Friday, April 30, 2010

"The Rain, The Park and Other Things" by The Cowsills

"The Rain, The Park & Other Things" by The Cowsills
MGM Records K-13810, released 1967

Back around Memorial Day of 2007, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a week-long series of features by Joel Selvin about the 40-years-previous Summer of Love that made the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets a shorthand phrase known throughout the world. It is ironic that the Chronicle, or the San Francisco Examiner or Oakland Tribune for that matter, would find much about the Summer of Love to be nostalgic for, considering how critical all three papers were of it while it was actually taking place in 1967. There was a reason why the most popular newspaper in the Haight-Ashbury district that year was the Berkeley Barb.

There were two hit records that year that particularly touched upon the idyllic image of the female hippie, in blue jeans, long flowing hair and flower behind the ear.

If one preferred blondes, that image could easily have been personified by drive-in movie star Cheryl Smith (often billed as Rainbeaux Smith, a pseudonym that she came to detest, but that’s another post);

if one preferred brunettes, the image could just have easily fit nude model Roberta Pedon. (Yes, I know, both Smith and Pedon were 1970s pop culture figures who were still in elementary or junior high school in 1967, but, as the photos here display, the image still fits their images. And if you can think of a redheaded equivalent to either of these two, let me know.)

One of the hit records was released that summer, but it didn’t relate itself to Haight-Ashbury per se. That was “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls are Coming to The Canyon)” by The Mamas & The Papas, specified canyon being Laurel Canyon, the area of Los Angeles where the group members resided. The other was merely cut that summer but not released on record until the autumn, reaching #1 on the Cash Box singles chart the week of November 25, between the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s “Incense and Peppermints” and The Monkees’ “Daydream Believer.” The song was titled “The Rain, The Park and Other Things,” and the group performing it was a Rhode Island family band, teenagers and their mom, called The Cowsills.

Originally, The Cowsills had been four brothers – Bill, Bob, Barry and John – who went around to school dances and church socials playing Beatles tunes. They also cut a single for a local label, Joda, in 1965. They eventually scored a regular gig at a club called Bannister's Wharf in Newport, the community where the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals were based. One day, while in town to cover the folk fest, a producer for NBC's Today morning show stopped by Bannister's Wharf, and in doing so caught part of a Cowsills performance. The producer arranged to have them appear on Today, after which they got a recording deal with Philips, whose sister label Mercury was already raking in a lot of money with the stylized teenage angst of the great Lesley Gore. Philips thought, if it worked for Lesley, why not these kids?

Their producer was one Artie Kornfeld, who'd also been a songwriter on the side. The Cowsills cut three singles for Philips, all of which stiffed. Kornfeld was still convinced that the Cowsills could hit, and, independent of Philips, set up recording sessions whereby studio musicians laid down a musical bed and The Cowsills, by this time including their mother Barbara, overdubbed vocals. Philips cut The Cowsills from their roster, so Kornfeld went to another label where he had contacts, M-G-M. Leo's Den was itself in flux, partly because it didn't know whether it wanted to be a primarily rock-based label with a strong Country presence (it had been the home of Hank Williams, who was still selling in quantity over a decade after his death) and a few jazz and easy listening artists (Errol Garner of the former group, Merv Griffin the latter) or emphasize the jazz and comedy albums coming out on their subsidiary label, Verve (originally a Norman Granz project that had more recently had success with comics Shelley Berman and Jonathan Winters).

The song Kornfeld had produced with The Cowsills and peddled to M-G-M was “The Rain, The Park & Other Things.” The title fit the unorthodox period it was recorded in. Lifting an idea from the great Broadway musical Brigadoon (which, fittingly, had in turn become one of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's greatest movies in the previous decade), by way of “The Twilight Zone” (which had also been filmed for CBS on M-G-M's Culver City lot), it tells the fantasy of a boy who falls for a girl he spots in a park during a gentle rain. She takes his hand, and they walk through the park in the rain, but when the sun breaks through and the rain stops, she vanishes. All he's left with is one of the flowers from her hair and a memory of a beautiful ghost.

