Sunday, July 21, 2013

Howard Kaylan's memoir, "Shell Shocked"

Cover art by Cal Schenkel
A few nights ago I finished reading Shell Shocked by Howard Kaylan, front man of the '60s pop group The Turtles and later a member of one of the many incarnations of Frank Zappa's Mothers. The book is a breezy, swift read, but it left me feeling rather sad and deflated. Kaylan and his singing partner, Mark Volman, turned their talent for close harmonies into a few No. 1 singles, and they've spent the past 40 years trying unsuccessfully to recapture that early success.

Kaylan blew through his Turtles money quickly. An indifference to the business end of things and trust in the wrong people led to the band's early demise. The Zappa period lasted less than two years and ended abruptly on December 10, 1971, the night Frank was pushed off a stage in London.

At the age of 25, it seemed, Kaylan was washed up. He and Volman worked their way back, touring state fairs, providing background vocals to any number of big-name artists, churning out instantly forgotten albums, and writing songs for "Strawberry Shortcake," but it feels like The Death of a Salesman, the laborious journey of a modestly talented man whose achievements don’t justify his optimism. And through it all, there are the affairs, the failed marriages, and lots and lots of drugs.

The book is valuable as window on the workaday underbelly of the music business, and a cautionary reminder that not everybody can be the Beatles.

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