was more like a sigh of “oy” than getting the feeling of any kind of depth on the topic. The only despair he does invite the reader into with some feeling is the death of some loved ones, such as Marc Bolan.

Naturally, there is a lot in the book of the Turtles period, of Zappa, on tour with Alice Cooper (I saw Flo and Eddie open for Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies tour at Madison Square Garden on June 23, 1973), but short shrift about the period after, during the mid-1980s until present, other than a few mentions of going into the studio with various musicians as back-up, like the abovementioned Ramones. I laughed when he describes working with Boston’s garage legends DMZ and Jeff “Monoman” Conolly (I saw Conolly’s the Lyres a few times, but never DMZ), whose music he describes as “punk”; I’m not sure, however, if Kaylan knows the difference between ‘60s-style punk and punk rock, but I digress…

Kaylan has the pleasure of knowing, meeting or seeing the performance of some of the most important rock legends of his day, from Hendrix to Joplin, and bedding a bevy of beautiful women, such as Miss Pamela (DesBarres). While he doesn’t shy away from indiscretions, such as his own, Volman’s or those of the late Zappa (d. 1993; I wonder what Gail Zappa thinks of this book), he discusses rather than describes in detail (a point I applaude).

Even with all the trials and tribulations of Kaylan’s life, much like his music this is a feel-good book, such as he describes the sound of the Turtles, a style they adapted, changing from folk rock after they heard the Lovin’ Spoonful. It’s more of an enjoyable beach read than, say, something academic or meant to give a deep message, like Jim Carroll’s (d. 2009) overrated The Basketball Diaries (1978). If you are at all familiar with the sound of the Turtles, that will give you an indication of the zeitgeist of the book, if you extrapolate a tad.

Unsurprisingly, Penn Gillette’s forward is wicked funny and caustic, and yet gives the impression of fandom and loyalty to a band and man he never expected to like, yet learned there’s more to the music than appears at first listen.

This book is based on Kaylan’s extensive journals that he kept throughout his career. To help him edit his writing, Kaylan wisely chose music historian and writer Jeff Tamarkin, who famously wrote Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of the Jefferson Airplane in 2003. His vast knowledge of the music scene on the West Coast during the 1960s and ‘70s certainly helped. I’m hoping he can perhaps persuade Kaylan to write a more detailed expose of his life in the last half, as this is so focused on the first.

Bonus videos:


  1. Interesting comments via the parallels between the various autobio's.With the exception of one or two Guns and Roses' songs the difference between Howard Kaylans' music wheither directly or indirectly and the others is that he has been involved in total timeless classics loved throughout the World since the mid 60's onwards! ! HAPPY TOGETHER, ELENORE, YOU SHOWED ME, GET IT ON., HOT LOVE, METAL GURU, HUNGREY HEART, etc etc etc!.much love Peter McGregor, London, England.

  2. Glad you liked the review. And I agree with you about Kaylan's music being more interesting than Guns n' Roses. "Happy Together" will stand the test of time so much longer than "Welcome to the Jungle," and I can't even name a song done by Hanoi Rocks, so that takes care of that. Feel free to spread the word of the review, and of course the book!