Book Review: “Happy Forever” — An Entertaining Oral History of the Turtles and the World of Pop Music
By Ed Symkus
This offbeat bio of Turtles vocalist, songwriter, and clown prince Mark Volman has been assembled from amusing, insightful, horrifying, honest, and candidly told stories from friends, family, and even some foes.
Happy Forever: My Musical Adventures with the Turtles, Frank Zappa, T. Rex, Flo & Eddie, and More by Mark Volman with John Cody. Jawbone Press, 349 pp., $24.95 (softcover)
A Note to Readers: I finished reading the tremendously entertaining Happy Forever about a week ago. I was putting my notes in order when I was informed that Mark Volman had recently announced he had been diagnosed with the progressive brain disorder Lewy Body Dementia. I wondered, knowing that gloomy news, if I could still convey how much fun the book is. Well, Volman — a trooper — has decided to remain on the road with the Happy Together tour as long as possible. So, I say, hell yeah!
Happy Forever is an unconventional biography of Mark Volman who, along with his musical partner Howard Kaylan, made up the frontline of the celebrated ’60s pop band the Turtles and, later, was Flo — again with Kaylan — in Flo & Eddie.
Maybe “unconventional biography” is not the right designation, but I’m having trouble coming up with a better one. Drummer and music writer/teacher John Cody conducted interviews with a whole lot of people who have known, worked with, loved, disliked … you name it … Volman throughout his life. Cody got them to share memories and anecdotes about him, then painstakingly constructed the words of 106 of them into a … let’s call it an eccentric, chronological oral history of Volman, the Turtles, Flo & Eddie, and the world of pop music over the past five-plus decades.
There are amusing, insightful, horrifying, honest, and candidly told stories told by, among others, Kaylan, both of Volman’s wives (Pat and Emily), Alice Cooper, Micky Dolenz, Richie Furay, Greg Hawkes, Ray Manzarek, Mark Parenteau, and Paul Williams. Because the book took over a decade to complete, from conception to final draft, some of these folks are no longer with us. An added attraction is Volman’s participation in the project. After reading everyone’s comments about him, he intermittently added his own few cents, with those remarks standing out in boldface.
While maintaining that Volman is a multi-talented, funny, smart, free-spirited, well-liked fellow who has never stopped seeking out new experiences, the book includes other revelations: Volman was a pretty good baseball player and surfer while growing up in California; he was initially a roadie for his pals’ mostly instrumental surf band the Crossfires (who later changed their name to the Turtles); he graduated to playing tambourine with them and, when more vocals were added, he started singing on choruses behind Kaylen’s leads. After the Turtles wound down and Flo & Eddie became his creative outlet, Volman enrolled in college, earned three degrees, and became a music professor.
Funny recollections include Volman’s propensity for tambourine tossing and donut-eating contests. There’s plenty about the on-stage antics that made him and Kaylen as notable for their comedy as for their songs. But there’s also some pretty dark stuff, as well, much of it revolving around guitarist Jim Tucker’s stormy relationship with his Turtles bandmates, as well as tales of strains on family life, bad times with drugs on the road, unscrupulous management, and crooked record labels.
The volume also features an ample amount of conversation-worthy tidbits, such as: The Turtles’ record label was White Whale, and their publishing company was Ishmael Music; the song “Happy Together” had been turned down by the Vogues, the Happenings, and the Tokens before it went to the Turtles, who made it their only number one hit; and Frank Zappa — who they worked for in their two-year stint fronting the Mothers — invited Monkees vocalist and drummer Micky Dolenz to drum with the Mothers in 1970 (he turned it down).
There’s a great amount of opining about Volman in Happy Forever, including some thoughts from Kaylan about how and why he and Volman worked so well together. One of my favorite quotes comes from Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes, who said of the Turtles, “They’re one of the most underappreciated acts in music history. If it were up to me, they would be in the Hall of Fame, but they had that goofy persona, so music critics took them less seriously than, say Procol Harum.”
Ed Symkus is a Boston native and Emerson College graduate. Among his accomplishments: He went to Woodstock, interviewed Edward Gorey, Ray Bradbury, Ted Nugent, and Kathryn Bigelow, and has visited the Outer Hebrides, the Lofoten Islands, Anglesey, Mykonos, the Azores, Catalina, Kangaroo Island, and the Isle of Capri with his wife Lisa.