On January 7, Susan Cowsill opened her monthly Carrollton Station show with Lucinda Williams’ “Drunken Angel”, dedicated to her brother Barry. He had remained in his longtime home New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina bore down on the city, and he left messages on Susan’s voice mail looking for help as late as Wednesday after the storm. Since then, he was considered missing until December 27, when his body was identified by dental records in a Baton Rouge morgue. He died of drowning, and was found under one of the wharves that line the Mississippi River. He was 51.
At Carrollton Station, Susan sang the chorus, “Why’d you let go of your guitar/Why’d you let it get this far” with an intensity that mixed pain, anger and confusion. Like so much that happened in the aftermath of Katrina, there are more questions than answers about Barry’s death, starting with how he ended up in the river.
As a teenager, he formed the Cowsills with brothers Bill, John and Bob in their hometown, Newport, Rhode Island. They were later joined by younger brother Paul, sister Susan and mother Barbara, and had hits such as “Indian Lake”, “The Rain, The Park And Other Things”, and “Hair”. (The Cowsills were the real-life inspiration for the TV sitcom “The Partridge Family”.) In 2004, the Boston Red Sox used “Hair” as outfielder Johnny Damon’s theme song, which led the team to invite the Cowsills to perform the national anthem in Fenway Park during the American League Championship Series.
Later in her set, Susan returned to the Lucinda songbook for “Crescent City”, in it singing, “My brother used to know where the best bars are.” In the ’90s, Barry made the Kerry Irish Pub his musical and social home in New Orleans. When he wasn’t playing there, he was a charming, gregarious presence at the bar, though alcohol wasn’t always his friend. He struggled with drinking problems and in the week before Katrina was making plans to enter rehab.
Musically, he leaves the Cowsills’ recordings and his 1998 album As Is as documents of his talent. The latter shows a debt to the Beatles, who inspired him and his brothers to play in the first place.