Michael: Michael Shelley WFMU Kelly joins us to find some Cowsill and John Cowsill related music lined up for us so don’t touch that dial. Here’s one of my favorite all time Cowsill songs. This was a pretty big sized hit. I’m pretty sure. It’s “The Rain, The Park, and Other Things” from The Cowsills.
Song: The Rain, The Park, and Other Things
Song: Love American Style
Michael: Yeah there’s “Love American Style” by The Cowsills there and that theme was used I believe in only the first season of the TV show for some reason. And before that “The Rain, The Park, and Other Things” which I think reach #2 on the charts here in the USA. John Cowsill interview coming up here in just a couple minutes. Looking forward to that. I got a song qued up I think is one of the earlier works of The Cowsills. It’s a tune called “Party Girl” and it’s #1 here on WFMU.
Song: Party Girl
Michael: There it is “Party Girl” from The Cowsills and before that “Hair”. Played those two in the wrong order but that’s the two songs I meant to play just in the wrong order. Folks John Cowsill joins us in just a few minutes. Well hear all about that. I love that “Party Girl” song sort of – all of this music – the 60’s in just a few songs. I think The Cowsills fit into that paradigm of important 60’s bands. They recorded a bunch of songs representing The Milk Council I believe and here’s one of them.
Song: The Milk Song
Michael: Yeah the drums on that are just killer. I’ve never heard better drums on a commercial ever – sort of a commercial – a milky song. Folks the drummer on that song – John Cowsill – joins us in just a couple of minutes. I think I’ll let his brother introduce him and then hopefully we’ll speak to John Cowsill right here on WFMU.
Song: Act Naturally
Michael: There are,The Cowsills. John Cowsill, I believe singing lead and playing drums as well. Joining us on the phone, Mr. John Cowsill. Good morning John, how are you?
John: Good morning Michael. Grammatically correct, “All I have to do is” hee hee
Michael: All you have to do is act naturally.
John: Thank God
Michael: Covering Ringo, covering Buck Owens
John: Yeah exactly and I’ll be singing that tonight at the pub with one of my brothers
John: the Buck Owens version
Michael: Do you ever just drive down the street, or in the supermarket and you hear The Cowsills?
Michael: (chuckle) Because you’ve tuned it out of your ears or ..
John: No, because nobody plays them Michael. (chuckle)
Michael: Really? Cuz The Cowsills are part of the fabric of the 60’s.
John: Absolutely, but as fabric breaks down it kind of just disintegrates.
Michael: (chuckle) Wow! It’s amazing that you’re a young man and an industry veteran. When did you join The Cowsills.
John: I was seven.
Michael: Seven years old. You guys were, your Dad was in the armed forces moved around a lot and I guess your older brothers started playing music first and then you guys join them and at time you were seven, how often were you guys playing gigs and where were they?
John: It’s really funny because when I was ---- I mean we always had folk music going on in the house, hootenanny, now they call in unplugged, acoustical sets, but it was folk music.
Michael: From your family or from friends dropping over?
John: We just, Bill and Bob always sang, so it was always in the house. Along with the TV set, there was music going on. But, yeah, they started singing and we’d all join in and Uncle Bob would always bring the latest gadget and he always had tape recorders. We’d get around the living room and sing into those. I wish I had those tapes. It’s be so hilarious.
Michael: I wish I had ‘em too.
John: And you know the British Invasion hit and we wanted a drum set. We didn’t know about the bass guitar yet, so we just wanted a drum set. So, Neil Silva was a guy brought a Slingerland drum set over, blue sparkle, brought them into the living room and both Barry and I sat down at the drum set and could play just immediately. We don’t … I look back at that and find that just fascinating. Then you don’t think anything of it, but as I get older I say, ‘Jesus, they were amazing.’ I have to say “they were” cuz I’m not that kid, but Barry was the first drummer. You know it was a trio and they played a couple of dances and my brother Bill had requested to have a bass guitar and I think the first song Barry had to play on a guitar to prove to my Dad that he could play bass was “I Like It” by Jerry and The Pacemakers. So, I became the drummer after that. I used to go to their gigs and sit in and I’d play “You Can’t Do That” by The Beatles.
Michael: What fun song to play on the drums. So Barry moved over to bass and here you are at age seven on the drums and where were you guys playing? Where were you playing?
John: Actually we played a couple of local carnivals but soon after that we were playing bars. It was just four guys. Susan and Mom weren’t in the band yet and it was Bill, Bob, Barry and myself. We played a place called The Muenchinger-King and literally that same year we were doing four sets a night. We were doing Stones, Beatles, Beach Boys, and anything we could – Kinks – anything we could get our hands on now and take the lyrics off the album (chuckle) so a lot of the lyrics were always wrong but … The police came and raided the club after the third night we were playing there and said, “These kids can’t play here” so went to the mayor and he said as long as they’re in a room off somewhere and then they can go to the stage. So we couldn’t sit where people were drinking. And I don’t know how they pulled that off, but they did.
Michael: From the dressing room to the stage and back and ..
John: That was all summer long that we would do that.
