Kaylan: Mother Was A Turtle

By Harold Bronson

Rolling Stone, September 16, 1971

LOS ANGELES — Working in the Turtles, working in the Mothers, it’s all the same, Howard Kaylan says. But he has undergone a transition nevertheless. Gone is the superstar show-biz Woodland Hills suburban dwelling complete with wife and pool in favor of a small, unimpressive wooden house north of the Hollywood Bowl. “I went from a Mercedes to a Volkswagen,” he puts it, “but I didn’t understand why until now.”

The Turtles broke up early last year, and after about a week of lying around . . . Mark [Volman, fellow ex-Turtle and Mothers vocalist] and I went to Herb Cohen at Bizarre – he’s a distantly removed cousin – for some advice. We knew Frank from the freak-out days and almost signed with Bizarre in 1968 except for the position White Whale put us in. Anyway. Herb gave as a couple of tickets to the Mothers and Zubin Mehta at Pauley Pavillion. It was really great. After the concert Frank invited us up to the house and asked us if we’d like to be in the new Mothers. We said, ‘Great!’

“We recorded Chunga’s Revenge, but that was a Frank Zappa album, not a Mothers or Invention. It was material that was pretty much sprung on us without being really worked out. On the credits Mark and I were referred to as the Phosphorescent Leech and Eddie because we were in the middle of the White Whale thing and we weren’t sure we could use our name to record with. In fact, the album I’m working on with Mark might be called ‘Phosphorescent Leech and Eddie’ just for nostalgia’s sake.”

Howard looked physically fit as he sat in his new home, wearing burgundy hip-huggers and a dark blue Fillmore West T-shirt. His hair is longer than in his Turtle days, portions having turned a premature grey, and he sports a scruffy beard. The bullshit days are gone, he says, and he is in a period of reassessment, of finding out who he really is.

The Turtles got together originally under the name the Cross Fires. They were centered in Westchester, an all-white, middle-class suburb of Los Angeles, and essentially met while in high school choir class. “Howard used to smell and none of the girls used to dance with him,” an ex-classmate recalled.

The Turtles originally emerged from a beginning as a high school band: “We were playing Friday and Saturday night at the Revalaire Club and we were fucking destitute, earning peanuts, but it was cool when everyone was going to school. Then a couple guys got married, some were holding down nine-to-five jobs and the decision to break up the Cross Fires as we were called then, was suggested. The Friday we handed in our resignation – it said, ‘Look, we’ve been playing here every Friday and Saturday for the last year and a half and we’re starving’ – these two guys came in and said. ‘We have a hot new record company, Reb Foster [an ex-DJ and owner of the club] said you’re a hot new group. We like that song you do, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ that they play on the radio, we’d like to sign you.’

“We said another burn is coming, but we might as well do it because we don’t have anything else to do – that was the attitude that fucked up the Turtles through our whole career. So we did it. I wrote two songs and we got Dylan’s ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ and we recorded them. Then we went on the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars which was our first exposure after the Herman’s Hermits Rose Bowl concert with 50,000 kids.

“We were green as the grass, man. The first time I ever turned on was on the Caravan. One day in Syracuse, New York, we were sitting in our hotel room. Mel Carter comes to the door with at least a pound of grass in this huge plastic bag and he’s got a pipe. There wasn’t a word that was spoken, he just filled it up and we got out of it.

“It was an interesting era to be in, the Turtles. We were very sincere about the whole thing – working at The Whisky and The Trip and all that shit. It stayed pretty healthy until about the fourth hit when everybody became so together we were apart. Guys just started flipping out, and then there were compatibility problems. It was real psychedelic.

“We were involved in a lot of things that weren’t easy for the guys to handle. There was a lot of pressure on us. We were a big television rock group. If the Smothers Brothers were looking for somebody clean, we were on that list. We got good music airplay, but at times we were bum tripped by it – like were we Harpers Bizarre or something like that? It did feel good to know that you were taking advantage of something you could do best. It rationalized it up to a point. We believed in what we were creating and it was our music – we did it.

