Turtle Talk with Mark Volman
by Ken Sharp
“Happy Together” … “She’d Rather Be with Me”… ”Elenore”… ”Kicks”… ”Good Time”… ”Indian Reservation”… ”Just Like Me”… ”Hungry”… ”This Diamond Ring”… ”Everybody’s a Clown”… ”Young Girl”… ”Lady Willpower… ”One”… “Mama Told Me (Not to Come)”… “Joy to the World.” These are among the classic ‘60s hits fans can expect to hear on this summer’s “Happy Together” Tour headed to a city near you. featuring The Turtles, Mark Lindsay (of Paul Revere & the Raiders), Gary Lewis (of the Playboys), Gary Puckett (of the Union Gap) and Chuck Negron (of Three Dog Night).
We sat down with Turtles co-ringleader, Mark Volman for a look back at his life in the rock and roll circus as well as his new second career as a college professor.
You’re embarking on a “Happy Together” tour this summer, what can fans expect?
We made a commitment when we began considering doing the “Happy Together” tour and knew what we wanted to deliver to the fans. They weren’t getting wasted minutes. The show was designed to perpetuate the memories and the music of the ‘60s. We wanted to assure the promoters and the fans coming out to the show that you’re only going to hear our hit records. What we’re trying to do is give people the most bang for their buck. We’re bringing an assurance that for one night they’re going to get two and half hours of top ten records with the best songs from Gary Puckett, Gary Lewis, Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere & the Raiders and Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night plus what we’re going them with The Turtles.
You’ve been musical partners with Howard Kaylan both in The Crossfires, The Turtles and Flo & Eddie for 50 years. What’s the bond that makes the partnership work?
Our relationship has always been built on the fact that we wanted to do something back when we were in high school. We weren’t really sure what we were good at. As every year unfolded all of the elements of our career have allowed us to experiment in a lot of different forms. Our relationship is strong because we listen to each other. And we have a very succinct philosophy about things when it comes to delivering the different changes of our career. When we wanted to go experimental, we were able to go off and do our Flo & Eddie music and make records that were not quite what people expected. It’s just like us going off to work with Frank Zappa. People just didn’t know what to expect. We came up with the first “Happy Together” tour in 1984 and it was a very successful venture. We went off the track by not doing those tours for 25 or so years but have realized that we have a lot of firepower with the five artists on the bill.
One of the really great things that Howard and I really like is when we choose the artists, we want to bring onboard. These are all people we’re fans of. That makes it fun. We’ve known everyone on the bill for many years; we did one of our first major national tours with Paul Revere & the Raiders on a bus with Mark (Lindsay). We knew Chuck (Negron) since Three Dog Night got together. We were managed by the same management company. This is not just a bunch of guys getting together. There’s a lot of camaraderie. We all have relationships between each other that go back a long time and that makes it really fun to be out on the road. Plus we get to play the greatest theaters, eighteen hundred seats to seven thousand and up. The mechanics of the show are really like Broadway. There are a lot of visuals that go along with the acts, so people have something to watch and relive their memories of growing up with these songs. We also have a fantastic house band that plays the records exactly as they sounded. There’s a lot of firepower in the musicians we’ve brought out as the house band. I think this summer is going to be a remarkable summer for everyone.
What was your role in The Turtles at the beginning and how did that change over time?
The Turtles were an extension of our high school band, The Crossfires. The Crossfires was a certain type of band that grew around some of our players that were more musical like Al (Nichol) and Don Murray. We had great musicianship in that band. When I came into the group, I think I brought a sense of fun and humor and a comedy element. I wasn’t really playing anything in the Crossfires. But as The Turtles changed, I became more and more a part of the sound. By 1965, I was getting a little bit stronger musically, in terms of beginning to write material on guitar or piano. That kept growing all the way through our Turtle Soup album. We were all co-writing and adding our own embellishments to the mix.
