Howard Kaylan is best known as the lead singer of 60s pop group the Turtles. That group chalked up an impressive string of hit singles including “Happy Together,” She’d Rather Be With Me” and “Elenore.” And they released several albums, including at least one absolute classic, the acerbic parody-concept LP The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands. The group folded at the end of the decade, with Kaylan and co-lead vocalist Mark Volman going on to a high-profile stint with Frank Zappa, then on their own fronting their own band. They also developed a highly successful career as backing vocalists for a wide variety of artists (Bruce Springsteen, T. Rex, Psychedelic Furs, etc.), and hosted an off-the-wall syndicated radio show. These days they tour as The Turtles Featuring Flo and Eddie, performing the hits at shows across the country. They are also part of the traveling “Hippiefest” concert package, featuring other immortal 60s acts including Mountain and the Rascals’ Felix Cavaliere.
Amidst all that activity, Kaylan wrote and developed a screenplay based on a momentous event in his lifetime: his chance meeting with Jimi Hendrix. The two spent a fascinating evening together right on the eve of Hendrix’s commercial explosion. That dinner with Jimi took place mere weeks before Hendrix’s major American debut at the Monterey Pop Festival.
The film My Dinner With Jimi had its (extremely limited) theatrical premiere in 2003, and the film has finally been released to DVD this summer. Recently I spoke at great length (over 10,000 words, if you’re counting) with Howard Kaylan about the film; in our conversation we discussed the difference between the public personas and actual characters of some very famous people; we mused on the price and perils of sudden fame, and we talked about the challenges of getting an independent film made on a shoestring budget.
NOTE: Special thanks are due to my good friend David Molnar for transcribing the hour-plus interview, and to publicist extraordinaire Cary Baker of Conqueroo for helping set up the interview with Howard Kaylan.
Bill Kopp: My Dinner With Jimi had its theatrical premiere in Asheville NC at a film festival back in 2003. I missed it when it showed here, but just about everybody I know who saw it told me “you should have seen it.” So I was thrilled when it came out on DVD.
Howard Kaylan: I am glad that America at large has a chance to see this movie at all. The fact that we had some success with it back in 2003 in the festival world doesn’t really translate to much as far as popularity is concerned. It was never my intention to make a popular movie. I just wanted to put down my recollections as best I could and trying to paint a picture of what it was like to be a wide-eyed, innocent kid back in 1967 and meeting my idols.
Bill: I think you achieved that.
Howard: When I came into their world it was a very open world and time. And I was welcomed into their world.
Bill: Obviously the story was kicking around in your head for a number of years, I guess essentially ever since it happened. Can you tell me a little bit about the genesis of the project?
Howard: Yeah, I can. Let me see how far back to go…the Turtles used to release all of our material on a very small label called White Whale Records, and when we left White Whale Records at the end of the 60’s all of our music was in limbo for many, many years as my partner Mark [Volman] and I went through litigation with the record company.
During that time we couldn’t use the name Turtles. We could not use the names Mark and Howard. They just owned us. So it was during that period of time that we became, out of necessity, Flo and Eddie, to protect our identities and so we could work with Frank Zappa and so that we could do studio session work and all that kind of thing.
Some time much later, during a period of time when I was looking for something to do with my life, Harold Bronson, the president of Rhino Records, called me up and said “Hey, you remember you told me that story many many years ago about the night you met Hendrix?” And I said, “of course I remember it, I lived it!” He said, “How would you feel about making a very short movie?” And I said, “Why, I would love to do that. But why…why would you want a very short movie?”
And he explained that Rhino had so far released two motion pictures. One of them was called Why Do Fools Fall In Love? which was the story of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Even though it had a great cast–Halle Berry and Angela Bassett were in it and all of these incredible stars–it was kind of a genre movie, and really didn’t do very well.
The other full-length feature that Rhino produced was Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas with Johnny Depp. And while I loved it, it was a pretty psychedelic film, and it was very expensive. Terry Gilliam, the director of the motion picture (and member of Monty Python) actually wound up throwing the producers off the set. They were just horrified; this was not what they expected from Hollywood movies! So Rhino just decided to stop for awhile. They didn’t make another movie.
So anyway, when Harold came to me in 2001 or 2002 he said, “Look, I really want to make that ‘dinner with Jimi’ story you told me. And it will be a very short film, because we’ve decided we want to get into the movies again. Only, we want to do it at the Sundance Festival and other small events, to try to get our feedback from the world of independent film.”
I thought it was a great idea so I wrote this 20 minute treatment. We went and shot it in 2001 and we gave it to Warner Brothers who at the time owned Rhino. They said, “what are we supposed to do with a 15 minute movie?” And Harold said, “Well, I thought we could run it at the festivals.” And they said, “Come on, Harold! You can’t run a 15 minute movie anyplace. Come up with another hour and 15 minutes and we’ll release it.”
I told Harold, “I wrote My Dinner with Jimi. I wrote the story about the dinner. It’s done. Nothing else happened that night! The story is done.” Then he said, “Well, we gotta go back in time and take it from before the dinner with Hendrix, and kinda set up what the Turtles were going through at the time.”
