Arguably no song better encapsulated the sunny, innocent side of the 1960's than The Rain, The Park, and Other Things by The Cowsills. Released in 1967, a year identified by both the Summer of Love and fiery protests against the Vietnam War, the song combined a bit of ethereal, organ-infused psychedelia with stunning harmonies and an unapologetically sweet, pure-pop innocence that you just don't hear in music now. It may be my favorite a.m. radio hit from that music-rich decade.
The Rain, The Park, and Other Things sold more than three million copies and brought quick and deserved fame to the Cowsills, a family band from Newport, Rhode Island that would later become the real-life inspiration for TV's The Partridge Family. When as a kid I first saw the clean-cut, all-American Cowsills on The Ed Sullivan Show, I remember thinking how lucky they were to be playing music together as a family, on national television.
But the pure joy in their songs (Hair, Love American Style, Indian Lake) belied the Cowsills' private pain. The group, composed of siblings Billy, Bob, Paul, Barry, John, and Susan, plus their mom Barbara, was managed by father William "Bud" Cowsill, a domineering and abusive ex-Navy officer who beat, bullied, and alienated his children and tore the band apart
"Our dad was a tough guy. If you didn't say 'yes sir,' you'd get smacked, simple as that," says Bob Cowsill, 63, one of the surviving members of the family and narrator of a new documentary on the Cowsills debuting tonight on Showtime.
In an interview with The Reno Dispatch, Bob Cowsill told me that neither he nor any of his siblings ever patched things up with their father. "He ruined the band, and destroyed many of our lives," Bob says. "He wouldn't even let my twin brother Richard in the band. He and my dad had it in for each other. It was terrible that he wouldn't let Richard join in, I know it broke his heart."
The documentary, Family Band: The Cowsills Story, which was made over a seven-year period in which brothers Bill and Barry died, tells the real story of the Cowsills for the first time. Skillfully directed by Louise Palankar, a lifelong fan of the band, the film chronicles the family's raging patriarch as well as the substance abuse and other issues that have plagued the siblings over the years.
But thankfully it isn't all gloom and doom. The documentary also includes a nice dose of redemption, plenty of fun 60's nostalgia, and some truly great music.
The Cowsills are an eternally underrated band. They were skilled musicians who wrote many of their own songs, and their four- and five-part harmonies at times rivaled The Beach Boys. Billed as "America's First Family of Music," the Cowsills were among the most popular pop bands in America in the late 60's. They were all over television, with appearances on Ed Sullivan, The Tonight Show, American Bandstand and much more. They hosted their own NBC-TV special and even became spokespersons for the American Dairy Association, appearing in milk commercials and print ads. They also recorded the popular theme to the ABC-TV comedy anthology Love American Style.
The band even challenged their own wholesome image, and their dictatorial father, by recording the title song from the acclaimed hippie counterculture musical Hair (check out this 60s-era video of the band hamming it up in hippie wigs). The song shot to the top of the singles charts in 1969 at the same time as three other classic interpretations from that musical: Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In by the Fifth Dimension, Good Morning Starshine by Oliver, and Easy to be Hard by Three Dog Night.
"I met the members of The Fifth Dimension at the time, and we shared a laugh over the fact that both of our songs from Hair, as well as the Three Dog Night song and the Oliver song, were all in the top ten at that moment," Bob recalls. "It was pretty amazing. We were honored to be part of that. We were excited about the success of the song and hoping it would be the beginning of a more mature direction for the band."
Despite that hope, Bob says everyone in the group knew it was only a matter of time before it would all come crashing down.
"The public never knew what was really going on in our family," says Bob. "For example, my dad and my brother Bill had a huge fight in a restaurant in Vegas in 1969 that involved police, and it was all kept out of the papers, never a word. Just before dad tossed Bill from the band, they just had it out. We were all victims of his abuse, mental and physical."
Bud was the one who pulled the plug on signing the Cowsill kids up for the "Partridge" TV show when it was learned that Barbara Cowsill's role would be played by someone else (Shirley Jones).
"Yeah, dad nixed that," Bob says. "But contrary to popular belief, it wasn't bad news to us. We had just had a huge hit with Hair, and we knew that a TV show would take up all of our time. We were happy recording and touring. We wanted to do the music."
As it turned out, Hair was the family's last hit single. The band self destructed as resentment toward Bud Cowsill grew. Dropped by their record label, the group permanently disbanded in 1971. Barry and Bill went off to do solo work while Susan and three of the brothers, Bob (on guitar and organ), John (on drums) and Paul occasionally reunited on tour. The band - Bob, Susan and Paul - still tours to this day. And they can all still sing, very nicely. John Cowsill has been the drummer for The Beach Boys for years.
Barbara died of cancer in 1985 at age 56 and father Bud passed away in 1992 at age 67. Son Barry, the bassist and reported Danny Bonaduce-like prototype who battled severe depression and substance abuse, was a 2005 victim of Hurricane Katrina. Lead singer/guitarist Billy, also an alcohol and drug abuser, died from chronic health problems in 2006. Both brothers were in their 50s.
The Cowsills story is chillingly similar to that of two other musical families from that era: The Beach Boy brothers Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson and their sadistic, megalomaniacal father Murry Wilson, and the Jackson Five and their abusive father Joe Jackson.
Bob is grateful the band had so much success, but he believes that had it not been for his father, "We would have had 20 more hits. We were just getting started." Bob regrets that there was never a reconciliation with any of the Cowsill siblings and their father. And he's still angry that his dad never saved any of the money the band made, and never set up any trust funds or bank accounts for any of his children.
"That would be illegal to do that today," he says. "We never get a dime from anything, and our songs are still out there. The Rain, The Park, and Other Things, our original recording, was featured in the movie Dumb and Dumber and we weren't even told about it, let alone paid for it."
Bob says he and the other surviving members have come to terms with their difficult past, and with themselves. And he notes that his dad did pay one final, unexpected visit to each of the Cowsill siblings not long before he died.
"He was living in Mexico, but he came to visit me one last time," Bob recalls. "It had been a long time since I had seen him. I didn't get to see my mother much, either, because she stayed with him. But one time he just got in his his Volkswagen bus, with his white hair and white beard like Ernest Hemingway, and showed up at my door. He said he just wanted to stop by. I didn't even know what to say."
Bud went with Bob that day to see his son play baseball, and then went with him to his wife's tennis lesson. "He didn't say much," Bob says. "But there was one thing he said that I will never forget. He asked me, 'Are you prejudiced?' I said, 'Of course not, dad.' And he said, 'At least I did something right.' Then he left."
Bob says he never saw his father again. But his father left $1,000 on Bob's table that day. "He visited all of us like that, every one of us," Bob says. "And he asked all of us the same question."