Michael: And what about doing the school year?
John: Well during the school year as well. I remember, I was an epileptic growing up so I used to take Phenobarbital four times a day and I remember – I have the report cards to – that tell me what happened. I’d get a report card saying, “John would do much better if he could stay awake.” But that was also due to the fact … and we only played weekend so Friday, Saturday and Sunday and we’d go back to school on Monday.
Michael: So you were the only seven year old with a roadie probably
John: We had no roadies. We were our roadies. There were no roadies then. There were no monitors. There were no nothing. You had two Silverstone cabinets that you took from a broken amplifier and you made those the cabinet speakers and … We graduated to Shear Vocal Masters for sound systems.
Michael: And all four brothers sang at that point?
John: Yeah, everything.
Michael: Was it a natural thing – I mean you hear those Cowsill records and those harmonies are very trademark Cowsilly, you know, was it ….
John: not very trademark Cowsilly You know it’s funny you say that because this morning I woke up and I have two gigs I’m playing – a Special Olympics gig today and then I’m playing with my brother tonight, a local dig and I put this album on that called The Cowsills and The Lincoln Park Zoo and my wife is a huge Cowsill fan and she cracks me up and I put it on and it was just the oldest stuff that we did in the Mercury days and I don’t even recognize the songs but that sounds still – that trumpeted you know – we sang really loud, everything. And it just sounded like a horn blast to me and it was funny.
Michael: That’s interesting. We heard that song “Party Girl” a few minutes ago. I ..
John: I just listened to it this very morning !! You’re kidding !! It’s awful !!
Michael: No, no I’ve think ..
John: We fought Shelby Singleton on that, you know, actually we fought my Dad, but you didn’t fight my Dad cuz he was an a**hole. Excuse me, I didn’t say that. Beep that.
Michael: Shelby Singleton did he produce those Mercury or was he just he head of A&R for Mercury at that time?
John: He was head of A&R and was, hey, I was a kid they had us singing some dopey songs. But he was more of an executive producer. That was before we met Artie Kornfield at Mercury Records so I don’t know how instrumental he was. They had the background; they would let us play our own music, our own instruments which was very frustrating for us. But my Dad said, “You do it or you die.”
Michael: So you guys get dropped by Mercury and a guy who is a producer for The Today Show.” in 1965 sees you in a playing in Newport and says, “OK kids come on The Today Show.”
Michael: And, uh, do you get signed again, you eventually end up on MGM
John: Yeah, yeah. Well the way we end up on MGM was Artie Kornfield was an inhouse producer over at Mercury and he was watching what was happening to us. He just said, “This is wrong.” (chuckle) Artie is the one who saved us. He said, “You guys come with me.”
Michael: So the record label was kind of not going with your strengths.
John: No, before that we were with JODA Records, which was Johnny Nash’s label. We were playing a lot of R&B stuff before that. 63-64.
Michael: How did you get signed with JODA which had early … Gloria Gaynor and these weird – that are now real rare soul records.
John: Because Johnny Nash just though we were incredible and it was his label. And literally we’d go to his apartment, up till 4 in the morning and work on these songs like “You can’t go half way, you got to go all the way to have my love” you know, I mean, and “Duka Duka soda crackers if you want a smoke you have to have tobacco,” you know it was some good stuff. And to go from there – such a cool thing – to go to Mercury Records and the guy is putting songs like “I love my Siamese cat because she’s not very fat” in our mouths and we’re just like tearing up saying “You can’t do this to us.” And my Dad is saying, “You do it.” Songs like “Don’t put your feet in the lemonade, we’re running out of water. Go soak your cards in ginger ale make it sticky sorta.” Um, you know
Michael: You guys were way past that.
John: Waaay past that. We play Rolling Stones for four hours every night. Your kidding doing this to us.
Michael: What were the crowds reactions to you guys? I mean did the music just sort of speak for itself? Or could people just not take it seriously and not believe it?
John: They took us seriously because what came out of our mouths but looking out of my eyes I’ve always been the same size. So even as a kid you know I can only look back like ya’ll can and say, “Wow that was amazing. It must have blown those people away.” That we were kids, but I never – it never registered because we were kids that they liked us. We were good! We were a great rock band.
Michael: You – that seems very obvious.
John: We were smokin’
Michael: Do you think it was just ‘in the genes’ I mean everyone in your family really has some incredible musical talent. I mean everyone has these really strong, unique voices. Did it come from somewhere?
John: I don’t know where it came – it came from God probably and channeled through the genetic path. I’m sure because it till amazes me to look back that and when you get older you get sentimental. You say, “How did they do that?”! How were they able to play, to pick up a drumstick and six months later he’s playing bars four sets a night. You know, and really DOING it.
Michael: And at age seven.
John: All my brothers, there’re all. I’m an entertainer – they are artists. I’m just a guy slumming and wh***ing for a gig.
Michael: That’s very kind of you to say that to them.