Bill: Contextualize it.
Howard: Yeah, we did. So we went back in time and we took it back to 1966, a year earlier. At that point we were playing at the Whisky A Go Go.
And we were getting out of the draft–dealing with the draft board–which was one of the most important and serious acting jobs of my life, but I think in the movie it comes off as pretty ridiculous.
Bill: It does.
Howard: Yeah, but as I say it was crucial to us at the time.
Getting to see these faces on the screen as people–as human beings, and not so much as the caricatures we’re used to seeing–when a face like John Lennon’s comes on the screen, or Jim Morrison or even Mama Cass, or Zappa or something…we have such preconceived notions as a viewing audience as to what these people were really like, and often they really weren’t like that. I mean, they really weren’t.
Everybody was in the same boat together, and I tried to paint this picture with that movie that we were all struggling for the same jobs, and we were all cruising Sunset Boulevard trying to get into the Whisky or the Roxy or Gazzari’s or any other place that would have us. So it wasn’t uncommon for bands like the Turtles–who were AM radio hit-rockers–to hang out with Frank Zappa, who was very, very underground and had nothing to do with the kind of music you would play if you just wanted to get a job.
So Hollywood at the time was a terrific melting pot. I don’t think it’s been that way since. I don’t think it was that way before. It was a very peculiar and particular time in American history when the music was ruling the world. And the guys who were making the music really felt like we had something to say as a group. We were just trying to get it out there the best we could.
Bill: I learned from the commentary on the DVD the scene at the induction center with Mark singing the show tune was an invented one, but it certainly worked. Were there any other significant parts of the story that were invented or “tweaked?”
Howard: It wasn’t a matter of inventing the scene. It was a matter of putting it someplace where–in the director’s eyes–it made cinematic sense. For instance, when we got to a point in the movie where I’m having a meeting with Herb Cohen, who was Frank Zappa’s manager, he’s telling me how to avoid the draft. That meeting actually took place in Frank Zappa’s house while he was out on tour. But the director felt that to go to another indoor location would be claustrophobic. So we decided to take that conversation and move it to the beach. There it would look more open and give the film a Southern California feeling. So the conversation was the same but the locale was different.
Another instance where that happens is the scene in Canters Deli where I bump into Zappa, and I meet Jim Morrison and Mama Cass for the first time. That scene is an amalgamation of about three separate incidents that took place in the course of that week. I set it all in Canters because they let us film in Canters.
Bill: Oh, that was the actual Canters!
Howard: That’s the actual place. They kept it open for us, and they kept serving us food. It was great.
Bill: Oftentimes when working with a good screenplay, a lot of material ends up on the cutting floor, or even gets cut before it ever gets filmed. Were there any scenes you ended up not being able to use that you wish you had?
Howard: Not really. In fact I was writing stuff up until the very last minute. One of the last scenes we shot in fact was with John Corbett from Northern Exposure and Sex In the City playing…
Bill: The Henry Diltz character…
Howard: Yeah, the photographer that’s at the beginning of the film. And we didn’t know it was going to be John Corbett. It was just gonna be some guy in a moustache at first. And then when we found out that John was coming in to do it as a favor it was really like, “Oh, my God! I can’t just have this guy saying just one word.” You know, I’ve gotta write some things for the Henry Diltz character to say.”
We got into Henry just a little bit, and the way we used to do those photo sessions. And Henry’s wife was famous for baking “Laurel Canyon Brownies,” as she called them. So we included that in the movie, and Corbett was really great about it. It was just a quick afternoon for him.
But you know, you put a couple of familiar faces in a movie like this which is not a documentary and which was shot with a very young cast of brilliant college-age actors, and then you pepper it up with a John Corbett or a George Wendt, or a Curtis Armstrong or a Taylor Negron or these familiar Hollywood faces. And all of a sudden you’ve added a little bit of screen credibility to the story, I think, and for me it makes it a much more enjoyable cinematic experience.
I had to kind of fight to get George Wendt into the part of Bill Uttley, the Turtles’ manager.
Howard: George was our next-door neighbor in Studio City, California for about 15 years. And he had always said “one of these days I’m gonna make a movie, and you’re gonna be in it.” And I said “Well, not if I make one first, George. You can be in my movie.” So I got to make mine first.
Bill: I thought it was eerie how much the characters looked like the actual people. Especially Johny Barbata, and your character, and Mark’s character. It seems that you managed to do that without a bunch of makeup and fake noses and whatever. How much of a tradeoff were you willing to make, in terms of acting suitability versus getting people who looked like the actual people?
Howard: Well, we were willing to go far. I don’t think many people really have a running knowledge for instance as to how Al Nichol, our lead player, would have acted in 1966, so I think we had some dramatically leeway there. I knew what Al sounded like and I wanted to get it as close as possible to the original guys.
But remember, we were also dealing with incredible budget restrictions. The entire motion picture cost $250,000 to make, and that’s like half the price of a modern rock video today. When you put out a casting call in Los Angeles you know you’re gonna attract an awful lot of actors who want to make a movie for any price. You weed out a lot of the A-list and B-list actors right away, because we really didn’t have the money in our case to pay them big-time. So they had to really either fall in love with the project, or they really had to have a lot of faith that this was going to work out.
