The Turtles, a 1960s folk rock band, were only around for five years – but during that time, they landed a ton of hits on the charts, including “Happy Together,” “She’d Rather Be With Me” and their Top 10 cover of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” They also partied like maniacs and had enough wild adventures to fill many books.
Howard Kaylan, the group’s frontman (and Eddie from Flo and Eddie) has a new memoir coming out in April – Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa. Here’s an exclusive excerpt in which he describes their performance at the White House in 1969 at Tricia Nixon’s coming-out party.
I was snorting coke on Abraham Lincoln’s desk in the White House. Yes, that Abraham Lincoln and that White House. A bunch of hairy peacenik dopers from California though we were, it seems that Tricia Nixon, daughter of Tricky Dick himself, was a fan of the Turtles and had requested our presence. Our first instinct: you’ve got to be kidding! No way in hell!
Yet here we were, our noses vacuuming lines off the surface of Honest Abe’s very own workspace.
We had gone through several managers during the past five years and been on the charts far more often than anyone would ever have guessed, considering that we were the only ones looking out for us, and that White Whale Records wasn’t much of a label.
There had been the folk-rock years, and we had been lucky enough to score a few big hits; we were among the earliest children of Bob Dylan, putting our cover version of his tune “It Ain’t Me, Babe” into the Top 10.
Then we had become the good-time music boys, influenced by the Lovin’ Spoonful and determined not to protest anything. We’d made it to Number One with a song that’s still recognized today as one of the classic rock & roll love songs of all time. “Happy Together,” indeed.
And, now, finally, we had engineered our own success with “Elenore,” our first self-penned Top 10 record, and “You Showed Me,” which we had changed from a Beatlesque rocker into a lush ballad.
We were lucky and we knew it.
Of course, now we had the big-time management to prove it.
Gone were the friends of friends—we’d realized that we really weren’t in any position to manage ourselves—and hello to the new Superstar Management Team.
We had been courted, successfully, by Ron DeBlasio and Jeff Wald, who were, at the time, top reps for the Campbell-Silver-Cosby Corporation.
That’s right—Bill Cosby.
Mister Pudding Pops.
Fat Freaking Albert.
Bill, his own self, was a full partner in the firm that represented him.
And his sweaters.
And he was the number one comic in America.
Across the hall was the office of the appropriately named Artie Mogul, who ran the in-house record company, Tetragrammaton, home to Deep Purple and more.
Of course, he had nothing to do with us. Neither did Mr. Cosby, but his name promised to open a lot of doors in Hollywood and that was exactly what we needed.
But what, I asked, could these guys bring to the table for a band that had been around the block and, hypothetically, overstayed their welcome?
We didn’t have to wait long.
We had heard, through the grapevine, that the Turtles were Tricia’s favorite band, and we’d all had a good chuckle over that.
Old Man Nixon was the creepiest Dick of his generation, the least popular president among the under-30 crowd that had ever been, and a killer of our young men and women, as far as we were concerned.
We were deeply anti-war and deeply self-conscious. We weren’t Nixonites, that’s for sure. We were everything he stood against.
So when the hand-engraved invitations to perform at Tricia’s coming out party arrived at the Cosby office, we were none too thrilled. In fact, we flat out refused to play.
They started to freak out.
“What do you mean, you refuse to play?! Who the hell do you think you are?! This isn’t a political thing. It’s like a goddamned royal proclamation, you idiots! You play the White House because you’re an American!”
Blah, blah, blah …
They shamed us into it.
Not only that, but to add insult to injury, management now was requesting that we each go out and buy a classy new suit. Can’t play for the president looking like the sewer rats that you really are.
Perfect. There it was, again.
Too bad Johny Barbata wasn’t the drummer in the band anymore. He’d have loved the sight of us clumsily trying on the very Brioni suits that he’d been trying to get us to wear for three-and-a-half years.
Now we had each bought one. Talk about fish out of water.
Came the big day, May 10, 1969, we flew into Washington, D.C. on the taxpayers’ dollar. There, we were met by five separate cars, replete with drivers all flying the American flag, and taken directly to the White House. Once there we discovered that the Secret Service had dossiers on each of us. They kept us in a holding lounge while going through our intimate details individually.
After we had all been cleared, it was time to unload the equipment that we had brought with us all the way from L.A.
But we didn’t do the unloading. Instead, the Secret Service guys did. And they didn’t know the first thing about large equipment cases. So as they began to unload the trap case from the drum set, the large case that holds the snare drum, percussion goodies and miscellaneous items, they tipped it to one side and, unknowingly, triggered the tiny switch on the electric metronome/tuner that we always carried with us.
