Report: The Cowsills Live in Indian Lake, OH

 

July 9, at the Old
Field Beach State Park, the beloved family combo toast their song-titling namesake.

 

Text/Photos by Steven Rosen

“Well, that was a first. We’ve never performed that song looking
directly at Indian Lake before.”

 

Bob Cowsill said that as the crowd, in summer wear and
bathing suits, surged and cheered on the open field at Old Field Beach State
Park at Indian Lake, on the western side of Ohio. Quite a few had arrived by
boat, having anchored at the beach. The hot sun was bearing down on them, which
somehow seemed to improve their mood. This was a perfect summer day, a perfect
summer event.

 

The Cowsills had just opened their concert with a rousing
version of “Indian Lake,” a Top Ten hit in 1968. For the locals at the Chamber
of Commerce’s annual Party at the Beach, it was an acknowledgement of past
glories – not just of a time when the clean-cut Cowsills were America’s
favorite family band, but also when Indian Lake (and the nearby town of
Russell’s Point) was a Midwest tourist resort, famous for its Sandy Beach
Amusement Park with its dance pavilion and 2,000-foot-long roller coaster. (It
was demolished in 1982 after decades of decline.) It was hard to judge crowd
size, given the spread-out nature, but it could have been around 1,000. An
anonymous local donor had paid to bring the Cowsills there for the event.

 

The Cowsills at Indian Lake were two brothers – Bob, 61, and
Paul, 59 – and 52-year-old sister Susan, who has her own budding career as an
Americana-oriented singer-songwriter. But at their peak, back in the day, they
consisted of those three plus brothers Bill, Barry and John and their mother,
Barbara. They were just kids – Boomer teens and younger – on tour with mom and managed
by their dad, a Navy careerist.

 

It is far from certain the song “Indian Lake” was named for
the lake. It was written by Tony Romeo, a pop songsmith who also wrote “I Think
I Love You” for the Partridge Family (more about them later) and had a thing
for forced rhyming (“Indian Lake is a
scene you should make with your little one”)
and catchy melodies. But the
Cowsills began their career in Canton, Ohio, around the start of the 1960s. And
though they were living in Newport, R.I., when their hits started, Ohio can
claim them.

 

Summertime, USA, is filled with small-town outdoor fairs and
parties that proudly book 1960s or 1970s oldies acts to play hits (often
without any original members) and meet and greet the locals. Such shows are
often slick, kitschy and soulless.

 

But the Cowsills show was different. First, because they
were (and still are) family, there’s meaning and feeling in the performance and
the interaction between the three singers. (The back-up band, too, is family –
Paul’s two sons Brendan and Ryan on guitar and keyboards, Susan’s husband Russ
Broussard on drums. The bass player, Mary Lasseigne, is introduced by Bob as
“sister” so she doesn’t feel out of place.)

 

There’s also poignancy and currency to being on the road
now. A new documentary, Family Band: The
Cowsills Story,
is just beginning to make the rounds of film festivals this
summer and advance word is that it uncovers some raw truths below the
family-friendly image, especially about the way their now-deceased dad, William
“Bud,” treated them, and how difficult adulthood turned out to be for some of
the siblings. But it also shows the bond existing among the three still active
in the band, and in a way their limited concerts are a way to reinforce that
relationship. It’s the oldies-rock version of The Tree of Life.

 

The show was well-rehearsed (the sound check took 40
minutes) and musically professional, but not “produced” in the way a current
Turtles or Monkees concert might be, to mention two other AM-friendly pop vocal
acts of the era. The three original Cowsills dress casually, banter about and
in general act like it’s just a bigger-than-usual family gathering.

 

In the concert, Bob and Paul do quite a few covers of
folk-rock tunes – just as the oldest brothers used to do in the beginning,
before the Cowsills became a Top-40 act. Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward
Bound” and Peter, Paul & Mary’s “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “If I Had My Way”
and “If I Had a Hammer” all got played here – the last gaining credibility when
three sang out about “the love between my brothers and my sisters.”

 

Susan does several songs from her fine Lighthouse album of 2011, and
the group performs material from the generally overlooked Americana-leaning
solo catalogue of their two deceased brothers, Bill and Barry. To give the
departed their due is one mission of the show.