John: It’s true, you know. I can sing. I can dance. I can make you like me, but these guys were talented. You know, and half nuts. They walk with one foot in and one foot out of reality, you know. I guess that’s the price you pay sometimes, I don’t know. Or maybe they thought they HAD to do it that way. I don’t know. Being a Cowsill was very difficult on everybody. We wanted to be The Stones. We wanted to be The Beatles and we got taken down, you know, an awful path.
Michael: You guys ended up making quite a bunch records and had some giant hits. We heard, a few minutes ago, “The Rain, The Park and Other Things” which was
John: Ahhh great song
Michael: A great song. Do you remember the recording sessions?
John: Ah yeah.
Michael: Was this, these are pretty… there’re not simple songs compared to “Party Girl” for instance.
Michael: How did those sessions go? Was it really you guys playing on them and how much work was it?
John: Um , “The Rain, The Park and Other Things” was recorded at Homestead and that’s what we did with Artie Kornfield took us from Mercury Records and we went into the studio with him and recorded a lot of songs with – just on our own. He probably footed the bill, which he knew he’d get recouped when he got it to a record company and then Artie brought us to MGM. Actually he brought us to Lenny Stogel who became our first official manager guy. And he had his connections with Mortin Nasiter at MGM and said, “These guys are incredible.” And, of course, once again they see we’re a family and novelty sells and they ask to put my Mom in the band, which was not a problem for me. Mom, I didn’t care, but my older brothers did. They hated it.
John: Well, of course, I mean ….
Michael: They had The Rolling Stones, yeah, and they didn’t want their mother
John: Come on! Can you imagine we’re going to play with my Mom and we love our Mom and she didn’t want to do it.
John: But my Dad, you know, insisted upon it. “Record company wants it. Do it !!” and then we put our sister in and, you know, became this thing and it was very lovely. I look back and it’s very sentimental and I love it. Please understand that. But during the time it was horrible and then it ended you couldn’t get a job if you said your name was Cowsill. It was horrific.
Michael: But those people equated it with this kind of very mellow
John: Bubblegum that phrase came hard on us and it was just “Ah we are so screwed.” (chuckle)
Michael: That’s interesting. Do you think that if it had just stayed the core four that you guys would have stayed more just a rock band for a long time.
John: Can’t, can’t – don’t know. Maybe.
Michael: It would have been interesting,
John: It only happen the way it happen and why it did happen was probably because of that novelty of the Mom. And see my Mom had a beautiful voice but no sense of time. So sometimes we’d be doing a live show and she’d start off – somewhere and we’d have to turn the song around to find where she was. Very cute.
Michael: Also your brother Paul joined the band
John: Yep, he replaced Bill when we were over in Italy doing the San Remo Festival, probably ’68 I think that was and – well didn’t replace him but added him. Paul used to come out and we used to call him the soul brother and we’d give him a suit that one of us weren’t wearing that – that Bill wasn’t wearing. So he came out in his own color suit and kinda like an older Jimmy Osmond. Comin’ out and doing the one song. He used to do “Knock On Wood” And we’d call him our soul brother and he’d come out. But Paul is great. He has an incredible voice!! Oh my God !! He has like – the timbre that I would love to have today, but we are given what we are given. And actually Bob, Susan and Paul are The Ed Sullivan Show, out doing Cowsill dates now.
Michael: Yeah, I’ve, you know, there’s a lot of Cowsill footage on youtube that folks should check out – old and new – and it’s real interesting to just watch and you to see you guys – the way you dressed and your hair for one thing.
John: Ouch! (chuckle)
Michael: 1968 another hit with “Indian Lake” You guys were famous. You were playing Disneyland. You were playing The Ed Sullivan Show, The Johnny Carson Show, American Bandstand, The Mike Douglas Show, you were still a teenager. What was it ….
John: Right I was a pubescent. I was pre- pre- I was
Michael: A kid
John: I had to have my puberty in front of the world.
Michael: Was it mind blowing?
John: It was unsettling. I was trying to deal with my emotions and never mind try sing and play.
Michael: There must have been a lot of females. That must be one advantages of being a pubescent boy, but being a rock star, not having that sort of trouble finding girls attention.
John: Yeah, I don’t know it’s all a wash to me. I – you know.
Michael: Is your wife in the room?
John: You only want the attention and the affections from the ones you want and the rest you want to go away, you know, like in real life. (chuckle) But you know it was fine as long as I had – what 20 feet – between me and them. And I was on stage, you know, I could, we could all do the dance and then get off and --- I don’t know – because of the age I was it was – we were The Cowsills we weren’t cool and by that time I knew we weren’t cool.
Michael: But you guys were in 16 Magazine. I mean you were mainstays of the teenybopper machine.
John: I understand
Michael: Was it important to you to be on things like The Ed Sullivan Show personally?
John: That was a big deal! We were so excited doing that one.
Michael: And what was that like?
John: Ah, you know what, I think we met Ed onstage and we went to the after party and he, his wife, and his son-in-law and daughter, were in a separate room and while all of us who were on the show were in the other room and we never saw him. (chuckle)
Michael: (chuckle) That sounds …
John: Ed was already on his way out of … of his brain by then. And what would we have done without Ed Sullivan.
Michael: Sure. Part of the American fabric that has deteriorated.
