HOWARD KAYLAN of THE TURTLES aka "EDDIE" of FLO & EDDIE!
DECEMBER 2009: by BRADLEY MASON HAMLIN for MYSTERY ISLAND MAGAZINE
BMH: Before we get to DUST BUNNIES and MY DINNER WITH JIMI, two outstanding 21 century projects by Howard Kaylan … let us step into the Mystery Island time machine and travel back in time when Howard was just a kid with a saxophone in high school.
You were involved with The Nightriders before The Crossfires?
KAYLAN: I was playing clarinet in the high school band and taking music lessons at Westchester Music, a store located near the airport and my high school in the West side of Los Angeles. My teacher, Mr. Ferguson, had this old, silver alto sax that he let me honk on before and after class. Even he felt that there was no future in saxophone playing, but I liked it a lot. It was rock and roll, the stuff I was hearing on the radio like "Tossing and Turning" by Bobby Lewis and "Splish Splash" by Bobby Darin.
So when the telephone rang during the fourth week of my freshman year, and the bass player from The Nightriders, Chuck Portz, called to ask if I was, indeed, a sax player, I said "Hell Yes!" and crossed the line into real music, although I was horribly inept.
However, for The Nightriders, I was perfect.
We were all inept.
One change of drummers later and, with the addition of Mark on tambourine and comedy vibes, we became The Crossfires.
BMH: Your first album with The Turtles, IT AIN’T ME BABE, was a rockin’ folky thing that came together with a mix of great cover songs mixed with Turtles originals. You guys did some of the most unique takes on songs, thereby giving the listener some interesting choices. For instance, I love to listen to Frank Sinatra sing “It Was a Very Good Year,” then play The Turtles version. They both hold up perfectly. You recorded that song the same year as Sinatra, but you guys were already Kingston Trio fans, so what actually brought that recording together?
KAYLAN: All through high school, I was a huge fan of the folk music scene that was sweeping across college campuses at the time. Before The Beatles revolutionized the medium, folk music was the listening material of choice for the hip, beatnik crowd.
I was far too young to be hip, but I did know what I liked.
As well as having The Crossfires, our high school surf band (that went onto become The Turtles), we also had our own folk group. In fact, as The Crosswind Singers, Mark Volman, Al Nichol and I, along with fellow choir-mate Betty McCarty, actually opened a concert at Westchester High in Los Angeles for the folk duo Joe and Eddie who had recorded a hit version of "There's a Meeting Here Tonight."
Cosmically, their name would return to haunt us for the rest of our lives as Flo and Eddie.
But I had every single Kingston Trio album that Capitol, and later Decca, released.
And I loved "It Was A Very Good Year" just as I adored "September Song" and the rest of the French style chansons.
We never heard Sinatra's version, which was released after we recorded our first album with "Very Good Year" on it.
We just loved the song.
It was test-marketed in the Vancouver, BC market and charted well, but our little label was taking no chances so it was never released as a single anywhere else that I know of.
I still dig the chime-y guitar sound and the feigned anger during the final verses of our version.
I wish it had become a hit for us.
BMH: It definitely could have been. It's a hit right here on Mystery Island.
“Eve of Destruction,” is another A+ song from your first Turtles album, and another P.F. Sloan song where you find other versions. Have you heard The Dickies cover? What do you think of it? It actually reminds me of your version of "It Was a Very Good Year" in terms of its driven originality and obvious respect.
KAYLAN: Never heard the Dickies version, although I really loved those guys.
LUCY HELL [Editorial interruption]: We'll send you a copy, Howard!
KAYLAN: This was sort of the same deal as the song above. Only, in this case, IT AIN'T ME BABE had become our first hit record when I was 17 years old. We were frantically searching for a follow-up when our producer, Bones Howe, brought P.F. Sloan, a new singer-songwriter, backstage to play us some songs at the Hollywood club where we were working.
We thought, collectively, that his "Eve of Destruction" was, indeed, a brilliant song, but also understood how powerful its message was and how ill-equipped to defend its politics we were as high school kids of privilege. We also had a sneaking, intuitive suspicion that, if we did release this hardcore masterpiece, and it DID work as a mainstream hit, we would never be heard from again.
The song, frankly, scared the hell out of us.
We asked Sloan if he had anything a little less threatening and he offered up "Let Me Be," a song to our parents about the length of our hair. Now, THAT we could do. It was our second single.
