[NOTE: I’ve posted this video before, but in a different context. It felt right to post it again because it’s context grows by the year. So maybe call it re-found in the connection.]
I’m a sucker for hope…but it’s exceeding rare to pull up a modern clip of some group doing one of their old hits from the prime days of Rock and Roll America (50’s, 60’s, 70’s) and find it enlarged. As often than not, if there’s an exception, it’s because the Cowsills got together in some environment where they were being well-recorded, like this clip from a concert they gave as a benefit to their cancer-stricken brother Billy, who had been the group’s resident genius-in-training until their father kicked him out of the band (and the house), killing their career just as the “family group” ethos they had more or less invented was taking off.
Believe me, no post-millennial reunion of the Jacksons, Osmonds, DeFrancos or Partridge Family ever has or could produce anything like this….let alone while playing their own instruments.
(Barry Cowsill, at the far right, would vanish in Hurricane Katrina a year later. His body washed up two months later. The others got the news of Billy’s death while they were holding Barry’s wake. I’ve heard about life being a bitch…but serendipity? It’s a bit much!)
A Family Band: The Cowsills Story
Louise Palanker and Bill Filipiak, directors (2010)
[SMALL ANNOUNCEMENT: I haven’t updated my Rock and Roll Cinema category for a couple of years. Along the way, I decided it would be better the call this category Rock and Roll Screenings, so I can write about television or other video formats under the same umbrella…not saying I will…just saying it’s….possible.]
[NOTE: H-m-m-m-m…The Jackson 5, Julie Brown, Tommy James and now, finally, my long-promised review of the Cowsills’ documentary. It must be “Naked Truth Week” at The Round Place In the Middle. I’ll have one more post in the next few days tying it all up. For now…]
[2nd NOTE: Oh wait….Previous thoughts on/links to all things Cowsill here. I especially recommend that newcomers search for the Playboy After Dark clip, which I’m pretty sure is the only clip I’ve ever posted twice. Okay, on with the show…]
Rock and roll certainly gets in the blood.
Take Louise Palanker, who apparently decided to spend a decade or so chasing down the story of the Cowsills and putting it on film.
On the surface, that is a strange obsession–and it becomes a little stranger when you watch the result and realize that, while its self-deprecating tone might win a few converts, it is not especially aimed at doing so. If you come to this film thinking, as one (admittedly deeply misguided) reviewer put it, that the Cowsills were the most meretricious band of the sixties, then there’s not much chance this film will change your mind.
It might stick with you, though, even then.
Not that I was among those who needed convincing–I loved “Indian Lake” the first time I heard it on a crappy sounding TV-special oldies’ collection back in the late seventies, and, a thousand spins later, hearing Billy Cowsill moan about being forced to record “this piece of shit” doesn’t diminish my love one bit!–but this particular labor of love has certainly stuck with me.
The claims for the Cowsills’ “importance”–that overused, very sixties-style word–are, I think, a good deal more significant than the film acknowledges…or maybe just has time for.
They pretty much invented a certain approach to teen-pop–both as music (thanks to the inordinate talent of the kids) and marketing (thanks to the inordinate obstinance of their horribly abusive father)–which took a deep hold in American life at the very moment their own band (and family) were disintegrating. That approach, carried on by so many others, has never really gone out of style since.
Several commenters in the film espouse (without contradiction) the view that the Cowsills’ stopped having hits because their time had basically passed. I’d argue that, by the time the events recalled elsewhere in the film had wrecked their career, their true moment had finally come. One semi-tragic element of their story (mostly unexplored here)–is that they weren’t allowed to participate in the mini-Pop Explosion they made possible.
So what’s not in the film is this: Within six months of their last major hit–1969’s “Hair” (brilliantly produced by Bill and Bob, the great story of how they got it released against their record company’s wishes is both fully told in the film and well worth remembering if you’re under any illusion that the barriers to the Cowsills transitioning to adult stardom were any way musical)–falling from the charts, the next family of talented kids waiting in the wings entered those charts for the first time.