John: Absolutely, but that was the highlight of our life.
Michael: I believe from ’68 on you guys did about 200 gigs a year. Do you think that’s accurate?
John: Oh yeah, usually.
Michael: That’s a lot of gigs, a lot of touring around, a lot of missing school.
John: Oh yeah, school. I forgot about that.
Michael: Your Dad was your manager. You use the A word to describe him. Was it just awful?
John: He was awful. You didn’t know what was coming with him. He, you know, he always wore Raybans, dark Raybans, so you couldn’t see his eyes, you know what I mean.
Michael: Ex military guy. Tough guy?
John: Yeah, tough guy.
Michael: I mean like pushing you guys around? Or how bad did it get?
John: Sure he was tough guy. If he didn’t like something you did, he’d, you know, he’ll publicly humiliate you, physically.
Michael: That’s terrible
John: It’s horrible. It was horrifying,
Michael: And did your Mom try to step in and stop this?
John: No way
Michael: She’d get the same thing.
John: She’d have gotten the same thing. Absolutely
Michael: And did everybody suffer equally or did he have favorites?
John: Well, I don’t think he had favorites, other than Susan and he tortured her in other ways. But, in the same breath, you know there was something very likeable. I have many traits about him like I’ll give you the belt, if you like the belt I’m wearing, it’s yours. You can have it. Here take it, you know. But as a father he was a jerk. And that’s how it was.
Michael: Yeah, it sounds terrible.
John: We were called “The Puddle Pee” family, you know. If he walked by you peed.
Michael: Just from fear
John: It was fear.
Michael: 1969 you guys covered the song “Hair” which we heard a few minutes ago.
John: That was a blast
Michael: How did you pick that? How did the arrangement come about?
John: OK the way the song came about was Carl Reiner and some others were doing a TV show called The Wonderful World of Pizazz up in San Francisco and it was during the Peter Max Era. And they had people showing fashion – the fashion of the day – Harper’s Bizarre – the band with Ted Templeton in it did a stint on it and I can’t remember who – Peter Max did a thing. They were doing a thing on wigs, clothing. And they thought it would be hilarious, you know, just outrageous to have The Cowsills do – model leather, vinyl and these long haired wigs and do the song called “Hair” So we said, “OK we’ll do it” and we went into the studio one of the few recordings we – that we started playing our own gear before that, but umm “Hair” was like the big hit we had that we were actually playing our instruments thank God. And we went into the studio in Los Angeles and Bill, Bob, Barry and myself did all the basic track and arranged it and Bill did the vocal arrangements with Bob. Bob and Bill who arranged everything, always. And after 58 takes, the drummer stopped torturing them all and we got a good take. And the song became this piece for the TV show. So, after the TV show, it was such a great record. We were going in just to make a demo but became so great finally. We said, “Hey this is great!” and took it to MGM and they said, my Dad took it to MGM and they said, “You can’t have this out as a single. This isn’t The Cowsills.” So, OK, we ended up, had it in our pocket, we’re touring and we had friends at WLS in Chicago and I can’t remember the man’s name right now, I’m so sorry for that, but he put it on the air. And back then in a radio show you did not just change the format. You did not play anything. It was the Drake stations and Gavan reports and you could go across the United States and the format was the same. You knew what the next song was going to be all across the United States. So this guy put on “Hair” and the switchboard literally lit up. And he lost his job but so it became a big hit and they hired him back later. That’s the short of it.
Michael: I think it went to #2 and was it the kind of thing that ….
John: No, “Hair” went to #1 “Rain, The Park” went to #2
Michael: Being a little kid was there like, I mean you talk about this family fear, if you don’t have a #1 hit you’re going to get in trouble?
John: Now what?
Michael: Was there sort of a fear from your Dad that if you didn’t have hit records that you’d be in trouble?
John: No, no, no never that. Just what am I doing right now with my body. What am I doing – how am I thinking? Am I being nice? Did I say “Yes sir”? Did I say “Yes mame”? Did I, you know, am I licking my lip while he’s eating? Is that going to piss him off because he’ll think I want his food and I’m not enjoying mine, you know. He was just weird, man.
Michael: That’s weird. You played Las Vegas in 1969. That must have been a crazy situation.
John: Well once again, you know, yeah. But it’s like having your own TV special. You have to do what they want you to do. So, when we played Vegas, it was – I guess it was cool. I had the best time offstage. It was staying up late at night and messing with the room service people. And the show went – they had this arranger come to our house and do this weird stuff because my name was John, this is how my Johnny Cash imitation starts. I say, “Hello” because Johnny Cash said, “Hello, my name is Johnny Cash”, you know, so they go, “Hello, my name is Johnny Cowsill.” Oh my God! And play a little bit of Johnny Cash songs. Then Barry came on and they said, you know we did “Eve Of ….” What was that Barry McGuire song? “Eve Of Destruction”
Michael: “Eve Of Destruction”
John: “Eve Of Destruction” So he did a little bit of that. “Hi I’m Barry Cowsill” and did a little bit of that. So, oh my God, meatball, corn stuff, you know, and the tuxedos came and then they never left and we were tortured by that.