And a couple of them took a real chance on this. The director of this film, Bill Fishman, is an incredible video director who makes beautiful money these days doing that. He is responsible for Tapeheads and some of my favorite comedies of the past. He did this project out of love, and it was a labor of love…none of us made money from this. It was just, “Do we really wanna tell this story? And if we really really do, then what’s it gonna take? This is it. So we’ll all work on it together.” And so we did. And it was communal, and it was truly a labor of love. It was obviously not made to make a lot of money or to compete with any other rock show that was ever made, you know, and we tried to keep it away from the VH1 formula of rock movies which is just really, you know, boring.
Bill: It does not look like a low-budget film, not at all.
Howard: Thank you. Great. Wow! Good!
Bill: And in fact it’s clear to me that an awful lot of effort went into getting details right, the sort of things that a music-obsessive like myself would catch. You know, the things like the sort of instruments that were used, the TV variety show set. I have a video of that original clip and the re-enactment in the film looks just like it. With the white background and all of the chairs and everything.
Howard: You know, that’s interesting. We had one review–I forget where it was from–where the guy said, “It’s too bad that in the only video sequence they show, which is supposed to be the Smothers Brothers show, it comes off looking so cheap.” So I went back to look at the original Smothers Brothers show set and it looks exactly the same.
Bill: It does.
Howard: It was cheap. What people don’t understand is that we were trying to recreate something that was already done on the cheap to begin with. So our homaged cheapness was not because we ran out of money. That’s exactly what the set looked like. And we studied it and viewed it to make sure that all of our shots were the same, so that when camera #3 clicked in on Mark’s face, our camera 3 clicked in too. That scene had the most cameras we used on the picture. It was the only time we used dolly shots and crane shots. Because that’s what the Smothers Brothers used.
Howard: Everything else in the picture was 16mm over-the-shoulder hand-held documentary style, so that hypothetically the viewer can suspend his disbelief for a minute. I know I can. It’s my movie and I wrote the lines. I can squint my eyes a little bit and put that thing on and imagine that it is a documentary. Because that’s exactly the way it happened.
Bill: We’ve talked about this a little bit already, but I thought Frank Zappa’s character was portrayed in the film as smug and superior, in general sort of disdainful of all humanity. And of course that’s very much in line with the popular perception of him. Yet, you and Mark voluntarily worked with him extensively for years after that. So was he the sort of guy who kind of warmed up once you got to know him? Or were you just really tolerant of his personality?
Howard: Well, we knew Frank from quite a way back. I think that we first met Frank just before he went off to New York to the Garrick Theater in 1964, so before we were even the Turtles when we were still in our high school surf band days we knew Frank. And he was rude. That was his persona on-stage and off-stage.
He attracted a very strange sort of groupie to his shows. We were never privy to that. I mean, the Turtles had groupies…but they weren’t like the Zappa groupies. Those people were nuts. Those people were out of their minds. Those people were loyal and true hippies, and they followed Frank wherever he went. So he did have a bit of an attitude.
Years later when the Turtles broke up he came to us saying “Hey, you guys, I’m putting a new band of Mothers Of Invention together. And I hear that the Turtles broke up. How would you like to go to Europe with me? We’re gonna do 10 dates and make a movie.” And we said, “Incredible, man!”
During the two-plus years we spent with Frank as members of the Mothers of Invention not only did we get to know Mr. Zappa but we really, really got to know and respect and love Mr. Zappa. He turned into an incredibly gigantic father figure, I think, for both Mark and for me. Our parents were old at the time, and I know my dad was infirm and was really in no position to guide me anymore. So the person I looked to for advice was Frank. And he was right there. He was very, very paternal. He took Mark and I under his wing and really helped us, not just with the music, but helped us sort out our lives right then. We were going through difficult times with the end of the Turtles. It was hard for us to put material values on things and people were trying to get us to sign papers and to make concessions, and Frank was always the guy going, “Don’t do it…I’ll protect ya.”
And even after the Mothers of Invention broke up in 1972 and Mark and I went off to do our own solo record, we had no income. We had no way to make the record ourselves. And yet Frank Zappa’s manager, Herb Cohen, was right there, and he said, “Whaddya need, boys? I’ll give it to ya.” So between him and Shep Gordon–who had been Alice Cooper’s manager–they really kind of bailed us out and they got us back on the right track. We signed with Warner’s and kind of never looked back and have proceeded along these lines for the last many, many years. And we’re still out there doing it.
It’s just amazing to me that after all these years the music survives and our generation is still looked up to by the younger kids. At any given time I can look out into a crowd singing “Happy Together” and see a 7 year-old singing it and a 70 year-old singing it at the same time. I’m sure one of those kids was turned on to the music by their parents or their grandparents, or The Simpsons Movie, or Shrek, or however they saw it. It makes me proud to know that the music’s gonna outlive me and has certainly spanned generations. It’s an annuity for my daughter and for my grandson. And it’s been an amazingly cool life. I would like to tell other stories like My Dinner With Jimi. I’ve got a bus load of them, and maybe one of these I will sit down and a second one of these will get churned out.
