Sunday, May 13, 2012

Psychedelic musings 1 - The Cowsills

The Cowsills get a chapter in the book I've been reading, "Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth". I'd heard the name before, but they seemed absent from the broader music canon and I wasn't sure why. I began my investigations with their best-known song, "The Rain, the Park, and Other Things".

I couldn't recall exactly when I've heard this song, but it was definitely in my subconscious, especially those ascending backing vocals ("she could make me happy - happy - happy"), just one of its many inescapable hooks. I love sunshine pop and Summer of Love artefacts, and this is clearly one of the best examples of this style and period.

The Cowsills turned out to have a certain fascination. First of all, they were just kids who were captivated by the Beatles, as I was at that age. Like the vast majority of their peers, they wanted to be like the Beatles but extraordinarily, they got their wish, performing on the same stage on the Ed Sullvan Show as their fab idols. They also got to live this fairytale in the late 1960s, surely the most exciting era of modern popular culture. The youngest Cowsill (Susan, who joined after this video was made) is the same age as my oldest brother, so there's a sense that they are emissaries of my generation who were there in the 60s, rather than the somewhat remote pantheonic oldsters like the Stones, the Beatles and the Byrds.

There's also a series of contradictions about the Cowsills. They were young at a time that celebrated youth and youthful independence, but they were just a bit too young, and that meant they were very much under the control of their parents and the industry machine cogs their Mum and Dad locked into. Their Mum even joined the band, and they became the template for the Partridge family. That cemented their uncoolness and perhaps explains their absence from many 60s revivals and recollections. It's pretty unfair because the song's producer and co-writer Artie Kornfeld was a key organiser of the Woodstock Festival, and can be seen in the documentary espousing the values epitomised by this fairytale of the 60s..

Really, all that Woodstock idealism proved to be pretty hollow in the end. Maybe the the Cowsills' flower power comic book appearance is not so bad after all. (By the way, if anyone has scans of this comic I'd love to see it; only the cover is online at the time of writing).

When they branched out and wrote their own songs the results were sometimes bizarre, in particular the Book of Revelation horrorshow "The Prophecy of Daniel and John the Divine". In fact, the lyrics were provided for them, and Bob Cowsill wrote the music, which makes existence of the song a little less bewildering.

The tragic postscript is the death of Barry Cowsill  in Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a kind of apocalyptic event in itself.  Barry is the one at the front on the left tapping on the guitar case in "The Rain the Park and Other Things" video above.

I hope you like the video I made to go with the song:

The aforementioned Bubblegum book makes a big deal out of the double-entendres songwriters would put in the lyrics of their juvenile ditties, and I have four interpretations of "The Rain, the Park and other Things":

1. The boy meets a young freaky girl in the park, and she turns him on to a hallucnogenic substance, thus "she had made me happy - happy - happy".
2. The boy meets a young freaky girl in the park, and in the spirit of free love, gives him his first sexual experience.
3. The boy sees a young freaky girl and has a masturbation fantasy about her, thus "all I had left was one little flower in my hand".
4. The boy meets a girl in the park, they hold hands and walk; when the sun comes out he loses sight of her, but is left happy by the experience.

Sadly, I haven't found anything else in the Cowsills catalogue which comes close the the ethereal "The Rain, the Park and Other Things". There are some pleasant moments, like the Gibb-esque "I Need a Friend" and their version of "Hair". But for me it's their first big hit that makes them special.

When the Cowsills performed "The Rain, the Park and Other Things" on the Ed Sullivan Show, the performance was ruined because the mics were off for the first part of the song. Now someone has uploaded the rehearsal from that show. The late Barry Cowsill is in the front with the Hofner violin bass. Note that guitarist Billy died in 2006 from a range of illnesses, within a few days of his brother Barry.

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