Michael: And really the whole time you just wanted to play rock and roll.
John: yeah, exactly.
Michael: It does sound like torture. They come to you ….
John: Bit it was, it was fun playing still, you understand, I want to say that that’s what we really liked doing. Once we were onstage we were OK, you know, and we boycotted by playing everybody else – hey you’ve heard our “Live In Concert” album. We play all our favorite songs.
Michael: yeah right you guys are just covering all great ….
John: We’re a high paid cover band.
Michael: You guys were writing some fantastic songs at that time.
Michael: The Partridge Family was modeled after your family. And originally did they want you guys to play yourself and make the show about you?
John: Well that’s what I hear. You know, there’s so many conflicting stories. But I think the true, trueness of the story is that …. I do remember Screen Gems spending time with us over a period of a week at our house in Santa Monica. But I think what it came down to, and everybody says it was just because they wanted Shirley Jones as the Mom, well that’s not necessarily true. The problem was that we were all getting too old, too quick. You know, here I am when they are doing this, I’m 5’8” and I’m suppose to be this little kid drummer and I don’t look like it. I think that has something to do with it too, that we’re too old to be cute for the TV series for what they were trying to sell. And I do think that the fact that Shirley Jones was going to be the Mom was the straw that … it was the catalyst for a definite “No”.
Michael: Did you guys participate financially in the show somehow?
John: No, no. We got nothing, and, but it was a funny show and as a kid I loved it. We went to this – they let us go to the screening and, you know, ask Shirley and Danny cuz we’ve talked to them about this. They were told not to say, not to agree that it was about The Cowsills. They had to pretend that it had nothing to do with this and they just all guffaw about it cuz Shirley is just a sweetheart says, “Of course it’s about you. We all knew that, but we were under contract and couldn’t say it was.”
Michael: In 1971 Bill fired from the group by your Dad for smoking marijuana. Is that true?
Michael: I assume you guys ….
John: Michael we were so afraid of my Dad. We were leaving, literally, out of the driveway to go on tour that afternoon and all I remember was sitting in the vehicle and watching a guitar case fly out of the back and Bill and he him out the window and we were leaving and so afraid of my Dad, nobody said anything and we went and did our concerts without a word. aaahh
Michael: Wow! That is some dysfunction there.
John: It is some dysfunction. We were – it was horrific and poor Bob. That was his partner. Oh my God. And you know we’ve all talked about it. It’s an emotional ride talking about that one.
Michael: About a year later the band basically just dissolves. It just can’t keep it together.
John: No, absolutely. We, Barry, Bob and myself, because it ended up just the three of us and I think Susan was still singing, I can’t remember if Mom was. You know we were fizzling out and we were so done and when my Dad came to us and we had – Walt McGuire at London Records had signed us. We had a good stint, but we wanted to bag it. And so Bob, Barry and myself were in a hotel talking about stopping it and “Who’s going to tell him?” and “We have to do it together. We have to do it together.” And he came into the room and we were in the room. We called him in and said, “We want to stop.” And he say, “Humm” and we thought he was going to hit the ceiling but he says, “This is what you want to do, huh?” and we said, “Yep” and he said, “You know what? If I could just have two more years we could get back on top.” He says, “I got this song” and he plays a demo for us. A song called “Ooh Wee Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” “What do you get when your mother’s gone Ooh Wee Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” We just said, “No! We’re done.”
Michael: Yeah, I think that was a hit for somebody
John: It was a hit for somebody yeah, absolutely. But just because it’s going to be a hit, what kind of hit do you want?!
Michael: Yeah sure
John: What do you want to be known for?
Michael: I believe a few years later your Dad filed for bankruptcy and The Cowsills sort of as an organization turns out owes a small fortune to hotels, airlines and stuff like that.
John: Yeah, nothing big
Michael: So he wasn’t a great manager or a great Dad
John: No, but in all fairness, in the defense of that, Lenny Stogel is the one who put us in
Michael: Oh yeah
John: Well his accountant, Neil Reshen is the one who put us into that position by not keeping books. You know we’d get gold watches for Christmas and we paid for them. And he didn’t keep books and finally when all was said and done we were so far in debt that we obviously we couldn’t get out.
Michael: You guys had #1 hit records, did you guys make money? Did the guys writing the songs make money?
John: Um we still aren’t seeing royalties and it’s going … we found out it’s going to Myrna Stogel, Lenny’s ex-wife and you know it’s a cluster – I won’t say the word - it’s a cluster duck.
Michael: So when The Cowsills ended you personally didn’t have a bank account.
John: No, I got my – we had trust funds set up for us, but I remember when I turned 18, I had just gotten to California because my brother Bill and Paul were doing a new project with Capital Records – Bridey Murphy. It had Lindsay Buckingham and Waddy Watchel and we were doing this project and I got my passbook (chuckle) there was $1800 in it with a half a million withdrawl, you know, for back taxes, which is a law not they can’t do that to a minor, but they could back then.
