A little over a year after narrowly escaping death in a plane crash with Helen Reddy in the Illinois cornfield, Paul Cowsill began to seriously reexamine his existence. Maybe working as a tour manager wasn’t the best way to be raising a family after all. He and his wife had two small children, and Cowsill wanted to be there for them as much as possible. He yearned to be everything his own father had not been: caring, nurturing, available. But being on the road for weeks at a time had already caused him to miss so much of their young lives – not to mention it was a great way to get killed. That’s one reason why he decided to accept something he never dreamed would come his way again: a recording contract.
With the Cowsills having dissolved a couple of years into the seventies, Paul Cowsill had subsequently built a successful career behind the scenes first as a live sound engineer, then a tour manager. From an occupational perspective, he liked what he did. He got to be involved in music without the worry of trying to stay on top, to be the star. The heartache of the professional ups and downs he had experienced with his family and their band had left him disillusioned with the fickle performing end of the business.
Yet when Jeff Wald, Helen Reddy’s husband and manager, came to him with an offer to step back out front, Cowsill was at first dismissive, then skeptical and finally, slowly intrigued.
“This is going to be your year,” Wald enthused to Cowsill one day as they sat in the Sydney Airport while on tour in Australia.
“Why is this my year?”
“Because I’m going to get you a record deal.”
Cowsill was both stunned and confused. Going back in the studio was the last thing on his mind. He worked for others now. His days as a pop musician were long gone. The Cowsills had disbanded – hadn’t Wald heard?
“The contract is gonna be for you alone,” Reddy’s husband added. “You can do whatever you want.”
As Wald talked it up over the next several days, Cowsill decided to let the idea marinate. Who knew where it might lead. His old performing juices began to flow.
Whether Wald was making the offer out of gratitude to Cowsill for a long run of solid service or was using him as a way to make life unpleasant for Al Coury, the head of A&R at Capitol Records, Cowsill couldn’t be sure. Wald planned to demand that if his wife resigned with Capitol when her existing deal soon expired, Coury had to sign Cowsill too. Given that Cowsill had absolutely no track record as either the leader of a band or as a solo artist, it was far-fetched to think that either Coury or anyone else at Capitol would want the former child star within a hundred yards of their current artist roster. Which, of course, they didn’t. Except that, in Cowsill’s estimation, Wald despised Coury so much that he probably wanted to stick the label exec with an albatross of a contract just because he could. If Coury wanted the red-hot Reddy, he would have to take the ice-cold Cowsill along with her. That was the deal, pally – take it or leave it.
With a string of hits to her credit by this point, including her most recent number-one smash, “Angie Baby,” Reddy was a veritable gold-record machine. And with Capitol’s most famous and lucrative cash cows, the Beatles and the Beach Boys, far in the rearview mirror (the Beatles had disbanded in 1970, with the Beach Boys jumping ship for Warner/Reprise the same year), the label desperately needed Reddy’s hefty revenue stream. Which left Cowsill with a brand-new, $30,000 record deal on his hands and an even bigger dilemma: Who the heck was he going to find to help him pull this thing off?
While driving through North Hollywood not long after the signing, with the thought swirling in his mind of how best to go about making the new record, Paul Cowsill suddenly couldn’t believe his eyes: there, wandering down the sidewalk in his bare feet and wearing a pair of dirty torn blue jeans, was his oldest brother, Bill, the one-time musical mastermind behind the Cowsills’ sound and success. Pulling up next to him, Cowsill rolled down his window.
A squinting, obviously wasted Bill Cowsill peered inside the vehicle, trying to make the connection.
“Pauly, hey. What’s happening, baby?” he finally managed to stammer to his younger brother, who then pushed open the passenger-side door.
“Get in the car, man. I’ve got good news.”
As soon as Paul Cowsill heard the words come out of his mouth, he knew he had made a mistake. Cowsill wanted more than anything to do his new album project his way. No matter Jeff Wald’s exact intention in making the deal happen, he had nevertheless done Cowsill a huge favor. This would be a chance —f or once, Cowsill felt — to get things done right, without anybody interfering. The Cowsills might still be going strong had his father not f***ed things up. It was also an opportunity for Cowsill to make a name by himself, to really test his limits as a musician away from his family. A late bloomer, he was a belated addition to the already established, hit-making Cowsills when he joined up, along with his mom and sister, in 1968. Now, though, it was his chance to shine.