Bill: Well, I’m hoping that one of the things you will consider is playing at the White House or the US Steel daughter thing I’ve read about on your website. That sounds like that would make a good… [laughter].
Howard: Well, that was a night that was unforgettable. Yes, I think that would be a part of the film. I think also the first time we met Bob Dylan would probably make it into that movie, and maybe the first time we wound up singing with Bruce Springsteen, or T. Rex, or one of those encounters as well.
Like I say, I have a billion stories. I just don’t wanna step on any toes, and I’m not here to write a tell-all book.
Bill: Just leave that to Miss Pamela.
Howard: It’s boring and who cares about it? I’d just as soon make a movie like My Dinner With Jimi or a series of movies chronicling those events, were I to write a book about that. I think that the new generation–and even those of us who are old enough to still read books–will probably be more amused by watching this unfold before their eyes.
Bill: The Speakeasy scene with the Beatles depicts John Lennon being a total prick and sort of smelling vulnerability in the person of Jim Tucker, and then setting out to exploit that vulnerability by destroying him, by publicly humiliating him. I know it’s kind of dangerous to ascribe motives to people’s actions, especially when those actions were 40 years ago, but do you think that was Lennon’s goal, or do you think it was more of a sort of cavalier amusement and a disregard as to how it might affect anybody?
Howard: I think that when you’re the King of the World you’re allowed to do anything. And John Lennon certainly had no equal at that time. You gotta remember that even though idols as big as the Beatles have feet of clay, and Jim Tucker discovered that, as we all did that night, that there is a time and a place for everything.
And I think had it been reversed…I think had this been a nightclub in America the day after “Happy Together” hit number one and all of us had been there at the table watching a procession of followers go by and humbly kind of present themselves as they would to the Queen, then I would have an attitude too.
You know, I think there are lessons to be learned from the story: (a) you’ve gotta have a tough skin to endure this, even from your peers in this business because you’re gonna get a lot of “razzing” and you’re gonna get a lot of crap, and (b) success brings with it a certain attitude. If you’re not sure how to read the attitude or how to play along with that game then you’re really going to suffer. You can’t fight a charging rhino.
And when a guy has his sights on you like John did for Jim Tucker that night, then none of his band mates could’ve saved him–and they tried–and none of us could’ve said anything to Jim that would’ve made it go away. Jim Tucker was verbally assaulted by John Lennon and he never came back. He never came back to the Turtles.
He never came back to playing music. I still see him occasionally when we play in Reno, Nevada or Sacramento, California; he lives in that general area. He works for his father in his electronics firm and he has done that since 1967. Of course he is always the first guy to say, “Wouldn’t it be great to get the original Turtles back?” And I would say, “No!” And I wouldn’t. It would be horrible.
We broke up for a reason in 1970, mainly because we couldn’t stand each other. So the thought of getting back into that mind-trip after all of these years of relative calm to me is just a shattering thought. That would never, ever happen.
Bill: You did cross paths with Lennon again a few times onstage and off in later years, right?
Howard: Yes sir, we worked with Mr. Lennon several times after that, and in fact with the Mothers of Invention he did a record with us, and vice-versa. In fact the show we did at the Fillmore with Frank Zappa and John and Yoko is immortalized on two records. John put that stuff on a record Some Time In New York City and Zappa put it out on an album as well…
Bill: Playground Psychotics.
Howard: Yeah. Yeah. And its really very interesting that the best part of that entire trip for me was a two-pronged assault. The afternoon of the show was really great because John and Yoko came over to the St. Regis Hotel where we were staying in New York. And we had a rehearsal that was just amazingly wonderful.
And during the rehearsal Frank was actually there in the room when John said [Liverpudlian accent] “Hey, you got anything to smoke, man?” And as you know Frank was totally anti-drug, and the fact is that Mark and I were not totally anti- anything. So I said, “Yeah, we do.” And we looked to Frank as you would to any father figure and Frank indicated “Oh, all right for heaven’s sake!” So we were sort of able to spend an afternoon on John’s own terms with the man himself and it was incredibly revealing and great.
Later that night when we actually did the show and then Yoko asked me to put her in the burlap bag and to place the bag over her head and move the microphone over there…ah…and that things is still seen all over the world. I still see that thing on YouTube. People send me that show all of the time. And they ask “are you the guy? Are you the one who’s putting Yoko in the bag?” And they say “good job, man! Somebody had to do it.”
Bill: I was going to ask you if you had seen it because film does circulate.
Howard: You know, I’m not here to make artistic judgments, man. You know, I’m just here to be part of history. You know, I can explain why I did it but I can’t explain why you feel the way you do about it.
Bill: Continuing on to personalities. The film’s portrayal of Jim Morrison I thought was the most humanizing one I had ever seen or read. Most accounts of him paint him as a preening, pretentious megalomaniac sort of guy. Yet in your film he comes off as almost lovable.
Howard: He was lovable! He was totally lovable! But Jim Morrison as onstage with the Doors, especially during the post-L.A. Woman years was not at all the same guy who I knew in 1965 and 1966.