Michael: Wow! Let’s fast forward 1978. Apparently – tell me if this is true or not – with Chuck Plotkin, record producer who ended up working with Springstein – you guys worked some at Emmit Road studio and some at Chuck’s studio and I think it was Paul, John, Susan, Barry and Bob recorded an album called Cocaine Drain that no one has ever heard. Is that right?
John: Yeah, it’s never been heard and it’s the most incredible piece of music you’ll ever hear.
Michael: What does it sound like?
John: It sounds like us.
Michael: And why has no one heard it? Where is it?
John: It, because, we were, creativity kept getting in the way and maybe some drugs, I'm not sure. I can't remember. (chuckle)
Michael: It's called Cocaine Drain, I've got to assume there's some drugs somewhere involved.
John: The title, the title song was written by John and Joanna Hall, from, they were in, John was Orleans, which Chuck produced that band. So we had some outside material and some material of our own. Actually some of the material, the ones we, Bob wrote are on iTunes now. He just put them up on iTunes, but the other stuff we don’t know the legalities of that.
Michael: So you don’t know quite who owns the masters
John: Because I mean we worked with Buzzy Feitin, Neil Larson, Billy Payne, Ernie Watts, Mike Campbell, so we worked with everybody. You know, we worked with all the heavy people and they always take us seriously.
Michael: Did that record get shopped around to labels or did you ….
John: No, we were just trying to sell the band and they just wanted the girl. They didn’t want the rest of us.
Michael: Well, let me just remind everyone, you are tuned to WFMU’s ???? WHDV (??) and WFMU.org and John Cowsill is my guest for a few more minutes here. It’s a really interesting story. The ‘70s you guys are in LA and you’re playing some gigs together. A few years later you and Susan I think end up in Dwight Twilley’s band. How long was that for?
John: Well Susan had been dating Dwight for awhile, probably a real long time but there were periods, you know, I went over. I was at a studio just hanging out to see Susan and Dwight, they were my friends and a studio – I can’t remember which one, it was on the coast – and Roger Lind was there who made the Lind Machine. He’s a really great guitar player. We were sitting there and I decided to put – well let’s put real drums on, there was a drum set there instead of their Lind machine and that’s how I got in I guess. It was the Scuba Divers album.
Michael: And you played with The Textones. You played with – then you sort of joined Jan & Dean’s band, right?
John: Yeah I did
Michael: Oh you know what, did you play on the Tommy Tutone’s song 867…
Michael: Do you play drums on that track?
John: You know what? There were many drummers on that song. And whatever the razor blade left of each person. I think Victor was the main one, but I’ve been told that I was. And I played percussion and sang on it also. Sam Clayton and umm oh what’s the other guys name? umm Rick – well we all look at each other, “Who played on it?” (chuckles)
Michael: But you did drum a track that could be on that song
John: Oh absolutely
Michael: OK fair enough. You join Jan & Dean’s band which you were in for about 5 years touring all over the place. Great guys? What were they like?
John: Ahhh, you know what, yes, they – yeah were great guys and the gig was great and the band was great and really the adventures for us were off stage. This was the first group of people who I ever worked with who would get up in the mornings instead of late at night.
Michael: So they were out exploring the world?
John: Nobody used drugs. Nobody did drugs. Everbody had stopped everything and so it was just nice to get up and, you know, shoot a river in the river, you know, or go play softball with the disk jockey’s.
Michael: Yeah, live. Your Mom died in 1985
John: (sadly) yeah
Michael: And that must have sort of closed a chapter. It must have been sad.
John: That was very sad.
Michael: And did you see, did everybody, is that the first time you sort of saw all your brothers and sisters for awhile?
John: You know something, yes. That is the first time all of us got together in probably 15 years.
Michael: How strange. Jan & Dean played in China. One of the few folks to play in China. What was that like?
John: They didn’t know what happen the first time. We got over to China and we didn’t know what we were doing. And so after the first show, the people were – 20,000 people in the Shanghai Auditorium and not making a noise, which is very normal for those people, but they didn’t get it. And so after the show that night the chancellors, counselors, deacons, beacons all came to us and said, “This show is not working here. We need popular western music.” Basically what they wanted was a cover band. So what happen, overnight, is we had faxed to us every lyric under the sun and a couple of the guys in the band, myself and another in the band, Randell Kirsch, who actually plays now within The Beach Boys, we had to sing everything. So I mean I did Lionel Richie, John Denver. “Country Roads” was the biggest song over there and I was Shanghai Johnny forever. I had lyrics – up and down – taped to the cymbal stands up all over the place.
Michael: That’s funny
John: It’s hilarious
Michael: Did you make recordings with Jan & Dean.
John: Uh I think we did a couple. I think I covered “Indian Lake” on a Rhino disk thing that they did, but no they really didn’t record at all. They were – Jan couldn’t anymore – he was just a mess and … we just toured around.
Michael: Some how you appeared on Full House and General Hospital
Michael: Playing music or acting?
