Billy Cowsill went from The Rain, The Park and Other Things to the battle, the bottle, the smoke and other things. Enter Jeff Hatcher and The Blue Shadows.
Part one: Before the fall
By Tom Hawthorn
OPEN YOUR HYMNALS TO PAGE 228, PARAGRAPH 4," Billy Cowsill growls. He stands as lean as a circuit preacher, a solemn figure in black, his pulpit little more than a step. On stage, Cowsill's got the stare of a drunk-straight at you, but seeing nothing. He drinks no more, but when pressed will confess: "I know where the beast lives."
For Cowsill, it is a night like 10,000 others. A modest room, a modest crowd, a modest
payday. His band, the Blue Shadows, are at the Press Club to test-drive songs for their new
album Lucky to Me, to be released this month. The fine-tuning has taken them as far afield as a New Year's
Eve gig for hard-rock miners in Thompson, Manitoba. Cowsill's played worse. You can see it in his face,
which at its darkest looks like something you'd find on a ring worn by Keith Richards, a face that is
dangerously alluring in its outlaw way, as the retinue of misfit groupies even now staring dreamily up at him
attests. "If he doesn't shave for a few days and combs his hair back," confides songwriting partner Jeffrey
Hatcher, "he's totally sinister."
Cowsill made a reputation around town a few years back with what became known as the dead-guys set. Disgusted by the cheesy sanctimony of Wayne Newton performing tributes to Elvis-so maudlin, so insincere, so Vegas-Billy performed rave-ups of songs by dead rockers. "It got so sick," Billy remembers, "that on the New Year's Eve that Ricky Nelson died, we came in the next day to play and everybody started cheering because they were going to hear some new tunes. Ricky Nelson songs!" Considering some of Billy's habits, the fear was that it was only a matter of time before Cowsill's own songs were added to the dead guys set.
That he is still hauling out the hymnal is reason to rejoice. Cowsill, 47, Hatcher, 36, and drummer J.B. Johnson and bassist Barry Muir ripped through a Beatles song, a song from their 1993 debut album, On the Floor of Heaven, another from the upcoming release. In each, their ringing harmonies were so indistinguishable that they sounded, as the Sim's John Mackie once put it, "like twin sons of different mothers."
A lot of hurt can be heard in Billy's sweet voice, which went all but unrecorded for two decades after he first hit it big. He's not going to drop any names, and he's certainly not about to sing any of the old songs, but this is Billy Cowsill of the Cowsills, a singing troupe featuring mom and six kids who wowed America in the late '60s with their songs of love. Their record producer took their story and turned it into the television series The Partridge Family, about a singing troupe featuring mom and six kids who wow America with their songs of love. The ersatz family sold even more records than the real thing. When you're a Cowsill, there's no escaping your past. Billy was untouchable even after hooking up with Larry Wanagas, k.d. lang's manager, now running Mute Records in New York. "No one would sign me because my name was Cowsill. For three years, if I was a space heater, he couldn't have sold me to the Eskimos."
The break came when Jeff Hatcher moved to Vancouver from Winnipeg and sought out Cowsill. Billy had just about come to the end of his patience with the small-club circuit and was about to leave for Nashville to be a full-time songwriter, a risky choice for a notoriously slow writer. Hatcher, a walking pop-and-country songbook who happens to be a prolific tunesmith, changed Cowsill's mind. "He literally overnight put the zip back into my zap," says Billy. The two have since composed dozens of songs so good that even when you don't know the lyrics you want to sing along.
All 12 songs on On the Floor of Heaven were written by one or the other, and mostly by both. They call their sound "Hank Williams goes to the Cavern Club," a shotgun marriage of traditional country and the raucous harmonies of the early Beatles. Listening to the CD is almost a parlour game: "The Embers" sounds like a George Jones song, "When Will This Heartache End" like the Everly Brothers, "Is Anybody Here" like Roy Orbison. Done anything but right, it would have been a travesty; instead, the spare and reverential production hit all the right notes. On the Floor of Heaven earned critical raves and a Juno nomination for the Blue Shadows as country group of the year. That it received little radio play and sold only moderately well can be attributed to a syndrome once familiar to that other Vancouver musical enigma, k.d. lang: it was too country for rock and too hip for country. Billy Cowsill has never been one to play along.
The first child of Bill (Bud to his friends) and Barbara Cowsill was born on January 9, 1948, and Bud gave the boy his full Christian name. Siblings came in rapid succession-twins, Richard and Robert, in 1950, Paul in 1952, Barry in 1955, John in 1956, and, at long last, a girl, Susan, in 1960. Bud, always a hustler, had joined the navy, and the Cowsill household changed zip codes almost as often as they changed diapers, following Bud to his postings from New England to California. "One of my first memories," Billy recalls, "is when I'm three or four years old, my dad bringing me into a beer joint and just popping me in front of the Wurlitzer jukebox. All he had to do was keep the quarters coming. That was the babysitter."
