Our Billy 1948 - 2006
Knocking On The Floor Of Heaven
May 12, 2006
He was a true original, the real deal, the gunfighter,
the Voice. Man, could our Billy sing. And sweat, as he
brought classic rock 'n' roll to raging life. We pause to applaud
the man, the myth and the music. photographs by alexander w. thomas
a tribute to billy cowsill
There's one thing, probably above all others, that keeps me going — the fans and the respect and reverence they show me," said Billy Cowsill in an interview on CKUA, two years before he died in his Calgary home on Feb. 18 after a debilitating series of illnesses and setbacks. "I'm bowled away by it. I don't get it. I don't understand it. I'm just a singer, man. I'm just a singer."
But what a singer. From the start to the finish, it was his voice that made Billy, our Billy, one of rock 'n' roll's true greats. Says his longtime friend and sometime manager Neil MacGonigill, "When I met Bill, like everyone else, I was bowled over by his talent. That's where you start with Bill — his shows were exceptional all the time. He'd be in crippling pain with his back and he'd go on stage and he would rock and sweat like there was no tomorrow. He never held anything back, ever — sick like a dog and he'd still be hitting the high notes."
This icon, who chose Calgary as his home in the late '90s, left behind two indelible legacies. The first, of course, was the music. From his teenage stint as the leader of the Cowsills — whose "Hair", "Indian Lake" and "The Rain, The Park and Other Things" are interwoven into the psyches of millions of Baby Boomers — right on up to his beloved Calgary band The Co-Dependents — whose Live at the Mecca Volume II was No. 1 on the Megatunes chart even as Billy lay down to meet his final peace — Billy carved out a unique place in the history of rock 'n' roll.
Billy's musical adventures textured the talent he was born with. He left the Cowsills, whose story inspired The Partridge Family, when he outgrew their bubblegum sentiments. "He thought the four boys — brothers Bill, Barry, Bob and John — could have become the Beatles," says MacGonigill. "Then, all of a sudden, his mother and sister got dumped
into the band." Billy headed to Tulsa to learn the blues, opening for JJ Cale, earning 10 bucks a night and all the beer he could drink, a contrast to his former Ed Sullivan Show days that is a testament to Billy's commitment to music's purest path. His personal path was less pure, as he began struggles with addictions to drugs and alcohol that would plague him until his final years.
While down and out in New York City in the early '70s, he borrowed John Lennon's guitar and wrote the miracle that is "Vagabond." The line "Vagabond, you never settle down/You keep spinning around like an endless merry-go-round" mirrored Billy's life. He drifted out to Los Angeles, where he honed his ear with producer Harry Nilsson and traded chops with Warren Zevon.
Billy ended up in Vancouver for a stretch with The Blue Shadows, whose country-kissed rock blended with heavenly harmonies. "Three vegetarians and a junkie" is how Billy famously described them. He was on the way down again when the Calgary music community that was to become Billy's second family brought him here to begin the path to sobriety. His clean state resulted in the clear harmonies and raw licks of retro-roots rockers The Co-Dependents. "He came up with the name right out of therapy," laughs bandmate Tim Leacock. " 'I'm Reverend Bill and here are my Co-Dependents,' he'd joke. 'We're the band that puts up with each other's bullsh-t.' "
Billy's second legacy was less widely shared, but perhaps more treasured than even his music by those people fortunate enough to know him as more than a voice on a radio or a photo on a CD cover. It's the stories he left with the people who knew him.
In Calgary, as anywhere Billy had lived, he touched people's lives in
PHOTO BY ALEXANDER W. THOMAS Cowsill sharing a mic with Jeffrey Hatcher in The Blue Shadows, whose sound was described by the band as "Hank Williams recorded at the Cavern Club."
his often quiet, sometimes harsh, but usually humorous and memorable way. Billy was a people magnet, as musicians and fans were drawn not only to his legend but also to him as a personality, and many of the people in the room would spend a few minutes at his table paying homage. "People know lots about Billy's history and his music," says MacGonigill. "But not everyone knew just what an interesting, complex guy he was. Just sweet, a good guy."
