Richard Cowsill

Goodbye, Richard Cowsill

By Louise Palanker

I spent about eight years of my life documenting The Cowsills. Who are The Cowsills? They are the real life family band that inspired The Partridge Family. That is the most efficient means of explaining this group.  Yes, they are a real family.  Yes, their mom was in the band.  But their actual story is a lot darker than a sit com and it is far more twisted. For example, can you imagine if there were a Partridge kid who was not allowed into the band? The Cowsills can. Their brother, Dick was not all that interested in music as a young kid.  He surfed and built forts.  But as his family became more about music, he tried to find a spot for himself in the group. He could dance. He certainly had more rhythm than Tracy Partridge. But his father, Bud Cowsill, boxed him out.

Bud exercised some sort of personal vendetta and Dickie was the lone Cowsill kid who was not ever allowed to join his siblings on stage. He watched from backstage as the rest of his family performed on all the top network TV variety shows like Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, etc. The Cowsills became teen idols and entertained before stadiums full of screaming kids. 

The Cowsills
The Cowsills in 1967. Front: Barry, Bob, Dick. Back: Paul Susan, Barbara, Bud, Billy, John

Dickie loaded gear and then stood, quite literally on the sidelines. But why? Why would one kid be singled out and excluded from the primary family activity? There are a few theories. Chief among these are:

Dick reminded Bud of himself and Bud did not like himself.

Dick was ADHD and too much of a hothead to comply with a “Bud’s way or the highway” dictate.

It’s still a mystery.

Adding further intrigue and heartbreak to a disturbing scenario is this detail. Dick was Bob Cowsill’s twin brother. Bob was as bright a star as any in The Cowsill constellation. Perfect grades.  A good athlete and a born musician.

Bud Cowsill may have felt that he was helping the family band remain focussed by keeping his troubled son out of their way, but the price has been steep.

Ultimately, as the kids’ hit records were topping the charts in 1968, Dick and Bud came to blows and Dick, at age 18, was taken directly to the recruiting office and ultimately, sent off to Viet Nam. The guilt and the sense of responsibility for their brother probably did not hit his siblings until their pop idol star came crashing back down to earth and Dick returned from Viet Nam, a heroin addict.

I had been a huge fan as a kid. In fact, The Cowsills play a key role in my childhood memories. I would allow their happy harmonies to fill a room while staring into an album cover and attempting to wish myself into the photograph.

We fans were told that Dick had chosen the military.  This little factoid felt especially confusing since my dreams found me born into this musical family and adding my voice to their gorgeous blend. Why would anybody turn away from it? That never quite added up, but I quickly dismissed the doubt and turned up the next track.

Right around the time I was naturally outgrowing my teen band crush, The Cowsills disappeared from view. By age 16, I would only occasionally give them a passing wonder.

That is until we all stumbled into cyberspace and started daring each other to google childhood crushes, teachers and pop bands.  I fired up my AOL browser and found myself on a site called Cowsill.com. They had a guest book and I began typing.

My entry included something like: “Thank you for helping me grow up.” I had just lit a match to the kindling of a big adventure.

I received an email from a fellow Los Angeles area fan, Caren Oldfield. She invited me to The Pickwick Pub in Woodland Hills, CA, where Bob performed, thus launching an odyssey which led to a documentary I made called Family Band: The Cowsills Story.

Richard, Susan, Paul and Bob Cowsill
Richard, Susan, Paul and Bob Cowsill

What I discovered in The Cowsills is an an intricate, multi-layered, compelling and captivating story within which Dickie factors prominently. And so, for the first time in his life, Dick’s voice is added to the mix.

Richard Cowsill likes to talk. He had a lot to say. He was starving to be heard. To the point where it could be overwhelming. But if you stopped listening, you missed something.

I know this well because the filmmaker does not just hear something once. She pours over footage and she hears that something  repeatedly. Much of what Richard said was all about his need to talk. But often, I mean really often, he nailed a point just so solid.

The guy had genuine insight. And he was brutally smart. He saw layers and nuances and intricacies. But he could be so loopy on government prescribed meds that not everybody got how much he actually got.

Very sadly, we have reached the end of Richard Cowsill’s life. He died last week of lung cancer.

That loss is requiring me to hold myself accountable for the role I played. Did I do OK by him? Did I hear him?  Did I help him tell his story?  Did I fully get him? I’m not sure I  did.

Here is what Richard got that I didn’t get until after he died. When he would compare his experience to that of his siblings, he would say that they had music to connect them to each other and that this made their childhoods easier.

They would disagree and tell him that he has no idea how hard it was for them to grow up in the public eye, pretending that everything was OK when it wasn’t.  They each made valid points.

But there is a major difference: When they spoke of their childhood anguish, they got to say, “We…” Richard had to say, “I…” For that, I ache. I am sorry I didn’t hear you better, Dickie. You taught me so much. It was an honor to know you.

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