“The Rain, The Park & Other Things” gave the Cowsills quite a career for a couple of years. Eventually, they added the only daughter of the family, Susan, and youngest brother Paul to assist Mom on the high end vocals. They were at one point the best-selling act on M-G-M, ahead of Eric Burdon & The Animals, Roy Orbison and Herman’s Hermits, the latter of which had actually pulled ahead of The Beatles in 1965 as the top-selling rock band in the U.S. market. The Cowsills popped up on a ton of variety and talk shows – Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, eventually their own NBC special. They became the commercial spokespeople for the American Dairy Association, and even cut the opening theme tune for one of ABC’s biggest hit comedies of the period, “Love American Style.” (This was somewhat unusual, since that series was a Paramount Television production that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had nothing to do with; that's probably the reason that, when M-G-M Records finally issued that recording commercially, it was dumped onto the B-side of a single.) Predictably, on the covers of 16 and Tiger Beat magazines, the Cowsill boys replaced previous attractions The Monkees and Sajid Khan, the co-star of the (M-G-M) movie and TV series “Maya,” should you have forgotten him in the last 40 years.

The Cowsills were even approached by Screen Gems, the television wing of Columbia Pictures, to become the stars of their own sitcom. Negotiations were underway for the sitcom when someone at Screen Gems decided that Barbara Cowsill wasn't right to play herself, and that Shirley Jones should take over that role. This immediately scotched the idea for The Cowsills; Screen Gems simply replaced The Cowsills with a batch of similar-looking kids (including Jones' real-life stepson David Cassidy), plugged in comedian Dave Madden (then a regular on “Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In” on NBC), and renamed the project “The Partridge Family,” concocting yet another teen idol act that had the longest run of the lot (four seasons on ABC and Columbia/Screen Gems' record label Bell).

Perhaps the strangest television appearance the group made was on Hugh Hefner's syndicated after-hours “Mansion party” (on a stage at CBS Television City), PLAYBOY AFTER DARK. There was a legitimate reason for the tie-in; Bob Cowsill had married Playboy centerfold model Nancy Harwood. Before the group performed, Hef was introduced by Nancy to her new in-laws, including little Susan. This led to a moment that, to today's sensibilities, seems almost cringe-worthy: Hef asks Susan what she wants to be when she grows up, and Susan replies, "Would you believe Miss February?" Perhaps it's worth remembering that Susan's new sister-in-law had been Miss February 1968, and that Susan was likely complimenting Nancy. In any event, it was a moment in television history that just didn't age well.

Within three years of that mirage in the rain, however, the career burnt out. Producer Artie Kornfeld moved on to being one of the creators of the Woodstock Festival. The rock snobs who dumped on The Monkees for being hyped by 16 and Tiger Beat magazines began doing the same to The Cowsills for much the same reason. It didn’t matter that The Cowsills indeed usually played their own instruments on the records and The Monkees, at least in the beginning (because of the TV series filming demands), didn’t; they were getting tarred with the same broad brush as being disposable pop singers pumping out disposable pop music. Matters weren't helped when father-manager Bud Cowsill caught Bill smoking marijuana and immediately bounced him from the act. This left Bob Cowsill without a creative and songwriting partner and damaged the act terribly.

Even their own record label, M-G-M, tossed them out on their collective backside in one of the most cynical acts of business ever perpetrated in showbiz history. The newly-appointed head of the company, politically conservative Mike Curb, decided he wanted to rid M-G-M of the so-called “drug music” that the company made money with only a couple of years before. So they dropped such acts as The Ultimate Spinach (allegedly because the band’s name was slang for marijuana), The Mothers of Invention (led by the distinctly anti-drug Frank Zappa) and, citing their 1968 hit single “We Can Fly” as an allegedly drug-influenced title, The Cowsills. Validity be damned, it was a simple way for Curb to cut the deadwood from the roster and buy political brownie points in the process. Curb was loudly congratulated by slimy Vice President Spiro Agnew, then on his own slimy anti-counterculture campaign (aided and abetted by speechwriter Pat Buchanan), and when Walter Cronkite reported it all on the “CBS Evening News,” one of the two song titles he cited in the story was “We Can Fly.” The Cowsills managed to get another record deal, this time with London Records, with Bill back in the group, but the damage was done. (Ironically, the entire Philips, M-G-M and London output of The Cowsills now rests in the vaults of one conglomerate, Universal Music.) 16 and Tiger Beat moved on to Curb’s new M-G-M protégés, The Osmonds, and David Cassidy. A year after having a #1 hit record with their version of the title song from the Broadway musical Hair, Bob Cowsill found himself taking a job as custodian of a Los Angeles parking garage.