“Towards the end of it we got very perverted by our record company and the music we were trying to preserve in light of the new music that was happening. It just got real sick. We were trying to hold out – doing what we knew best, rather than saying, let’s be like the Vanilla Fudge for a day – that’s kiddie pew. Then things started to happen within the group.”

The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands LP was a largely ignored, ambitious undertaking for the group. Containing the band’s last two large smashes, “Elenore” and “You Showed Me,” the members dressed up in 12 different costumes, representing 12 different groups, and performed satiric take-offs on all these pretentions; The Cross Fires, baggy suited with peroxide hair and surfboard, did a parody of a surfing record complete with high wee-oohs and motorcycles. The greased-back 1962 instrumental group was represented by the Fabulous Dawgs and psychedelia and the Strawberry Alarm Clock were preserved by the Atomic Enchilada. The idea has distant associations with the Mothers’ brand of satire, and perhaps it’s not such a surprise that with the addition of bassist Jim Pons, three-fifths of the Turtles are now in the Mothers of Invention, sort of a Frank Zappa and the Turtles.

“We were a South Bay and Redondo Beach band, and the only way we could get noticed was by winning a Battle Of the Bands at the Revalaire Club. So we won and they had us backing up the Righteous Brothers or some such shit. So we always had a soft spot for that kind of competition, and we were schizoid enough to want to do many things. We really enjoyed it – it was theatrics for us.

Battle of the Bands was so much a group effort that it actually started ego problems. ‘Now look guys, we’re gonna write songs and not show our egos to anybody including ourselves. One guy will write a song and bring it to the others and it’ll be by the Turtles.’ But that was a fuck-up technically, like Lennon-McCartney collaborations. We were so together, we were brothers, lots of huggies – everybody was balling everybody else’s old lady, but it was all right because we were brothers, but then it got to ‘that cocksucker had one more song on the album than me.’

“As far as ‘You Showed Me’ goes, Chip Douglas, who was producing us at the time, was aware of these old Gene Clark dubs because he played with the old Gene Clark group. He sat down and played this song on the pump organ one night and I said, ‘Wow, that’s really great!’ It’s got a moronic simplicity, it’s a naive, innocent thing.

“We had two hits with Chip Douglas, and although he had a good Hollywood sound, a good sound for the Turtles, that wasn’t good enough. We were really out. We had a million producers working with us from time to time. We were managed by a million managers, had every agency in town, and produced by anybody when we felt like it. We did have one thing going for us at White Whale: We’d go to ‘em and say, ‘We wanna sound like this now,’ and they’d say, ‘You can’t, you’re on a streak, you’ve got to keep it going.’ ‘You don’t understand, we’re tired of sounding like that – if we can’t do it the way we want, then we’re not gonna do it,’ real spoiled, pompous fuckers. Nevertheless, it was the only thing that kept us together.

“We then produced one very bizarre record, ‘Sound Asleep,’ a moderate success, and decided we wanted to produce ourselves, then that idea didn’t appeal to us anymore. Then we said, ‘It’d be really far-out if Ray Davies produced us’ – because I was a big Kinks freak, so were Mark and Jim, and later on John Seiter. We didn’t even know him. I’d met him once. When the Turtles first started we were playing the Red Velvet. He and a couple other Kinks were in the audience completely looped, they came up and sang with us.

“We were working at a college in St. Johns, Newfoundland. We got his number from Derek Taylor and decided to call him. We asked him to produce us and he agreed. Other than the Kinks we were the only ones he’s ever produced. He came over for two seven- or eight-day sessions and we cut Turtle Soup.

“It was a weird period in our development because as much as we wanted to work with Ray and as much as we respected him – he did a good job on the album, no doubt about that – we were so together that we really didn’t want him to change anything. He’d do something and we’d say, ‘Ray, why don’t you do it this way, I think it’d sound better,’ Consequently a little of the Davies went out of it and a little of us went into it.”