And in fact I knew a bunch of those guys even before that. As a surf group in the early sixties we had performed as the Crossfires at South Bay in Los Angeles at this place called the Revelaire Club; we were the house band there. And one of the groups that used to cycle through all of the time–another surf band–was called Rick and the Ravens. These guys used to show up, and the leader of the band was a Christ-like figure with a long beard and long hair, white robes. And it was all mysterious music and stuff, and the keyboard player was Ray Manzarek. And I knew these guys for years and years.
And with Jim, he was always one of the happiest, most ridiculous, friendliest guys I’ve ever known. And he always had a bottle with him, which probably helped. He was never mean. He was never standoffish. He was very funny. He was always funny. He was a pleasure to be around. And even in the later days with the band, when everybody was talking about him as the Dark Prince and all that crap…he was not! He was fine. He would get into his poetry and when he got into his personal relationships I know it was very, very dark. But he was not coming from a dark place. He was a really cool guy! A great guy.
Bill: Well, that’s nice to hear because it does serve as an antidote to the popular perception of him.
Howard: You know, that’s why I wanted to do this almost as much as anything else. All of us were in that same boat together. I don’t think any one of us was any ruder than anybody else. And therefore we take it across the “pond” and we see that there’s a rudeness to those characters…I think there was. I mean I think there inherently was this idea that we invented the current rock n’ roll, meaning the Brits, and that the Americans had come over to steal it back. Which was ludicrous, but you know I think we felt that way too. We felt like we were on their turf. You know, it wasn’t like that good ‘ol American rock n’ roll was being recycled by the British people and we were there it to witness it. We looked at the British Invasion as it was as big of an event as ever happened in musical history, and I still believe that to be the case.
Bill: Hendrix is the one character in the film who…well, prior to your film, he sort of exists more as a mythical figure, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen anything that made me really think of him as just a regular human being. He came off in the film as really laid-back, and certainly self-assured but not full of himself. To me, anyway, you seem to have drawn a character who was just starting to make it big, obviously, right on the eve of taking off. Yet the viewer of the film knows that in almost the next frame that Hendrix is going to be Jimi Hendrix, the big thing. I almost projected onto his character the foreknowledge that he was gonna really make it big, if that makes any sense.
Howard: Yeah, it does make sense. You know, you could kind of feel it. I mean I didn’t know his music. I had never heard his record. And yet sitting down in the presence of that guy he threw off such incredible charisma. And he talked so intelligently about the music he was making as if he had a plan, as if he knew this music was different and why it was different, and that he had to make music that sounded like war. Because America, particularly, was obsessed with war. And so his reaction to America’s reaction to the war was to put it right back into their faces ballistically. He wanted to make his music sound like machine gun attacks and overhead bomb strafings, and all of this stuff he was feeling. And remember–though I didn’t know it beforehand–he had been in the Army.
Bill: He was a paratrooper.
Howard: He had lived through all of this stuff. It wasn’t like he had to try to picture what it would’ve been like to be in combat. He had been there. So he was taking this back and shoving it in the faces of Middle America and was saying, “You don’t know what it was like. This is what it was like. And those sounds took people right there to the battlefield.
There was an urgency to Hendrix’s guitar playing and to his writing that has never been duplicated because nobody went through those experiences. And nobody filtered all of those musical experiences through the years that he had playing on the chitlin’ circuit with Little Richard…and backing up Ike Turner and doing all of the things that he had to do to get to that place where he was considered to be not only a personality and a brilliant sortta over-the-top performer but a state of the art musician. He was always the player’s player.
Bill: I clearly heard in the film and then I got confirmation about this when I listened to the commentary that some of the songs were remixed for the film, like leaving out the horn parts in “She’d Rather Be With Me.” Was that the one?
Howard: That is the one, sir. That was not my idea. I mean, I have to give the credit to Harold Bronson who thought, “Let’s not use the original [mix] here. They’re playing at the Speakeasy Club in London.” We sounded exactly like we sounded on the record with the addition of those horns with “She’d Rather Be With Me” kind of a razzmatazz honky-tonk song, so he yanked all of that out. And we yanked down the piano parts that made it sort of honky-tonk too and turned it more to what we sounded like in person for the last shot of the movie.
And I think it works. It keeps you “in the minute”, and it makes you remember that those horns and all of those orchestra parts that the Turtles wound up working with later in their career that all of that stuff was thrown on after the fact.
When we went in we always went in as a band. There were no sessions players who ever played on a Turtles record. We were not the Monkees or the Byrds or the Beach Boys. We played our own stuff. We were the only L.A. band as far as I know who played their own stuff. I will still take that to the grave with great satisfaction, and we did it, and I’m really proud of the fact that we never fell back on session people or in Lee Sklar or Hal Blaine–that whole team, the Wrecking Crew–those same guys. You know, I’m still in contact with those people and I love them forever but they never played on a Turtles song.
Bill: And it’s part of what gave you a different sound, too. This morning I was listening to the three songs that you did on the BBC’s Saturday Club. During the same trip, I guess. I know that the BBC stuff was always 2-track or something. You could do the instruments live and then you could go back and overdub the vocals, but that was it. So this is, to my knowledge, the only actual recorded evidence of what the Turtles actually sounded like live back in the day.