Cut forward to New Orleans, December 28, 2005. A badly decomposed body washed ashore at the Chartres Street Wharf. It was that of Barry Cowsill. He and Susan Cowsill had both been living in New Orleans for several years when Hurricane Katrina hit. Susan and her husband, musician Russ Broussard, survived the storm in Oklahoma but their home and belongings were mostly destroyed. Barry was determined to have drowned in the flooding of New Orleans after the levees failed; Barry had left messages on Susan's voice mail but wasn't heard again after September 1st. A memorial service for Barry was scheduled in Newport on February 18, 2006. The day before that service, Bill Cowsill died of emphysema (among other ailments) in his adopted home of Calgary, Alberta; emphysema had also claimed the life of Barbara Cowsill in 1985.

Perhaps, if you feel a little nostalgic for the Summer of Love in the next few months, this story, including one of the thousands of lives that had been taken by Katrina, will lead you to reflect on the snobbish concept of disposable popular culture. You may find that the culture, and the people creating it, aren’t as disposable as you used to think.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

"Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday

“Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday
Sonet Records [Sweden] SXP 2800, 45 RPM Extended Play
Originally recorded for Commodore Records [USA] on 20 March 1939
Rerecorded several times by Holiday, mainly for Mercury and Norman Granz’s various labels of the period (Norgran, Clef and Verve)

Nightmare in darkest blue.

If I had to describe the experience of my first listening to that song, those would be the words I'd use, as it indeed gave me nightmares for a solid week, it was so terrifying. I find myself having to consider this song to be the perfect one to play sometime Halloween night. The difference between it and the rest of the contenders is that this song was inspired by an actual act of terror that was documented with photographs and newspaper accounts at the time. No "Purple People Eater" or Alice Cooper concoction, this.

The song is "Strange Fruit."

I first heard it on my mono Sears Silvertone phonograph one twilight evening in the summer of 1972, when I was 11 years old. I was then living with my dad and grandparents in Nordheim, the northernmost neighbourhood of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. My tastes in music were beginning to expand from the pop tunes of The Grass Roots and the occasional Paul McCartney & Wings 45 into many more swing and bebop sides. This was largely my father's doings; a jazz lover, he would agree to listen to records I really liked if I also listened to his favourites from the '30s and '40s, the time of his childhood. Thus, while he started digging Three Dog Night, I became a latter-day pubescent bebopper who'd sing Charlie Ventura’s “Ha!” while walking home from school.

At the same time, I was becoming aware of what was going on in the world. Vietnam was still a hot issue, including the protests and a riot or two at Wisconsin State University-Oshkosh (as it was still called). My dad was a boxing fiend and in the last weeks of his pseudoconservativism, so I'd still sometimes hear about how Cassius Clay (he insisted on using the guy's earlier name) deserved to be knocked on his ass by Joe Frazier. Thankfully, that rightward leaning didn't last long after mid-'72; after taking a good, close look at how Richard Nixon was handling the Vietnam War, Dad got disgusted with the Republicans and by '73 he was one of the relatively few people with a "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for McGovern" bumper sticker on his car who'd actually voted for the man. (As I recall, it was once determined that there were about 5,000 more of those stickers distributed than there were actual votes recorded for George McGovern in 1972, such being the effect of the Watergate scandal.)

This was also the year that "Lady Sings the Blues," the biopic about the '40s jazz singer Billie Holiday came out, and Diana Ross was getting local radio airplay of her version of "Good Morning Heartache," a song with which Holiday was closely associated. I recalled that Dad had a copy of a Holiday LP, The Best of Billie Holiday, in his collection. It was, I'd later learn, a compilation mainly of remakes of earlier successes she'd cut in the late '40s or early '50s for producer Norman Granz, whose ‘50s output was appearing on reissues of the Verve label by ‘72. Almost all of these tunes, as it turned out, were first hits on Columbia, OKeh or Decca, but Dad didn't have those LPs, just this one.

I took a listen to the version of "Good Morning Heartache" that was on this Holiday album. I don't recall being overly impressed one way or the other by it at the time, but I was sufficiently intrigued to listen to the whole LP. As the thing played on, I laid back on my bed and started reading a book, probably one of those seemingly jillion Fawcett paperback collections of Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" comics that I was crazy about at the time. After a few minutes, the last song on side two of this LP started pouring out of the phonograph. The lyrics traveling through the air and into my ears and brain caught me off guard; by the end of the record, I was quite literally stunned.

"Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Pastoral scene of the Gallant South, bulging eyes and the twisted mouth. Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh, then the sudden smell of burning flesh. Here is fruit for the crows to pluck, for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, for the sun to rot, for the trees to drop. Here is a strange and bitter crop." Sung to the most mournful melody and arrangement (just a piano, trumpet and electric guitar) I'd ever encountered.