Around this time the Turtles played at Tricia Nixon’s famous party: “We sniffed cocaine on Abraham Lincoln’s desk – that was the high point of the party. It was very strange; there were different types of people there. There were a lot of SDS kids passing out a lot of SDS literature – I don’t know what they were doing there. The Temptations were there and that was enough for me because we got out of it. By the time we went on I didn’t even care where we were.

“When we went on, we were so lewd, as I recall, I’m surprised they let us get away with it. Mark fell off the stage at least six times and there were moments when we just forgot what we were singing – it was neat. They stopped us during the afternoon because they thought we had a bomb with us. They were rummaging through the trap cases and the electric metronome started up – they ripped it apart and jumped up and down on it before they figured out what it was. They put it back together, but it never worked again. Barry Goldwater, Jr. was there and at the time he was real tight with Tricia and everybody was going ‘Heyyyy’ [slyly].

“I’m gonna send Tricia a copy of the Fillmore album and tell her I want her to hear it because we were her favorite group once and I hope we’ll still remain her favorite group. And I’ll sit back and wait for the official word from the White House about some of the bullshit on the album.”

The Turtles broke up as a group during a bout of hassles and lawsuits with their original label, White Whale. “We weren’t having any fun anymore, and one evening everybody came to my house and we said fuck it and we broke up. Al Nichol was going up to the pines and run naked and drop acid. Jim was getting drunk at the Corral. John eventually went with Jerry and Judy [Rosebud].”

So Mark and Howard teamed up with Zappa. After having been in the group a couple months, the Mothers of Invention split for Europe to film Frank’s movie, 200 Motels: “The whole group went over and the bass player was Jeff Simmons who turned out to be a good friend of ours because when we joined the group we were told, ‘Take it easy you guys, Zappa doesn’t dig dope.’ Zappa was paranoid because of his image, dope was taboo! And like any self-respecting rock musician we ignored it completely. We were always just out – just me, Mark, and Jeff.

“Frank had an 18-page outline of the story which he took to UA who liked it. When we got to England we had no idea what the movie was gonna be about except we knew it had six-foot newts, a concentration camp, vacuum cleaners, hair-lips in mime, and Don Preston transformed into a monster, naked chicks – it was gonna be weird. The characters we were acting were ourselves through Frank’s eyes. That was OK in most places, but not Jeff’s.

“Jeff Simmons looked at his lines in the movie and said, ‘This is me through a fucking funny mirror! I can’t say this: I’m too heavy to be in this group, Zappa’s too old, this is comedy music – nobody wants to fuck a comedian and I’m getting out of here, I wanna play the blues. I can’t say that, it’s too true.’ We had a rehearsal with all the directors and Ringo and Keith Moon, and Frank asked him if he objected to anything. ‘I can’t do it, this is insane. I’m going home.’

“Now we’re thinking, not only do we need a bass player who has to learn some complicated shit, but he has to act. The next day Frank shows up at Pinewood Studios with Wilfred Brambel. It was gonna be real cute and we’d just have to overdub the bass later – we were gonna play with the Philharmonic live, so it was gonna be difficult at that. So he got his lines, rehearsed with us, even hung out with us to get to know us.

“Zappa’s fucked, I can’t say that,’ but he’d have to ‘cause it was in the script. Finally, on the last day of rehearsal, he just went screaming down the yellow halls at Pinewood Studios yelling ’aaugh . . . this is crazy.’

“We started shooting the next day and we were just fucking panic-struck. Then Frank said, ‘Look, the next person who walks in is it – what the fuck.’ They gave us $750,000 to shoot and if we didn’t start the next day they’d take it back. The next guy who walked through the door was Ringo’s chauffeur, Martin Lickert, a pretty-boy type of about 21 with a psychedelic Chelsea shirt on, and everybody went, ‘Hmmm.’ He read the lines in a cute Liverpudlian accent, and not only that but Ringo said that he could play bass, he was in a band that Robert Plant used to be in and dadada . . .

