Don’t get me wrong. Watching Justin Beiber flame out has been entertaining. But really, he’s just another schadenfreude-inspiring example of the dark path down which tween popstersim generally leads. In fact, this has been happening for decades.
From the annals of pop tragedy comes the story of Barry Cowsill, drummer and bassist for the aptly-named late ‘60s family band, the Cowsills. In 1965, brothers Bill, Bob and Barry began performing together for the tourists who regularly populated their hometown of Newport, Rhode Island. Barry was eleven at the time.
Early festival appearances led to a spot on The Today Show, a brief deal with Phillips and, subsequently, a quick rise to fame with MGM. By 1967, the band’s roster had expanded to include 5 siblings and mother Barbara, with father John channeling his military experience into management. That year, the Cowsills hit #2 on the charts with “The Rain, the Park and Other Things,” which I hope you will remember from the kung-fu fantasy sequence in Dumb and Dumber.
Their first hit was followed by another million-seller in the bubblegum Beach Boys rip-off, “Indian Lake,” complete with semi-racist war-whoop.
Though the individual members of the Cowsills–Barry in particular–always harbored desires of greater rock credibility, the band shoehorned perfectly into the peak era of semi-psychedelic confection championed by the likes of the Archies, the Osmonds and the 1910 Fruitgum Company.
In 1968, the Cowsills were tapped for the title tune of schlocky hippie musical, Hair. The song garnered the family band another #2 hit. Still, if Hair was seen by some as a daring and provocative statement in the world of theatre, its musical content was a more hackneyed and superficial take on the countercultural movement. To wit, John Lennon called the soundtrack “dull” and remarked “I do not know any musician who thinks it’s good.”
Regardless of Lennon’s opinion, television executives loved what they heard, enough to audition the Cowsills for their own family band primetime television show. Though executives were into the idea of the Cowsills, they weren’t as much into the Cowsills themselves. Deciding that they were collectively too old for the part, NBC’s programmers cast David Cassidy, Susan Dey, Danny Bonaduce and others in their stead. Dubbed The Partridge Family, their primetime show debuted in 1970 and, with the release of the single “I Think I Love You,” quickly scored a #1 hit.
By contrast, the nicest thing you can say about the The Cowsills’ theme song for Love American Style is that it was used as the theme song for Love American Style.
This would also be the last gasp for the band. When father John caught young Bill smoking a joint backstage during a show in 1972, he pulled his son’s guitar out of the car, kicked Bill out of the band and exiled him from the family. The Cowsills splintered, each pursuing his or her own musical careers and chemical dependencies over the next several decades.
In a case of life imitating art imitating life, the Partridge Family went off the air in 1974, felled by time-slot competitor and beloved bigot Archie Bunker, leaving stars Cassidy and Bonaduce to descend into their own respective post teen idol substance abuse problems.
As for the Cowsills, the next several decades would bring an array of reunion performances and, for some of the siblings, steady involvement in their own touring bands. But brother Barry could never cope with the critical disregard suffered by his family band. He felt that the Cowsills were deprived the opportunity to be seen as a serious rock band. But the Partridge Family proved the final frontier for bubblegum pop. After that, the Cowsills and their ilk were seen as irrelevant to the world outside of 1960s-styled lunch-car diner jukeboxes.
Barry’s later years were marked by alcoholism and despression. Then, in one of the lesser-publicized tragedies encompassed by Hurricane Katrina, Barry Cowsill became one of New Orleans’ innumerable musical treasures to be washed away by the floodwaters. His body surfaced in late December on the banks of the Mississippi and drowning was declared the official cause of death.
However, just before his disappearance, a mysterious plaque materialized on an oak-tree near his home in New Orleans. It reads, “In honor of Barry Cowsill, who died a true genius on the levee, Sept. 2, 2005.” Barry’s own necklace was wrapped around the plaque, leading his sister Susan to conclude that her brother had erected the monument himself before voluntarily submitting to the flood at the age of 50.
At a memorial service for Barry in 2005, the family received a phone call and learned that Bill had passed away from emphysema complications that very same day.
Bob Cowsill and his remaining siblings continue to perform both as the Cowsills and in their own separate bands.