(Vincent Price, Alice Cooper, Mark Volman, Howard Kaylan)
BMH: One of the coolest things about a Turtles record is, what you’re hearing – is the real deal. The poor Monkees have taken endless heat for not playing on those first two records, but in truth, that was the L.A. standard, right? If you wanted a great drummer you called Hal Blaine. Hell, if Brian Wilson hired Hal, why shouldn’t everyone else?
The Turtles, however, played it straight, yes?
KAYLAN: Fortunately, or maybe not, our little label, White Whale, had no money to pay session men. I'm sure that they would have if they could have. Hal Blaine, Larry Knecktal, Lee Sklar and Waddy Wachtel played on everyone's records from The Mamas and the Papas to The Beach Boys to The Byrds and even James Taylor and everyone between.
But not us.
Cause there just wasn't any money.
And because we fancied ourselves to be a self-contained band that could sound like our records in person.
We were raw, but we were real.
We were a teen-aged garage band that was making hit records in direct competition to the ones that featured the greatest musicians in America.
And we were doing it ourselves.
Maybe no one else appreciated what we were doing, but we knew, in our heart of hearts, that we were the only honest game in town.
Of course, years later, this is one of the small facts that have kept us out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but I still believe in honesty. Even if I'm the last one left.
BMH: There is no real rock & roll hall of fame. When the Mystery Island Music Hall of Fame opens -- Dick Dale and His Del-Tones, The Monkees, and The Turtles will top the list.
Speaking of The Monkees again -- you guys had something in common in the 1960s, no, not just great songs and Chip Douglas: You guys all wore clothes from J.C. Penny’s on your album covers. What’s up with that?
KAYLAN: We wore what we owned. We had no stylist or press agents to advise us.
We, literally, DID go to Penny's or Sears or wherever we could find stuff that looked sorta like the stuff we saw in magazines and bought the clothes ourselves.
Remember, there was no real management or label input here... We were totally on our own. And even the so-called hip people that ran our company had no taste whatsoever.
It was years later, by the time we performed at the White House, that we were actually taken shopping by management and had our hair styled by Jay Sebring. We didn't like it. In the sixties, you could either model yourself after the Beatles or the Stones. We couldn't afford to be The Beatles and the Stones wore funk, so we were financially, at least, dressing like the Stones.
It was hideous.
BMH: Aside from being one of the great rock & roll vocalist, you’re a writer on several different levels, including fiction, but we’d love to hear about your early approach to songwriting. The lyrics to “House of Pain” [on the YOU BABY album] are pretty grim and deep—at a time when you guys were transitioning from folk to happier pop. What inspired that one?
KAYLAN: The YOU BABY LP was our transition, hopefully, out of the world of folk music, where we really didn't belong, and into The Lovin' Spoonful's medium of "good time" music. The problem was, our record company didn't understand why we wanted to change musical directions. Nor did they give us any time to assemble much of an album to accompany "You Baby," our third single, and an early clue to our new direction.
We would finish a six week tour, return to Los Angeles, and immediately go into the studio for two weeks to churn out another album and begin the cycle all over again.
In this case, most of the songs on You Baby were written to appear on our hypothetical next folk-rock album, but we changed horses midstream, so to speak.
"House of Pain," for example, was obviously intended to be some sort of chain gang lament about redemption, although as I previously stated, we were eighteen and middle class and had absolutely nothing to protest about.
It was ludicrous, being seventeen and singing about an old man's hardships, but that's what folk music did and more than half of that album is devoted to songs from that earlier Turtles era.
(Flo & Eddie with Kathleen Turner)
BMH: Also on You Baby, is one of the greatest and most-played Turtles tunes on Mystery Island: “Down in Suburbia.” Please tell us anything you can about recording that iconoclastic tale written by Bob Lind.
KAYLAN: We loved weed. Bob Lind, of Elusive Butterfly fame, was and is a good friend of ours and he had written a song about society's ills and his lament that nobody was cool enough to smoke marijuana in Suburbia... It was sort of like "Pleasant Valley Sunday" in its depiction of rural life in a getting-nowhere-fast Amerika. Bob loved weed. And nobody, certainly no mainstream hit band, was singing about pot, unless it was thinly disguised as "Incense and Peppermints" or "Too Much To Dream." It was a goofy album cut, but it still works as a campfire song.
BMH: You guys were one of the last great “AM radio” bands that did really well in terms of selling radio-friendly singles, and in terms of the dull factor of today’s “radio music,” those are incredibly important memories for me. In the early 1970s, I would ride around on my dirt bike, delivering the L.A. Times, listening to “Happy Together” on an AM radio bolted to my handlebars and truly feeling a sense of well-being, but the older kids were still off fighting a war in Vietnam. How did they feel about “Happy Together”? It meant something to them, didn’t it?