That was the Jackson 5.
Starting in January of 1970, the Jackson, Osmond and Cassidy (aka “Partridge,” for whom the Cowsills were the very direct inspiration) families spent eighteen of the next fifty-four weeks at #1 on the Billboard pop chart. Those other families–real and imagined–maintained a semi-iconic cultural presence for decades to come, and, of course, produced the biggest pop star of the post-Beatles era.
Meanwhile, The Cowsills themselves–pioneers of the concept and (excepting Michael Jackson) likely the most talented of the bunch–entered the oblivion zone.
Whatever the reasons, the market for families of cute kids with teen idol looks drying up wasn’t one of them.
Semi-tragic, as I mentioned. Quite possibly a great movie there.
But, as I also mentioned, that isn’t the tale Palanker and the Cowsills chose to tell.
So I guess the very fair question going in, is “Do they have another tale worth telling?”
You bet they do.
For the surviving Cowsill children, it’s pretty clear that, from this distance, making sense of their lives meant more than making sense of their career.
This the film does beautifully. Not by providing easy answers (or, in some cases, any answer) but by continually asking the right questions and giving us an up-close-and-personal view of the results.
The framework has Bob Cowsill, the band’s putative leader since their father kicked brother Billy out in the immediate aftermath of “Hair,” going back and interviewing various record men and family members. The parents, Bud and Barbara Cowsill, were both deceased by the time filming began, but there are several aunts available and their responses are, by turns, frustrating, poignant and infuriating. “I spanked my own kids,” one of Bud’s sisters says.
It’s not clear that she grasps the long difference between spanking your kids and doing what Bud Cowsill did.
What he did in the beginning was manage his own kids’ musical career well enough to get them on the national stage with a family-oriented pop image that was far removed from the garage band ethos the older boys wanted to pursue. What he did in the end was wreck every single opportunity he made–multiple lucrative recording contracts, an unprecedented ten-show contract with the Ed Sullivan Show, a chance to be participants in (or at least compensated inspiration for) the Partridge Family TV show–by his boorish, paranoid, ultimately incompetent personal and managerial behavior.
What he also did, from beginning to end, was relentlessly mete out virtually every form of physical and psychological abuse known to fatherhood.
The damage shows. Bill, Barry and Richard (the only sibling not allowed in the band–dad’s decision again and, according to Bill, not a good one) all struggled with various addictions and have passed away since filming began (Bill and Barry before the film was finished, though, fortunately, both were interviewed extensively).
For the rest, there was a troubled but ultimately inspirational (in the best sense) journey of individual and collective discovery.
It’s that journey Palanker chose to focus on and one of the film’s great strengths is that–through some really skillful editing (and given how long this project took, and how small its budget must have been, I mean really skillful–this thing flows)–the basics of the musical story manage to rest easily inside the family’s tortured narrative. Bob Cowsill is a genial presence, gently probing his relatives and other principals (like the band’s first producer, Artie Kornfeld, and Partridge mom, Shirley Jones, both genial presences themselves and a welcome relief from the often grim family drama), without becoming abrasive or judgmental.
The film benefits enormously, too, from the simple fact that the charisma of the first “first family of pop”–that is, the elements, beyond their considerable talent, that made them stars–still comes through: Bill’s ferocity, Barry’s sly wit, Susan’s spunk, even John’s essentially laid-back little-brotherness (to which I can relate). It’s not hard to see why they made it big–and it’s easy to lament what might have been even if they’ve understandably grown long-ago-and-far-away philosophical about the whole thing themselves.
I’m not sure there’s anything here that a victim of an abusive parent would call revelatory, but that’s part of the point. It’s a too-common family story told uncommonly well. If I have a quibble with the film, besides perhaps selling their historical significance a little short, it’s a relative paucity of music clips–I assume that was a rights issue, but the Cowsills were often superb on period television and I thought there were a few places where a well placed video could have added to the impact of the familial story as well as beef up the musical one.
