Monday, June 24, 2013

GOD BLESS THE COWSILLS

The Cowsills, circa 1968

During the sound check they played Beatles songs and jammed a little,  but once the show started they stuck to  basics: "The Rain, The Park, & Other Things," "Love American Style," "Hair," " Indian Lake."

It was The Cowsills. Remember them?

There seemed to be a dozen Cowsills back in their heyday,  back when their bright harmonies helped them battle the likes of The Monkees for the heavyweight championship of lightweight pop. They appeared on all of the major television programs of the era, and in '68 starred in their own NBC TV special. They starred in their own comic book, and inspired The Partridge Family TV series.  They appeared in milk commercials, teen mags, and played Las Vegas, billed as "The First Family of Pop." The roster included a stage full of tall boys with toothy smiles, one beautiful little girl, and the most unlikely pop star of the '60s, their grey haired mother Barbara.

On this particular night in late Sept. of 2012, Bob, Paul, and Susan Cowsill, three of the original seven, are in Gloucester, MA to help promote Family Band: The Cowsills Story, a fascinating documentary that has been in the making for several years. The film has many dark revelations, most involving family patriarch  Bud Cowsill,  a sadistic alcoholic who ruled the family with violence. Susan says in the movie that she'd been sexually molested by her father "probably since I was born." 

Family Band: The Cowsills Story is difficult to watch, but it's also a typical rock documentary, with triumphs and tragedies, casualties and survivors. One of the film's delights is that we see Bill and Barry Cowsill as they were just before their deaths. Barry died in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina; Bill died of various health problems. Both were drug addicts on the mend.  Their stories were sad, but in the movie they seem  funny, smart, and talented. Brother John, now part of The Beach Boys, hails Bill Cowsill as "the Brian Wilson of the Cowsill family."

Bill had wanted the Cowsills to rock like The Beatles.  But father Bud, as we learn in the film, wanted the group to be a "cross between the Bee Gees and the Von Trapp family."

Bud's version won out. The kids had talent, but Bud had a way of winning arguments.

                                *                                               
  
Snatching a moment of calm before going onstage, Susan Cowsill wanders the street outside the Cape Ann Community Cinema, peeking in the windows of neighborhood bakeries and antique shops. Gloucester's West End is quiet on this night, which suits her. She wears a baseball cap pulled down over her eyes. She could easily pass for a local biker mama or barfly. She's in her mid 50s, battle-tested, but still adorable.

"My brothers are lucky," she says. "They look good with grey hair. I'm not sure if I like what's going on underneath my cap."

If brother Bill was the family's Brian Wilson, Susan was the group's Michael Jackson, a precocious entertainer at an early age. She could steal the show with a giggle or a Davey Jones dance move. It was mind blowing that these kids from Newport, RI had the balls to tackle "Folsom Prison Blues," but the clips are there to prove it. One marvels at Susan, a little girl walloping the bass like she'd been born to it.  When the Cowsills appeared on a variety show, it was Susan who inevitably performed a duet with the host, or at the very least, ended up sitting on his lap. There are clips of her on YouTube tugging at Mel Torme's mustache, tap dancing with Buddy Ebsen.

She continued in music after the group's implosion in the early 1970s, becoming the most accomplished recording artist in the family. Now she divides her time between solo projects and Cowsills reunions.  She lives in New Orleans, married with children. She's done a better job of growing up than most.

This junket up the East Coast with her two brothers is a change from her usual gigs with her husband, Russ Broussard, and their band. It could be called 'The Family Secrets Tour.'  She talks a lot about family togetherness, and how the Cowsills may be an odd bunch, but are actually  closer than most families. "Going through hell will do that," she says, though she's concerned about the movie's tone, wondering if it will ever find the right balance between light and dark.

"We saw a test screening a few years ago," Susan says of the documentary. "They'd created a trailer that made it look like a horror movie. 'You thought they were the family next door, but there was horror you couldn't imagine!' They totally overdid it. We thought, 'This isn't what we want.' The story is disturbing, but it doesn't need to be sold like Friday the 13th."

A small gathering of fans linger outside the theater, talking about how strange it is to be seeing the Cowsills in 2012. Some of them are wearing old hippie gear:  shiny blue mini-dresses; knee high boots;  the spangly stuff Susan Cowsill might have worn 40 years ago.  A middle aged man wearing sunglasses appears on the sidewalk. He's asked if he's in the band. It's a fair question, since no one really knows what a Cowsill looks like these days. It turns out he was given a free ticket by the promoter. As the little crowd surrounds the faux Cowsill, Susan walks into the theater unnoticed, her cap pulled down over her eyes.

*
The short set goes well. The trio's singing brightens the room.  Then the movie streaks by like an unexpected fire. It is 89 minutes of psychic torture with a bubblegum soundtrack.  It is inspiring, bittersweet, beautiful, and weird, all words the Cowsills might use to describe their life.

The Q&A after the movie is a dud. The Gloucester audience is too stunned by the film.  

"I just want to know why I wasn't in it," Paul Cowsill says, breaking the tension. "I'm on the road promoting it and I'm barely in it."

A woman in the audience finally crows, "Thank God for you, thank you for the incredible music and joy you've given us." 

More silence.