Out came the guns.
“Up against the wall!”
Oh, we went there. Up against that wall it was as they carted off our little black box. We stood there, a rock group inside of enemy territory, the Nixon White House, looking down the crosshairs from the wrong direction. Guys in HAZMAT suits were brought in to deal with our little plastic tuner and their freak-out escalated yet another notch when someone hit the tuning switch and the 440 cycle “A” tone started shrieking from the metronome.
The term “shitting a brick” comes to mind.
My knees were shaking and the sweat was rolling down my face. And it was only May—the fucking cherry blossoms were blooming on America’s Lawn and I was about to be shot for treason.
We looked at each other and we looked at them. It was like a Peckinpah movie.
I could almost hear the feds mumbling to each other as they set to work, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I only perceived a gushing in my ears, like I was underwater. The only other sound I recall was my way-too-fast heartbeat.
That little fog started to set in, the one where you think you might just pass out.
Now the guns were cocked and ready to fire. They schlepped off our little plastic box for further examination. When it returned 10 minutes later, the faceplate had been pried off and the box was dripping water.
“It’s a metronome,” they declared. Good work, guys.
That was the longest 10 minutes of my life.
Many months later, we received a check from the White House for 17 dollars.
The party itself was pretty crazy. I’ve heard reports from a couple of the band members who had actually gone up to the roof of the White House with some CIA guys to smoke a joint before soundcheck, but I wasn’t part of that bunch. (In fact, I actually read it in one particular Turtle’s autobiography. Someone had to test those mikes, and I guess that’s what I had been doing.)
However, later, when we returned to do the show, we were given President Lincoln’s library to use as our dressing room. Unbelievable! In fact, we were told that the entire first floor was OK for us to explore—just as long as we didn’t enter the private quarters, everyone on staff was to let us have the run of the place. And we did. It was amazing. We were loaded—high from smoking pot back at the hotel and a wee bit tipsy from all the French Champagne that was being freely dispensed—and we were roaming around the most important home in America unsupervised.
One member of our crew still had a few tricks up his sleeve, however, and not only did I get to take a few precious tokes of his mystery stash before the show started, but we were able to actually lay out lines of coke on Mr. Lincoln’s desk. As the powder flew up my nose, I wondered if this was exactly what the founding fathers had in mind. Land of the Free, indeed. Well, I felt free and on top of the world.
Now I think, jeez, they must have had cameras, but back then, the thought never crossed my mind.
The show was wonderful. Hey, what can I say? We were always a great band. And although our other vocalist, my career-long partner Mark Volman, had a few balance issues—he fell off the stage a few times, much to the amusement of all present—the actual concert was a huge success. Just looking around the room at the dignitaries, the emissaries and the luminaries was like LSD to a stoner Democrat like me. That made things even more fun. I was smiling from ear to ear. Even the Temptations, who were also on the bill, were drinking and singing and laughing right along with us.
And we were funny. We didn’t hold back just because of the venue. Hell, I thought, we’ve been thrown out of better places than this! But, of course, we hadn’t been. Jokes at America’s expense … literally.
Right after the show, Mark decided to hit on Lucy Baines Johnson, LBJ’s daughter, which would have been questionable under any circumstances, but was especially so with her husband, Pat Nugent, squaring off at Mark from inches away. Spittle was flying. I’m not exactly sure how peace was restored between them, but man, there was an almost-incident that was happily avoided. History would have loved that one.
Tricia and her friends seemed to love us. Most of her acquaintances were college kids and, probably unbeknownst to her, were busy spending their evening passing out subversive SDS flyers to the crowd.
And, much to our relief, Tricky Dick was off on a foreign mission somewhere, killing our troops, and so he never made an appearance. I’ve always been thankful for that. I am absolutely positive, considering our states of mind that evening, that I—or some other equally messed-up Turtle—would have given him an earful of our contempt and probably would have ended up in Gitmo.
They took some photos. One shows five shaggy guys, one psychedelic road manager, Ron DeBlasio, Jeff Wald and his wife, the singer Helen “I Am Woman” Reddy, and there in the center, looking like a Hummel figurine in white, Tricia Nixon, herself. Another depicts only four shaggy guys—all of the Turtles except me—and Tricia. That one made it to the cover of Parade Magazine. Read into my missing visage what you will. Was I up to something subversive? I wish I could say I was, but I was probably just exploring the presidential restroom or something. It all kind of makes you proud to be an American, though, doesn’t it?
How in the world had I gotten here?
From the book Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa by Howard Kaylan with Jeff Tamarkin. Published by Backbeat Books.