Sunday, April 26, 2020

What is happy?: The Cowsills in concert

I listen to classical music almost exclusively now, but there was a time (as regular readers of this blog may have gathered) when I went to a lot of rock shows. A recent e-mail from a friend got me reminiscing about some of the memorable shows I've seen, and I started compiling a list. I'll spare you the full version, since reading about a great show you didn't attend is like hearing about a great party that you missed. But I thought that—aided by the collective memory of the internet—I would share my experience of the very first rock concert I attended:

The Cowsills, Music Circus, Lambertville, New Jersey, 5 September 1970

My age wasn't yet in double digits when, for a birthday present, my father took me to St. John Terrell's Music Circus outside of Lambertville, New Jersey, to see The Cowsills.

They were a major part of my musical universe at the time, along with The Beatles, The Monkees, The Archies, and The Fifth Dimension (my mother's favorite group). In 1970 I think I only owned perhaps three albums in total—$3.98 was a lot of money on a $0.10 weekly allowance, so my mother must have helped me out—and two of them were by The Cowsills: Captain Sad and His Ship of Fools and Best of. (The third? The Monkees' Headquarters.)

Captain Sad and his Ship of Fools, 1968. Image sources:

The Best of The Cowsills, 1968. Cover art by Jack Davis. Image source:

If you've never heard of The Cowsills, they were the toothy, clean-cut, real-life models for TV's The Partridge Family (which didn't start airing until a few weeks after the concert I attended). The real Cowsills were more talented than most of their TV avatars; for evidence, a truncated version of their hit "The Rain, The Park, and Other Things" from their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on 29 October 1967:

Dig 11-year-old drummer John's stick-twirling (at 0:20), the perfectly syncopated tambourine of 7-year-old Susan, who looks like she's having the time of her life, the cool violin bass of 13-year-old Barry, and the five-part backup vocals led by their mother Barbara. Eldest brother Bill is on lead guitar, and second-oldest brother Bob on keyboards; none of the children were yet out of their teens.

I know that as we grow older we can often be embarrassed by our first musical enthusiasms, and sure, the lyrics about the alluring but elusive Flower Girl are very much of their time. (The song was written by Artie Kornfeld and Steve Duboff; Kornfeld would go on to co-organize the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival.) But this song still sounds pretty great to me more than 50 years on, and their performance is charming. This configuration of the group isn't quite the one I saw; middle brother Paul would join the group in 1968, and in 1969 Bill would be kicked out by his father Bud, the group's manager.

The Music Circus concert was a surprise birthday present, so during the long drive across New Jersey with my father I was given no clue to where we were going. When we arrived and I saw the band's name on the roadside sign I was overwhelmed. This was my first concert, and it wasn't until we were pulling into the parking lot that I understood that attending a performance by a famous group was even possible. You could watch pop stars performing on TV and listen to their records, but didn't they inhabit their own realm apart from ordinary mortals? That for the price of a ticket anyone could share the same physical space with them and hear them play their music live was a brand-new idea for me.

My father being my father, we had left three hours early to make a one-hour drive, so we had time to kill. (Alas, I've inherited his neurotic anxiety about being late.) The Music Circus was a big-top tent (and a carousel!) set amid the pastureland of west Jersey; summer concerts began in the early evening, while it was still light, but we had arrived so early that the tent wasn't yet open. So we walked around to the back, where we encountered a crowd of girls, three or four years older than me, packed together at the dressing room door. Every time it would open a crack they would scream and make a rush for the door, which would hastily be shoved closed. I was completely baffled and dismayed by this behavior—why were they besieging the poor group?

The Music Circus in September 1968. Image source: St. John Terrell's Music Circus

My father, perhaps sensing my growing unease, suggested that we take a walk. We headed off across the fields surrounding the Music Circus, and soon the screaming girls were left behind. Ahead of us in the distance was an apparently deserted 19th-century farmhouse, and for lack of any other destination we walked towards it. But as we got closer I could hear the muffled sound of amplified instruments, growing louder. The band wasn't backstage after all—they were here, in the living room of this house now a few yards away, rehearsing for the concert.

If you're thinking that this is the story of how I met The Cowsills, I'm sorry to disappoint you. As soon as I realized where they were, I stopped dead in my tracks. My father urged me to climb the porch stairs and knock on the door, but that thought totally mortified me. The last thing I wanted to do was intrude on them. Unable to convince me to take a step further, my father finally gave up, took my hand and led me back to the big top, which was beginning to fill. It wouldn't be the last time I declined the chance to meet idols in the flesh.

I spent the time waiting for the band to come on stage looking through the concert program, which was 30 pages long and about the size of a record album, and which I kept as a treasured memento for many years afterward.

The Cowsills 1970 souvenir program cover. Image source: B.A. Presley's Cowsills site

As the tent slowly filled I found myself pretty much the only boy among about 2000 teenaged girls, who, when the lights went down and the band took the stage, began screaming nonstop: it was a terrifying, overwhelming wall of sound. The poor musicians pleaded with them to stop screaming and listen, to no avail. I was frightened and bewildered: why was the audience here if they didn't want to hear the band play? It was my introduction to the idea that pop concerts fulfill a variety of functions, many of them non-musical. In retrospect, I can see that for most of the audience, the concert was more of an occasion to scream en masse than to listen to the band. That auditory manifestation of power must have been exhilarating.

The concert itself was pretty much a blur. I was disoriented not only by the unremitting screaming but by the unfamiliar songs the band was playing, some of them covers and some drawn from their new album, II x II. The set list from a show one month later, which must be very similar to the show I saw, has been preserved by B.A. Presley. The concert apparently ended with "Hair," which had been their biggest hit the year before, but it to me it would just have been another song I didn't know (it was released after The Best of The Cowsills, but has since been included on CD versions of that album). That the most clean-cut pop group in America was singing a song extolling hair so long that it would "fly in the breeze / And get caught in the trees / Give a home for the fleas" was a joke that The Cowsills themselves embraced, but that I only appreciated somewhat later.

When the concert was over, night had fallen and I was completely wide-eyed. I wasn't sure whether I had even enjoyed it—I was definitely suffering from sensory overload. But something about the experience must have been captivating, because the very next rock concert my parents allowed me to attend, almost five years later, promised even more sensory overload: Pink Floyd performing Dark Side of the Moon, perhaps the subject of a future post.

Coda: In researching this post I came across information about the emotional and physical abuse (as well as financial mismanagement) visited on his family by the dictatorial, alcoholic patriarch Bud Cowsill; in the documentary Family Band Bob Cowsill says that he "created a house of fear." The band's sunny pop sound and cheerful public personae concealed that painful backstage reality. The group broke up in 1971 after recording one final album, but in the past three decades surviving members have periodically reunited, played live, and recorded; they maintain the official Cowsills website.

I also came across a website for the Lambertville Music Circus. Among the other performers appearing there during the summer of 1970 were Ike and Tina Turner, B.B. King, Little Richard, and Fleetwood Mac. Many thanks to the fans and fellow obsessives who have documented so much of this history, and prompted my very fallible memory to recall the things I couldn't think of yesterday.

Next time: See you on the dark side: Tolkien, Pink Floyd, and the Claremont Diner