John: Oh we were in John’s band. John Stamos, a really good friend. I’m actually going to play with him tomorrow night and he always brings his friends on the show somehow, you know. And he’s a great, great drummer and so he’s the biggest surf band fan in the world, you know. He grew up around Papa Doo Run Run before he ever Blackie Paris and so he just loves the music. He comes out and plays with us – The Beach Boys – sometimes. He got us on the TV shows.
Michael: Gotta ya. Late ‘80s, early ‘90s The Cowsills – another formation of The Cowsills playing in LA and touring a little bit. 1992 your father dies. He’s in Mexico. What’s he doing in Mexico?
John: Ah, he lived down there.
Michael: He lived down there? Were you guys estranged, had you guys kept in touch?
John: You know what, yeah, I mean, I harbor no ill will against anyone. My brother Bill really summed it up. I mean I – like I said, I liked things about my Dad, but especially when you’re grown up and you don’t have take any poo from him you know. So, yeah, some of that was mended, but never talked about anything until one night. He said to me, lying there in the dark – cuz it was just an open room, kind of like a camp up there in Mexico – and he said, “You know John, can I talk to you?” cuz earlier in the day I had said to him that I reiterated a childhood thing that he did to me in front of his friends that he didn’t like that. That he got really bent out of shape. “I didn’t do that.” I said, “Why are you getting so defensive then. It’s my childhood memory, not yours.” You know and I wasn’t trying to have a pissin’ match with the guy or anything, but so later that night he’s, “I want to talk to you.” I said, “Wow, first time.” I said, “What do you got to say?” He says, “Well you know what? I didn’t hit you near as much as I did the other kids.” Remember I’m epileptic. And I said, “Dad” I said, “That’s a nice thing. You know what?” I said, “Let me tell you something. There’s something worse than being in a fight or watching ur getting hit. It’s watching somebody get hit and wondering when your turn is.” I said, “That is horrifying to a child.” “But you had a fairy-tell childhood. I never did that to you that much.” It’s like – am I believing my ears. That was the only thing we ever said and he died shortly after that.
Michael: Wow! It’s amazing you’re so sane.
John: (to Vicki) Honey, he said I’m sane. (Vicki laughs in the background)
Michael: Well don’t trust me. 2001 you started playing with The Beach Boys, I believe, playing keyboards. You’ve since switched to drums. I always sort of feel the latest sort of incarnation of The Beach Boys sort of took – and tell me if you think I’m wrong – took a step up when Brian Wilson came back and got his really excellent band together. I sort of feel like Mike said, “Boy this music is great. I really need to get a band that can play it better.” Think that’s true?
John: Naw, I ..
Michael: Well in any case you guys are playing it really well. Is it fun?
John: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah !! Well, you know, here’s the thing, they um I was hired to sing. That’s why they hired me. I’m not a great piano player. I’m a good piano player. I’m a better drummer. And I love the music. And I think people just got bored in what they were playing over the years and you know what to tell you the truth, you know, The Beach Boys, I used to go to concerts years ago and like the ‘70s and ‘80s and they were sloppy. What it had mortified into was ‘you know I don’t feel like doing this’. The vocals changed. They weren’t even the vocals on the records anymore.
Michael: And 20 guys on stage
John: What happen was Mike – I don’t know what his decision was based on but he got rid of a couple of guys and the guys who’s the musical director now, Scott Totten, has just painstakingly, you know, he’s just put it back to the way the records were with real life in it
also. I mean not exactly the record. There’s eight guys on stage. We’re not Brian’s band where we have like 16 guys on stage, playing the French horn and stuff so yeah. We need to have Timmy Bonhomme on the synthesizer, all the keys over there. But man we just finished a UK run and we played 3 hours and we had the best time because we were playing the arrangements that we all love and know. All the vocal parts are back to the way they were suppose to be and I look at Scott, our musical director, and I just go, “Man, that’s the … we are so smiling up there just knowing we’re doing it right.”
Michael: How many gigs does this band, does The Beach Boys play now adays?
John: About 150-170
Michael: That’s hard work. That’s a lot of hard work and Mike Love another controversial guy.
John: I love him.
Michael: He’s your boss, what are you going to say, you know (chuckles), but you guys are out there having fun.
John: Oh we’re having the best time out there.
Michael: He hasn’t sued you.
John: I’m the biggest fan and I have the best seat in the house right now.
Michael: How do you feel to see Mike Love’s backside, that’s …..
John: (laughs) It’s hard as a rock. That guy’s … that’s too much information.
Michael: I’ll take your word for it. Bruce Johnston, does he own long pants? The guys always in shorts
John: (laughs) I wished .. I always say, “Bruce why are you wearing coolots?” He could play Charlie Brown on the Broadway play with the baseball hat, the shorts. He looks like a Peanuts character to me sometimes.
Michael: That’s perfect. He’s eternally youth. You are married to Vicki Peterson from The Bangles. You guys have two children, I believe?
John: Uh, the two kids are from a previous marriage.
Michael: Ah OK you’ve got two kids.
John: I have two kids. No, we have two kids. We share them.
Michael: Your family.
John: And they are spectacular.
Michael: Is it easy being a dad with your legacy, I mean?
John: Yeah, I mean
Michael: Being a dad is the best thing, isn’t it?
