I remember the last time I saw Barry Cowsill in person. It was in November, 1970, the day after Thanksgiving, I think. While most of the civilized world was finishing up that first official shopping day of the “me” decade, I (the clueless eleven-year-old) was tagging along with my sister and her boyfriend to see Barry, his siblings and his Mom Barbara perform as the first family of Sixties pop, The Cowsills, at the old Louisville Convention Center, which sat facing the equally old Walnut Street.
Those of us who know there wasn’t always a Louisville Gardens or a Mohammed Ali Boulevard will probably remember Barry’s tenure as wunderkind bassist for The Cowsills and the pure pop ecstasy he contributed on Sixties classis like “Indian Lake,” “Hair” and “The Rain, The Park and Other Thinks.” As a fan since pre-puberty, the chance to meet him on the heels of his first-ever solo release, As Is, took on a search for enlightenment about what happened after the records stopped coming.
Venturing to his current residence of New Orleans, I caught up with Barry at a French Quarter establishment called, oddly enough, Kerry’s Irish Pub. I thought every Big Easy drinking establishment had a Cajun motif, but then there’s also no telling what the New Orleanians think about we Kentuckians, so we won’t go there.
Knowing that many childhood performers become completely different adults, I really didn’t know what to expect, but what I found was a down-to-earth, somewhat unassuming man who maintains a job, a family and a deep abiding love for the melting pot of American music. The fact that his teenage mug used to be plastered on the walls of many pre- and immediately post-pubescent teenage girls seemed irrelevant to him. In fact, trying to get him to put The Cowsills’ place in Sixties pop into historical perspective, Barry emphatically denies any connection stating, “Man, I’m no Sixties pop icon, I was just a kid who played bass and did what I was supposed to do.”
That may be so, but check out the two-million-selling single “Hair,” in which all Barry’s siblings (ages nine to 21) played and produced every sing note. Pay particular attention to the funky sophistication of 14-year-old Barry’s bass line which would be incredible at any age.
We discussed the early part of his career in his native Newport Rhode Island, when The Cowsills (then ages 10 to 17) developed a following on the local bar scene, which apparently included regular appearances at a Newport strip club. The obvious question is, how could kids that age get into a bar, much less play there? He answered by telling of a local school superintendent who worked a deal to allow Barry and his brothers to play, but only on Fridays and Saturdays. Cowsill added “Newport was a small (Navy) town, there were no hassles and besides this was 1965!”
The group’s fortunes didn’t skyrocket until future Woodstock promoter and hit songwriter Artie Kornfeld, along with manager/father Bud Cowsill, suggested mother Barbara join the group to record “The Rain, The Park and Other Things,” which broke The Cowsills’ nationally in 1967. Thus the family angle was born.
Probably the most notorious connection concerning The Cowsills is that they were the prototype for that family group sitcom of the early Seventies, The Partridge Family, which was initially to star Barry and his family. For much of 1969, many reptilian Hollywood producers were hanging out at the Cowsills’ Santa Monica, CA home, observing the kids, until one day they approached Bud Cowsill and announced a change in direction: “We want Shirley Jones to play the mother.”
I guess in retrospect this makes as much sense as, let’s say, seven people on a desert island not procreating, but according to Barry, his father’s reaction was a swift: “Either take all of us, or none of us!”
So The Cowsills missed their chance to get on the small screen, but the question remains what might have been if Barry’s father had accepted the offer to which he said, “No way man, I’m no actor. There’s no way I could ever do what David Cassidy does.”
“We got ripped off haughtily" Cowsill stated matter-of-factly. “Our accountant ended up running off with some of our money to Canada,” rationalizing that being taken advantage of was par for the course with late Sixties’ bands. The Cowsills sold an estimated 10 million plus units in the US alone, but once Barry became a legal adult and could collect his rightful earnings, “All that was left of my trust fund was $1800.”
So as I relax and watch this 44-year-old perform a chilling version of “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying,” I scan the patrons of Kerry’s Irish Pub and realize that most of them are oblivious to this guy’s past.
The most lasting impression I took away from this evening was that despite the many disappointments in his career, the Barry Cowsill I conversed with did not wear his past on his sleeve. His new CD, As Is, contains no theme of self-pity or second guessing, just straight ahead low-tech guitar-oriented rock that owes more to Neil Young and The Stones than to The Cowsills.
So where does he fit into the Sixties? He answers, “Man, I am the kid brother of the baby boom generation.” Considering how many rock casualties the baby boom generation has produced, this kid is definitely not one of them. He was just along for the ride; the “big brothers” were doing the navigating.