It’s a few days after Halloween and Susan Cowsill shows up for her monthly gig at Carrollton Station wearing her “Queen of Hearts” costume. Never mind that we wanted to shoot some video and the outfit is pretty outlandish—well, this is New Orleans after all. Cowsill is just regular folk to the crowd at Carrollton. The bar became a singer/songwriter refuge in the two year aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the place is packed with musicians. So many clubs closed and never reopened after Katrina that the musicians who stayed have limited opportunities to play and connect with other artists. Cowsill floats through the crowd in her bell-shaped outfit and there are greetings and hugs everywhere—she may be an icon of a generation, but here Cowsill is just plain family.
For anyone who remembers the late 60’s and the “Summer of Love,” every note and every chord of the songs she helped make famous conjure up memories of a time when life was simpler and all things seemed possible. Fun, feel good songs like “Hair” and lines like: "I love the flower girl, is she reality or just a dream to me?” are part of the musical lexicon of a generation. The Cowsills’ discography may provide memories of a different era, but the music stands the test of time because fans liked the music then and their kids still like it now for what it is---a soundtrack that conveys the excitement, rebellion and nostalgia of the Summer of Love.
“The Rain,” “The Park and Other Things,” “We Can Fly,” “Indian Lake,” and “Hair” still dominate play lists over 40 years after they hit the airwaves. Susan was seven years old when she joined the band on tambourine.
After a great opening act by talented newcomer, Dana Abbott, Cowsill commands the stage and immediately takes the crowd into the palm of her hand. They understand what she is singing about. Talk about news cycles and “Katrina fatigue.” Hell, they are all living it.
“I look around this town and I can’t feel
There’s something wrong we lost the song
And this is all too real
This is the only place I’ve ever belonged
And now it’s gone
And I want to go home…”
It is two years post-Katrina and many parts of the New Orleans still look like the flood hit two weeks ago. The musicians who stuck it out, and there are many, are fighting hard to hold on to the musical heritage of a city that is suffering. Cowsill understands this struggle more than most. If Susan Cowsill’s past, complicated by her own experiences with childhood abuse and the challenges of early notoriety as part of the original Cowsills pop group was the crucible of her artistry, then Hurricane Katrina was the fire that forged early experience into the strength and wisdom to keep putting one foot in front of the other in the face of incredible obstacles. This includes the tragic death of her brother, Barry, in Katrina’s storm waters.
Susan’s solo CD, Just Believe It, was released in the United States in October 2005 while she was a virtual refugee, along with hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens of New Orleans, Louisiana. Rave reviews were all but drowned in the media fallout from Katrina. It was impossible for her to tour and promote the CD and, as a result, a very good work by a beloved artist literally fell through the cracks.
“…in the prime of her singing and songwriting life, " Rolling Stone raved at the release.
"As good as Cowsill’s voice is, her smart, emotional songwriting is her biggest asset," the usually reserved Washington Post said in the days just before the storm arrived and wrecked a city.
Meanwhile, Susan’s brother, Barry Cowsill, was fighting his own demons of mental illness when Katrina struck and decided to weather the storm in an abandoned warehouse. Susan and family fled with the children’s orange juice still sitting on the kitchen table and expected to be back in a few days. The floodwaters changed those plans and the hopes and dreams of 200,000 others—permanently.
Susan recalls that land line phones were not working, but for some reason, text messaging still functioned.
“We all learned how to text message in those days,” she says while sitting at her kitchen counter in the funky Algiers neighborhood she now calls home after her old home was destroyed by the floodwaters. Ruined instruments are piled up against the fence in the back yard, grim relics of better times.
“Barry was frantically calling from a pay phone for help, but we did not get the voice messages until they all arrived at once on September 2,” she says.
Susan approached Entertainment Tonight to broadcast a plea for assistance in the search, since Cowsill fans have a legendary loyalty and she figured they would rise to the occasion. They did, and a massive search was soon underway.
The same could not be said for the producers of Entertainment Tonight, who would not broadcast the story unless Susan gave them the recording of the four messages from Barry that made it through to the phone mail of her husband, Russ Broussard.
Did she feel this was an unnecessary invasion of very personal space at a time her brother was panicked and half out of his mind?
