The Turtles (left) and The Cowsills | photo courtesy of the Happy Together tour
Two to Tango: Mark Volman of The Turtles and Susan Cowsill of The Cowsills discuss the 10th Anniversary of the weird Happy Together tour
Despite each act’s sunshiny harmonies and quirkily humorous lyrical eclat, there’s definitely something wonderfully weird about The Turtles and The Cowsills, two of the groups on Flo & Eddie’s Happy Together tour of pop-psychedelic 60s acts, now celebrating its 10th anniversary at the Keswick on June 19.
While Flo & Eddie are renowned for time collaborating with Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention during that mad ensemble’s most conceptual period (e.g. the “Billy the Mountain” song cycle), The Cowsills were the initial inspiration for ABC Television’s The Partridge Family, but were too odd a lot, gangly and pimply to be Hollywood stars.
Though any conversation with Mark Volman and Susan Cowsill, alone, could go a million different ways and tackle a million unique subjects, this Two to Tango interview focused on the relationship between The Turtles and The Cowsills, past and present, and in connection to the gathering of minds that is the decade-long Happy Together.
The Key: Were you guys friends earlier on in your careers?
Mark Volman: We were all very busy in the middle of the 1960s. It wasn’t as if we were hanging out, but, certainly, you’d come upon a show or a bill that the two of us were on, occasionally. And even then, we might not see each other.
Susan Cowsill: The Cowsills were, brace yourself Mark, ten years younger than the Turtles. We were actually like ten years younger than most of the bands of that time we are peers with. So, back in the day, guys like Frank Zappa or Flo & Eddie, their choice of bands to hang out with was probably not The Cowsills. Finding themselves in their vicinity was more than amusing. In fact, my brothers have this point of pride about going to a Zappa party. 1968, a big deal for them. Anyway, we were definitely peripheral to one another, if not exactly hanging out.
TK: Kids or not, elders or not, what was the impression you had of each other’s music?
SC: Yeah, Mark. What did you think of us?
MV: Yeah… We knew the songwriters who composed much of the stuff for The Cowsills. They had some really fine musicians and great writers involved with them. The Turtles had that as part of their artistic life too. I mean, we were not good songwriters. We could write some things, but, when it came to our hits, we were doing very much of what other bands were doing at that time – including The Cowsills – working with writers with sympathetic ears.
SC: Yup. You would find writers who would suit your genre… could suit your sound, and play to your strengths. There were plenty of them, too, and they all hung out together. We all benefitted from that. Now, as a child, I loved The Turtles. As a kid, who wouldn’t love a band named after turtles. That was appealing. And “Happy Together” was already the soundtrack to our lives THEN, let alone now. To the nine year old me, that song was like “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
TK: What did you want from a great song or songwriter that was indigenous to you then?
MV: The first record that had any meaning to The Turtles was a Bob Dylan song (“It Ain’t Me, Babe” in 1965). Doing Dylan was big. Our record company really went out of its way to solicit us to do a Dylan tune. And having a hit with that kicked off a career that was very changeable, considering the different music we did. Warren Zevon wrote for us. Carole King wrote for us. We were trying to follow the movement, which was changing very quickly from pop to hard rock and to psychedelic. It began to weed out bands. For us, band members were leaving and moving into other areas. Howard (Kaylan) and I found are selves….
SC: Just famous.
SC: Where we were concerned – and let’s be frank with each other – I was eight years old. And nobody cared what I thought about songs and what it took to find them. I didn’t pick them. I didn’t pick anything, Being born into The Cowsills was like being born into a cult. You’re just there. You pick up the clothes, put them on, and just do what everybody else is doing. But me and my brothers were incredibly lucky in that we had MGM steering our boat. The writers they picked for us were phenomenal. I mean, Arnie Kornfeld and Steve Duplass – they were our power team. I did, however, approve of each and every song.
MV: Those songwriters were a few of who we used too. We have that In common.
TK: Were The Cowsills taken to the bosom of pop when they came around, Mark?
SC: I remember talking to Howard about this several years ago, and I think there was a general reaction to us, the deal was that there was a red headed stepchild reaction to us from our peers. I asked Howard, and he basically said because we were so young when the rest of the bands were men by the point, that when we came along and just, plopped ourselves down and knocked everyone out of the charts, we were hated for it. Howard said that you guys hated it but knew that we were so good.
TK: The last ten years and the original notion of what made Happy Together come together: were you guys dissatisfied enough with the shows you were playing before this to make this tour happen?
MV: There’s a reality that I won’t get into, a legal thing around 1970 that pushed us to join Frank Zappa because legally we couldn’t use the name “The Turtles.” That’s because we didn’t know the music business at all, when we got into it.
MV: When it came to the business end of music, we trusted a lot of people a little too much, more than we should have.
SC: That is kind-of a tribal cry among all of the bands on this tour, if not all of the bands from the 60s. It’s a young industry that we’re in, one where after The Beatles, all these kids started picking up instruments, and a new industry had begun. Boy, those record companies pulled themselves together, one after another, and lined up these kids, handed them pens, and said how all of our dreams would come true if we just signed. The Cowsills only two years ago recouped our royalties. We signed everything away back then. And even if The Cowsills were younger than its contemporaries, it wasn’t as if The Turtles and the rest of them were old men.
MV: We were all taken advantage of, and everyone kept at it, as long as they didn’t get caught. And a lot of our record company guys thought they were doing something good.
SC: As if they were on a mission…. They were very bright.
TK: So, then, how was it that you formed Happy Together – and created a dialogue among acts such as The Cowsills, and Chuck Negron and so on?
MV: The point was, for Howard and I, when we were looking at the marketplace… actually, this started in 1984 when we brought out Gary Puckett, the Grass Roots, Gary Lewis & the Playboys and Spanky & Our Gang. Those were good tours. Then The Monkees came around for a reunion in 1986, and it was a well-received tour. When we started Happy Together, we looked at it like a play, a musical that could reproduce itself every night. It was a show – play the biggest hits with the original acts, and the fans who remember fall in love with us all over again.
SC: Big time.
TK: So what goes into the making of a Happy Together show?
SC: It’s all these amazing bands, where not one of us is more than the other. Seriously, we’re a troupe, we’re a team, we back each other up, and watch each other’s shows.
MV: The camaraderie helps the show stay tight, and gives it a built-in energy.
SC: It’s an uplifting revival moment.
TK: What is your favorite moment of the show?
MV: The finale.
MV: Where we get to sing bits and pieces of each other’s songs. Most of the people know Howard and I from being Flo & Eddie and singing with Frank Zappa. This is a different picture, us singing Chuck Negron and Gary Puckett and The Cowsills.
SC: Plus, their doing The Turtles’ “Show Me” this year is my favorite song by them. My own favorite moment is socking my brother in the arms many, many times when I get off that stage. For like 20 minutes. I’m excited.
TK: And what do you look forward to when that finale has finale-d?
MV: Getting drunk.
SC: We share emotions and thoughts of the day.
MV: In a fire pit.
SC: Where we roast weenies. And we play croquet. It’s all very civilized.
The Happy Together tour comes to The Keswick Theater on Wednesday, June 19th. Tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.