Whether you spent 10 minutes or 10 years with the man, whether you got to meet the sweet soul that was hiding inside that gruff exterior or only felt your spirit soar as he hit the high notes or nailed those perfect harmonies, you would not soon forget it. Here are the stories of those who knew Billy personally, stories that will likely be shared again in conversations and hearts at the Billy Cowsill Memorial: On the Floor of Heaven, May 18 at Knox United Church.
"Because of the demand, there was talk of doing the tribute over two nights, but who ever heard of a funeral going over two nights," says MacGonigill. "This is really Billy's funeral, so we want it to be done right." The organizers also decided not to broadcast the show on CKUA or record the show for posterity, although, as bandmate and friend Tim Leacock says, laughing, "Billy would have wanted it shrink-wrapped and sold in the lobby between sets." -Mary-Lynn Wardle
NEIL MACGONIGILL (the man behind Indelible Music, www. indeliblemusic.com): "Folklore has it that Bill Morris, my friend, found Billy in a snowbank outside the bar in Hay River one night. He thought, If I leave him here, he's going to freeze to death. So he packed him home and put him on the couch. The family wakes up and this guy is there — he has his guitar with him so he starts singing. Billy would always start singing for his supper. That's when my friend called me and said, 'I don't know who this guy is, but you have to hear him sing.'
"Later on, somebody asked Billy, why Hay River. And he replied, 'Why not?' How would you go from Los Angeles to Hay River without taking a wrong turn and just waking up there?"
TIM LEACOCK (longtime friend and bass player with the Co-Dependents): "I think Billy took plenty of wrong turns."
NEIL MACGONIGILL: "I probably shouldn't get into this, but I remember he ran off to Austin with the mayor of Hay River's wife."
TIM LEACOCK: "Bill never was very interested in politics."
BILLY COWSILL (from a 2004 interview with Tom Coxworth on CKUA's Folk Routes): "There were two things I wanted to be when I grew up. One was a cowboy and one was a Beatles rock 'n' roller. I grew into my adolescence fast. So I got the joke, as I call it, of what was stirring and what the music was doing to me because it's very sexual. I think music, to a degree, has always had a sexual influence. Even Mozart and guys like that. That was the pop music of their time, and people danced to it."
ALLISON BROCK (longtime friend and the host of CKUA's Wide Cut Country): "Every girl who has seen Billy is going to understand this—he had this way, when he was playing guitar, of shaking his ass. And I mean, Billy and I, we were really good friends—we were like brother and sister—but I gotta tell ya, man, when he got that ass shaking, he was hot."
TIM LEACOCK: "That's the whole thing with Bill. Certainly when he was on stage it was the most obvious, but what he was, was someone who could really capture energy. That's why, when he would perform, he'd lose five pounds some nights. The floor below him would be soaked and he'd change his shirt after every set."
NEIL MACGONIGILL: "If you picked up his guitar the next day, it would be white with salt. The strings wouldn't have any tension left in them—they were dead, slack strings."
TIM LEACOCK: "But he was also able to do that in his dealings with people and the way he went about his life. He drew energy to him. And that's why so many people feel connected to him and touched by him. That's flaky stuff maybe, but it's real. Anybody who listens to music
PHOTO BY NEIL MACGONIGILL "Bill, Elmar Spanier and I heard some guy was selling an old Cadillac," says MacGonigill, "We needed a car and we needed some Hank Williams shots. Bill was a real photogenic guy - lots of bones, lots of angles on him."
knows that's what it is. It's connecting with some kind of energy that makes us all the same."
BILLY COWSILL (from Live at the Crystal Ballroom, recorded at the Palliser Hotel in July 1985): "I'd like to introduce the band. On the upright doghouse bass Elmar 'Spins' Spanier there. We have Colin Munn, 'The Bo-hunk Funk,' on guitar for ya. And in the back, Chris 'The Wrist' Nordquist on the drums. My name is Billy Cowsill. Glad to be here at the Palliser. Glad you're having such a great time. It's mostly dead guys, kids. They're gone. Hearts of gold and sh-tfor brains—that's what you get in the business."
