Like so many New Orleanians, the uncertainty was killing her.
Susan Cowsill describes herself as “a chronic bandmate.” She didn’t lead the Cowsills; it was older brothers Billy, Bob, Barry and John’s band until their father decided their mother and younger sister should be in the group. In 1970s in Los Angeles, she was part of a musical community that involved Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon and family friend/session guitarist Waddy Wachtel, but she wasn’t motivated to pursue a solo career. When she joined the Continental Drifters and its arsenal of singers and songwriters, it was a comfortable fit. “I could walk up when I wanted, go back when I wanted, drink when I wanted. I didn’t have too much responsibility,” she says over lunch in the CBD with Broussard. After the two split from the Continental Drifters in 2002, she took the first steps toward a solo career when she formed the Bonoffs, a Bourbon Street cover band that paid well enough for her and Broussard to earn a living and be home at the start and end of the day for their children. It was her first experience leading a band, and she lacked confidence, not that it was obvious. She wasn’t above asking tourists who needed to use the washroom to detour by the tip jar on their way, but she did so in a charming enough way to get away with it. “I could never have run a circus if it wasn’t for the Bonoffs.”
In 2003, Cowsill and Broussard decided it was time to cut her first solo album, so they went to SXSW in 2004 to look for labels, managers, agents and the money to finish Just Believe It, which they completed and released that year. Shortly after the CD’s release and the first few shows after its release, Cowsill started her monthly “Covered in Vinyl” series once a month at Carrollton Station, when she and her band would cover classic albums first released on vinyl such as Neil Young’s Harvest and Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman for one set, then she’d do a set of her own music. She’s not a prolific songwriter, so the series is a way of making each show different. “I really admire a lot of musicians, but I’m not going to go see them once or twice or month,” Cowsill says. “I can only imagine the city feels the same way. Every once in a while I’ll throw in a new song, but the Vinyl makes it an interesting event.”
Just Believe It turned out to be a roots rock album that was strongly tied to her past, from the bubble gum-flavored “I Know You Know” to the rubboard groove on the title cut, to Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” which she sometimes sang as a Continental Drifter. She received guest help from long-time friends Adam Duritz and Lucinda Williams, but they didn’t outshine her. Blue Corn Records picked up the album and in August 2005, the company released it nationally. She was scheduled to tour to promote the album, but Katrina brought everything to a halt.
Cowsill was in Nashville when Katrina entered the Gulf of Mexico, so Broussard drove there to meet her. Her brother Barry stayed behind in New Orleans because he had a plane ticket to fly to Los Angeles to enter a MusiCares rehab facility days after Katrina, and he figured the storm would be yet another near miss. She last heard from him September 1 when she first got cell phone reception after the storm. On her voicemail were a number of increasingly desperate messages from Barry. “Help me out of here!” he said in one. “I don’t know how to get out of town except to wait days for a bus. Supplies are running low where I’m at. There’s a lot of looting, lot of shooting. It’s, it’s bad. I’m so fucking lonely. I love you guys. I hope I get in touch with you soon.” He was staying at a friend’s place in the Warehouse District and calling on pay phone, but she wouldn’t hear from him again.
From Nashville, she tried to coordinate a search plan with brother Bob while trying half-heartedly to promote the album. She played a series of dates, but before long, bandmates Chris Knotts and Rob Savoy wanted to get back to their loved ones, leaving Cowsill and Broussard to soldier on alone. They played another few dates including one with the two of them and her daughter Miranda, but there were too many distractions.
They returned to New Orleans in late October 2005, and the first Covered in Vinyl show was Paul McCartney and Wings’ Band on the Run. She spent much of that fall tracking Barry sightings and rumors, collecting newspaper clippings from around the country, and retracing his steps, hoping that somewhere in there she’d find a clue. Instead, she’d find out on December 28 that his body was in a Baton Rouge morgue, and that he had been found in the Mississippi River days after the hurricane.