KAYLAN: I have been told on countless occasions, by veterans of the Viet Nam War, how important "Happy Together," in particular, was for them. The song never actually says that the singer and the object of his affections are together. Indeed, just the opposite, it sings "Imagine Me and You..." and thousands of guys in foxholes or stationed on the front lines were imagining just that. It was a song about hope and the desire to be together and the imagination that it took to put one's head into that dreamlike state. We have been thanked by returning troops literally hundreds of times for giving them and their loved ones the hope to get through the most trying of times. I'm glad that, inadvertently, somehow we actually helped.
BMH: Now you’re probably already aware of this, but it’s worth putting in print here: Brian Wilson said his favorite Turtles song is “Elenore,” from the epic 1968 double album: THE TURTLES PRESENT THE BATTLE OF THE BANDS. When did you and Mark catch a clue that you could give The Beach Boys a run for their money in terms of harmony?
KAYLAN: God Bless Brian. And thank you, sir, for selecting a song that was important for me, as a writer. Mark and I never EVER thought about harmonizing "like The Beach Boys" but perhaps it's obvious that we were brought up about seven miles away from each other -- us in Westchester and they in Torrance. We were all beach kids. And we were all lucky enough to count the Four Preps, The Hi-Los, The Four Freshmen and yes, even The Kingston Trio among our influences. Old school harmonies and new school lyrics. We all just evolved that way. It wasn't intentional, I assure you.
BMH: The Crossfires also returned for Battle of the Bands, and you guys actually cut a surf classic. Tell us about making “Surfer Dan.” I still have the 12” color vinyl single.
KAYLAN: The closest we ever got to parodying a Beach Boys record was "Surfer Dan," a tune that Al Nichol wrote. Brian Wilson never surfed and either did Al, but we all went to high school mere blocks away from the beach and often, would not return to class after lunch, favoring the afternoon in the sand instead. Terms like: "He's a gremmie Maharishi in his baggies and beads" actually foreshadowed lyrics like: "He's got gold lame tails and a cottage in Whales; he's so trendy," from Flo and Eddie's 2nd Reprise album, Another Pop Star's Life Goes By. We were always observational.
BMH: Another great song from Battle of the Bands is “You Showed Me,” one of the greatest rock & roll ballads ever recorded. Do you still sing this one?
KAYLAN: We perform "You Showed Me" at every concert -- it was one of our biggest hits, although it was never intended, by its writers, to be a ballad at all. Our producer at the time, Chip Douglas, brought us the song for the Battle of the Bands album and it was up-tempo and really early Beatles-sounding...very Merseybeat. Only Chip's pump organ was broken -- one of it's two bellows was out -- so Chip had to play the song for us at half-speed. And we loved it. And we told him we wanted to record it as a love song. And he thought we were nuts. But, once again, we were spoiled brats and got our way. And I'm still grateful. "You Showed Me" still proves itself to be the prettiest love song we ever recorded and it gets sampled by hip hop artists (and even U2) constantly.
BMH: Possibly, an even more haunting and beautiful Turtles song is “Somewhere Friday Night” from the TURTLE SOUP album. Please tell us about working with Ray Davies.
KAYLAN: Ray was a pleasure to work with. We just rang him up at his house in London one Sunday afternoon after getting his phone number from Derek Taylor at The Beatles' office. He knew who we were and had a bunch of stuff to take care of in the States, ie. a divorce and the switch from Warners to RCA, so he agreed to produce us in two ten-day segments. We had recorded all of the songs that were to be on Turtle Soup in a demo studio for Ray to listen to before he arrived, but only this one -- my little song -- "Somewhere Friday Night" -- just couldn't be duplicated correctly. We tried for days to get the mysterious sounds that the demo had, and just couldn't reproduce the mood acurately. So the version that you hear on Turtle Soup is the demo that we produced for Ray. I still love it.
BMH: I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, having been involved with such hip projects and cool people throughout the years, but you earned some major 80’s street-cred for hangin’ with Strawberry Shortcake. I’m not kidding. Cartoons become sacred parts of our childhood. Lucy Hell, our resident model and girl reporter is still looking for the exact tracks to own. Did you also work with The Care Bears? Tell us about getting those jobs.