There’s always YouTube, though (see below), and, in any case, this particular lack is more than made up for on DVD by the inclusion of a second disc of truly extraordinary “extras.” There’s a great musical tribute to Barry (who died in Hurricane Katrina, and which should be included in the links above), and several excellent full-length interviews that were edited for clips in the film.
Most of all, there’s a long clip with Barry and Richard–the son who was sent to Viet Nam instead of the Ed Sullivan Show–riding around in a darkened van, reminiscing, coping, fending off demons. At some point Richard takes over with a monologue about his experiences that beats every “Viet Nam” movie ever made as a primer on the enduring damage done to the national soul.
In the end, Palanker, Bill Filipiak and their team, plus the Cowsills themselves, made a fine film against what I take to be next-to-impossible odds.
The end product is rather like the Cowsills themselves.
Not perfect, just vital.
Oh, and about that musical thing (not from the film, but it could have been…and, if you’ve been here before, you know how I feel about singers):
Sorry for the light posting….Trying to meet some year-end (self-imposed but real) deadlines and getting ready for a trip. Meanwhile, here’s a nice story from Susan Cowsill on the art of collaborating with her brother Barry, who was killed in Hurricane Katrina in 2005:
Which is also a good excuse to re-post this, their finest hour together on this side–and the reason God made YouTube (Barry sings lead on the second song, “II X II” which starts around 3:20):
I was saddened to learn that Richard, the lone Cowsill sibling (six brothers and one sister) who was not a member of his family’s seminal rock band succumbed to lung cancer on July 8.
Though he never sang or played professionally, he was a powerful presence in the invaluable documentary The Cowsills: A Family Band (which I will get around to reviewing here soon).
As the documentary makes plain, Richard was prevented from joining the band by his tyrannical father, who instead packed him off to Viet Nam while the other kids were playing state fairs and the Ed Sullivan Show. The most harrowing footage in the film (abetted by extensive extras on the DVD) is of Richard, riding around in a van late at night (first with his brother Barry, soon to be lost in Katrina, then alone), telling his side of the story.
How many beatings he took for his brothers–who all took their share–from the father who hated him most is unknowable. But in that van, wearing the beatings and the PTSD and the resulting addictions on his face all those decades later, it’s easy to guess which will tend to have the most lasting effect–abusable substances, combat in a war where any ground you take is sure to be given back by leaders who are bound to blame anybody and everybody but themselves, or having your father use you for a punching bag.
Richard did occasionally join in with the group in later years. Much as I hope he’s found peace now, it would be nice to think that he found at least a little bit of it here (thanks to Family Band director Louise Palanker for making these “extras” available on YouTube):
I rented Hemingway and Gellhorn, popped it in the DVD player, negotiated my way past the menu and immediately found myself staring into the age-and-war-and-Dachau-witnessing-ravaged face and listening to the tobacco-stained-and-whiskey-soaked voice of Martha Gellhorn, one of the twentieth century’s greatest journalists and war correspondents, looking back on her glorious youth. Gellhorn herself having been dead for a while when this was made (and me actually having no idea whatsoever of how she really looked or sounded), I spent the first thirty seconds or so wondering who this terrific actress was they got to not so much “play” as embody Gellhorn in old age.
Then there was a certain flicker of the eyes or tilt of the head that hinted it might actually be the woman whose name was over the credits.
Viewing this very, very good film (or “miniseries” or “TV movie” or “event” or whatever it’s supposed to be called if it ran on HBO), I was never quite able to recover from that initial shock. I’m a fan of Kidman’s. She was the main reason I wanted to see this, and, of course, she’s been truly fantastic here and there over the years. And she’s quite good in this, too, playing–but not quite embodying–Gellhorn in the days before age, war, Dachau and Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen, first rate as usual) took their toll.
