Mom Cowsill always looked pretty miserable. There was something flinty and vacant about her, like one of your mother’s friends you would see at a backyard barbeque, drinking gin and tonics and casting glances at her drunken husband, looking like all she wanted to do was smash him in the face and run off. The Cowsills were all lightness, but there was something damaged in Barbara’s eyes. The boys would gleam, and little Susan would be off to the side doing her kid version of the shing-a-ling, and it was bubbly all right. What was mom even doing there? Didn’t anyone realize that any chance The Cowsills had to be anything but trivial and ephemeral was undermined by having her in the group? Susan, ok, she could be a stand-in for all the young girls who wanted to be accepted by their big brothers and their big brother’s friends, and she wasn’t going to be 10 years old forever. But it was obvious that mom was wrecking the whole thing.
Turns out it wasn’t only mom steering the band off course. A new documentary airing on Showtime, Family Band: The Cowsills Story, paints a grim, disturbing portrait of disfunction: dad Cowsill was a deluded tyrant in the mold of Murry Wilson and Joe Jackson, who whipped the Beach Boys and the Jackson 5 into shape. He brutalized them physically and emotionally, molested Susan sexually, fired their hit-making producer and their lead singer/oldest brother, blew every business opportunity, and left the band in complete chaos. Of course, some of the kids turned to drugs and disillusionment, the group’s pop success didn’t last beyond the first string of singles, the money had mysteriously vanished, and everyone was left wondering what happened.
The movie tries to make the case that had dad Cowsill not been such a monster, had the band been able to follow their own musical path, everything would’ve been dandy, and the ride would’ve been smoother and longer, but it’s hard to pin the rap on him alone. Who knows? Apparently, the original four-member band of brothers wanted to be a real rock band. Of course they did. It was the mid-sixties, they saw The Beatles on the Sullivan show, and they had a musical knack and an ambitious dad (sort of like The Shaggs’ sister act, except for the musical knack part). You hear the group’s single on the tiny indie Joda Records, “All I Really Wanta Be Is Me” (good luck with that) b/w “And The Next Day Too,” and it’s like a thousand other records from 1965, folk-rock-garage on the A side, Beatlesque balladry on the B, and it didn’t make any kind of noise, and neither did the summery send-off “Most of All” on Philips, and those were the pre-mom, pre-Artie Kornfeld (their creative svengali and co-writer/producer of “The Rain, The Park & Other Things”), pre-MGM Records, undiluted Cowsills. They were The Wonders, or they would have been if “All I Really Wanta Be Is Me” were “That Thing You Do.”
Without all the what if’s, there isn’t much reason for a movie: there were countless groups with a bunch of pop hits in the mid-late ‘60s who didn’t survive post-Woodstock, and they weren’t all beaten up by their fathers (I’ve never heard any gossip about Jerry Lewis throttling Gary, for example), but they quickly became dated, and if you were an un-hip act to begin with (those milk commercials were no help), reinvention was a tough assignment. After “Hair” hit #2 in 1969, they followed up with a single called “The Prophecy of Daniel and John The Divine,” and whose fault was that? Realistically, what future was there for a wholesome family group who were the real-life model for the fictional Partridge Family (now imagine Jack Cassidy as the patriarch of the Partridges, prone to alcoholic rage and ritual humiliations…that’s entertainment!)? Family Band is nothing but sad: the brother who wasn’t allowed in the group because dad hated him, Susan fighting off dad’s advances and moving out of the house to live with a brother at 11 years old, the brother who died in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The horrific story grips you, not because events derailed a career that might have well fizzled out anyway, but because there’s always fascination with what lies beneath the shiny surface.