Howard: You know, I don’t think people know–that even after all of this time has passed, and even though we are trying to immortalize ourselves after the fact–not a lot of people realize what a great band that Turtles band was.
Listen to a drummer like Johny Barbata. He was emulated by nearly everybody out there who is playing music today. One of the great rock drummers of all time, certainly. And we brought Jim Pons with us into the Mothers Of Invention because he was just that good, and he stayed with us for…maybe…20 years, and he is known as “our guy.” This band was incredibly tight. We knew what we had and we really loved to perform.
I still think that still shows up in our current shows. I think that when you see a Turtles show in the year 2009 or 2010 you’re gonna see the exact same love of the music. If people like it and if we weren’t fans first and performers second we wouldn’t be here.
Bill: I saw you back in the ’90s. And about 7 or 8 years ago you played at Harrah’s Casino in Cherokee, North Carolina (which is only about an hour from here), and I missed that. Since then you haven’t been in the area, ’cause I’ve been checking.
Howard: Ah, we’re the victims of circumstance! What can I tell ya? The economy is certainly changing things.
Howard: A lot of cities that last year at this time would’ve been throwing free festivals and appreciations for their townspeople and stuff are realizing that they can’t do that. If they really want to take the parking meter money that keeps the city alive, in their charity work and their maintenance of roads and schools and stuff they really have to stop being generous with their free festivals and a lot of the community appreciation stuff.
It’s making it very very difficult not just for bands like us…that’s the selfish way to look at it….but it’s making it very, very difficult for America as a whole to get entertained. The idea is…being road guys we’re supposed to come to you. You’re supposed to stay in your town and we’ll be there to visit you. We’re a traveling circus with a road show. When the road show stops…when they tell you that they can’t afford to bring in any more money this year, that “we’re not going to have Community Appreciation Day”, or you know, “we’re cutting back to save the school $10,000” or whatever it is…it hurts all of us. It’s not that it hurts musicians. We’re not special. We’re just part of this incredible time in history when we all really really gotta tighten our belts.
So we’re trying to bring as much music we can to as many people as we can, over the summer particularly, and hopefully we will get to perform nearby, and that’s all I can say. I would like to be there as often as I could.
Bill: My Dinner With Jimi made its debut here at the Asheville Film Festival. Between then and now, what kind of efforts were made to get theatrical distribution for the film, and what, if anything, did you learn about the marketability of films like this and the way the film industry works overall?
Howard: Hahahaha! You’re a tricky one! What I learned…well, first of all Asheville was very very good to me. My Dinner With Jimi actually won the best full-length feature award, so I have a lot of love for your town. But it just goes to show you that between that time in 2003 and this release six years later, it was one of the most frustrating periods in my life. Because the film just sat on a shelf.
It did very very well in 2003. It won a lot of awards and it played all over the world, at Woodstock and in Havana, Cuba and in London and in the places you wouldn’t expect this little movie to work. It worked quite well. So I was very very happy…I would’ve been very very happy just to see the movie released to home video at that time, however at that point Harold Bronson, the producer of the film (I invoke his name yet again!) was laboring, I believe, under the misconception that “Well, I paid X amount of dollars to make this little movie, and unless somebody wants to reimburse me for X amount of dollars to release that little movie, I’m not going to.”
So it sat on a shelf for many many years. I was constantly in communication with Harold and his partner Richard Foos, both of whom had been bought off by Warner Brothers in the subsequent years since the movie was made. I now have nothing to do with Rhino. They each made $16,000,000 from that deal and are just sortta sitting on it. Richard begins another company called Shout!Factory, which is very successful doing the same kind of catalog and the same thing Rhino always did and specializing in TV and motion picture releases. And Harold kinda just sorta kicked back and enjoyed his money and his free time with his family until last year.
Last year I took a trip to Canada and I bumped into some yuppie up there who owned a distribution company who had seen My Dinner With Jimi at a film festival and asked me how he could acquire the rights. And I put him in touch with Harold Bronson. We made a deal for a Canadian theatrical release. I went up to Toronto and to Winnipeg to open the film there. That was last year. The film did pretty well and subsequently got released in Canada as a DVD.
Before it came out, I got Harold Bronson to go into the studio with me and record a commentary track, thereby giving Harold another little incentive to shepherd things through to a US release. Then finally when the Canadian DVD came out and Harold realized that there was money to be made out of it and the only one who wasn’t making it was him, that’s all of a sudden when an American release was planned. And it’s coming out on Microwerks, which is an imprint of Shout!Factory. So Richard Foos’ involvement is still ongoing. Howard and Richard still retain the Rhino logo for film use. And it’s a Rhino movie. There it is for all to see.
But boy, it was an incredibly frustrating bunch of years. I am so grateful this movie is out and anybody can see I actually did something in the 21st century.
Bill: In the film it’s made clear–and it’s reinforced in the commentary–that you never did find out how you got back from the Speakeasy to your hotel room.
Howard: I have no idea.