Even beyond that, when Howard and I went to work with Zappa, we took on a whole different role. Then as we moved into the Flo & Eddie era, I was pretty much writing 98% of the music. Howard and I would work on the lyrics, but Howard and I didn’t really play so I was relegated to come up with the musical part of our Flo & Edie sound. Going back to the first album, Howard and I always were co-writers, but I was always given the job of getting everything started. That’s because I was writing more of the guitar/keyboard stuff. You take a song like “Moving Targets.” I wrote that on guitar and then Howard and I would want to sing about what moving targets we’d want to write about. “Keep It Warm” was a song I wrote on piano. We liked what was coming from the music and then we had to figure out where we wanted to go philosophically with the lyrics. Howard’s a great lyricist.
Howard recently told me that one of the band’s biggest records, “She’d Rather Be with Me,” was a track lacking a real sense of magic, yet it became one of your biggest hits in both America and England.
Whether it’s magic or not, it’s a great radio record. It’s a kind of interesting record in that it doesn’t have the dynamics like some of the other records we made. Like “Happy Together,” which has the obvious dynamics with the soft verses and the sing-along choruses. “She’d Rather Be with Me” starts out at 110% and it just goes and never really plays off any dynamics at all. Simply put, it’s just a ball-out record and a lot of that is because of our drummer Johnny (Barbata). That record is probably one of the most drum driven ‘60s hits I’ve ever heard.
I haven’t heard Turtles music in a long time but when I do it always amazes me a record like “You Know What I Mean,” which is probably one of the most incredible records we’ve made, was probably the least well known. When you get right down to it, it’s probably one of the most sensitive and beautiful pop songs we’ve ever made.
“She’s My Girl” is also a picture-perfect Turtles record.
Yeah, that’s a good one. Another song of ours that gets overlooked all of the time is “The Story of Rock & Roll”, which was written by Harry Nilsson. The Turtles version of that song is one of the most spectacularly produced records. This coming from the same band who recorded “Eleanor.” Sadly, “The Story of Rock & Roll” is often overlooked. Also, a song from our Happy Together album, one of the most incredible Turtle records is a song called “Me About You” written by (Gary) Bonner and (Alan) Gordon who also wrote “Happy Together,” “She’d Rather Be with Me” and “She’s My Girl.”
The unfortunate thing is we made a lot of good records, but you had no control over what disc jockeys played. A disc jockey jumps on “Happy Together” and it gets played over and over and has held up so well that it became the record of our career. Musically I think “She’s My Girl,” “You Know What I Mean,” “Me About You,” “The Story of Rock & Roll” and a few others are even better records. But every group hopes to have a “Happy Together” (laughs) and that makes us very fortunate.
Along with you and Howard, guitarist Al Nichol was a founding member who lasted through all lineup changes. What did he contribute to the band?
Al was a really enormous presence in the beginning of the band. As things went on and the group became more of a group democracy, Al began to see his role deteriorating a little bit. He wasn’t keeping up with everybody else in terms of where we were going with things. Al was an excellent musician. I think Al had some personal issues that overwhelmed things. We all had elements that came into each of our lives that played a part in the ultimate demise of the group. Sometimes people forget that the lawsuit we were in with (Turtles label) White Whale. Howard and I had gone off to work with Frank (Zappa).
When we came back, we went to each member of The Turtles, Al, Jim Pons, Johnny. We gave them the opportunity to really be a part of the future to whatever The Turtles was going to metamorphose into. There was the possibility of putting The Turtles back together. It was a few years later since we’d broken up and everybody had sort of gone off and done other things. Pons hung in through with us and did The Mothers of Invention and some of the Flo & Eddie records with us. That first Flo & Eddie album had a lot of Turtle music on it with “Strange Girl” and “Who But I.” There was a lot of music on there that could have easily translated as Turtles records. At that point, everybody else in The Turtles had become kind of disenchanted with music as a business. I think that probably played an enormous role in their disinterest in wanting to go backwards at that time. Al was probably thinking what he was doing was more important that going back in time.
Tell us the back story behind Flo & Eddie’s 1976 album, Moving Targets which stands as the duo’s most accomplished work.
