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Turtle Talk with Howard Kaylan (Interview)

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RCM: Did Judee like The Turtles’ version of Lady-O?
HK: I think she did. Her vocals are so beautiful and crystalline. I could never achieve that. When I sang Lady-O I was trying for a much more romantic approach. She was very realistic about hers. I believe she wrote that while still in prison. You have to remember she was a hardcore lesbian so she had a different interpretation of the song when she sang it. It had a harder edged even thought she sang like an angel. Recording Lady-O was great because it was just Judee and I sitting on a stool, nobody else, no rock band. It gave me the first chance to sing.

The Mothers of Invention

The Mothers…and Flo and Eddie.

RCM: Upon The Turtles breakup, you did a 180 and you and Mark joined The Mothers of Invention. To some that may seem an incongruous match, but for Frank it worked.
HK: Frank always knew something nobody else knew. He was very much Bowie-esque with that. He could see the future. Way back in the Seventies he was the first guy who said to us, “Wait and see, in a minute nobody’s going to be in a band. There’s gonna be these supergroups where a guy from this group, a guy from this group and a guy from this group are gonna get together and make real music. In every band, there’s only one real player and when those players get together to make music it’s going to be incredible and that’s the future.”
That’s what he thought. I know why he wanted Mark and I in the band. He wanted to add a pop sensibility to the Mothers of Invention who were always sort of cast off as being the least playable band in music. So when we he heard that The Turtles had broken up—we were in his wheelhouse and were friends of his—he asked us to join. The most shocked out of anybody were the musicians in Frank’s band. I don’t even think his audiences were as shocked as to when we walked into that first rehearsal and Jeff Simmons looked at George Duke, looked at Ian Underwood and looked at Aynsley Dunbar, and went, “What the hell is Frank doing?”
Zappa Flo Eddie
They knew that he was gonna audition new singers. They knew there was gonna be a new Mothers that were gonna make this movie 200 Motels and go to Europe. They were waiting for whoever came through the door and thought it might be someone like Gregg Rolie but when it was us there was so much skepticism among the band.
As soon as we would leave the room there was all this, “Frank, what the fuck are you doing? Those aren’t the guys! They’re pop idiots and they’re gonna bring the band down.” And Frank said, “I don’t think so, I think they know what they’re doing.” So he was right. We even questioned his sanity at the time as did the audience for the first few shows in Arizona and in Europe.
And then they came around. They saw what they he meant. It wasn’t so much the first few shows where we had to do what other Mothers of Invention players had done, which was sing new versions and arrangements of Frank’s material.

Fairly quickly it became a tight knit group who had been through a whole lot of shit together—the fire in Montreaux, Switzerland, the European tours, the Berkeley orgies, All of these things that Frank hadn’t done with his other bands – this was different now.

We were sharing experiences and hanging out and he was getting high with us.  It was very different and I’m thrilled to have been part of that era because it ended quickly and his distrust for people and humanity as a whole kicked in big time again after that accident in England where he was seriously injured. He was never quite the same and went back to being the cynic that he’d had been prior to this closeness. I don’t think any band member permeated that again.
I know that at the end of his life he asked us back. We reminisced and talked about that very thing but he was close to that bunch of Mothers of Invention and it never really was the Mothers of Inventions again after that. It was different.
RCM: Years later after the unpleasant encounter with John Lennon, as a member of Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention you performed with him at Fillmore East. John later included that live set on his Some Time in New York City album and shared writing credit with Lennon and Zappa.
HK: John was the first guy to smoke off that round hash pipe I’d just bought and still own. It has a place of reverence in my home. He was a really nice guy and Yoko, in her own way, was as nice as she could be. He recalled meeting me back in the Sixties and apologized profusely and realized he was a dick. He did make a deal out of it: it wasn’t like he blacked out about it so that was a good thing to happen years later.

John and Yoko and the Mothers

John and Yoko and the Mothers

Jamming with John and Yoko was real fun. We knew it was just gonna be a jam. We certainly didn’t know that Yoko was just gonna fucking scream. She just stood there and screamed. One of the greatest moments of my life was being able to put that woman in that bag; to tie that burlap sack over her head was just awesome. It wasn’t symbolic to me.
RCM: In addition to forging out a fruitful career as Flo & Eddie, you enjoyed a hugely successful career as background vocalists par excellence. Can you recount the session for T-Rex’s Bang a Gong (Get it On)?
HK: I loved Marc. He was incredible. That song kind of blends together with other songs of his from that era. Get it On was written the day before. It was quick but it was passionate. It wasn’t as produced as Jeepster, it wasn’t as well thought out as some of his other stuff. But it was so raw and so good. He was committed to it.
The very high voices that Mark and I put on T-Rex records were just a trademark thing. That was the first background session we ever did. We did it in England during the 200 Motels time of our life. That’s when it all started for us in ’71; we’d never sang a backup until then. That particular high voice sound was opted by a whole bunch of people like Michael Quatro. That’s what they wanted on their records. We’d ask, “Are you sure you want that too, it’s kind of our trademark thing?” And he said, “Yes I’m sure” so we decided to go where the cash is. We wound up doing a bunch of that kind of singing on various records as well as a bunch of Beach Boys-ish Hungry Heart kind of harmonies.

