Half a century onward, it's hard to really realize just how huge the Turtles were. To most folks these days, they persist as a semi-lucid bubblegum memory...but in the '60s they were not only massively popular but widely respected. Hendrix, the Beatles, Zappa, and many more took note of these Californians -- particularly the soaring harmonies and impeccable blend of singers Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman (later to be rechristened Flo and Eddie, due to legal reasons). Dig a little deeper, and you'll find the Turtles to be a surprisingly resourceful act, from their early folk-rock days ("It Ain't Me, Babe") to their harmony-pop triumphs ("Happy Together," "You Baby"), to the humble Kinks-isms of their final album Turtle Soup (produced by no less than Ray Davies himself!). They emerged at a point in time when rock musicians were considered (and expected to be) entertainers as much as artists, and a sort of classic, old-school sense of show-business pervades this engaging, sometimes scintillating, often funny tome.
Kaylan, Volman, and the Turtles were not innovators, and Howard makes no claim to that here. What he does take pride in are his abilities to entertain, to connect with audiences and musicians alike, and to think on his feet -- rightfully so. If nothing else, this snappily written (kudos to able co-author Jeff Tamarkin) memoir is testament to Kaylan's resilience and ingenuity. He tours his ass off with the Turtles, then that falls apart amidst apathy, stress, and lawyers. No problem: He and Volman then join Frank Zappa's band and make a huge splash with a counterculture audience, who fondly remember them, as these kids were weened on the Turtles. Reinvention is the theme here, as we follow Kaylan through stints as frontman, sideman (he and Volman sang on a staggering amount of great records), bandleader, radio personality, TV host, songwriter-for-hire (he and Volman wrote music for the first three Strawberry Shortcake specials!), and more. He also ended up being an astute business person, as he and Volman bought the rights to their classic catalog and remain among the very few '60s pop sensations to control their own music (and reap the many, many benefits).
What could be a rather rote book by a marginal figure is rescued by Kaylan's candor: He's happy to name names, tell tales, and spill the beans. It's nice to know, for instance, that Zappa occasionally smoked pot and banged groupies (you won't get THAT info from the Zappa Family Trust). Kaylan's certainly no saint, and he honestly portrays himself as a somewhat reckless recreational druggie and unrelenting womanizer. If anything, sometimes his candor strikes the reader as heartlessness -- especially when discussing the many, many, many, many, many ladies he consorted with.
A few questions persist…perhaps he's being self-effacing about his modest talent, but he doesn't talk that much about music. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because I imagine that his detailed diaries (the source of much of the info here) probably ramble on endlessly about sessions we'd all rather forget about it. And, considering all he's built with partner Volman, he doesn't seem to betray much affection for the man. (Although he doesn't diss him, either.)
But, in the end, picture you're left with is of a good-hearted guy, an able journeyman and occasionally inspired craftsman, who was swept up in a revolutionary era and rode it for all it was worth. Opportunist? Huckster? Hippie vaudevillian? A little of all three…but doesn't that sound like a lot more fun than reading four-hundred pages about Jimi Hendrix's amp settings?