The year 2006 was spent living with the aftermath. She grieved Barry’s loss, and starting that February, Billy’s. She looked for answers and clues to the pieces that didn’t fit together. Once a month, she’d play a Covered in Vinyl show, but even that seemed to lose a little focus as the album choices drifted from ones that spoke to her folk rock background to ones that had little to do with her art, such as Are You Experienced? and The Unforgettable Fire. Her band’s lineup changed as Savoy and Knotts moved on with their lives, but she also did a month or so of summer touring, more or less to keep her name out there. Soon, it started to feel like maybe it was time for her and Broussard to move on as well. Efforts to secure a manager and a booking agent had slowed, then stopped. Writing has never been easy for her, but that came to a halt, too, as did prospects of recording.
“We felt like we needed to go because we were lost,” Cowsill says. “And the whole city felt that way that year. Should I stay or should I go? Is this something I can deal with and contribute to, or are we going to become the Night of the Living Dead city, and we’re all walking around in this Katrina zombie state, never to return? And that’s what it felt like for a really long time.”
Last April, Cowsill and Broussard quietly made the decision to move. They chose a spot in the country in Pennsylvania where they could raise horses, grow their own food, knit, find a simpler life, and at the same time be an hour from New York City where they could continue their careers. Suddenly, the world seemed like less of a burden.
“A big weight was lifted off,” she says. “The storm was one thing, but the Barry thing took it to a whole different level. I didn’t know if I could walk around this place and look at it without thinking about my brother and the big fun we had falling down all over every city block. It started feeling like we were doctors and nurses on call 24/7 with no rest, and we weren’t good doctors anymore. We’re screwing up; we’re leaving scissors inside someone’s head. We’re fucking up. Now it’s not making any sense anymore. As soon as we decided to leave, we started feeling much better. We’re going to recover somewhere else. We had a vision, any vision.” They started talking about possible records, and she started a goodbye New Orleans song, one that remains unfinished.
The problem with the vision was that it involved leaving, and though the idea of a new life in the wilds of Pennsylvania was liberating, it also meant a major break with things they loved. “I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving,” Broussard says, and he started insisting that they had to keep a place in New Orleans and move back some day. “I don’t know which lottery he was winning,” Cowsill says now, laughing. They dragged their feet instead of doing the things involved in moving such as checking out schools, investigating moving costs, looking at houses, and so on. When she’d ask him if he really wanted to move, Broussard would become evasive. Finally, when the kids were at school, she confronted him. “We sat on the couch and I said, ‘I’m not leaving this couch until you tell me how you really feel. I’ve got all day. The kids don’t get out of school until three. We made the decision to go; we can make the decision to stay, too.”
After long periods of silence, the conversation started and they finally said the unspoken: They really didn’t want to leave. “We had the realization that everything we thought we could do in New York City we could do here,” Broussard says. “One of the things that was tearing me up was not playing with all these musicians, and we’re one phone call from any of them. If we move to Pennsylvania, then what? We’re starting all over again.
“The thought of leaving is what we needed; the release emotionally from being here seemed to do it,” Broussard says. Like so many New Orleanians, they were paralyzed, and making one decision — even if it was one they backed away from — led to another. And that led to a new-found sense of freedom. According to Cowsill, “Whatever liberation came from re-upping on New Orleans has brought this flurry of ‘I can do anything because you can’t hurt me anymore. We’ve lost everything, so bring it on.’ Once that happened, then everything kicked in and we made the conscious effort to participate, not just do our own little thing but start working with fellow New Orleans musicians and just embrace it. It’s the music capital of the world and we know almost everybody, but we weren’t thinking of working with them.”
With the new attitude came new opportunities. She sang with Theresa Andersson, Shannon McNally and Lynn Drury at the Big Easy Awards, and had so much fun that they’re talking about recording together. She found a new, stable band lineup with Jimmy Robinson on guitar and former Motorway bassist Pete Winkler, and she has started choosing albums that need bigger bands, surrounding herself with additional musicians including John Gros, Derek Huston, Caleb Guillotte and Sue Ford to play Sly and the Family Stone; and Paul Sanchez, Guillotte and sister-in-law/fellow Drifter Vicki Peterson to sing the Mamas and Papas. During Keith Spera’s absence from WWL-TV’s morning show, she filled in. Then recently at OffBeat’s Best of the Beat Awards, she won awards as Best Female Vocalist and Best Roots Rock/Country/Folk Artist. “All these things started happening,” Cowsill says. “Until then, we couldn’t put one foot in front of the other.”