Moving Targets is probably the most poignant of our albums when it comes to anybody looking for what drove us to stop making records. I think Moving Targets is a real eye opener; it’s very autobiographical in terms of the dissolvement of the art forms for us. The songs “Mama, Open Up” and “Moving Targets” in particular. Same can be said for the whole album, which was very autobiographical. It was kind of saying “at this point we’re going to go on hiatus.” It was really candid., (recites lyrics from “Mama, Open Up)” …”it started out so simple and got so far out of hand.” The whole lyric choice of (recites lyrics) … “Making show business out of what was fun” really opens up what was really coming down on us; the concept of going back to the womb, the idea of getting back to the beginning was something we really felt comfortable with.
I think we were really getting into some really good stuff. When I wrote “The Love You Gave Away” I was messing around and listening to a lot of Brian Wilson. I was really kind of fascinated with a certain of simplicity. The same goes for “Keep It Warm.” That inert simplicity comes down to I was not that great a player or overly schooled at writing, but I knew what I liked. And knew how to use the tools I did have. Howard was really good about feeding that. Howard and I sang the vocals on that song in unison. We were doing a lot of vocals in unison. It’s got a nice horn arrangement; Ray Pohlman did that. It kind of showcases the music we always liked that combination of Chicago and Beach Boys.
The intro lick to “Hot” reminds me of “And Your Bird Can Sing” by The Beatles.
The song I thought of when I originally kicked that song off and went to Howard was “Layla.” When you listen to the ending, we tagged it with Donnie Dacus and Jeff Baxter both on slide guitars. I wanted it to have this “Layla” kind of ending with the freedom of these two guitars tearing out on their own.
Were you playing most of the rhythm guitar on the Moving Targets album?
All of it. I did all the rhythm guitars; I played on all the Flo & Eddie albums. On our first album, there were four songs Howard had pretty much done and the rest were mine.
When you’re not touring with The Turtles, you have a day job as a college professor.
That’s right. When Howard and I decided at a certain point that we were going to manage ourselves, I took on the role of manager and used Howard to bounce off any ideas. I don’t make any decisions without the two of us talking about it. When I decided to get into the management side of things, I also made a choice somewhere along the way in the mid 1990’s to go to college. I hadn’t the opportunity to go to college and felt that I now had the time to see if college and I would work together. I ended up going to community college and it worked out really well. I went on all the way through to earning my Master’s degree. I graduated to the opportunity of the university I was at, who asked me to put together a course of study wrapped around the business of music.
I went out and did some research and I found there were universities who were already kind of moving in that direction. So I took the job at Loyola Marymount University creating a music business course for students in the music and recording arts department. I taught at Loyola for about seven years and during that time I developed my music business course, my music history courses, my management courses, copyright and music publishing courses. When I moved to Nashville in 2003 one of the fellows who I’d used as a mentor at the university level offered me a chance to come up and do some filling in for him at Belmont University where he taught. I hadn’t really come to Nashville to teach, but I ended up taking the job and had been an adjunct professor for a couple of semesters and then they offered me a full-time position. I’ve been full-time at Belmont since 2004.
I really enjoy it. I teach four classes a semester. I teach courses in music business. I also teach courses in the entertainment industry wrapped around film and music supervision. I teach courses that connect students to screenwriting and writing for television. I love teaching. Teaching has become more full-time for me than touring. Fortunately, I can balance most of it. I’ve been teaching since 1997 so I’m about 15 years in as a full-time professor. I’m the chair of the entertainment industry studies programs at Belmont and I’m an assistant professor so all of this keeps me really busy.
On this summer’s “Happy Together” tour, ten students from Belmont University will travel with us working the show. We did it last year and we’re going to do it this year. They’ll be working 17 concerts over 23 days. They have their own tour bus and my assistant rides on the bus with the students. Every day they get a different job, lights, merchandise, working the tour manager, working with the stage manager. They have to write about it and do a class every day with me. The students really love it. I have great people at the university that allow me to come to the table with good ideas like that. It’s a unique way for students to learn being under fire like that.
Copyright ©2013 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 14, 2013.
Photo Credit: © 2013. Courtesy of The Turtles. All rights reserved.