Reviews of Music Autobiographies from a Punk and a Turtle 

Shell Shocked: My Life With the Turtles, Flo & Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc.
by Howard Kaylan with Jeff Tamarkin | Backbeat Books | 304 pp

The performance rights organization BMI has named the Turtles’ “Happy Together” one of the top 50 songs of the 20th century. (It ranked No. 44 on BMI’s Top 100 Songs of the Century list.) Oh ... that guy. Now you’ve placed Howard Kaylan—that hushed, confessional singer in the verses, modulating to the keening, psychedelic/vaudevillian voice in the choruses.

Although the Turtles were never seen as a banner-carrier of the ’60s music revolution, Kaylan has the stories to compete (and possibly win) in the rock ’n’ roll tell-all pantheon. For instance, there’s his first evening out in London in 1967: accidentally insulting the Moody Blues, getting eviscerated (verbally) by John Lennon, and vomiting on the velvet jacket and pants of rising star Jimi Hendrix, all in rapid succession—that’s a winner right there, but there’s plenty more where it came from.

Once the Turtles are stopped in their tracks by a legal entanglement, the story of Kaylan and his perpetual vocal partner from high school forward, Mark Volman, gets more interesting as they wend their way through the entertainment world. Within two weeks of their hit band’s demise, Kaylan turns down the lead vocalist role in the then-nascent Steely Dan because Volman wasn’t on the ticket; the duo then auditions for and joins Frank Zappa’s new version of the Mothers of Invention. Later, Kaylan and Volman survive the Montreux venue fire made world history via Deep Purple’s song “Smoke on the Water.”

In an ancillary career as backing singers, the pair created those intriguing, ridiculous backing vocals on the T. Rex recordings—tiptoeing a line mimicking strings or horns, and selling the fantastical jiggery-pokery of Marc Bolan’s lyrics like commercial pitchmen. Salacious and psychotropic tales aside, the underlying story of Kaylan and Volman sticking together through the sine-wave peaks and valleys is a sublime parable—and possibly their crowning achievement.— Matt Gorney

I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography 
by Richard Hell | Ecco Press | 293 pp

Hell is other people, in Richard Hell’s new memoir. The book is structured as a series of reminiscences, mostly of people he’s written with, had sex with, or both. Though Hell (né Meyers), an accidental rock star who identifies as a poet, has published two earlier novels of the “thinly veiled autobiography” stripe, he calls this his first and only true accounting, and certainly he spares no effort in making himself seem attractive, cool or even much of a worthwhile person. Then again, he’s not so nice to his friends, either.

Neon Boys, Television, the Heartbreakers, the Voidoids … the bands Hell led in the ’70s and ’80s read like a roll call of punk’s formation. Like a lucky few who also came out of New York’s atonal, avant-garde No Wave scene, Hell managed, though he had almost no musical training, to write at least one genuine contender for classic-song status (“Marquee Moon”), as well as a bona fide punk-era anthem (“Blank Generation”).

The book itself drips with a repellent, gorgeous honesty. Hell is offhandedly brutal to some of his longtime cohorts, randomly kind to others, and though he details some less-than-admirable actions, seems at some points to think he invented sliced bread—the false humility of the junkie’s massive ego. (And yes, his junk years are explored, but it’s the least interesting part of Clean Tramp.)

Hell is quite good on his male friendships, drawing clean-edged, sensitive, distinct portraits of each man. Women’s breasts, hair, or the sex acts he has with them get that same level of attentive clarity (at one point he recalls—from 1967—“a sad, hysterical girl with red capillaries on her nose and cheekbones, and large breasts that looked like twin Eeyores”) but the women themselves seem interchangeable, not quite human.

Hell and his fellow ’70s punk icon, the ethereal Patti Smith, had the same influences (French Symbolist poets: Lautréamont, Verlaine, Rimbaud), the same aspirations (poet/rock star), came out of the same tiny intersection of time and place (junk-infused 1970s Lower East Side), yet in her recent memoir Just Kids, Smith gets it across in half the pages with twice the beauty and grace and suffusing soul. I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp is earthy, with a few flashes of sublimity ... a better portrait of an era than of a man or a self. — Jessica Bryce Young




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