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There are groups that one jokingly refers to as "cults"—White House staff, Park Slope parents, people who wear Snuggies in public—and then there are actual cults. Singer/self-proclaimed fuck-up Christopher Owens, the driving force behind breakout San Francisco downer-rock band Girls, is increasingly famous for being born into the latter.
As the child of two hippies entranced by the late-'60s Jesus movement, Owens grew up in a group whose name slowly evolved from the Children of God to the Family to the Family International. This is the kind of cult that gives other cults a bad name: Its history is rife with repellent episodes like the sex-abuse charges levied against founder David Berg by his own children, an evangelical prostitution practice called "flirty fishing," and, more recently, the 2005 murder-suicide of two former members.
Not surprisingly, Owens suffered through a dark childhood. He says his two-year-old brother died of pneumonia after the cult refused to get him medical attention; shortly thereafter, his father left. Owens grew up itinerant, living in communal houses in Europe and Asia, a year-long stint in Japan being his longest moment of stability. At 16, he ran away, and crashed with his sister in Amarillo, Texas. He took up with the gutter punks, did boatloads of drugs, and generally vaulted into a death spiral, until an unlikely patron appeared: Texas multimillionaire Stanley Marsh 3, creator of the Cadillac Ranch. Under Marsh's employ, Owens found outlets—painting and music, mostly—for his budding creativity, and eventually moved to San Francisco. After forming a band called Curls with then-girlfriend Liza Thorn, Owens met lo-fi recording whiz Chet "JR" White, and Girls was born.
This personal history is so unlikely that one might be tempted to call bullshit, but it seems to check out, inasmuch as confirming that someone was born into a secretive, nomadic cult is possible. At the very least, Owens's story has been consistent over time. Photographs of Owens as a child show him overseas with his mother. His benefactor, Marsh, happily affirms his relationship with the now-30-year-old musician. He is listed as an ex–Family member on the site xfamily.org, although Don Irwin, a second-generation ex–cult member whom the Voice contacted, said that he'd need the names that Owens and family used in the cult to identify him. (Owens's father, a musician in Louisville, Kentucky, did not respond to interview requests.)
Thanks in large part to the band's fascinating and lurid backstory, Girls have been hard to avoid lately, hype-wise, especially after the release of their debut album, Album. The duo, rounded out to four musicians for live shows, makes pop songs that sound like San Francisco: infectious, sad, funny, sunny, druggy, sincere, and always a little out of control. Actual girls, it must be pointed out, are a major influence: Owens's ex, Thorn, a striking bleached-blonde provocateur, haunts songs like "Laura."
When reached on the phone in San Francisco on a brief respite between European and North American tours, Owens agrees with conventional wisdom that the cult-authorized bubblegum-pop of his youth came to affect Girls tremendously: "There's a strong influence in oldies that were allowed," he says, "just because I remember and like those songs." Beyond inspiring his future harmonies, Owens says that his very concept of music was shaped by the cult. "I think the religious music that we played, that we'd sing together, also influenced me, too, in the idea of what music can be." He was interested in "using music to escape real life, to communicate on a spiritual level." The cool kids may flock to Girls' shows, but Owens does not posture with his songs. They are raw—almost painfully so.
Don Lattin, author of a 2007 book on Children of God called Jesus Freaks, said that Owens's career path is not totally unique. After all, Rose McGowan as well as the Phoenix family (actors River, Joaquin, and Summer) were all born into the cult. "Many kids who grew up in the Children of God went on to be musicians, actors, and also sex-industry workers," he writes in an e-mail. "Why? The sect had some kick-ass bands back in the day, especially after Jeremy Spencer, the guitarist from Fleetwood Mac, disappeared one night during a 1971 gig at the Hollywood Bowl and ran off with the sect. (He is still a member, as far as I know.) In many ways, they were taught to act from Day One, in part to keep outsiders from knowing what was really going on in the group."
Owens says that his contact with the regular world was minimal; busking became a major outlet for him as a teenager. "When I started to show a lot of interest and talent," Owens says, his voice dropping to a whisper on "talent," "I was encouraged to go out in public, and I would see regular people. It was neat in its own way, getting out and seeing all these things that you wouldn't normally see."
That's the odd inversion of a cult childhood—though aggressively sheltered, Owens saw plenty of things most American kids would never experience, having never, for example, taken trips to Serbian refugee camps with their mothers. It was this unusual worldliness that impressed Marsh when they were first introduced at an art opening in Amarillo by a mutual friend. Many Texas multimillionaires—Marsh was quick to point out that my initial e-mail volley lacked that "multi" prefix—might shrink from befriending a strange, troubled kid, but Marsh employs and hangs out with quite a few young people—"hippies," as he terms them—serving them lunch in the croquet court in his office.
"How many kids are gutter-punk-style, drug-addicted?" the 71-year-old asks in a gruff drawl. "Most aren't any good. They are boring. Chris was a diamond in the rough."
Marsh rejects the notion that he performed any Dickensian act of charity: "I don't know about 'father figure'—I raised hell with him. We're not Boy Scouts." But he did cop to adding stability to Owens's life, and appreciated the teen's artistic fervor: "We have this grand piano, and Chris would come out with those little tape recorders mainly used for dictation and write music to send to his relatives, his nieces and nephews." Because Owens didn't want to practice in front of the group, Marsh and his wife had to sneak into the dining room and listen to him sing and play in the dark. "I don't think Chris has insights that come easily to him," Marsh says. "He works hard for it."
When told of his benefactor's secret listening sessions, Owens just chuckles. Perhaps in response to growing up with so many secrets, he doesn't seem to put much stock in privacy. He does want to correct one thing from previous interviews, though: He bears no ill will toward his mother, whom he hasn't spoken to in years.
"Some stories make my mother sound like a crazy person," he says. "I like to say that she meant well. She is really kind and genuine—a high school dropout trying to find some kind of meaning in the world, and she got influenced by some people she shouldn't have." He went on to say that, unlikely as it seems, he looks up to her: "She was strong and courageous, and she followed her dreams."
Girls play Bowery Ballroom November 6