“So he did the part – it was shortened though – and played the bass on the things in the movie, some of it was spiffed up where we could do it later on. It was done on video tape and transferred to 35mm. The plot line may not be revealed to most viewers, but it’s that touring can make you crazy.

“It takes place in Centerville. a real nice place in which to raise your kids, and the Mothers of Invention come to town and there’s a concentration camp with turrets at one end with Herb Cohen on a machine gun. That’s where the orchestra lives, behind barbed wire. There’s a rancid boutique where Gabby and Miss Lucy, two famous and dear mothers, are working. There’s an interviewer from a famous San Francisco rock newspaper, that’s played by Miss Pamela.

“Theodore Bikel plays Rance Muhammitz, a devilish sort of character. Keith Moon plays a nun who ODs during the movie on mandrex. Ringo plays Frank in the guise of Larry the Dwarf. He had a beard when he came on the set, but he cut it off and just left the goatee. Frank is barely visible in 200 Motels, he’s always watching. Ringo gets lowered in on a wire at the beginning of the show. Bikel asks Larry the Dwarf why he’s dressed as Frank Zappa. ‘He’s making me do it, Dave, he asked me to fuck the girl with the harp’ – Keith Moon is playing the girl with the harp – ‘This magic lamp that’s bubbling, he wants me to stick it up her and rub it.’ Bikel asks the studio audience, ‘If a crazy person asked you to fuck a girl with a harp would you do it?”

Recently at the Fillmore, John Lennon made a surprise appearance with the Mothers and it was recorded: “It was fantastic and the sound was really good. We wanted to make the Mothers Fillmore album a double one – shove ‘Billy the Mountain’ [score for the next Mothers movie] on one side and put the Lennon stuff on the other. It would have been gangbusters. Unfortunately Allen Klein doesn’t move as fast as Lennon does. Where John was saying, ‘Let’s get it out, let’s mix it Klein’s going, ’Let’s hang on a minute, let’s see what’s in it for us. John.’ Frank is not going to get involved in that. Frank said. ‘Here, take it.’ John went, ‘Yeah. we could put it out as Plastic Ono Band or something.’ Frank said to just make sure everybody got paid and credited on the album.

“Yeah, Billy the Mountain will be the next Mothers movie. Frank would like to shoot a movie a year if we can work out a deal with UA. There was never enough money to complete any of the projects Frank previously started. He put a lot of money into Uncle Meat and it nearly broke him. The people who saw it couldn’t understand what he was doing.

“If some people envision 200 Motels as a big expensive Zappa home movie, as some people will – I can’t envision John Mendelsohn being too kind to it – it won’t bother Frank very much, he’ll just rip off somebody else next time.

“As far as reviews go, I’m in a unique position because Frank is the one who gets the raps, and if he’s not too upset, I’m not. He’s really a perfectionist. For this concert we rehearsed seven hours a day, seven days a week for two weeks.

“Zappa has the last word – don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely Frank’s group. I don’t believe it’s any more oppressive than working in Mayall’s group, or anybody else’s band. Except for the last musical say and how the thing is brought to the stage, it’s fairly open. It’s a well-known fact that if anybody brought a song to the group, and if it fit in with what we were doing, we’d do it. It’s hard to do that though. A couple of the new things were Mark, Frank, and my collaborations.”

Boxes were stacked all over Howard’s new living room. An amp sat in one corner and an encased guitar in another. On one wall a photo of Kaylan and Ringo Starr hung, and a Turtles Golden LP was framed on another. “It’s all the same to me,” he explained. “If you think it takes some heavy acid flash or a change in intelligence to go from singing ‘Happy Together’ to a song like ‘Mudshark’ [a graphic description of groupies], you’re wrong. Outside of the fact that this is Frank’s group, the road’s the road, getting high has always been neat, money’s good when it’s here, groupies are fantastic. It’s all the same.”

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net