I recall putting the book down and simply staring at the phonograph, playing the track a second and third time to make sure I'd heard what I thought I'd heard. A few days earlier, I was going through a batch of old Life and Look magazines my grandfather had saved from the '40s and '50s and came across an illustrated piece on the lynchings of people who were then politely referred to as “Negroes.” It was probably published in the wake of the Emmett Till lynching, as I vaguely recall photos of him were included. I was capable of immediately making the connection between those photographs and these lyrics.

I felt as if someone had just applied a Louisville Slugger to my ribs. I recall sitting up but unable to move much further for about four or five minutes, then taking the record off the phonograph, putting it into its sleeve and taking it back to Dad's room, all in distinctly slow motion. Dad noticed my manner of movement and asked what was wrong. I told him I'd just heard "Strange Fruit."
"That'll do it," he responded.

Perhaps contributing to my dazed state was the copy of that album I was listening to. Throughout the 1960s, when this LP had been made, the major U.S. record companies were hell bent on phasing out monaural records and only issuing stereophonic records, which had become the norm on LP by 1968 and 45s by 1971. To accomplish this, all the big companies were taking their old monaural masters and "electrically rechanneling" them into stereo, as they liked to think of it. Some companies, like Capitol, added echo chamber and/or time delay to their sides; Capitol's process was dubbed by them "Duophonic," and while it sometimes made The Beatles sound a little more interesting, it made Stan Kenton's versions of "September Song" and "Laura" insufferable. Others, like Columbia, were content to boost bass on one channel and treble on the other, which made Ravi Shankar's recordings for that label excruciating to experience in that manner. And yet others -- like M-G-M, which had acquired Verve by then -- did both, as with this Billie Holiday compilation. Listening to it on a stereo phonograph was bad enough; listening to it on a mono Silvertone gave it an added eeriness that I can best compare to Elvis Presley's semi-yodel on his recording of "Blue Moon." And, of course, though both recordings were cut in 1956, the lyrics Elvis sang were nowhere as gruesome as Billie’s; and whereas Elvis sang in his strongest voice that year, Billie was only three years away from her death, her voice having been ravaged by time and multiple forms of abuse.

Those lyrics Billie sang had been written by a Jewish (not African-American as some still assume) teacher at New York's DeWitt Clinton High School named Abel Meeropol, who had first published the lyric under the pseudonym Lewis Allan in the January 1937 edition of his labour union's periodical, the New York Teacher. His immediate inspiration for writing the lyric had been an infamous photograph of a 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana, showing the bodies of victims Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp hanging from limbs of a tree, above the heads of dozens of white observers. The illustrator of the Sonet EP jacket appears to have had knowledge of that original photo of the Marion incident.

As fate would have it, in the 1990s I became personally acquainted with the man who had been the only surviving victim of the Marion lynching, James Cameron. By 1995, Mr. Cameron had become the curator of America's Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, to which I had contributed some antique materials to be exhibited, mainly racist stereograph slides from the 1890s that my grandparents had owned. On the day I delivered those items to Mr. Cameron, he was extremely gracious and insisted on giving me a personal tour of the museum and its archives. One wall was completely covered with the photograph of the lynching. In the photograph, one man in particular points with his left hand to one of the bodies while glaring directly at the camera; his image is definitely the clearest of the dozen or so onlookers in the foreground. I asked Mr. Cameron if he knew who that man was. Mr. Cameron responded that he had never seen that man before or since that photograph, and that, in the research he undertook for his autobiography, A Time of Terror, nobody still residing in Marion in the 1970s could identify who that man was, either. It was not until Mr. Cameron's death several years later that I realised, from reading one of his Milwaukee newspaper obituaries, the direct connection between the Marion lynching and Abel Meeropol's song.

“Strange Fruit” is perhaps the one song that is, to this day, most closely associated with Holiday, in no small measure because, for many years, hers were the only recordings that record buyers could find of it. Of relatively contemporary recordings to the Holiday original, there does exist a striking instrumental version that Sidney Bechet, the past master of the soprano saxophone, cut for RCA Victor’s Bluebird subsidiary label in 1943. Brilliant as Bechet’s interpretation was, the radioactive aura surrounding the Holiday original on Commodore, and the lyrics that Holiday voiced but Bechet dispensed with, spooked Nipper so badly that the Bechet version wasn’t released commercially for many years, and then mainly on European singles pressed by His Master’s Voice (later known as EMI), Victor’s then-affiliate across the Atlantic. Josh White also did a memorable folk version of the song, which, to hear White tell it, once led Holiday to threaten to kill him one night when both were booked into the pioneering ethnically-integrated New York nightclub Café Society. Of course, performers as diverse in style as Nina Simone, Sting, Jeff Buckley and Dee Dee Bridgewater have tried the song on for size. Bridgewater eventually discontinued it, being too taxing on her spirit, but once reluctantly resurrected it at a birthday party for Max Roach, at Roach’s specific request.