KAYLAN: It was the eighties and work was scarce for a band who hadn't had hit records since 1970. During this era, we found ourselves doing just about anything artistic just to stay alive. We produced young bands, had an office at Miss Universe, where we actually helped to run the pageants, wrote scripts and screenplays, acted and took acting classes, made some movies, and luckilly found our way into the world of children's music. Strangely enough, our entree into that world came via Frank Zappa and his 200 Motels movie which we had appeared in as the Mothers of Invention. The film's producers, Murakami and Wolf, were basically animators who had created The Point with our buddy Harry Nilsson. They loved the little animated segment that Mark and I voiced for 200 Motels and wrote a full-length feature for us to star in called The Dirty Duck, and X-rated, animated film released by Roger Corman's New World Pictures. It was filthy, but it was fun. Afterwards, they asked us to do the music for a new character that American Greetings Cards had developed called Strawberry Shortcake. We did three television specials for her, using the TV actors as our voices and later recorded an additional six records or so voicing the characters by ourselves or with friends like Russi Taylor, who is Strawberry's voice, and Christina Applegate, who was a teen-aged neighbor in Laurel Canyon. This led to another eight albums as The Care Bears, three as G.I. Joe, and two addtional specials, Peter and the Magic Egg and The Adventures of the American Rabbit. We tried to write and produce intellegent songs for intellegent kids. We never played down to our audience. If anything, we gave them sophisticated lyrics and melodies and never underestimated them in any way.
I guess we were in the wrong business.
LUCY HELL: [another editorial interruption]: So awesome, Strawberry Shortcake is berry important to me!
BMH: You and Mark helped bring the vocals alive on what is arguably the best Psychedelic Furs record, “Love My Way,” and other cool tunes in your post Turtles: Mothers of Invention/Frank Zappa/Flo & Eddie life, but we’re crazy Ramones fans here on Mystery Island. Please tell us about Joey calling you when you had your radio show and please explain exactly your interaction. Details!
KAYLAN: Hundreds of background singing assignments into our career, we were contacted by Joey Ramone directly to sing on Mondo Bizarro. In fact, the Ramones were in such turmoil at the time that Joey and Dee Dee were the only band members present at the session. Joey phoned us at K-Rock, (92.3 WXRK) in New York City, where we did a daily program from 2 til 6 in the afternoon following Howard Stern. The session itself was all business after the initial socializing took place and the smile on Joey's face as his vision came to life is unforgettable to me. We always idolized The Ramones and to be included on one of their final records was a sincere honor. We did our T. Rex voices and our Beachy harmonies and really helped solidify that album, I think. Or at least, that was Joey's vision for that particular record. Much the same could be said of our singing with Duran Duran during that same period of time on their Thank You album. They knew the sounds they wanted and were thrilled to have us, a slice of living history, in the studio with them. Singing with these legends never gets old or boring. In fact, it goes a long way to validate my entire career. Which is why our singing with U2 at Carnegie Hall last October, was such an amazing treat.
(Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman singing with some guy named Bruce Springsteen
and check out the forever foxy Ronnie Spector on the left!)
BMH: One of the things that really impressed me about seeing The Turtles/Flo & Eddie show live in the 1990s was that, not only could you guys still provide The Turtles hits with perfection, but your band could basically play most of the hits of the ‘60s hits on demand. I shouted out “House of the Rising Sun,” which I’m apt to do at anybody’s show and you guys immediately took off on “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place,” and it was amazing. Are you still having that much fun on the road? What’s the current lineup like?
KAYLAN: We started this here band in high school with the sole purpose of having fun. Well, meeting girls, which is the same thing. And we always said that, when it ceased to be fun, we would cease working. Well, 47 years later and we're still having fun, so that must count for something. Obviously, we don't get on a tour bus and leave town for two or three months at a time, like the old Dick Clark days, but when we DO work, we are happy as hell to be ... well, anywhere! And the band is reliable and wonderful and have been working together with us for the past almost-thirty years. Joe Stefko, who had played drums for Meatloaf on his Bat Out Of Hell Tour and worked with John Cale and Hot Tuna, put the original NYC band together in 1979 and, with changes brought about by our years of persistance, we are still working with the same people. Don Kisselbach, formerly with Rick Derringer, on bass; Godfrey Townsend, of the Alan Parsons Project on lead guitar; and Greg Hawkes, of the Cars, on keyboards. Dare I say, we rock! And it's fun.
Plus, we started out as a teen house band -- you HAD to know The Animals' music to play four sets a night in 1964. We still know those songs and WAIT for anybody to yell a request for anything! Just TRY to stump us!
BMH: Tell us about your film, MY DINNER WITH JIMI, and where our readers can get a hold of this great rock & roll film that brings to life – your life – in terms of the people you knew in the 1960s.