Bud was at sea for six months at a stretch, and when he returned, it was time for a settling of accounts. Military men know enough about receiving punishment to make them particularly cruel at delivering it. "He was a real good guy, a guy who would give you the shirt off his back, but if he'd got a gut full of liquor, he'd beat your head into the wall. He was tough to read growing up." Bud retired from the navy in 1963, settling his brood in Newport, Rhode Island, a fashionable resort town. With all those kids, a navy pension left the family short well before the end of the month. As always, Bud was looking to play an angle. As he once recalled: "The kids have always been very close to music, and one day a neighbor said, 'Why don't you do something with all this talent?' So I did."
Part Two: The smoke, the bottle and other things.
AT FIRST, BILLY, 15, and Bob, 13, sang and strummed the latest Top 40 hits and old country-and-western standards on a circuit of boys' clubs and ladies' socials. In 1965, the Cowsills were signed by Joda Records, a soul label headed by Johnny ("I Can See Clearly Now") Nash, who had designs on them as a white rhythm-and-blues outfit. A talent coordinator for the Today Show caught their act at a local club and invited them to perform live on air. Their national television debut lasted 20 minutes and earned them a record contract. One of their first singles, "The Rain, the Park and Other Things," climbed to No. 2 and spent 11 weeks on the charts.
"1967. You're 19 years old, you got the top record in the country, a cool car, a hot babe-I mean, it's all right. I'll take it. These were pop records, not my idea of rock 'n' roll, mind you, because my mentors were Waddy Wachtel, Warren Zevon, Joe Ely. I wanted to impress them."
Their label, MGM, had other ideas. Four look-alike boys in look-alike suits were not enough. The Cowsills needed a gimmick. The label did not look far. Outfitted in short skirts, "mini-mom" Barbara, 38, and little sister Susie, 7, were added to the group now billed as America's First Family of Music. For a publicity photograph promoting a Christmas Eve appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1967, the boys wore grey slacks and matching double-breasted, brass-buttoned blazers over button-down shirts and polka-dot ties. The Cowsills were a bridge across the generation gap in a time of dope-addled, tie-dyed psychedelia.
Six months after "The Rain, the Park and Other Things" slipped off the charts, they reprised with "Indian Lake," a top-ten single, again featuring the Cowsills on vocals backed by studio musicians. Billy chafed under the label's control, arguing with producer Wes Ferrell about the band's schmaltzy sound. In 1969, they pre-recorded a goofy rendition of "Hair" for a television comedy special. Billy later produced and arranged the radio version as a lush, phantasmagoria of sound that echoed like the illegitimate offspring of Phil Spector. "Hair" swept the continent in the summer of'69, selling a million copies as a single.
The currents at force on the outside world were also tearing at this insular family. In a swoop, Billy's rock band had been turned into a family sing-along. "I was 19 and my mother is in my band and there's this waitress over here going, 'Here's my room key.' It was embarrassing." They were hired to do a TV jingle for the American Dairy Association. "As I'm holding up a glass of milk to the camera," Billy remembers, "I've got a Heineken down by my fifth."
The blow-up came while the band was playing Vegas. One night after a show in the city that never sleeps, Bud was drinking Cutty Sark, his eldest son matching him in vodka gimlets. The old man slagged his son's circle, picking on Waddy Wachtel. "We were both shitfaced, and he made a slur, something to the effect of, 'and your pot-smoking friend.' Well, I just put up the old finger. I said, "Dad, fuck you.' This is in the lounge of the Flamingo Hotel. We're headlining: America's First Family of Music. He came at me and I just held his wrists. I couldn't believe that I could match his strength. Two state troopers the size of Mount Rushmore rushed in and that was that. "I got a letter that I was fired the next day. That's pretty tough, to get fired from your family. Your services are no longer blah, blah, blah. That is really weird."
A Cowsill by name but no longer by profession, Billy embarked on a hobo's tour of America, covering Cat Stevens tunes for the swells in swanky Manhattan restaurants, learning the blues from J. J. Cale in a tavern in a Tulsa shopping mall. In one of life's gee-whiz coincidences, Billy spotted another look-alike family of harmonizing boys, this one wearing striped jackets and singing barbershop quartet at Disneyland. "They were getting tired of 'Down by the Old Mill Stream' and the straw hats. They wanted to be cool, too." At the time, Billy was recording what would be a dud solo album for Mike Curb at MGM Records. "When my contract was up, I said: 'Mike, whatever you do, sign these guys.' And the rest is history." The guys were a Mormon family by the name of Osmond.