Of the most recent recordings, my personal favourites are the rare Tori Amos cut of it, and the grunge rock version by The Twilight Singers. Amos recorded her version in a Lee Strasberg-like manner at her New Mexico home studio one morning at 5:30 A.M., still travelling through the fog of the waking hour and refusing to even drink any water before the recording lest her voice wasn’t properly strained and vulnerable. The woman quite literally got out of her bed, turned on the recorder, walked over to the piano and cut a single take of “Strange Fruit.” As I understand it, Amos still refuses to perform the song in concert.

As for the Twilight Singers version, it’s on their 2004 album of cover versions, She Loves You. Interestingly, although that album uses the title of The Beatles’ most shimmeringly bright pop song, no Lennon-McCartneyisms are present among the tracks; among the titles that are present are “Summertime,” also strongly associated with Billie Holiday, and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.”

In the years since, the song has taken on an added significance to the LesBiGayTrans communities, far beyond the coincidence that the performer most closely associated with the song, Billie Holiday, was herself a bisexual woman. In 1977, film and theatrical producer Marc Huestis revised the song's lyric to apply to LGBT characters and made it the title piece to his film and poetry show "Strange Fruit" at the San Francisco Gay Community Center. And the original has surfaced in the repertoires of several gay male and lesbian vocal groups and choruses, one of which, the Champaign, Illinois-based Amasong, was given a Gay & Lesbian American Music Award in 1998 for their four-part a capella recording of it.

Interestingly, prior to his death, Meeropol himself had not liked the idea of updating the song with more contemporary arrangements, like the ska version UB40 has done in concert, or the impressionist ones Siouxsie & The Banshees and The Cocteau Twins cut in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the last of which is a particularly horrifying performance in its own right. Meeropol believed that the song was so heavily rooted in the 1930s that its staging should stay in the 1930s. I disagree. In Mystery Train, Greil Marcus memorably writes of the terror he imagined would befall a lone driver motoring through the Mojave Desert one ’73 midnight when, for the very first time, s/he hears the bass pattern that starts off The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” pour out of his/her radio. That may have been the most powerful fright when Brother Marcus wrote his tome, but nowadays The Tempts would be left in the dust of the Cocteau Twins’ “Strange Fruit.”

A divergence here about the Temptations record. There exists an aircheck tape of a Larry Lujack WCFL Chicago radio show from November 1973 on the day when a jumbo jet slammed into some houses on Chicago’s south side. Lujack was a disc jockey renowned for his being the ultimate grouch, in direct contrast to the upbeat performance styles then preferred by most Top 40 programmers. A little of Lujack’s industrial-strength sourcasm is heard in the beginning of the aircheck, but it is obliterated by a news bulletin about the plane crash that includes a description by an eyewitness. There is no “SuperCFL” jingle separating the bulletin and the next record, just the abrupt beginning of – you guessed it – the bass pattern of The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” That does remain what I suspect would be the best aural illustration of the effect Marcus was writing about.

But back now to “Strange Fruit.” I was reminded of it in October 2009, when, in my "Out Front" LesBiGayTrans news capsule podcast of the time, I announced that the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act had been passed by the U.S. Senate and was physically placed on President Obama's desk to be signed eleven years and eleven days after Shepard had died. Eyebrows were raised when I made reference in that piece to Shepard having been lynched, I suspect because most people only consider African- and Jewish-Americans to have been the victims of lynchings. Not so; the largest mass lynching took place in New Orleans in the 1880s, with all of the victims having been of Italian heritage. That incident went a long way in explaining Frank Sinatra's strong support of African-American civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s; "They weren't the only ones at the end of those ropes," Sinatra was repeatedly quoted. In Shepard's case, the perpetrators tying his body on that Laramie fence as a public display fit the customary aftermath of a historical lynching, leaving the victim to be a visual warning that their kind needed to stay in what the killers considered to be "their place."

That could very well explain why the song "Strange Fruit" is still capable of terrifying listeners past its almost unbearably grim tone and content. The locales and forms of lynching, and even the terms describing it, may have changed, but it is still happening in our lifetime, 70 years after Billie Holiday first recorded the song. The Strange Fruit is not an extinct crop.