KAYLAN: After Rhino Films released two feature movies in the nineties, Why Do Fools Fall In Love and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, they were beginning to realize that making films for sale was not quite the same as making records. They took a few years off and decided to re-enter the world of film, but this time with a little more concern for budget. It was decided that they would produce a short, inexpensive rock film which could run at Teluride, Sundance, Aspen, Slamdunk and any number of other worldwide film festivals and regain their entry into the world of movies. President of Rhino, Harold Bronson, recalled the tale I told of my first evening in London, my meeting with The Beatles and my dinner with this guy named Jimi who would go on to become a star. He gave me a deadline and a budget and we went into the studio in Los Angeles in 2002 to film an indie pic about that fatefull night.
It was great, but it was short. It was just about a dinner. Warner Brothers, who still distributed Rhino's films, just didn't know what to do with it. So a complete re-write was called for and, once again, I went to work to complete what would become the first half of the script. Again, back to L.A., this time inviting personal friends like John Corbett and George Wendt to appear in cameo performances, for another week of shooting.
In 2003, My Dinner With Jimi was released to the festival circuit, winning best screenplay at Slamdunk in Colorado, best film in Ashville, NC, and a spot of honor at international festivals in Woodstock, Havana, Seattle, Los Angeles and many more.
Then it sat on a shelf for a couple of years while the companies sorted out who owned what. Finally, in 2008, the movie got a theatrical release in Canada followed by a DVD release in America in 2009 on Shout Factory's Micro Werks imprint. It is available at Amazon, Netflix, and wherever else fine films are sold or rented.
BMH: Now, please, tell us about the Howard Kaylan album: DUST BUNNIES! “Easy Street” kicks butt, but I particularly appreciate the vocals on “What’s That Got To Do With Me.” Any other albums, books, projects out or in the works?
KAYLAN: I HAD to ... actually felt like I HAD to release a studio album in this century. And the songs I chose for Dust Bunnies were just that -- pieces of fluff that I had found throughout the years, whether they were B-sides of hit records that no one ever heard, or deep album cuts that never saw radio or any sort of popularity whatsoever. Knowing that The Turtles had no plans to make a studio record and that with Mark living in Nashville and me in Seattle, there would likely be no session work ahead for us as a duo, I enlisted the help of my friend Andy Cahan from the West Coast touring Turtles band. With Andy on synths and me on vocals, we went into Billy Bob Thornton's home studio for a couple of weeks and knocked out Dust Bunnies. "Easy Street" is the only self-penned and therefore, autobiographical song on the record -- I always throw in one -- and the others are just personal favorites. "What's It Got to Do With Me" was recorded by a folk duo known as Jim and Jean on Verve Folkways Records in about 1963. I don't know why it haunts me like it does, but I knew I had to record it. The entire record speaks to me, emotionally. I made the record for ME, so I'm the only opinion that counts. Lucky I wasn't going for sales.
I am currently working on finishing my official autobiography (untitled) with some help from a friend, the legendary rock writer and critic Jeff Tamarkin. It should be finished by the end of 2010. Mark and I will be touring this spring and summer with a concert called Happy Together -- us and some very famous friends -- and possibly traveling to Austrailia and Europe later in the season.
BMH: I’m asking these questions on Halloween, so I can’t help but ask you to relate a funny/scary Howard Kaylan Halloween story. What’s your favorite mask?
KAYLAN: Well, we're a bit late for Halloween now, Brad, but one of the scariest things that ever happened to us was staying in a hotel in St. John's Newfoundland in the dead of winter with no staff and no one else in any of the rooms. No drugs, no girls, and only bottles of something called Newfoundland Screech, an awful beverage made from the dregs of whisky barrels, for comfort. And we heard noises, sir. Footsteps and laughter. Now, it may have been the Screech, but I don't think so.
We haven't been back.
My favorite mask is the mask of conformity.
BMH: Thanks, we'll stay away from the Screech! And thank you for giving us a great way to say goodbye to '09.
It has been a very good year.
HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYBODY!
For more of the amazing Howard Kaylan, please visit his website and/or other links below:
HOWARD KAYLAN WEBSITE ::
THE TURTLES WEBSITE ::
THE TURTLES MYSPACE
“Howard Kaylan Interview" by Bradley Mason Hamlin.
Edited by Lucy Hell. © 2009 by Mystery Island Publications. Published: 12.31.09.
All rights reserved.
All photos of Howard Kaylan and/or The Turtles/Flo & Eddie from the collection of Howard Kaylan. Christmas Surfer Dan photo by Alcoholman. All rights reserved. Do not copy or use without permission.
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