John: I’m a regular guy, you know. I just happen to play music. I grew up playing it. I didn’t want to become it, it just is what I do, so
Michael: And you guys live in California and you like it out there?
John: Indeed. Uh, yeah, I’d rather be back east, but
Michael: It’s where showbiz is?
John: I don’t care about the showbiz. All I need is an airport, but just for seasons and change. I’m an east coaster. I’m from Newport, Rhode Island.
Michael: 2005 your brother Barry, one of the key Cowsills passed away in the wake of the Katrina – Hurricane Katrina. Seems like he was living a – kind of off the wall life a bit. Like you said, one foot sort of not in … on earth. Must have been a terrible shock.
John: yeah Well yeah of course it is. It was awful. It was awful, awful, awful. That and then losing my brother Bill, you know in the same year.
Michael: Yeah about a year later Bill died up in Canada.
John: It was awful. He was our Brian Wilson, you know. Yeah, it was too much. Barry was an interesting creature. Soooo talented, oh my God !!! but couldn’t keep his regular life together, you know. And he felt, he’s the one who felt he needed to suffer for his art, as Bill, you know. Barry was like what – when – if you look at Tom Watts and don’t know anything about him, you know. Barry was the real life guy who really lived on the outskirts of. You know, he would get on a rail car and live the life of a hobo and he was a couch dweller. He didn’t have a home, but he has – you know for periods he would go through that. He is survived by two incred.. THREE incredible children. And but he was a very complex person.
Michael: The Cowsills, it’s an incredible real story. It almost seems unreal, you know. And has there been talk ever of making a movie out of the
John: Oh we’ve been sitting the fence on a documentary. We’re probably about $200,000 into one. And it’s, it’s a hard story to tell in one breath and I personally don’t want to do a documentary, you know. If it’s being done for historical sake then let’s make it historically correct. Otherwise if you want to do one to get gigs, then do a TV movie. And, you know, I have difficulty with it, you know a book would be better. A novel would be better. It would fit better into a book and you know none of us have gotten off our butts to write the book. You know I see so many people, I have started several times and it’s hard work. You almost need to have somebody doing it with you.
Michael: Yeah, well I think it’s a real interesting story and I’d love to hear the full flushed out ….
John: Yeah, Michael when I’m in New York, we will sit down and I will give you more information.
Michael: I’ll take my tape recorder. How do you, I ask you this sort of before, but there was a lot of, a strange way to grow up. Do you know why you grew up OK? Why are you OK now?
John: I think we’re all born a certain way and believe me I’ve had tons of time to ponder this and I’m so thankful that I’m me, that I wasn’t the crazy artist, that I was able to not hate, that I was an easy forgiver. And I always tell my kids that, you know. I say, “Always” (emotional silence) I always tell them to forgive real quick because you’ll always need it. So, I don’t know why I was born, and under the stars a certain day, a certain time. I’m wired a certain way that, you know, believe me, that I could give you the other side of my life, of every mistake I’ve ever made. This we all can. But why I was able to rise out of it is just cuz I’m just filled with love. (chuckle) And I think that is the saving grace. I tell my kids that all the time. Always love really hard and forgive quickly, you know.
Michael: It’s words to live by.
John: They are words to live by, Michael.
Michael: Ah, The Beach Boys are playing in Atlantic City, New Jersey on July 4th and summer’s coming and I assume that’s The Beach Boys prime busy time.
John: eeeekkkkk All year round is Beach Boys prime busy time.
Michael: There’s no down time.
John: Except for January and December area
Michael: Yeah, take a break
John: Take a break
Michael: I was goin’ play “Mister Flynn” just because it’s a song I like.
John: Oh my God It’s a great, it’s a fun song because that’s who we ran into every time we go to a gig.
Michael: It’s just about the mean backstage manager?
John: The guy who literally won’t let you in. You’re knocking on the door. “No, we’re here to play” “Arrrr, go …” you know the old cigar toten guys, you know, the old school guys. “Arrrr, we’re not open yet.” (chuckle) “No, we’re The Cowsills. We’re playing here.” “Let me go see.” You’d be waiting outside for an hour.
Michael: So you guys just called that guy Mister Flynn and wrote a song about him. That’s great. Is there another song you’d rather hear than that, or will that do or
John: Oh, oh Michael, you know what? They’re all sentimental to me.
Michael: Alright, we’ll go with that. John it’s been a pleasure and I hope, hope we cross paths again soon.
John: Well, I’ll call you when I’m in New York. I’m always there.
Michael: Great! I’ll buy you a beverage of your choice.
John: EXCELLent, Michael
Michael: John Cowsill, thank you so much and take care.
John: You too man
Michael: Bye, bye
Song: Mister Flynn
Michael: Yeah there’s The Cowsills and “Mister Flynn,” a #1 hit. You know they really do have a lot of amazing songs and I urge you to go out and find some Cowsills records because there’s just interesting tracks on all the records and interesting production and you know they had a few hits but there’s a lot of great songs that I think everybody doesn’t know and anyway I’m telling you. Cowsills baby !!