Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Poor Babies

Last night was "Dysfunctional Family Night" at the Forgotten Hits Ranch.

We kicked off the evening with J.R. Ewing's funeral on the reboot of "Dallas" ... and capped it off with the brand new Showtime Documentary spotlighting The Cowsills.

Now I'm not sure television has ever given us a more "challenged" family than The Ewings ... Kardashians be damned ... but this profile of The Cowsills just may have surpassed them last night.  The big difference, of course, is that The Cowsills' conflicts were "real life" ... The Ewings' were scripted TV at its very best ... and there has never been anything real about The Kardashians (including most of their body parts!)

The Cowsills, however, just may be the greatest example of the extremity of love and hate in a single family that I have ever witnessed.

FH Reader Tom Cuddy had just told me about this special the day before ... so I was anxious to see it:

Gripping 'Cowsills Story' Documentary Coming to Showtime  
By Randy Lewis, LA TIMES  
March 6, 2013, 12:00 p.m.    

The new documentary “Family Band: The Cowsills Story,” premiering tonight on Showtime, opens with a compelling scene showing musician Bob Cowsill setting up single-handed for another thankless gig in the corner of a restaurant-bar of an Indian casino. As patrons chat, eat and drink, barely paying attention, he says, “I had four hit records between the ages of 17 and 21 … I did!”

As is obvious in that scene, the Cowsills long ago fell off the radar of most pop music fans, and are remembered today primarily for their hit recording of the title song from the musical “Hair,” which spent two weeks at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969.

Filmmaker Louise Palanker, with lots of unflinchingly direct input from the surviving members of the family group that became the inspiration for “The Partridge Family” TV series, tells a fascinating story of a group that had briefly captured the attention of the pop world, but disintegrated under the iron fist of its manager father, Bud Cowsill.

The film traces the band's story from early days in Newport, R.I., where brothers Bob, Bill, Barry and John Cowsill started their own band after being inspired, like so many of their generation, by seeing the Beatles perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Within a few years, they were standing on the same stage, a slightly hipper version of the Osmonds, playing to a national TV audience of tens of millions with their 1967 hit “The Rain, the Park & Other Things.”

To the boys’ chagrin, their father soon insisted that they expand their ranks to include not just their baby sister, Susan, but their mother, Barbara, as well.

“We love our mom,” John Cowsill says, “but I challenge you to find a teenage boy anywhere who wants his mom in his rock band.”

The domineering stage parent is an all-too-common theme in show business, and the Cowsills’ version of the story includes many unfortunately familiar elements: the overbearing father, in this case a career Navy officer who was out of their lives as much as he was in them, whose alcohol use inflamed already volatile relationships; natural parent-child frictions magnified by the glare of the public spotlight; and family tragedies.

Barbara Cowsill died of emphysema in 1985 at age 56, the same disease that claimed Bill Cowsill 21 years later at age 58, less than two months after Barry Cowsill’s body was found in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Bud Cowsill died in 1992 of leukemia.

There’s also the harsh reality of coming out of an incredibly successful period in their lives to discover they had no money to show for it. “We all started our adult lives in debt,” Bob says. “What happened to the money? It’s a mystery, but suffice it to say our dad mismanaged it and it was gone.”

The 87-minute film is filled with examples of other negative fallout of Bud’s dictatorial control over his kids -- especially Richard, the one child whom Bud refused to allow to be part of the band with his five siblings. Executives at ABC-TV met with them while creating a TV series built on their blueprint -- a mother recording and touring with her brood of boys and one daughter.

“Partridge Family” star Shirley Jones talks to Bob about how they were shown photos of the Cowsills and fully briefed on their life story as that show went into production. Like “The Monkees” before them, the show spawned a life-imitates-art pop-rock group that charted several hits in the real world and produced a bona fide pop star in Jones’ real-life stepson and co-star, David Cassidy.

Among the others Palanker interviewed are musicians Waddy Wachtel and Tommy James, songwriter-promoter Artie Kornfeld, engineer-producer Brooks Arthur and radio personality Cousin Brucie. Clips from a broad swatch of TV shows the Cowsills guested on include some of the '60s most popular programs hosted by Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin, Johnny Cash, Mike Douglas and Johnny Carson.

“Family Band: The Cowsills Story” will run multiple times through March.   

In my wildest imagination, I never expected it to be as blunt and bold as it is.  The documentary tells their sad story of success ... their domineering father all but destroyed the band AND the family ... and the candor in which the family members speak of their hatred for this man will shock you.  (This isn't a fun, "feel good" special.)  It's almost as if The Cowsills made it DESPITE themselves ... because they had very little going for themselves other than pure talent.  To this day, the wear and tear of these events still shows on their faces.   

Along the way, however, The Cowsills gave us some GREAT music.  I fell in love with their first hit "The Rain, The Park And Other Things" the very first time I heard it ... and it topped the charts in late 1967.  The film gives you abbreviated early television appearances by The Cowsills performing this song as well as some of their other biggest hits "We Can Fly", "Hair" and "Indian Lake", another personal favorite that is basically described as "a complete piece of shit" by one of the brothers in the documentary.    

It's all there ... the sad ending of losing Barry Cowsill to Katrina ... and brother Bob the same week that Barry's body was found ... is heartbreaking.  Hearing Susan talk about the physical, sexual and psychological abuse she endured at the hands of her father is devastating ... you cannot help but feel her pain.  And imagine the turmoil endured by the original four boys, on their way to semi-rock-and-roll stardom, only to have their Dad tell them that they need to add both their Mother and their Kid Sister to the band.  (Talk about your cock-block!  Wonder how many teenage groupies THAT eliminated!!!)   

I will admit to being one of those who wrote The Cowsills off as more hype than substance back in the day ... they were just too "cute" and manufactured, I thought, to be taken seriously.  (This coming from a guy who absolutely ADORED The Monkees!!!  lol)  But there was ... and IS ... some real talent there.  These kids could really play and sing ... and just how well they could play and sing is in evidence throughout this special documentary.  To this day, at least three of The Cowsill offspring are still performing, fronting their own bands, as well as getting together on occasion to perform as The Cowsills ... and I've got to tell you, they sound GREAT!  Brother John Cowsill also tours as part of The Beach Boys Band.  (In a somewhat ironic moment, Partridge Family Mom Shirley Jones actually introduces The Cowsills on stage.  The Partridge Family, of course, were based on the success of The Cowsills, who were briefly considered to star as themselves on the musical sitcom until it was decided that they weren't "believable" as a family!!!  lol  Instead, a group of actors were brought in to PRETEND to be a family ... and the formula worked, selling MILLIONS of records along the way and turning Shirley's step son David Cassidy into a major teen idol in the early '70's.)  

Watch for this one on Showtime ... but be prepared ... the ONLY feel-good part of this story is the music.  (kk)