When you're a Boston rocker in Los Angeles, trying to find a great pop band can be a thankless task. (Finding a lousy metal band is easy.) But one night I lucked into the band of my dreams. They had a classic pop-guitar sound, and harmonies to die for. They had a woman up front whose stage manner won your heart, and whose voice broke it. They had a guy on guitar who wrote irresistibly hooky songs, with simple-but-meaningful lyrics about love and its pitfalls. All told, they were right up there with the Smithereens, Shoes, dB's, and all the other pop-as-art bands I'd loved over the years.
And here's the catch: that band were the Cowsills. Yes the Cowsills, that singing family from Newport, Rhode Island, who hit big in the late '60s with "The Rain, the Park & Other Things" and "Indian Lake," and whose sound and story were ripped off by whoever dreamed up the Partridge Family.
The new Cowsills are four of the younger sibs from the original group: Susan sings, Bob's on guitar and co-lead vocals, John's on drums, and Paul's on keyboards. (Of the other original Cowsills, brothers Bill and Barry no longer work with the group; mom Barbara died a few years back.) This current version — who make a rare local appearance Tuesday night, as part of Avalon's "Lost 45s Against AIDS" show — don't do nostalgia tours and almost never play oldies (save for "Hair" as an occasional encore), but they can still plug into the giddy good vibes of days gone by. So here we have a '60s bubblegum act (albeit a pretty cool one) coming back to life as a modern pop band, more than 20 years later; and most of them are still younger than the Ramones. In the entire history of rock and roil, nothing like this has ever happened.
"The best-case scenario is that people will come to see us without even knowing what we used to do," said Bob Cowsiil last week from his adopted LA home. "If people are going to have this vision flashing in their brains of Susan as a seven-year-old kid, it's hard to equate it with the woman she is now. We have to visually and aurally transfer people to today; that's a challenge we face every time. We thought about changing our name, but that would be too much like wussing out."
So you may be wondering why the Cowsills are playing the Avalon show, which includes such campy names from the past as Bo Donaldson, Tony DeFranco, and the Captain & Tennflle (along with a legit oldies star, Mark Lindsay from Paul Revere & the Raiders). Turns out they're friends with WBOS's Lost 45s mastermind Barrv Scott who produced their first, low-profile comeback show two years ago at Zanzibar. "That show gave us the confidence to continue; to go back to Los Angeles and enter the fray as a local band. LA intimidated us, to be honest. There was such an oldies revival going on that we lived in constant fear of being associated with it"
They will, however, make an exception and play some oldies at the Avalon show — though they'll also feature the new songs they've been playing on the LA circuit. (Likely new choices include "Cross That Line," with its four-part harmonies and a cappella intro, and "Rescue," a rocker that I played to some friends at a Christmas parry last year. They thought it was a Neil Young outtake.) "We're all suckers for a benefit, but that's the only rime we play old songs," says Bob. "Will it set our image back? I doubt it. But it doesn't mean we're going to start playing Dick Clark road shows."
In Los Angeles, the band are better known as part of an alternative-pop circuit that also includes groups like Redd Kross and the Continental Drifters. Consider this reaction from Peter Holsapple, the ex-dB's leader and R.E.M. collaborator. "I saw one of the first Cowsills gigs at Club Lingerie, and I was just floored, because there's nobody in LA who can sing like that," he told me last week from his West Coast home. "I was in a state of shock that this was allegedly the same band who gave us 'We Can Fly.' They're in it for all the right reasons."
Holsapple has since become a friend and part-time member of the band; and, yes, __________________ And the connections go on: Susan and ex-Bangle Vicki Peterson also have a duo act called the Psycho Sisters; both Psychos and Holsapple are members of the Continental Drifters, who did a recent single on Bob Mould's SOL label. Susan sang on the last Steve Wynn and Redd Kross albums; all four Cowsills are on the last Smithereens disc. (Last year the Drifters had a Tuesday-night residency at Raji's — which you might call Hollywood's answer to the Middle East — where most of the above names appeared on a weekly basis.) Meanwhile, Barry Cowsill, who lives in New Orleans, has wrapped up his own album with Holsapple producing.
Who does Bob Cowsill think are the group's most likely fans nowadays? "People who were upset when Fleetwood Mac broke up. People who are tired of not finding anything good on the radio and are starved for well-written, well-sung, power-pop songs. And the college audience is going to love us. The Smithereens and the Rembrandts both tried to break that door down, but they only got so far. We know you can only get one shot, so we want to do it right."
In terms of getting signed, the band's history has been a mixed blessing at best. This was proven about a yearago, when they nearly got signed to Atlantic; their A&R man circulated the tape around the office without revealing who if was. "I know for a fact that Atlantic was going to sign us. But once they knew it was the Cowsills, that was it — even after they thought the music was good enough to go ahead and sign. I understand people not wanting to take the risk, but we hear that kind of thing all the time — lawyers saying, 'I don't want to hear your tape,' without even knowing how it sounds."
They went ahead and recorded an album on their own and are about to do some serious label-shopping. This isn't the first reunion the group have tried. They were together for a short time in 1979-'80, when an album was completed and never released. That project was cancelled when producer Chuck Plotkin was lured away by another artist, whose name was Bruce Springsteen. "We were calling ourselves the Secrets then. Some of the late-'70s tapes sound great to me, but the time just wasn't right. So if you ask what I've been doing for the last 10 years, I'd say, 'Learning to write a friggin' song.' I figure that as far as songwriting goes, I'm at least a graduate or a PhD by now."
How does Bob feel about those old Cowsills records? "We're certainly not embarrassed by anything we did as children. I think "The Rain, the Park & Other Things' has stood the test of time. Even 'Indian Lake," which I really used to hate, was a great summer song, and 'Hair' had a great vocal arrangement. I always hate the phrase 'Back in the '60s' — but back in the '60s, we were fighting the same battles with record companies that we're fighting now. We wanted to get more creative, and they had some kind of idea about what the Cowsills should be. We didn't fit in with Motown and acid rock, just like we don't fit in with rap and metal today. But for a bunch of kids turned loose in the candy store, we didn't do too badly."