7 Nov 2010

Survivor of abusive Children of God cult, Chris Owens of Girls is one cool musician

NOTE FROM PERRY BULWER - September 23, 2009
For any reader not yet aware of this, the Children of God cult in the article below is now called The Family International. For more information about this destructive religious group see this article on this site. Be sure to read the comments section of that article for more insights from survivors, including me.


Living Scotsman - September 20, 2009

The solace of Brigadoon's tartan fairyland made perfect sense to a boy growing up in the Children of God cult, Chris Owens of Girls tells Aidan Smith

MENTION Brigadoon and Scots will react in different ways, few of them positive. They will grumble about how it's made us appear too romantic, twee and kilted in the eyes of the world… that its depiction of a land which awakes once a century sums up our indecisiveness… that you need sunglasses to endure its garish plaids and glistening heather… that none of us is blessed with legs like Cyd Charisse. But for Chris Owens the Hollywood musical is a lifesaver.

Owens is one half of Girls, a pop duo who are very male, very Californian and very cool. His musical education, though, is unusual to say the least. He was born into the Children of God cult, which closed its doors on the outside world. "We had no radio, no TV, no books as you think of them – and definitely no records," he says. "All we were allowed was Movie Night every Friday: nice, wholesome films with a good message. Brigadoon was always my favourite. I must have seen it hundreds of times."

He starts singing The Heather On The Hill, performed in the 1954 movie by Gene Kelly: "Can't we two go walkin' together out beyond the valley of trees?/Out where there's a hillside of heather curtseying gently in the breeze." He laughs when I tell him that some Scots find the film couthie and a bit kitsch and offers to sing the whole musical.

"Young hotshot from the US thinks he's got it all. Visits the Highlands and meets a milk-carrying, bosom-laden young lady. She shows him what he's been missing all his life: true love. Isn't that what we're all looking for? Seriously, I hear what you're saying and I think I know Scotland isn't like in the film. But when I was ten I had to believe someplace was."

Owens is 30 now – a bit old to be a new sensation, but he's got a good excuse for having fallen so far behind – and speaks from beneath an explosion of curls you suspect he's been growing non-stop since the day he escaped the cult 14 years ago. With fellow Girl JR White he releases a debut album next week that is already attracting rave reviews. Life is good, so he's trying to find the positives in the Children of God experience.

"I mean, every teen goes through this, right? Whether it's military school or being prepped for a career you don't want, you live in a restricted fashion." Then he stops. "No, the cult was straight-up strange and scary."

Owens was brought up by his mother, his father having quit Children of God shortly after he was born, and she like other women in the communes was encouraged to take part in "flirty fishing". "Basically they were convinced it was okay to be hookers," he says. "No-one in the cult wanted to work in the traditional sense, so money was needed. We were told to believe the end of the world was coming so we had to live day to day. The women were persuaded it was cool to go with men because they were physically showing these guys the love of God.

"My mum had a lot of horrible experiences. Things were pretty messed up. I'd have to wait in hotel lobbies for her and sometimes there would be violent people and we'd have to run away." Children of God was formed in California in 1968 and its first converts were hippies. "It was extremely separatist," adds Owens. "It believed that everyone besides us was completely confused and bad. The aim was to raise a generation of kids that were not spoiled by the world."

River Phoenix and his brother Joaquin, and actress Rose McGowan, were all members of the cult before they became famous. Jeremy Spencer had been famous prior to joining, as part of the original Fleetwood Mac, and he gave Owens, who was moved between communes in more than a dozen different countries, his first guitar.

Although Owens is keen to sing me more songs from Brigadoon, it should be said that the musical's influence on San Francisco's Girls is not startlingly obvious. Mostly they sound like a punked-up (and pilled-up) Beach Boys. But there's a sweetness, and an old-fashionedness, to the tracks which can probably be traced back to his exposure to old show tunes at the expense of anything modern.

Owens says he enjoyed the singing in Children of God, even though this was confined to Christian songs and even though children's choirs were used to make money for the cult. But by 13 he'd started to rebel. "They showed us this other movie, Lean On Me, about a bad school which turns good. We were supposed to remember the ending but I just loved the stuff about smoking, riding motorcycles, wearing leather jackets and earrings and listening to the radio."

By that stage he was living in Slovenia, but walked out and made his way to Texas to live with his sister who'd escaped earlier. In Amarillo he fell in with a punk rock crowd and was taken under the wing of millionaire philanthropist and prankster Stanley Marsh 3, best known for the Cadillac Ranch public art exhibit. "He was my first father-figure. We liked the same music – him because he was old, me because I'd come from this weird place. If I've got an optimistic outlook on life now, it's down to him."

Owens' positivity is obvious. It extends to his reluctance, where possible, to criticise Children of God, though this may be because his story is deeply fascinating to everyone he meets and he's getting bored of repeating it. But then he talks of the friends from the cult who have committed suicide. "They've been dropping like flies," he says.

He had an older brother who died of pneumonia, and says he learned later it was the cult's belief the followers didn't need hospitals which precipitated his father's decision to walk out. "I know Dad now: he plays country music in Kentucky and the last time we saw each other he gave me a sitar and purple sunglasses. And I don't resent Mom for keeping us in Children of God. For the record, I love her. It was difficult for her; the cult was telling her what to do. But she left the year after I did and now she's happy doing refugee work."

All in all, a remarkable story. "Yeah," says Owens, "almost as remarkable as the story of the land that only wakes up once every hundred years and everyone's wearing kilts and dancing all day long. Now I can't wait to see Scotland for real."

Album is released on 28 September by Fantasy Trashcan records. Girls play Captain's Rest, Glasgow, on 13 October, and Sneaky Pete's, Edinburgh, the following night.

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