Part of the last year has been spent reconnecting to the family band. The Cowsills has been a heavy name to carry. It got respect in many musical circles for the miraculous harmonies and beautiful songs, but in others, it was the bubble gum band that sang “Hair” and was the model for The Partridge Family. It was such a load that Barry periodically repudiated the family name, assuming such aliases as Barry Bartholomew, Barry Scott and Elvis Franklin. Billy similarly struggled with the musical legacy. “They wanted to be taken seriously as musicians, and what I never understood is why they wouldn’t be. Open your mouth and sing that song you wrote today and it’ll all go away. But there’s a psychological damage done to young boys who were serious musicians who were pigeonholed into the 16 Magazine thing that lingered on for them.”
While she wasn’t taking on fake names, Susan wasn’t exactly embracing her Cowsill past, either. No one really wants to reach their artistic nadir before they can drive a car, and in the Continental Drifters, part of the band thing was to focus on the group and not on the bands they came from. She was trying to establish her own musical identity, and besides, it’s not like the world was clamoring for the Cowsills. For most of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, the band was called to play oldies shows if it was called at all. In 2004, “Hair” became a talisman-like tune in Fenway Park in celebration of Red Sox outfielder Johnny Damon’s long, flowing locks, and during the playoffs, they were brought to Boston to sing “Hair” live before the game. Susan, Bob and John started taking Cowsills gigs, and they took more after Bill and Barry passed. Their deaths, she says, “brought a resurrection of that band. We have a couple of reasons to be together, due to the losses, but Bill and Barry carried the Cowsill cross. Once they were gone, it was like, ‘Mom and Dad aren’t watching; let’s do the Cowsills again!’ Now, she periodically includes “The Rain, the Park and Other Things” in her set.
“Loss brings bounty in so many ways,” she says. “You lose something and gain a couple of other somethings. Being able to see that is the hard part. It’s like when somebody dies and you start feeling better, and you feel guilty because you don’t feel as bad, as if it’s your job to feel bad for an eternity. What do you really want out of your life? Do you want to live in the drama and the trauma? I’ve been that person at times, and that’s one choice, but life’s going to do what it’s going to do. You can roll with it. You have choices in how you can play something out. The other is boring, melodramatic and harmful to people who are around you, like our children. What are we doing for them if we stay in our screwed up zone?”
Things still aren’t easy. Making ends meet is still a challenge, and that makes it tough to get to a follow-up album. “To make a record, we have to take time off to write it. And even if we can make the record for free, we need the money to pay the bills,” Broussard says.
“I can’t write in my house very well,” Cowsill continues. “I’m much better somewhere else. We have all these songs started, and just need two or three weeks to sit down and finish in an environment where we’re not getting the disconnect notices. It becomes a logistical thing. We’re still trying to make ends meet.”
But she is singing more. Recently, she sang “Two Black Suits” with Luke Allen for the Happy Talk Band album, There There. She has started performing at other venues besides Carrollton Station, and she now plays in any configuration she can muster. Where she once would have passed on dates if the whole band couldn’t play, now she takes them and makes do. Recently, she and Broussard opened for the Bangles as a duo. “Before Katrina, we wouldn’t do a duo show, but I’m less self-conscious about all of it.”
And that lack of self-consciousness is why she’s freezing on St. Charles Avenue breathing cold, damp February air with Pink Slip. It’s Sue Ford’s pet project, and Cowsill said yes, just as she does more and more these days. “What we want to do is contribute, maybe do some good along the way, and have a good life,” Cowsill says. “Once we were able to come out of the well and focus on the things we wanted to do, everything followed. The karmic reward is there.”
Published March 2008, OffBeat Louisiana Music & Culture Magazine, Volume 21, No. 3.