Bill: But the commentary also mentioned that at least some of your band mates stuck around even though you weren’t aware that they were there. So have you not gotten the rest of the story from those guys, not even from Mark Volman?
Howard: You know, all of their memories are even hazier than mine, which goes to show you what level we were talking about as far as alcohol consumption on that evening. But I understand that a couple of those guys did stick around and got at least involved in hanging out with Graham again and some of the other Hollies who were there that night.
There was an incredible jam session which I missed that apparently took place that evening. I have no recollection, but I’m sure I was out of the club by that time. But Clapton was up on stage, and Hendrix had been up there. God knows, it must have been spectacular. I don’t know if any of those guys could have walked to the stage. But I have no recollection of getting back there at all. I took in quite a few shows. Jim Tucker flew home.
The band changed on me from that point on…it was never a six-piece band again. It would remain a 5-piece organization until its breakup. And we continued to have adventures and we continued to have hit records. But I think we were never quite as innocent again as we were that night. It was a kind of loss of virginity, I think. I “lost my cherry” to that trip.
And it was crucial to me that…it has always stayed with me, as the White House performance did, as several of these seminal evenings in my career have. And I hope that I get a chance to write them all down. Because you just don’t know in this crazy world. Michael Jackson and Sky Saxon and Ed McMahon and all of these people just passed this last week; it has been sort of devastating.
So you know, you hope you can pass your legacy along at least to your kids, and you hope that you’re leaving something behind that will outlive this little puny body that we’ve been given, you know. If you can do that…if you can leave any lasting imprint…it’s not exactly like walking on the moon, but it’s a contribution.
Howard: And it’s the best any of us can do.
Bill: Well, this isn’t so much a question and it will probably seem a little strange, but…you know the whole “six degrees of separation” concept? Well, my family is originally from the Bronx, and back in the 1950s and 60s my grandmother worked at a department store called Alexander’s, and she worked with Bertie Feigin, who was Teddy Feigin’s mom.
Howard: [groans] Awww…
Bill: The White Whale Records guy.
Howard: It’s a really, really small world. Well, Mr. Feigin and Lee Lassiff certainly got our career off to a start. I would certainly like to find him now and put him into a locked room with a cougar. But you know, bygones being bygones and everything leading up to this moment in my life, good or bad, I have to say that he wasn’t all bad.
Bill: I have some Turtles collector’s recordings, unofficial stuff…
Howard: I really want to hear that 1967 Saturday Club performance. That’s the one I really wanna hear.
Bill: It’s amazing. It’s clipped at the very beginning and at the end, but the recording quality is definitely release quality. It’s amazing. And the hairs just stood up on the back of my neck when I first heard it, because you know, as I said…people nowadays don’t think of the ’60s Turtles as a powerful live band. I mean, they think of the songs more than the band, if you know what I mean.
Howard: Absolutely. You know, we were a group that sold singles. We weren’t really an album-selling group. And by the time albums got to be big, the changeover from AM radio to FM radio was happening. And we were caught right in between. I truly believe that had we stayed the Turtles after 1970 and not joined Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention that we would not have a career today.
Howard: Yes, I think with that change from AM to FM, going into a very hip audience who would remember us allowed us to sing on all of those background sessions. It allowed us into the world of Bruce Springsteen and Blondie and the Ramones and all of those people who were viewed as being much, much hipper than the Turtles ever were. And you know, getting to sing on hits like “Love My Way” with the Psychedelic Furs and stuff like that, and T. Rex’s “Bang A Gong” and records that are iconic, and “Hungry Heart” for that matter…all that adds a certain hip element to the Turtles that wasn’t there before.
And those people are the ones who come to our shows, not just to see us from the ’60s, but to hear that stuff, to hear the stories behind them, to hear the medley of the Zappa years, and to kind of relive 60s, 70s, and even 80s history. Because you know by the time we were off in the 80s doing reggae music and writing Strawberry Shortcake and G.I. Joe for television. Things had really changed, you know, we were getting to be quite corporate. We were beginning to understand how to survive in the music business, not just how to be in a rock band. And I think that just carried us along. Here I am, I just celebrated my 62nd birthday. And I am about to leave on a 5 week tour of America. So we’re doing something right, and the fact that it’s still being appreciated and the fact that I’m still enjoying it means that it’s working.
Bill: You know what I love? “We’re all Gumby”. I love it. Sounds like “I Am the Walrus.” I’ve got a recording of you on Dr. Demento, presenting that song.
Howard: Hal Willner, the guy who does all of the music for Saturday Night Live put that record together. It’s a very very hip record to be a part of, and I think that our song, that Beatles-style song on that record, is probably one of the strongest things…I know it’s a real oddity. But you know, I think I’m gonna try to get that so we can set it up online for a download at least. ‘Cause people should hear that if they want to. Because for 99 cents, what the heck?
Bill: It’s a bargain at twice the price!
Howard: If you want to know anything about the music of the Turtles, or Flo and Eddie, or me, or any of those offshoots, we’re all over the place. Everything that we’ve ever done from the Crossfires to Dust Bunnies is on iTunes and is available on Amazon and anywhere you look. So you know, we try to make sure that anybody who remembers us, remembers us correctly.
