Shell Shocked: My Life With The Turtles, Flo & Eddie And Frank Zappa, Etc. (Backbeat Books)—by Howard Kaylan with Jeff Tamarkin—starts with Kaylan at the White House (The Turtles were Tricia Nixon’s favorite band) snorting coke on Abraham Lincoln’s desk.
This 262-page rock star memoir gets good after only 29 pages when Kaylan writes, “‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ became a national Top Ten record. I bought my parents a huge color TV and a trip to Hawaii and never heard about bad career choices again.”
Barely out of high school in 1965, they hit the road on one of Dick Clark’s Caravan Of Stars tours where singers Mel Carter and Tom Jones turned ‘em on to pot and groupies, respectively. Kaylan soon realized that because he has a hit record, he could have sex with girl after girl after girl (“even a potato of a guy like me”). Jones, with the tour bus slowly entering and exiting venues, and a gaggle of screaming girls banging on the windows, would, from the safety of the locked bus, wave his penis in the air at them. (Later, Eric Burdon would show him “groupie games” that, 45 years later, he’s still too embarrassed to embellish upon.)
Their problem was that unlike self-sufficient bands who wrote their own hits, they didn’t. Still, they find “Let Me Be” and “You Baby,” enough to get ‘em on TV plenty and keep the girls and the pot hot. Plus, they make lots of friends. David Crosby invites ‘em to a post-show party when the Beatles play Dodger Stadium in 1966. They go with Beach Boy David Marks but, upon being stopped by the cops, and Marks yelling “Fuck you, pig! Oink oink,” they’re all hauled away to the station house instead.
Hit number four made ‘em superstars. “Happy Together” was an international phenomenon. It got ‘em to London where Graham Nash got ‘em stoned and played ‘em Sgt. Pepper for the first time. It blew their minds. Nash then brought ‘em to a club to meet the Beatles. They insult the Moody Blues and are warned about John Lennon, who winds up being such a dick to them that rhythm guitarist Jim Tucker—who idolized John—winds up quitting the music industry for the rest of his life. A second negative Lennon story comes later in the book and it provides the most heartbreaking moment if you are—as I am—a Harry Nilsson fan. Kaylan and Nilsson were buddies and months before Nilsson’s death, he calls and the two go riding. He had already been diagnosed with cancer yet, much like Frank Zappa at the end of his life, refused to stop smoking or eating greasy food. Nilsson was already in his bathrobe phase, never getting dressed anymore. The two drive through L.A. and listen to Nilsson’s once-beautiful voice on all his hits, one of which is “The Puppy Song” (“Dreams are only made of wishes and a wish is just a dream you hope will come true”).
The following exchange is priceless…
“‘I was a pretty good singer once, wasn’t I?’”
“‘You’re the best there ever was,’” I told him, meaning every word. I was tearing up too.”
“‘He took it from me. He stole my voice and I never got it back.’”
“The `he’ that Harry referred to was John Lennon, who famously produced the Pussy Cats album for Nilsson in 1974. Harry spoke of the primal screaming contests that John would coerce him into.”
“‘I can scream louder and longer than you!’ And John could. But sweet gentle Harry couldn’t do it. He tried. The competition was fierce…it was too late, the damage had been done. Harry’s vocal cords were abraded beyond repair…”
“‘Once I was a king, Howard. Now look at me. I’m just waiting to die.”
Again, for those of us who have loved Harry for years, the revelation is astounding.
Jeff Tamarkin, the former Aquarian writer, has always been a terrific journalist and continues to be to this day. He knows dramatic effect, yet he specializes in an incisive, informational and informative stylistic readability that when combined with Kaylan’s humor, has made for one great read.
Kaylan has stories to spare, most of them are fueled by cocaine excess. The parties, the wives, the friendships with people like Marc Bolan and John Belushi, the music-biz craziness, it’s all here. Bowie. Throwing up on Jimi Hendrix. Being asked by Donald Fagen to sing lead for Steely Dan. Then there’s the night he’s performing at Montreux with Frank Zappa and the venue burns down. Deep Purple writes a song about it called “Smoke On The Water.”
I want to read this one again.