The greatest part about Bolan to me was you’d point to the guy to do a solo and he’d just start goin’.
In his mind he heard Hendrix, and what I heard was my cat but it didn’t really matter because he was so convinced that what he was doing was absolute genius that it carried him through.
I’ve never seen anybody be able to sell that to an audience like Marc Bolan did.
And vocally too, in many ways, but he was innovative in that respect.  As a lead guitarist it was absolutely amazing what he got away with onstage. There were times he had no idea of what the band was doing and what key he was in or what notes he was playing yet his stance and his face totally sold it.
RCM: You and Mark worked on Keith Moon’s solo LP Another Side of the Moon. That album was recorded twice?
HK: I defy anybody to tell the difference between the album that got released that Skip Taylor and Ron Nevison produced and the first version done by (former Beatles roadie) Mal Evans. The first batch of sessions that Mal produced were totally out of control. Moonie was into the groove of being a rock star. It was the first time he’d ever made a solo album. He had stars in his eyes. He thought he was the new messenger of Beach Boy rock and he wanted to bring that to America like we’d lost it. But we never lost it, we just didn’t want British people recycling that rock and singing it back to us.

It’s one thing to be part of the British Invasion, it’s another thing to love the American retaliation and try to recycle that and sell it to us.

That was his rock in a hard place and it didn’t change. Then MCA came to him and said, “We have to redo this record, we don’t like what Mal Evans did.” By the way, I thought Mal did a stellar job. Mal got something much more warm and human out of Keith despite the fact that he was really three sheets to the wind. By the time it came to Ron Nevison and Skip Taylor, who was at least as high as Moon was, it really didn’t change anything. The only difference was with that recording the producers were higher than the artist the second time around.
RCM: In Shell Shocked, when speaking about Keith Moon you observed there was a “sadness” about him, can you explain?
HK: He was never part of the Who. Maybe drummers have that problem inherently in their job but he was just one of those guys who would go off by himself a lot. When you’re drinking alcohol that’s one thing, when you’re doing coke, which is a very social drug, that’s another thing. You lock yourself in your room and there’s nothing left to do but pace back and forth and think. You’re gonna wind up in some deep deep trouble and he did.
He brought it upon himself. He saw it coming, he knew it was coming. He was sad in a way that was Belushi kind of sad. Nobody was shocked when Keith died. It was a matter of, how could he have lived as long as he did?

Keith Moon and a friend.

Keith Moon and a friend.

After you’d done what Keith had done in his life, after you screwed who you screwed and played where you played and you’re as driven as he was driven, and you’re as high as he was, what’s left? I think he lived as much as he could
RCM: Did he know how good he was as a drummer?
HK: Oh yeah. He knew exactly how good he was as a drummer but I don’t think that changed anything. In fact, it’s more frustrating than ever. It’s not like any of the credit went to him. It’s like being Max Weinberg in Bruce Springsteen’s band in a lot of ways except Keith was an equal with the other members of The Who.
This guy was a Ringo. This guy should have been a part of the publishing and should have been a part of everything. Like Ringo saw, the others guys got rich while he didn’t.
I think it really, really bothered him. He had far more extravagant taste than anyone else in that group. He went through his money very quickly. He was reckless as hell with his women, with his cars, with his drugs, with his butler. He was Lindsay Lohan. He was kind of driven in the same way. When you’re famous for things other than your craft then I think you’re in trouble and he got to a point where he was famous for being loony.
RCM: You mentioned Springsteen, there’s a fabulous story in your book about Flo & Eddie singing background on Bruce’s first top 10 hit, Hungry Heart.
HK: Bruce and Steve (Van Zant) sang the background parts with us. They wanted to get a group feel. We went into the studio with them and Mark and I were standing on the open side of the mic and Bruce and Steve were on the other side and they were singing along with us. We could hear it in our headphones and we could tell it sounded wrong. Somebody was singing really flat.
So Jon Landau went through everybody, “All right Howard, you sing it” and I sang it through and it was okay. “Now Mark you sing it” and he sang it and it was okay, Steve sang it, Bruce sang it and all was okay, Then we started singing together and it sounded that way again. It was flat and sounded really bad. Jon Landau had an idea, “Bruce, listen, why don’t you take that Telecaster over there and put it on?” And he said, “Yeah, but I’m not gonna play anything.”  Jon said, “You don’t have to play anything, just put it on.” Then he said, “Now sling it over your shoulder like the record cover.” And Bruce said, “C’mon man!” And he said, “No, do it!” So Bruce slung the guitar over his shoulder and Jon said, “Now roll tape.”

They rolled tape and it was perfect. It was attitude. His stance changed. He widened his legs apart, he got that look on his face of grim lower jaw determination and everything in the room changed. Now he was a lead singer instead of a backup guy and it made all the difference in the world.
RCM: Moving Targets is the strongest of all the Flo & Eddie albums, it’s shameful the label wasn’t able to break the group with such should have been hits like Keep It Warm and The Love You Gave Away.
HK: That album had a lot of personal things on it. At the time we made that record it was a conscious farewell to the business. We’d just been ignored by Warner Brothers for two records and had the wonderful chance of being ignored now by Columbia for two records and felt especially after the treatment we’d gotten there, they’d really hacked our songs up and in the case of Keep it Warm tried to release them as singles.
They hadn’t supported us very well and didn’t listen to us. Keep It Warm was full of social commentary. We were trying to breakthrough as an act and FM radio was playing the hell out of it but Columbia wouldn’t release it that way. The truncated version that came out was so emasculated that I wouldn’t have played it either. It was all very discouraging.

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