Quite a few groups from the '60s have done reunion tours, attempting a comeback. While most have been well-received, on the whole it's just been a rehashing of the hits - a nostalgic look at the old days. One notable exception is the '90s incarnation of the Cowsills. Like the phoenix arising from the ashes, they are ready to soar again, musically reborn, full of energy and enthusiasm.
On Tuesday, July 3rd, the Cowsills played their first concert together in 20 years at Zanzibar in Boston. The place was packed with fans eagerly anticipating their return. Celebrities such as Paula Abdul, John Stamos and Beach Boys were in attendance.
The Cowsills opened the show with their first #1 hit, 1967's "The Rain, The Park and Other Things." The harmonies were fresh, the music was tight, and the crowd reacted predictable. What wasn't quite so predictable as the rest of the concert. They played the hits - and played them well - but the majority of the show focused on new material. Their originals were strong and full of hooks, and by the second chorus of most songs, you could see people singing along. Their sound wasn't the characteristic pop sound that they were famous for, although elements of it remained (mainly the emphasis on the vocals). It was a more mature, gutsy rock & roll sound that grabbed you and shook you.
I spoke with the Cowsills (Bob, Paul, John, Susan and bassist Cecil Duke) at their hotel on Tuesday morning before the show.
The obvious first question is, how did this reunion all come about?
Susan: It came about because our brother John was playing with Jan and Dean for five dollar a night as a side guy.
Paul: So here he is, playing to thousands and thousands of people, and he's singing Cowsill tunes and getting a good response! And John's just sitting there going, "Man, this is crazy." So he was just dropping the line around to everybody. You know, "Hey, we gotta do this, we gotta do this!". And for a while, the response back to John was "Oh, man, no way, no way." Bob and Susan got on Entertainment Tonight and the girls say, "Hey can you guys think about getting back together?" and everybody goes, "Absolutely not. It's just not gonna happen." In matter of a month, we were practically back together again.
Bob: There's been so many oldies groups that everyone thinks they've all come back, but we're gonna create our own bandwagon, 'cos we're doing stuff that's new! We were just kids back then! So we're adults doing different music.
Do you think that the old image will hurt in attracting a new crowd?
Paul: I think that it's been so long that it's irrelevant.
Especially when you were kids at the time.
Paul: Absolutely! I mean, here we are getting reamed out many, many times since then about this image thing. Well, how can you plant images and ream on kids that were making music - and truly making music - playing their instruments, singing their vocals, and the ages of 7 to 17? And writing it. It was a bunch of kids doing a bunch of kid stuff. So now, as far as the image coming up to this place, it's not gonna happen. We're old people, and if our old fans come to our show, they're gonna love our new stuff
Bob: And they were nerdy little kids when we were nerdy little kids.
Paul: When these people come to our show, we're gonna do like 17 songs, and all we have are five hits. We're gonna do the hits, and then do the real music, the real stuff, the stuff that means so much to us.
Bob: Five's enough! That's a third of the show, and that's plenty. Unless you have bad original material. They're going, "Well, they sure were good in the old days."
So this is not so much of a nostalgia trip as it is a vehicle to ...
Susan: A reformation of a band, that's all it is. A band that's back together now. And look, we're addressing our past, and tipping our hat to it. I mean, we know what we were.
Bob: I don't want to live on what we've done. The appeal to me was new material. We recorded new material, it sounds great. We love it, we're inspired by it .. and, you know, shopping a record deal ...
(Bob burst out laughing and points to the copy of the movie Spinal Tap, which is sitting on the table next to Susan. It's a running gag with them, and periodically throughout the interview they break into mock English accents and take on Spinal characters. This is, they say jokingly, their Spinal Tap tour.)
Tell me about the new material.
Bob: We love it. It's good music. We're thrilled with it.
Paul: I think the songs, structurally speaking, are better put together than the old music, but the vocals are still there. The songs are more rockin' than "Indian Lake"! It's kind of us - gray on the sides.
Susan: It's 1990 and so are we.
Who's writing, who's producing?
Bob: Pretty much, I'm producing. Cecil helped me on "Some Good Years." People have told me "Tom Petty meets Fleetwood Mac," I've heard "The Byrds twelve years later" ... you know, the Cowsills grown up. 'Cos we're still into the vocals, and the harmonies are still happening. So now we're shopping. We're at record companies, they love it. Their initial feedback is like, "This is happening."
Cecil, you were a recording engineer, and you started working with Bob?
Cecil: My wife Wendy introduced me to Bob, and from the first time we met, we hit it off, and I kind of helped Bob get back into the studio at that point. So we started working together. And when this come about ... eventually the whole family is trying to get back together. Barry, the bass player who was raised with them, will be back.
On Good Morning America, you said that Bill and Barry will be contributing to the album?
Susan: They will indeed. That's confirmed.