But what she achieves here as the older, backward-looking-but-always-forward-moving Gellhorn really begs the question of why she’s been so hellishly obsessed with losing her looks and having all that useless plastic surgery that’s done nothing but make her a punch line. My God, woman, if you can act like that you’ll work forever–and you’ll be remembered forever! Let the other stuff go. I beg you.
YouTube Dynamite: The Cowsills at the Playboy Mansion (1970).
For those who don’t know (or remember), the Cowsills were the family band who essentially invented the brand of Teen Pop that–from the J5 and the Osmonds (who were breaking wide open as this played originally in May, 1970, on Hugh Hefner’s short-lived music show Playboy After Dark) to whoever is set to replace Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus tomorrow–has periodically ruled the world ever since.
They had a run of late-sixties’ hits themselves but were ultimately cheated out of their truly just reward when the television producers who had directly modeled The Partridge Family after them wanted some–but not all–of them for the cast and they refused to participate. At which point an industry already heavily aligned against them because of the actions of their abusive, alcoholic, manager-father, whose belligerence had, among other things, previously cost them a record setting ten-show contract with The Ed Sullivan Show, rapidly turned its back.
Within two years of the video linked below they had disbanded, as both a musical group and a family unit. The family unit and the musical group both reformed in later years–tentatively at first, but these days they’ve become a permanent fixture on the oldies circuit. There has been a new birth of critical respect after retro-genres like “Sunshine Pop” came into vogue and more has become known about the brothers’ considerable writing and playing abilities. Evidently, many of the personal wounds have healed as well.
But the saddest words of tongue and pen are still “it might have been,” and what I see in the video below is a Teen Pop act that never would have needed to take a back seat to any of their heirs if talent had been all that mattered.
If you don’t already know, it probably won’t be hard to guess from watching the video which two of the children the producers wanted in particular.
That would be Susan Cowsill, then a week short of her eleventh birthday, who first charms a room full of Playboy Bunnies and then makes them utterly disappear (not least when they are milling about in front of her, blocking the damn view! get out of the way people, we wanna see the ten-year-old! don’t you know talent always wins!), dancing beside her brother Barry–the other one the producers were ready to cast.
Great as Barry’s vocal is here on what was probably their best song (“II x II”–the second song in the sequence), he was even better on his instrument. The epic bass guitar on “Indian Lake” and “Hair,” two of their biggest hits, which most people probably assume were played by the sort of crack session men who have backed every single other Teen Pop act from then to now, were his (both records were produced–superbly–by his brother Bill, who had subsequently been kicked out of the band by their father in a crowning act of genius!).
Those landmarks–as indelible as any bass lines in the rock and roll era, which means as indelible as any in the history of bass lines–were well in Barry’s past when he stepped to the mike on this particular night, four months short of his sixteenth birthday.
The Cowsills “Where Is Love,” “II X II” and “Poor Baby”(Live at the Playboy Mansion)
Susan Cowsill has long since become one of the country’s best singer-songwriters and has lived a genuinely epic American life which I’m just beginning to learn about in depth and which I’ll get to more of in the coming days or weeks.
Barry Cowsill disappeared during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. His body washed up in the Mississippi River four months afterwards and was finally identified a week later.
Believe it or not, some people made fun of me back then when I said it was a musical, as well as human, tragedy.
You can listen to Susan’s tribute to Barry below–singing one of his songs, with her surviving brothers on backing vocals (plus Jackson Browne and the Bangles’ Vicki Peterson)–and judge for yourself:
Susan Cowsill “River of Love” (Studio Recording with Video Clip)
NOTE: I’ve got the recent acclaimed documentary about the band on its way and I’ll almost certainly have more thoughts on them (and more links–to Susan’s story for sure) after I have a chance to watch the whole thing.
But that first video above has been my YouTube crack for this week. And, hey, if you don’t cry (or smile) for anything else, you can at least cry (or smile) for an age when Hugh Hefner still had taste in women! Still can’t figure out if he ruined us or we ruined him in the long fall since. The corny jokes here provide no clue to the enduring mystery…