Sunday, April 7, 2013

Family Band: The Cowsills Story

by Bill Holmes

The Real Cowsills
This is sort of another of the reviews of music TV programs I did in the past few weeks. The difference is there wasn't much music in this program. This was the story of the Cowsills, a family band that had a few hits. This documentary was mostly about the Cowsill family, how they started, the years of popularity, the decline and what has happened since. There were some clips of their performances but that was not the focus. I was not a fan of the Cowsills music at the time or now. The only reason I watched it is that a local TV critic and a local newspaper music critic recommended it. The music critic actually apologized for recommending anything to do with the Cowsills.

The Cowsills was a band in the late 1960's made up of seven family members; five brothers, one sister and their Mom. They were the inspiration for The Partridge Family TV show. The show wound up outlasting the band. The Cowsills had a few hits between 1967 and 69. If you are old enough you may remember some of them, The Rain, the Park & Other Things, Indian Lake and Hair. Those songs are not terrible but they certainly weren't what I was listening to at the time.

As it turns out much of the music the Cowsills played was not what they wanted to do either. Between the record companies and a controlling father, they were forced to dumb down their music. They wanted to be a rock band but the industry and dad wanted them to be a clean cut family group.

The main theme of the documentary is how dysfunctional the family was. The undisputed villain was the father. He was a career Navy man who spent much of the time at sea. When back on shore he would try to run the family in a military manner and fix all the things he thought had gone wrong while he was away at sea. Oh, he'd also impregnate his wife. There were seven kids. Mom came across as OK, but not strong enough to stand up to or leave her husband.

During the documentary several people were interviewed including all the remaining Cowsills. The disdain for the father was universal. He was described as controlling, domineering, volatile, demeaning,  bi-polar, abusive (mental and physical), alcoholic and in general an ass hole. Sounds like a lovely man. He is also blamed for the downfall in popularity and eventual breakup of the band.

I couldn't help but think of the of the Beach Boys. Another family band that had a domineering and destructive father. They managed to survive but were severely damaged both as a band and as individuals. The Cowsills did not survive as a group and most family members were damaged.

Originally the Cowsills was made up of three then four of the brothers. After some success Mom was added then baby sister at the insistence of dear old dad. Another brother begged to be included because he couldn't stand to be left home with dad while the band was touring. The tree original brothers wanted to include the last brother too but dad wouldn't let him join. Seems there was bad blood between brother Richard and dad. The boys didn't particularly want Mom and baby sis in the group, what teenage rock and roll band would.

Their first hit was in 1967 and their last was in 1969 although they performed until 1972. During that time they were on many of the TV variety, music and talk shows. Some of the clips shown of their interviews are very interesting when viewed in light of the real family situation. Of course they were depicted as the ideal all-american family. Mom and dad were wonderful parents and everybody was happy and well adjusted. Funny to see the likes of Ed Sullivan and Mike Douglas propagating the myth.

The Ed Sullivan Show
Who knows how long the Cowsills could have stayed on top or even together but surely the father's interference hastened their demise. They allegedly had a ten show contract with The Ed Sullivan Show but after a technical glitch during the second appearance, dad cancelled the contract. This was during a time when that show was viewed by millions and an important platform for music acts. He torpedoed the opportunity for the group to star in their own summer replacement show. The exact circumstances and disagreements are somewhat in dispute but dad nixed the deal. That concept eventually became The Partridge Family with actors hired to play a Cowsills like family. He also alienated everyone in the music industry and meddled in the creative side of the band. In 1969 dad fired the oldest brother, Bill, from the band. Bill was the one who first organized the group, was the lead singer and the creative force. The other siblings said that was a devastating blow and that Bill was their Brian Wilson.  
The Fake Cowsills

If all that isn't enough he had two more shining moments. He tried to rape his own 11 or 12 year old daughter. She managed to stop him from that but suffered a beating in the process. Soon thereafter she went to live with one of her brothers. His final gift to the family was to squander all the money the band made. When they finally broke up, they were in debt. Some estimate that they made $20 million during their peak years. Not only was all the money gone but taxes had not been paid on the earnings. One brother said it took him 20 years to pay off the IRS. Remember, in 1967 when the six siblings were in the band they ranged in age from eight to 19. They had no real chance to stand up to their father.

The Cowsills Now
Not surprisingly several of the Cowsill children have had problems. Two of the brothers are dead at least indirectly due to drug and alcohol abuse. Another, the one not a band member, came back from Vietnam with a heroin addiction. The others have emotional scars and resentment. Some have continued in music mostly full time. Others have kept a hand in music while pursuing other careers. Three of the siblings occasionally perform together as the Cowsills. Ironically another sibling performs as a member of the Beach Boys touring band. A group that is the remnants of another family band from the 60's that had a domineering and abusive father. It's a small world.

I came away from the program feeling sorry for the Cowsill family. They had a bad home life and an ambushed career. I also gained some respect for their musical talent and ability. They were all self taught musicians and decent singers. They didn't want to be stuck with bubble gum music and the perfect family persona. Those were forced on them by record labels and their father. They had that one quality that is a gift of a family band, almost perfect harmony. That is a good thing. I hope the remaining Cowsills can find some peace from past demons and be happy.

Family Band: The Cowsills Story is being shown on the Showtime channels this month. It's not a happy, funny or very musical program but it is interesting. It depicts how one person can disrupt so many lives. It proves that some people should not be allowed to have kids and be parents.


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