Howard Kaylan’s ‘Shell Shocked’ Makes Readers, Turtles and Zappa Lovers Laugh

Shell Shocked opens with Howard Kaylan––then a member of the Turtles––snorting cocaine off Abraham Lincoln’s desk inside the Nixon White House and ends decades later with Kaylan, a sometimes sadder and sometimes wiser man, reflecting on all that life has afforded him. His may not have been the most anticipated rock autobiography of the last two––or three––decades, but it’s an entertaining read that allows us a glimpse into the world of a ‘60s pop star, a ‘70s rocker, and a man who has been an integral part of more radio hits than you probably realize, for several decades.

Born in New York City as Howard Kaplan, the veteran vocalist admits that early on he realized he was truly a Kaylan––whatever, even he notes, that meant. His family relocated to suburban Los Angeles in his youth, which afforded him access to sun, fun, and a good musical education. He skipped ahead a few grades in school, got into UCLA on a scholarship and promptly decided that he wanted to make his living as a rock musician. He dropped out. Although it probably doesn’t need to be said his parents were disappointed and although it also probably doesn’t need to be said, his gamble paid off.

The Turtles had a hit with Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” before Kaylan had turned 20 and by 1967, the year he’d enter his second decade, he and his mates had discovered the song that would launch them into rock ‘n’ roll permanence via “Happy Together”. The years with the band are marred by all the usual stories––incompetent management, disgruntled former members, struggles with the record label, lawsuits, and the panic that sets in once the music stops.

Luckily for Kaylan he’d found himself paired with Mark Volman, the man who remains his musical partner to this day––nearly 50 years after the Turtles first entered the Top 40––early on. The two not only shared similar musical sensibilities but similar sense of humor rooted in Vaudeville. That sense of humor would serve the pair well in their second major gig: a tenure as vocalists for Frank Zappa’s Mothers.

Kaylan’s cousin, Herb Cohen, was managing Zappa at the time and if familial ties helped make the connection, the natural chemistry between the maestro and the duo that would quickly become known, for contractual reasons, as Flo and Eddie, was unmistakable. Kaylan’s admiration for Zappa, more than 40 years after they first worked together and nearly 20 years after the composer’s death, is almost palpable. Moreover, Kaylan is capable of doing something few other Zappa alums have done, portray his former boss in the most human of lights. There was a time, Kaylan explains, when Zappa’s Mothers were a real band and not just a leader with some hired guns. Frank was funny, one of the boys, and even capable of being a little goofy.

Some of the road stories might be familiar already if one has read The Real Frank Zappa Book or watched the film 200 Motels, but Kaylan manages to clarify a few critical details and shed some new light on an era that remains, for many, an essential era of Zappa’s work. The gig, of course, couldn’t last––the group’s late 1971 tour was marred by disaster, including the fire at the Casino de Montreux (which inspired Deep Purple to write “Smoke on the Water”) and the moment when a deranged audience member knocked Zappa off a London stage, nearly killing the mustached maestro, and instantly ending the Flo and Eddie era.

The pages leading up to that moment in December 1971 and a number chronicling the time just after offer the best reading in this book. The years after the Zappa gig ends are genuinely tough on Kaylan on both the personal and professional fronts and you quickly find yourself cheering for he and his partner, hoping they break back into the big time as a duo act, even though you know that they’ll never again have exactly the same kind of popularity.

It’s when the duo hits the ’80s that Shell Shocked’s threads begin unraveling. The years, for the most part, begin to blur together and become a collage of Howard and Mark sang on this, hosted that, flew here, snorted this, slept with that, and gained such-and-such respect on the classic rock circuit. It’s unfortunate because there’s plenty to learn from Kaylan––through his multiple divorces and drug abuse, through his ability to continuously thrive in the music industry––that isn’t as realized in the final pages as it could be. (And if you haven’t figured it out already, this guy is smart and that alone makes the story all the more enjoyable.)

His relationship with Volman is also left a bit of a mystery. We know what brought them together but we never a deep examination of their working relationship or a sense of their ongoing friendship (assuming it remains). They work together, it works, and Bob’s your uncle. That’s OK, of course––there are plenty of obstacles one must maneuver around when discussing a relationship that stretches back as far as theirs––but it does leave a hole.

The cast is remarkable. There’s the meeting with three Beatles and, on the same night, Jimi Hendrix (it inspired Kaylan’s 2003 script for the film My Dinner With Jimi); John Belushi, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Stephen Stills, and Howard Stern all also appear and we’re given a glimpse at each that is often both funny and revealing.

You’ll laugh––a lot––when reading Shell Shocked, and maybe even learn a little along the way.

RATING 7 / 10