And they will join you at some point? What have they been doing?
John: Making a lot of phone calls! Like eight in one day!
Bob: When I first talked to Bill, he goes "Oh Bob, I don't know. That's cool and all, but I don't know if I'm into resurrecting old dinosaurs." But now he's making a lot of phone calls. 'Cos I talked to him last night, and he saw Good Morning America and he just like analyzed - he just went through it and he's just in love with everybody again. So it's good. We wish everyone was here tonight, but you know, we're the core four. That's why we're here and they're not. Because we're just setting the pace and getting the trail blazed. We're the ones with the hatchets going left and right.
John: We're the ones dealing with rejection, basically.
Susan: We're dealing with all the business so they can just come in and play.
How do you feel about the old days, and how did you, as teens and younger, deal with the fame and the eventual fall from it?
Bob: I have no problems with the old days. I'm glad that we had the ride that we had. At the time, I didn't have too much fun. It' s just my Dad, trying to keep eight dogs on a leash, and all the dogs want to do is - you know, you take that dog for a walk, he's drooling ... if he'd just raise his neck and walk, he could've enjoyed this. That's how I was.
How did you deal with the aftermath?
Bob: You wanna know something? I was this high up, and a month after it ended I had my first day job sweeping the garage (John and Susan start singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" behind Bob.) I was sweeping a garage! That's all I had to do.
Paul: I went from the band all the way down to the Navy, and that's a long way down! I enjoyed getting out of the house, and then I got to boot camp, and I realized the old feeling of that house wasn't nearly as bad as that barrack. It was ugly! It was horrible! (He leans forward and speaks very deliberately into the tape recorder) Do Not Join The Navy!
Bob: There are times when your bills are stacked up on the table, and just for a brief moment you're looking and you go, "You know, if he had only opened a trust fund .... It would've been terrific." But you get over it. What are you gonna do, be depressed all your life?
Paul: Everybody's got bills.
John: (In Spinal Tap mode) We're professionals. We rise above it.
Bob: (Lifting videotape) That's exactly what I was thinking.
Ready to hit it again
What have you been doing between then and now? (To Susan) I know that you were singing with Dwight Twilley, and sang backup on his hit "Girls."
Susan: Yes, I did. Me and Tom (Petty). For like twelve years I did all his backups. Before this went down, and during and after it - and we all will probably do this in one form or another - I had a solo thing going on. I'm a singer - I'm going to sing.
Bob: Sure, we'll all do that.
I hear you're playing as well.
Susan: I play guitar now. I'm very proud of myself about that.
Paul: When I got out of the Navy, I became a sound engineer. Sound reinforcement is really what it's called. Then I became road manager for Helen Reddy, and then after that I got into construction because the kids came, and it was time to feed them, and that feels good! Did a lot of coaching of Little League, football, basketball ... And about two weeks ago I woke up, quit that job, and I'm doing this now.
John: I've always just kept playing. And I'm happily married, and my wife's name is Val, and we're expecting our first baby on November 11th.
Bob: I basically just disappeared for a number of years, just worked regular jobs, had five children, but I always stayed active in the music part of it from the late '70s on. When this thing we were gonna do in the late '70s failed (an aborted reunion - the record companies said the time wasn't right), I worked with a guy named Peter Bunch, submitted to labels, got turned down by everybody. And then I did it alone, and I started playing at a pub, and Susan ended up joining me there. Then I met Cecil Duke and he and I worked great in the studio together. So when this thing surfaces ... then I cased it out, and you get the sense that the business is more receptive now.
(Among the absent members, Bill has been in Canada for the last 15 years, playing and producing, and Barry is currently living in Monterey with his wife and two young children. Bob's twin Dick is on Long Island, and their Dad is in Mexico. Their Mom, Barbara, died in 1985.)
It's been five years since your Mom died. Have you done, or do you intend on doing a tribute to her like "Father" on the album II x II?
Bob: You know, this whole thing is like a tribute because she wanted this to happen someday, and she never got to see it. But "Some Good Years" is the specific tune of like, "The past is the past, good things happened, bad things happened, move on." You know if "Some Good Years" goes out and gets a Grammy ... We're up there, you know, we dedicate it to Mom, and everybody's gonna cry, it's gonna be awesome.
Do you still have family around Rhode Island that you see?
John: Biggie! We were there all day yesterday. You want to go to that best restaurant in Newport, RI? Go to Yesterdays!
Paul: We spent a lot of time with our Gramma Helen. They even have Helen Russell day in Providence. It was good to see everybody.
Any final thoughts?
John: Any Spinal thoughts?
Bob: Tell everyone that we're thrilled to be back, and we love that they love it.
John: Final thoughts would be that for me, gee, it would be nice for this to all glue together like we all hope it will.
Bob: See you on the charts.
If what I saw Tuesday night is any indication, I'd bet on it.