“Yeah,” she nods.
No other explanation seems necessary.
Barry was found under a wharf in the Mississippi River and put to rest in December—and then the detective story began.
Susan received a call in January that there was a copper marker commemorating Barry’s death on an oak tree in Audubon Park.
“In memory of Barry Cowsill, who died a true genius on the levee, September 2, 2005,” it read.
Obviously curious that someone might have some information as to what, exactly happened, she and husband Russ went to take a look. The crudely fashioned copper plate extolled Barry and gave the exact date that the frantic phone calls ended. How did someone know? Was this some grim clue left by a murderer, or did it signify something else? Worse, Barry’s leather choker was tucked behind the plate.
Much sleuthing, soul searching, and the passage of time have left Susan with the strong impression that her brother may have taken his own life. A piece of copper was missing from a friend’s workshop, oak trees held a spiritual significance for Barry, and the fact that the choker was deliberately left behind all point to a probable conclusion. Is she sure?
“Of course, we will never know for sure, but the coroner’s report indicated drowning as the cause.”
What happened to the copper plate?
“Someone stole it,” is the matter-of-fact reply.
In some ways, what happened to her brother gives Cowsill the motivation to stay in a city that is drowning in administrative incompetence.
“Barry’s story is that it’s all gonna happen the way it happens. It’s what you do with it, that matters,” she says.
“You don’t desert a ship because it is sinking. New Orleans has been home for fifteen years.”
Susan Cowsill continues the tradition of the Cowsills with Just Believe It, but the compilation is much more. The mood, delivery, and style offer a more mature take on life than the pop tunes of the sixties, but once again, the music and lyrics relate to the mood of the times while retaining the power to stand on their own.
Although Susan Cowsill was raised in Rhode Island, and lived in California, the Cajun, soul, and blues beats of New Orleans have helped nurture her new southern roots. At the 2007 19th Annual Big Easy Awards, sponsored by Gambit Weekly, the Best Roots Rock category went to “Susan Cowsill.”
While some artists give credit to disembodied muses, Susan Cowsill prefers to walk the streets of New Orleans and listen to the whispers, rhythms and truth of the streets. Cowsill’s intelligent lyrics on Just Believe It go far beyond the inclinations of most songwriters to focus a scratched lens on the banality of interpersonal relationships. If Cowsill sculpted her lyrics from the experiences of life, her strong, seasoned voice is the chisel that shapes each word with truth. The dying voice of an old woman who does not want to pass calls to the songwriter from the bed of a nursing home in “Nanny’s Song”:
“Oh, Oh I don’t want to leave this earth
Oh, Oh I don’t want to let it go”
“Crescent City Snow” wraps powerful emotion around each note. Eight months after snow fell on the French Quarter for the first time in 50 years, the levees broke, and lives were washed away.
“I want to go back to the place / where I know who I am.”
Everyone, ultimately, just wants to go home.
Meanwhile, Susan Cowsill is still a music industry powerhouse whose poetic instincts embrace truth as beauty, and by doing so, she has fashioned her own art out of the magic of life. Part of her mystique is that you cannot define her with the straightjackets of genre or niche. Cowsill takes the bold leap that many songwriters avoid and looks outward to the commonality of human experience. Life is ambiguous. Life is uncertain. Embrace it anyway.
And life does go on. On the first Saturday of every month Susan and her local New Orleans band perform an original set at Carrollton Station, followed by a Covered in Vinyl set, featuring the performance of an entire album from start to finish. The Susan Cowsill Band has covered, among others, Ziggy Stardust, Wings' Band on the Run, Joni Mitchell's Court & Spark, The Beatles Rubber Soul and Jimi Hendrix' Are You Experienced.
Recognizing that not everyone would elect to go to a ”Cowsill” performance, The Covered in Vinyl series was conceived in the hope that it would draw a new audience to her work with drummer, collaborator, and husband, Russ Broussard.
Still, there is more that Susan Cowsill wants to say. She performs around the world with her husband, drummer Russ Broussard, her band, and the Cowsills. She continues to write original songs and plans to get back into the recording studio.
A talk show, “On the Couch with Susan Cowsill,” is due to premier online.
Learn more at SusanCowsill.com