Yet through it all Bill remained a larger-than-life presence in Paul Cowsill’s eyes, despite Bill’s currently wobbly condition. He was thought of as the family’s Brian Wilson, after all. Maybe if Billy got his act together, he could help coproduce. What could be better?
But brother Bill didn’t get his act together. Not even close. After calling in the best session musicians in town, including stalwarts such as Russ Kunkel, Lee Sklar and long- time family friend Waddy Wachtel (plus other brother Barry Cowsill, one of the original four Cowsill boys), Paul Cowsill found himself to be the captain of a rapidly sinking musical ship. If Bill showed up for rehearsals or recording sessions, it was a minor miracle – that is, if he could be found in the first place. And when he did make an appearance, Bill’s rampant drug and alcohol consumption, combined with what many suspected was a growing mental illness, often rendered him incoherent at best and incapacitated at worst. With no other choice and with a heavy heart, Paul Cowsill finally had to ban his brother from the studio altogether.
For the disillusioned Cowsill, the low point came one evening at Sound City in late 1974 (around the same time Mick Fleetwood made his fateful visit there to discover the guitar work of Lindsey Buckingham). Having recently hired Keith Olsen at Wachtel’s suggestion to record and produce a few songs Bill had written, Cowsill had stopped by to listen to the playback of what they had cut so far. Olsen, Wachtel, and Cowsill, now the three leaders of the project wanted to sit down together to determine whether there was something – anything – that might be usable.
About halfway through the listening session, however, with the music blaring and all three in deep concentration, Studio A’s control room door suddenly burst open. Before anyone could react, in stumbled a drunk, belligerent Bill Cowsill with a half-empty vodka bottle in his hand and mayhem on his mind. Making straight for the twenty-four-track tape machine, he tore the still-moving take-up reel off the unit with his free hand and flung it across the room. As the brown, two-inch magnetic take unspooled in great slithery strands all over the floor, Paul Cowsill leapt from his seat, whirled in the air like the second coming of Bruce Lee, and karate-kicked his brother as hard as he could, sending him sprawling.
As Bill Cowsill landed with a thud, blood simultaneously began spewing everywhere from Paul Cowsill’s sandal-clad foot, which had been badly cut midkick on the now-shattered vodka bottle. Though staggered and clearly out of his mind, Bill Cowsill refused to give up, however. If he couldn’t have “his” tape with “his” songs on it, then no one could. Crawling to the unspooled pile nearby, he grabbed a length of tape and began gnawing it in half. An irate, bleeding Paul Cowsill then dove on top of him, putting his crazed brother in a headlock. A furious Olsen immediately stood up and called a halt to the session, throwing everyone out. And that was that. The two Cowsills’ professional involvement with not only Keith Olsen and Sound city but also with each other was over.
Bill Cowsill, whom Paul had told in no uncertain terms after the incident that “this town isn’t big enough for the both of us,” fled to Canada, never to return. As for the Capital Records project, Paul Cowsill and Waddy Wachtel briefly regrouped shortly after the brouhaha as a duo named Bridey Murphy (which Bill Cowsill coined before his ouster) and managed to record one song together, with Cowsill on vocals and Wachtel playing all the instruments. Written by Judi Pulver, Wachtel’s by-now ex-girlfriend, “The Time Has Come,” recorded in Capitol’s Studio B, came out as a single at the tail end of 1974 and promptly sank without a trace after being ignored by the label’s marketing and promotions team.
As for Paul Cowsill, he would turn his back on the music business for many years and instead become involved in the construction industry, his tolerance for bad behavior having reached an end. But working with the Cowsills was in no way the last time Waddy Wachtel would find himself involved with a difficult, substance-abusing musician. Against his better judgement, the guitarist would soon end up as the cowriter and coproducer of a world-famous song with yet another out-of-control talent by the name of Warren Zevon.