Bill: I just realized in researching…I didn’t realize that you had put out a solo album recently.
Howard: Yes, sir, that’s a great one. I’m not pressing those records anymore, but they’re out there, and as I say the mp3’s are out there as well. So yeah, give it a listen. Because you know the songs that I recorded on the Dust Bunnies album are songs that the Turtles never had a chance to record. Or that Flo and Eddie would ever go into a studio to make. These were songs that I have loved for, in some cases, thirty, forty years. And I’ve always wanted to put out an album of them, you know, B sides, album cuts, pop music songs that I always thought would work as rock n’ roll.
And I went to the studio in Billy Bob Thornton’s house in Beverly Hills and recorded the album over a two week period. It’s just me for the most part, and my keyboard player, and we got a band in from New York City to layer it and put instruments on it, and I think it sounds really, really good. Dust Bunnies is sort of in the tradition of a Turtles album. I don’t think it will disappoint.
Bill: One more left-field question if you don’t mind. You know, how our memories can play tricks on us and…I saw “The Turtles Featuring Flo and Eddie” at an outdoor concert about 18, 19 years ago. And I have a recollection of that show that no one who was there can or will corroborate. Did you ever do an onstage medley where you did a bunch of songs and all you did were your backing vocal parts from “Hungry Heart,” “Bang A Gong,” “Love My Way” and so forth? Did that happen or did I dream that?
Howard: That happened. You were not on acid. You did not dream it. We actually used to do that. We did a medley of our background hits. Nobody sang the lead. It was just the “oohs” and “ahhs” and the “oohs” and “ahs” in “Hungry Heart” and yes. We may do it again. I think it’s that kind of perennial thing that once in awhile we sneak through in our shows.
We’ve got a new album coming in August called New York Times. It’s a two-record set that we compiled over 15 years of live performances at New York City’s Bottom Line. Mark and I used to go into Manhattan every year around the holidays and do shows in Manhattan and in Greenwich Village between Christmas and New Year’s. We would tape every single one of those shows. These two albums are the 15 years’ worth of music that comes from those shows that are not hits. There are no “Happy Togethers” on that record. There are no Turtles songs whatsoever. These were the bits that were written by Jerry Lewis, and John Carpenter, and Woody Allen and the comics that we love and the musicians that we emulate. They’re silly, wacky, bizarre Mothers off Invention-type songs that distinguish the Flo and Eddie years from the Turtles years, and it not only sounds amazing but it’s quite hilarious.
We were originally going to just release it to our fans. It was just going to come out as a fan album, available on our website. But our attorneys and our management people thought that it was a better record than we had imagined and that it would do quite well, especially on an international level. So we decided to make the thing available. And we did it in a very unusual way. We put the records together. We made a disc. All the photos and credits and memories and all the 15 years’ worth of what we went through to make these recordings is on-line only. You have to go to the website. You have to go to a link, and then you can pretty much follow it along song-by-song with every one of those 15 years of radical, mad recordings.
Bill: Now, is “Marmendy Mill” on there?
Howard:In fact, it is.
Bill: Oh, my God!
Howard:The only other…we put two actual songs on, and one was a Graham Gouldman song from the film Animalympics, you know the guy from 10cc and that stuff…
Bill: Yeah, I know about Graham Gouldman. Mockingbirds, wrote the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love,” et cetera…
Howard: He wrote a song called “We’re Gonna Make It To the Top,” which is an incredible song that closed our show one year, and the other was “Marmendy Mill”, my autobiographical song from the second Flo and Eddie album. Live and in person it sounds so good that we had to include it.
It’s a very difficult piece to perform. But we didn’t overdub anything. We just left it the way it was, live in person at the club, and it’s a beautiful performance. The band is so incredible that we put it on the record, but I think that for any Flo and Eddie fans that know what we did after the Turtles, this is a better way to get a glimpse of the Flo and Eddie years than any of the stand-alone studio records that we put out.
Bill: I just thought of one other thing. I also have a number of live Flo and Eddie shows, I guess from the 70s, when you were opening for Alice Cooper. If you don’t have some of those I can throw some of those into the package too.
Howard: I’d love that, sir. Nothing would please me more. That’s great. As I say, they only exist in my memories. They may be around. You may find them on YouTube or on MySpace or some such thing, but I’m not the kind of guy who sits around Googling myself. So unless somebody sends me this stuff, I never get a chance to hear it. So I really do appreciate it.
Bill: Well, I will. And just this morning I got the [bootleg] Mothers at the Fillmore West, November 6, 1970. Not the one that was released officially (Fillmore East). It’s a soundboard…you do “Daddy Daddy Daddy” and all that great stuff from the 200 Motels film. So like I said, I’ve been a fan since I was a little kid.
Howard: Well, I appreciate that. Hopefully your kids will get to be fans too. I’d like to keep everybody.
Bill: I’m working on ’em.
Howard: Good deal, man! There’s nothing like teaching your kids about the music that you love; it’s the only way we have of perpetuating anything decent.
My Dinner With Jimi, the true and hilarious story of the Turtles’ Howard Kaylan’s meeting with rock royalty — was released on DVD June 23.