The startling thing about some '60s and '70s pop hits were how icky sweet they were, and, simultaneously, how deep they could go. For all of us kicking around the Carpenters at the time, it's a fair bet we were all singing (tearfully) along to Karen's plaintive "Superstar" in the privacy of our cars.
For some of us, it was the same with The Cowsills breakthrough 1967 hit, "The Rain, the Park and Other Things" (which some know as "The Flower Girl"). It's a virtual Phil Spector-like "little symphony for the kids" — a bittersweet organ refrain, harp flourishes and Bill Cowsills' high-register warble of teen love leading the way over everything.
The tragic prettiness of that song, along with the story of the crystalline five and six-part harmonies of The Cowsills' are recalled, and unraveled, in the 2011 documentary Family Band: The Cowsills Story now running on Showtime and Showtime 2 through April.
On one hand, the story of the Cowsills is a typical fame to wreckage story. The documentary reveals that they grossed an estimated $20 million in 1970s dollars during their three-year run of hit records and 200-plus live performances per year. And all that money disappeared, with no one knowing exactly where it went. Older brother Bob remembers that it took him ten years to reconcile with the IRS, paying taxes and penalties on income and gains he never saw.
Family Band is also a milestone marker, showing us the cracked foundation that supported a squeaky-clean family image, and a veneer-thin ideal, so often polished in the advertising of the '50s and '60s. (For a while the Cowsills served as the spokespersons for the American Dairy Association, always at the ready with big white glasses of wholesome milk, and big white teeth to go along with them.)
If any family suffered the schizophrenia of a happy-go-lucky public personae papering over a dysfunctional, unhappy home, it was the Cowsills.
The Cowsills catapulted to fame when "mini-mom" Barbara Cowsill and her young daughter, Susan, were put into the already-working band of brothers Bill, Bob, Barry, Paul and John by the band's producers and handlers. What was a workmanlike group of talented, young singer-musicians toiling away on the local circuit in Rhode Island, erupted into financial gold when it was transformed and marketed as an effusive family band.
With the release of the single "The Rain, the Park and Other Things" the Cowsills rocketed to national recognition, and made numerous television appearances on popular shows including The Ed Sullivan Show and The Mike Douglas Show.
The Cowsill family was also the model for the sitcom The Partridge Family (ABC, 1970-74.) They were actually supposed to star in the series, but the producers killed the deal, opting for actors instead. (There's a charming interview with Partridge Family mom Shirley Jones lamenting the dismissal of the Cowsills from their own project while introducing them at a 2004 benefit concert for Bill Cowsill.)
But Family Band is primarily the unfortunate story of the Cowsills' main handler and fearmonger, father Bud Cowsill (photo right, at far right). From the get-go, he was the font of the Cowsills success and their unhappiness. By all Cowsill family accounts, Bud Cowsill broke down doors to make them famous, and pretty much broke everything else in his way after they got there. He was band manager, unpredictable alcoholic, philanderer and violent tyrant.
Many of the documentary's interviews are hand-held homemade videos with the now-graying, surviving children. It's a harrowing account of young children functioning as obedient, fearful soldiers in a family battalion lead by the ex-Navy father.
Bill also recalls how they went on to produce a small-studio track of the title song from the Broadway musical, Hair, a song counter to their wholesome image (and counter to their record company's wishes) for the Carl Reiner-hosted special, The Wonderful World of Pizzazz. A surprise success, Hair found its way to the Billboard Top Ten in 1969, becoming their third chart hit.
At times, Family Band finds the Cowsills as a sort of haywire Von Trapp Family singers, or a white-bread version of the Jacksons. The Brian Wilson-level analog of the Cowsill brothers self-producing their own cover of Hair rightly points to the parallel of the Beach Boys' genius, similarly destructing under an abusive, controlling father.
At the height of the Cowsills success, alcoholic Bud kicked Bill out of the group for the offense of trying pot. (No hypocrisy there.) But it was more likely for Bill's habitual defiance, and his point of view as a talented musician.
Excommunicated and separated from his brothers and sisters, Bill moved to Canada, and struggled with substance addiction and illness for much of his adult life. In failing health during the early 2000s he gained sobriety shortly before his death in 2006.
The documentary shows clear moments of Bill's considerable talent and his vindication as leader of the alt-country band, The Blue Shadows. (Little brother John now tours with The Beach Boys, taking lead vocals on some of their biggest hits, sister Susan went on to considerable success in New Orleans with The Continental Drifters, and oldest brother Bob is now the front man for the touring version of The Cowsills.)
The 2011 film by Louise Palanker is a memoir of sorts for Bob Cowsill, who does all the narration, and admits at the end he's ambivalent about his reasons for excavating through all that history and what he's trying to accomplish. Is it for closure of some sort? Is it to understand and forgive his father? Was it a way of rediscovering the family's original love of music and how that had held them together as children, and how it still binds them as a family today?
The documentary closes with the darkest crease of Bud Cowsill, which you may have seen coming all along, but also shows the surviving children now performing their current road act (with a few of their own children as side musicians) now seemingly reconciled with their past and singing as joyfully, and as beautifully, as they did 40 years ago.
And that's good for all of us watching. We can look back with them at a time when the American family image was something much different than it is now.