Thursday, August 01, 2013

Is He Flo Or Eddie?

I just read Shell Shocked, Howard Kaylan's autobiography.  Kaylan was the lead singer of the Turtles, among other gigs.  Kaylan's led quite a life, and the book is written with the flair such a life deserves (perhaps due to help from rock journalist Jeff Tamarkin).

Kaylan was actually named Kaplan, but always felt he was a Kaylan, so he used that name once he started performing.  He was born in 1947 in New York, but in Howard's early years his father moved to the promised land of Southern California.  Howard was a smart kid, skipping grades, and also showed a flair for music.  He started playing in cover bands, soon with his high school friend Mark Volman, who'd become his lifetime musical partner.  (If there's anything strange about the book, it's how little Kaylan talks about Volman.  Was there some sort of agreement between the two--is Volman going to write his own book).

Kaplan played in popular local cover bands and decided this is what he wanted to do.  He attended UCLA for a short while but decided that's what he didn't want to do.  His parents objected, but when he had a top ten hit at the age of eighteen in 1965--a cover of Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe"--all was forgiven.  By the way, Kaplan didn't think much of the name the Turtles, but management felt maybe someone would mistake them for a British band, who were big then.

The Turtles, barely adults, started touring and Kaplan made two major discoveries, drugs and groupies, both of which would remain a major part of his life for years.  Not bad, he felt, for a pudgy teenage nerd.

The band had trouble finding a follow-up hit. however.  They switched from folk-rock to goodtime music and finally, in 1967, had a monster #1 with "Happy Together," still their signature tune.  (Why does Howard sing "How is the weather?" on the song--because he'd heard it on the demo and thought it'd be funny to try in the studio, and it made it onto the single).

The Turtles weren't just a flash in the pan, and continued with other hits.  And when it looked like they'd dried up, Kaylan came up with a song which was a parody of how dumb top 40 hits were--"Elenore."

Along the way, Kaylan got married (he'd go through several wives and who knows how many groupies) and had a kid.  The band also wasn't happy with their management and record company, and, with no new hits coming out, the whole project dissolved into a series of lawsuits in 1970--Kaylan had had a whole musical career and was only 23.  Not only were Kaylan and Volman looking for new work, it turned out they weren't even allowed to use the name "Turtles," or even their own names. (They'd eventually buy the rights to all the Turtles' catalogue from former bandmates and others, and to this day make money on those oldies.)

Kaylan was living extravagantly, but without the requisite income. He needed a job.  He actually turned down the job as lead singer in the newly-formed Steely Dan (because there was no slot for Volman), but happily accepted a spot in Frank Zappa's band. He'd known and respected Zappa for years, and though the Turtles had actually been a bigger act (Zappa jokes about promo men who promised to make his Mothers Of Invention as big as the Turtles), in this new age of rock, Zappa was taken more seriously. He also had a serious fan base, and Kaylan and Volman were more than happy to fit in.  Just one trouble--they couldn't use their names. So they took old nicknames from some roadies they'd known and rechristened themselves the Phlorescent Leech and Eddie, later shorted to Flo and Eddie.

Howard and Mark were not only talented singers, but also had a comic bent, and fit in well with Zappa for a few years.  They were on the tour where the concert hall burnt down before their eyes--memorialized in "Smoke On The Water"--and where later Zappa was tossed into the concrete pit in front of the stage and almost killed.

They eventually left Zappa (or Zappa stopped doing shows) and went out on their own as Flo and Eddie--as much a comedy act as a musical one, and very popular in concert if not so much as recording stars.  They also sang backup vocals on a lot of other records.  Though Kaylan was still in his mid-20s, the rest of his life (and last third of the book) was less focused artistically, as he tried a little bit of everything--including writing, acting, radio broadcasting and other things.

According to his book, Kaylan seems to have partied with, sung with or opened for about every major rock act there was.  And along the way, certain close friends have died--Marc Bolan, Harry Nilsson, Frank Zappa.  That's how rock and roll works.  He and Volman were also the first artists to sue rappers who sample their tunes.  It ticked off some people, but they won--you can't put someone else's recording in yours and not pay.

Kaylan is still out there, singing oldies, collecting royalties and working on new projects.  He's 65, but not yet ready to retire.  Maybe he'll be touring near you some day.

PS  Kaylan is still out there fighting for his intellectual property rights, leading a class action suit against SiriusXM radio for over $100 million.


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