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.

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