Since the audience is slow to ask questions, the three Cowsills resort to old family shtick: corny jokes; snatches of songs; rambling stories. It's here that the Cowsills seem  most like former child stars. Something happens to children who hit a peak at age 12. A part of them remains 12 forever. They are always "on," always seeking attention. 

But the banter feels like more than just showbiz patter; it sounds like a defense mechanism left over from childhood. Music had helped create a protective wall for them. When the music stops, the Cowsills talk, and talk, and talk. Sound is their fortress.  One can imagine the Cowsills someday in a nursing home for aging rockers, babbling away, driving the attendants crazy.

Someone asks Susan about her days with Dwight Twilley, a power pop outfit of the mid '70s.  She doesn't know how to answer. 

"That's a very salacious and sassy question for my sister," Paul says.

After foiling one of her father's late night rape attempts, Susan went to live with Paul. He practically raised her, and is still protective of her, even when no protection is needed.

She makes light of the Twilley question, dances around it. The siblings go back to their banter. They keep things light.

                                                   *
Bob sits with the theater owner after the show. Bob is the deal maker. You want The Cowsills, you deal with Bob.

He went into the medical field after the band broke up, but he's still active in music, and has written some nice songs in recent years.  He takes this idea of being a former rock star with good cheer, but when it comes to getting paid he's a serious man. He's the one in the movie who talks about the Cowsills being broke at the end of their run. "I was paying taxes for 10 years," he says, "on money I'd never seen."

The theater owner hedges. He says the crowd wasn't as big as he'd hoped. Paul hovers around the scene, glowering.  Paul is a clownish character, but like many of the Cowsill boys, Paul inherited some of Bud's temper. We see him lose it a few times in the movie; it would be interesting to see him attack the theater owner.

A wad of bills is finally passed. Bob and Paul exchange glances. Paul nods. The tension evaporates. 

Bob had  been Bill's partner in forming the band back in 1964.  He still cries when he remembers the day Bill was "fired" after a run-in with daddy Bud. "It was the worst day of my life," he says. Susan was the band's mascot, but Bob was the backbone, the link to Bill's original vision.  He took over Bill's vocal parts, as Bill wandered into Canada where he seemed to disintegrate, slowly, until his death.

Bob was largely responsible for the documentary, and much of it is told from his perspective. He's the one who does the interviewing of the relatives, trying to get to the bottom of their father's dark personality, trying to understand how a bunch of "talented little kids" ended up on "such a shitty path."

The movie, though, seems like a work in progress. There are patches where it appears to need editing, or subtitles, or something. Though it has played a few festivals and is officially listed as a 2011 release, it is still being worked on.

Maybe the movie will never be finished. Maybe the Cowsill story is too complicated to tell, after all.
  

Ten months have passed. I'm sitting with Paul at a gig in Saugus. He's in a jolly mood, telling me how the Cowsill name originated in England, and that there's a popular chain of Cowsill laundromats in London.  He's all rubbery limbs and corny jokes.  Something about him reminds me of Chevy Chase; I half expect him to pratfall from the stage. Family Band: The Cowsills Story is making the rounds now on Showtime and various VOD services. It feels more polished than it did 10 months ago. "I think it's sadder," Paul says. "Less horrific, and just plain sadder."

The loose ends of the movie have been tightened. One needs to see the film more than once, though. There are so many Cowsills, so many stories, that it's hard to keep them all straight.

There's Richard, for instance, the brother deemed not good enough by Bud and sent to the Army. His story could be a film in itself. What was it like to be in Vietnam while his family was living the life of pop idols?

Then there's mother Barbara, who died  in the 1980s.  After seeing the movie again, you realize what a sport she was, appearing on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and even Hugh Hefner's Playboy After Dark, helping to sell the band. Not only was she pushed into the music business against her will, but she became the group's de facto spokesperson.

Bud, who died in 1992, remains a horrible figure, a power hungry megalomaniac who would rather see the group fail under his watch than succeed with someone else. As Bill says in the movie, the man was "sick." But Bill also gives Bud credit. "No one believed in the Cowsills," Bill says, "as much as our father."

But was it a mere coincidence that when TV turned the Cowsills into The Partridge Family,  the TV mother was a widow? Or did the show's producers see something dark in Bud that wasn't worth replicating?

The documentary, directed by  Louise Palanker and Bill Filipiak, is excellent, but   not enough time is spent on the music.  There's an explosive clip of the young Cowsills playing "Reach Out." They wail on it as if they'd invented Motown. The soundtrack is also peppered with many beautiful cuts, including tracks from Susan and Barry's solo albums. It's not enough, though. We could appreciate the claim that Bill Cowsill was a genius if we'd seen more of him in action.

The group sounds great in Saugus, even brighter and livelier than they'd sounded a year earlier, as if they, like the movie, were more polished and together. Something about families singing in harmony is magical, and the Cowsills will sound beautiful together until they die. Their expanded set is strangely powerful, highlighted by their signature hit, "The Rain, The Park, & Other Things". To see three of them performing what had surely seemed like a studio trick is breathtaking. One could argue that the song is up there with "Good Vibrations" as one of the oddest, loveliest sounds to ever hit Top 40 radio. You know it, don't you? It's the one about the flower girl, sitting in the rain, hello, hello.

It was The Cowsills. Remember them?



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