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From Happy Together to hurling on Hendrix; A Seattle rock legend tells all

Howard Kaylan (singing) and the Turtles perform in 1967. Kaylan, a longtime Seattle resident, doesn't pull any punches in his new autobiography. (AP image)

Plenty of rock stars have shared some of their dirty secrets in “tell all” books. But Howard Kaylan might just be the only one who can say he threw up all over Jimi Hendrix.

It’s just one of the twisted tales he regales readers with in his new book “Shell Shocked”, which chronicles the ups and downs of superstardom during his decades as the singer of the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and more.

Kaylan – who’s called the Seattle area home for years – and the Turtles are best known for the classic smash hit “Happy Together”, which forever sealed their place in music history. And he figured after all these years hanging out with everyone from the Beatles to Bruce Springsteen, it was time to “get some things off my chest” he said in an interview for this week’s edition of Seattle Sounds.

The Hendrix hurl happened during the Turtles first trip to England in 1967. Kaylan and his bandmates were riding high on the success of their first chart-topping singles.

In the same night they hung out with Graham Nash, met the Beatles and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, who introduced them to Jimi at a local nightclub. At the time, the guitar great was blowing up in England, but still relatively unknown in the U.S.

Hendrix insisted Kaylan party with him, and the teen spent the next few hours trying to keep up with Hendrix’ voracious appetite for smoke and spirits. At some point he couldn’t. The room began spinning, and before he knew it, Kaylan had thrown up all over Jimi and one of his signature velvet suits.

“And the worst part about is I passed out. I don’t know how I got back to the hotel. I don’t know who drove me. I was out for like two days, three days after that,” Kaylan laughed. “I woke up in pajamas. So hey man, I hope it wasn’t something bad.”

The night is the subject of “My Dinner With Jimi,” a cult-classic film that made the rounds of film festivals in 2003 and was just recently released on DVD.

While the book has plenty of sordid stories like that (including the time he snorted cocaine off Abe Lincoln’s desk in the White House at Tricia Nixon’s coming out party,) it also offers fascinating insights and brutally honest accounts from in and out of the spotlight.

Among them, the fact that Happy Together was salvaged essentially from the scrap heap of some songwriters.

According to Kaylan, the Turtles were looking for their next single when they started listening to dozens of demos. Among them was a poor quality, extremely rough recording by a couple of guys that had been rejected by a number of other acts. Everyone hated it. Except them.

“It was the worst sounding record you’ve ever heard in your life, and we loved it. It was something magical and brilliant.”

So they flew the artists out to perform the song and hear it better than the “crap demo.” It sounded even worse. Still, the band insisted.

“We wanted to not be identified with folk rock music anymore. Coming from LA we wanted to be good time ambassadors like the Lovin’ Spoonful,” he said.

After eight months on the road honing it, the Turtles returned to the studio. “And we absolute knew that Happy Together was going to be a number one hit record. There was no doubt in anybody’s mind, we all knew it. It wasn’t a shock at all.”

They were right. Happy Together soared to the top of the charts, ultimately becoming of the biggest songs in rock and roll history, and helping fuel a lifetime of stories for Kaylan, some great, others not as much. But whether it’s the good or bad, he doesn’t pull any punches.

“I’m 65, what do I have to lose.? Are you not going to buy something I already sold you 47 years ago. Are you going take “Happy Together” out of your memory banks?” he laughed.

He’s clearly not worried, even if it means naming names.

“When you’re talking about people that are still above ground and you have the cajones [Spanish for testicles] to name names these days, you are kind of taking your chances. You’re not really sure what your comeuppance is going to be.”

So far, there’ve been few complaints, except for his second wife (he’s been married five times), who worried what her children would learn about her rock and roll life.

“Your kids probably never knew you were as cool as I paint you in this book,” Kaylan said he told her. “You should just relax and go with it because they know you as mom.”

Kaylan certainly goes with it, and the result is a book that is at times hilarious, disturbing, uplifting, depressing and inspiring. Just what you’d expect from a guy willing to admit he ruined Jimi Hendrix’ signature suit.

Listen to my interview with Howard Kaylan on Seattle Sounds Saturday night at 7, Sunday at 5 on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM.

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