Soon after, the Beach Boys asked Billy to join them as a replacement for the increasingly erratic Brian Wilson. Billy agreed, but wanted to tell his corpulent idol, whose eccentricity included a sandbox in his living room, that he was going to be taking his place. He remembers the beached boy speaking in a hushed, conspiratorial rasp. "Oh, Billy, don't do it," Brian warned. "It'll drive you crazy. It'll get you nuts." Billy took Brian's advice. "I looked at him and thought, obviously this guy knows what he's talking about."
With the last of his Cowsills money, Billy bought a tavern in a converted railway station in Austin. The fledgling entrepreneur lost his investment. "Me and my friends drank it dry." Wanting to put as much distance as possible between himself and life as he'd recently known it, Cowsill landed in the Northwest Territories in the mid 70s. By day, he drove overweight moving trucks from Hay River over the frozen Great Slave Lake to Yellowknife, on what the locals optimistically called an ice bridge. At night, he played in bars and, it being the North and all, drank.
Another roll of the dice and Cowsill tumbled to Vancouver, where in 1979 he hooked up with Blue Northern, a band with a fiddler and musicians in cowboy hats. Cowsill produced their debut EP but was drinking so heavily that he had to use his left hand to steady his right wrist to shave. "I had a baby boy, brand new, which is not why one quits drinking, but it is an extenuating circumstance. I thought of writing a song called, 'How Can I Look up to Daddy when He's Passed Out on the Floor?'" He pulled the plug just before the band left to play a rodeo in Williams Lake. "I knew that I may not return. I'd sing one Hank Williams song, and 10 people would jump out from behind 10 bushes with 10 bottles of whiskey, going, 'Hey, why donya stay aroun' awhile?'" First he kicked booze, then morphine.
Part Three: Lucky To Be Me
BILLY FINALLY CAME TO TERMS WITH HIS FATHER as Bud lay dying. "It wasn't heart to heart, it was just he got old, he got leukemia, he got sick, he turned into the child, I did my best to take care of him. In realizing his own vulnerability and allowing me to minister to him, he was, in effect, saying, I'm sorry, I resign, thanks." Later he would learn that the old man hadn't had much of a childhood; his own father was an alcoholic and his mother, Billy's grandmother, had turned tricks. Billy has always had his dad's gap-toothed grin, his world-weary outlook, his wanderlust. And he has his dad's name, which can be found on the navy dog tags he now wears every day.
Child music stars rarely find adult life a walk in the park. Four of the Cowsill siblings-John, Paul, Bob and
Susan-have reunited in Los Angeles, performing what Creem favourably describes as "easy-going,
heavy-on-the-harmonies pop songs that recall Lindsay Buckingham-era Fleetwood Mac." The group hasn't
managed to attract a label but does have a new release-a greatest hits compilation that even includes the
long-forgotten, Heineken-soaked piece recorded for the American Dairy Association. Billy Cowsill laughs
and, since it no longer seems important, shrugs. He's on his own comeback tour, and he gives much of the
credit to Jeff Hatcher.
Hatcher got his start in a family band too. One of four boys born to a Winnipeg trumpet player, Jeff and younger brothers Don and Paul formed the Fuse in 1976, playing '50s and '60s numbers, covering New Wavers like Elvis Costello and Graham Parker and slipping in a few originals. Hoping to hit the big time, they moved to Toronto where they renamed themselves the Six. "There were three, four, five of us," Hatcher recalls. "It was a badly named group." As it turned out, the band was more interested in Toronto than Toronto in it, and the group broke up.
"What I did instead was write about a million songs," Hatcher says. "Good, bad, indifferent, I wrote as much as I could." Hatcher played bass in a trio on a circuit of skid-row dives for a year. "It left me free to write them and mail tapes, which I did, about 800 million tapes: Los Angeles, Nashville, New York and London are littered with my tapes. Phone calls and tapes and trips. I can't believe I did all that." A year later, brothers Jeff, Don and Paul returned to Toronto from Winnipeg, forming Jeffrey Hatcher and the Big Beat, releasing an album and touring the hoser highway. A second album was in the can when the band fired its manager and turned down a record contract. Finally, Hatcher came to Vancouver, where he hooked up with Cowsill. With the addition of Johnson and Muir, you have a band that attracts as odd a mix of fans-rockers, hipsters, cowboys, lipstick lesbians, trailer-park trash-as has been seen since lang did her first do-si-do.
Hatcher expects Lucky to Me, which he describes as "George Jones and Buck Owens go to Cape Breton," to achieve the breakthrough not quite made by On the Floor of Heaven. "It's really sounding like a thing. It doesn't have a very typical sound, and it doesn't have a strange sound either. It could do big things."
Cowsill doesn't like to make predictions. He's seen the way they can turn out. The other day, he got a lift from his manager, Dave Chesney of Bumstead Productions. Chesney slipped a compact disc into the stereo of his green '65 Mustang, punched a few buttons, and out came the milk jingle, circa 1970. Billy did a cartoon double take. "I thought, I'm either having a seizure, or I'm already dead."