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As the child of two hippies entranced by the late-'60s Jesus movement, singer/self-proclaimed fuck-up Christopher Owens — the driving force behind breakout San Francisco downer-rock band Girls — 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 sixteen, 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 III, 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' story has been consistent over time. Childhood photographs 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 RFT contacted, said that he'd need the names that Owens and family used in the cult to identify him. (Owens' father, a musician in Louisville, Kentucky, did not respond to interview requests.)
Thanks in large part to the band's fascinating and lurid back story, Girls has been hard to avoid lately, hype-wise, especially after the release of its debut, 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' ex, Thorn, a striking bleached-blonde provocateur, haunts songs such as "Laura."
When reached on the phone in San Francisco in fall 2009, 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.
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, such as Serbian refugee camps. 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. However, he employs and hangs out with quite a few young people ("hippies," he calls them) and serves them lunch in the croquet court in his office.
"How many kids are gutter-punk-style, drug-addicted?" the 72-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' 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."