 

The three siblings on stage at Indian Lake were pretty
matter-of-fact about addressing Barry’s shocking death. “We lost Barry during
Hurricane Katrina,” Bob told the crowd. “(He) did not evacuate when he should
have.” (Barry’s body was not found for some four months after the 2005 flooding
of New Orleans. And Bill, who lived in Canada and had health problems, died the
same day as Barry’s memorial service.) Susan took the lead on a rousing, emotional
version of Barry’s cathartic, Petty-like “River of Love,” a song filled with
dark irony now. (She also lived in New Orleans
when Katrina hit, but had left in time, and recorded “River of Love”
for Lighthouse.)

 

I’m not sure if the fans, who mostly were there for some pop
nostalgia, were prepared for the way the song – or the back story – darkened
their sunshine pop, but they did seem to respect it. And “River of Love” rocked
them.

 

The Cowsills did honor their Top 40 past – sometimes with
sweet good humor, other times with sly wit. And the hits hold up well. In
particular, the expansive melodic rush of “The Rain, The Park & Other
Things” – a chart topper from 1967 – fits in well with the era of “Good
Vibrations,” “Happy Together” and “Up, Up and Away” – pop-rock optimism at most
beautiful. It sounded fantastic, echoing throughout the park, as did “We Can
Fly” – a 1968 hit in a similar vein.

 

When one man in the crowd hollered out for “the milk song,”
they complied – saying they hadn’t done it live before. Bob and Paul sang out
“milk is the lift that will last.” The Cowsills also invited people on stage,
and so many came up (while others danced about in a sandy area in front) you
wondered if the stage would collapse.

 

Bob and Paul used the song selection to tell stories about
their career – explaining both how they felt at the time and how they feel now
about having been a family pop group with an image safe as milk at a time of
teenage revolution. For instance, Paul prefaced their theme to the TV series
“Love American Style” – a program on the square side of pop culture in the late
1960s/early 1970s – this way: “When we were kids, we didn’t care that we did
the theme for a TV show. Now that we’re older, we think it’s really cool.
That’s one of the ways you change through the years.”

 

 

That performance led to another TV-related one, a somewhat
in-jest version of Partridge Family’s goofy “I Think I Love You,” an awkwardly
constructed ditty somehow too friendly to fight. But while “Indian Lake’s”
Romeo wrote it, it isn’t really a Cowsills song. Or is it? It turns out the
producers of “The Partridge Family,” a comedy about a family that plays music
together, originally wanted the Cowsills for their early-1970s show, but the
family turned it down. So actors were put together for it. Million-selling
success followed.

 

“Since the Partridge Family didn’t tour, couldn’t perform or
sing ‘I Think I Love You,’ we’ve declared it our hit,” Bob told the crowd.

 

The oddest story – and one that cries out for more details –
concerned “Hair,” the Cowsills’ last and biggest hit, from the “American tribal
rock” musical of the same name. The Cowsills saved it for (almost) last at
Indian Lake, enduring lots of shouts for “Hair” in the meantime and making
jokes about the lack of it on the two brothers’ heads now.

 

By the time the Cowsills’ recorded version came out in early
1969, it seemed they were jumping on a bandwagon – Hair was a sensation. Still, it was shocking to hear the clean-cut
Cowsills record an ode to long hair, one that even mentioned the Grateful Dead
and came from a Broadway musical with nudity.

 

But as they explained it from the stage at Indian Lake, Carl
Reiner – the television/film producer/director – had been given an advance copy
of the soundtrack album and, thinking the Cowsills were perfect for covering
“Hair” (maybe because they had strong harmonies), urged them into the studio to
record it. They did so, but their record company – the notoriously tin-eared
MGM – hated it. So it sat unreleased.

 

Finally, the Cowsills gave a copy to a Chicago Top 40
station of the day, WLS-AM, which played it and got huge, instant reaction. The
rest, as they say, is history.

 

The Cowsills finished the show by reprising “Indian Lake.”

 

At the concert, it was announced the donor had agreed to
bring them back next year for the same event. If that’s the case, Indian Lake
will definitely be a scene you should make. And if you can’t bring your little
one, bring your favorite college professor. There’s a lot of American cultural history
on that stage.

 

 

(Top
photo: Susan and Paul, with microphones, with invited crowd on stage; second
photo also has Bob at right.)

 

 

 

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