The Cowsills and the Pain Behind ‘The Rain, The Park & Other Things’

The one rock band to ever come from Rhode Island – other than Throwing Muses – was the Cowsills, a family band from Newport that charted a handful of hits while inspiring the creation of “The Partridge Family.”

The Cowsills faded almost as soon as they hit in the late 60s, and there was never word of what happened to most of them, though Susan Cowsill became a singer in some good bands in New Orleans (and was featured last season in “Treme”), and I stumbled upon Bob Cowsill’s surprising solo act in California one year.

Then came news of the death of one Cowsill – who had been missing in the Katrina aftermath; then another, who was wasting away in Vancouver – back to back.

Even more details of the family’s troubled behind-the-scenes life emerged in the new documentary, “Family Band: The Cowsills Story,” which had its premiere at the Rhode Island International Film Festival Wednesday in Providence.

The film, directed by Louise Palanker and Ian Broyle, had a wealth of material in the dozens of TV appearances the group made in its heyday, including a Buddy Ebsen-hosted TV special. But with Bob Cowsill as guide, it also served as a first hand account of the recent deaths and a comeback at Fenway Park, where they were tapped to sing the National Anthem (at the famous playoff game where the Yankees killed the Sox 19-8).

The problem that night, which would have been one of those comeback evenings that would have wrapped things up in other similar documentaries, was that it brought up one of the central conflicts in the Cowsills: that one brother in the band was never invited to be part of the successful act. Richard, who had been shipped off to the military, was impossible to get back into the vocal harmonies of the band in his adult state.

Richard had been kept out by the cantankerous father of the family, who emerged as even more extreme than the one who guided the Jackson 5 to fame. It was Bud Cowsill who might have opened doors for the group that otherwise would not have opened, but he was also the one who insisted that his wife and daughter be part of the group – a prospect four goodlooking boys didn’t really want: Their mom and kid sister in their rock band?

The father beat all of them, the film recounts, and serially abused the little girl, Susan Cowsill says in the film, seriously undercutting the sunshine they poured into songs like “The Rain, The Park and Other Things” and “Indian Lake.”

But they also managed to become a strong vocal harmony group, as seen in the end of the film when, curtain raised, Bob, Paul and Susan Cowsill appeared, playing a splendidly rendered version of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Helpessly Hoping” before going into their own hits, “Indian Lake,” “The Rain, the Park and Other ThIngs” and “Hair” (the only one of their recordings to use their own instruments, the film revealed).

In a brief Q&A that followed, many from local Newport and Middletown gave their thanks for putting them on the map and making them proud of being from Rhode Island. And a small boy asked which of their songs was “I love the flower girl.”

Bob explained once more that it was the one with the odd title, “The Rain, The Park and Other Things.”

The kid was glad for the information: “I got a new ring tone!” he said.

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