PETER NORTH (CKUA's music director): "He was an incredible gift to the western Canadian music scene. He came up here with a resume pretty much unlike anyone else's at the time. When I listened to those Blue Northern records the other night after Billy's passing, to hear those Beach Boy harmonies and the Beaue-like melodies all mixed together into what was country rock... it was just such an incredible recipe for success and for something that was going to resonate with a lot of people."
NEIL MACGONIGILL: "I got a letter from this girl who used to play with Bill. She said he taught her how to sing like a Beach Boy and play
guitar like a train.
He was interesting in many ways—not just that he could sing. He was from Los Angeles and had played Yankee
Stadium with the Beach Boys and Stevie Wonder. He'd been on the Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show and all that. He never talked about it but he had an aura about him, a swagger. He was just like a gunfighter. He was like Billy the Kid. I used to think he was born 100 years too late. The crowd would be yammering away and he'd be in one of the moods where he wasn't going to take it. So he would just stand on the stage, smoking and staring at the audience until they'd start getting nervous, one and two at a time. Pretty soon, the whole room would be quiet and and he's just be smoking and staring and looking mean and miserable and then he'd say, 'OK, now we can start.' "
JEFF HATCHER (Blue Shadows bandmate and Cowsill's most perfectly-meshed vocal partner): "Life with Billy, it's a broad topic. He certainly had a self-destructive streak in him that I didn't like to see. Part of what's not great about seeing that is you know it comes from a really low sense of self-worth. It hurt me to see that, because I could see that he was a very worthy guy."
BILLY COWSILL: "I get outside of the song. I don't get into it, man, I get outside of it and view it and love it and realize that I am delivering this the way it should be delivered. It's from out there, man. It's not from in here. It comes through here, but it's not in any way related to me in any way, shape or form. It's not personal. Personable, but not personal."
NEIL MACGONIGILL "His favourite singers were Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison, basically the Traveling Wilburys. I always thought if they had met Billy, all they would have had to do was hear him sing and, Bob's your uncle, Billy would have been in that band. He could have done all their parts."
KEITH PETRAR (writing in the Billy Cowsill Memorial Book at www. cowsillcom): "I was a big fan. We used to see Billy at this little cave of a place on Main Street in Vancouver. I was always amazed at how a guy with his talent could be playing this tiny venue. He usually closed with Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." A friend would say, 'If Billy could only write like that.' I would reply, 'If Dylan could only sing like that'
So, for Billy, in closing, your guns are on the ground, you won't need them anymore. Billy, they don't want you to be so free."
NEIL MACGONIGILL: "When Bill had the blues and wasn't feeling good, he'd hole up and read Lonesome Dove. He called me Woodrow all the time and he was Gus.
"Back in September 2005, some friends had been in town and had taken him out for a bite to eat across the street. He'd had a beef dip. When they were leaving, Bill took what remained of the sandwich but he forgot the dip. They dropped him off and tucked him in, but when they left, he thought, I can get back there on my own. He went out the back. It was raining and he slipped down the creaky stairs and broke his
hip. It was about 10 o'clock at night. I said, 'What did you do?' Bill answered, 'I just pretended I was Gus from Lonesome Dove with that arrow in my leg and I drug myself up the steps and phoned 911.'"
TIM LEACOCK: "Billy's spirit far outlived his body. He had time to retire and reflect. He really held his head up high going through the medical problems he had. It would have been so easy to have given up long before."
NEIL MACGONIGILL: In the last couple of years, Bill spent a lot of time in the CareWest-Glenmore Park Facility. For the most part, it's older folks with dementia and I'm sure he was the youngest person in there. He said he cried one night, out of depression and fear. In the morning, he decided, 'I have to do something or I'm going to go crazy. What should I do? Well, I have to go to work, I'm a singer.' So that day, at five, when they wheeled him into the cafeteria to have dinner, he took his guitar. He started doing little concerts on Tuesdays and Fridays. He would play and they would gather these folks around. He would sing because that's what he did. Doing those shows made him feel better, made it bearable."
TIM LEACOCK "Bill had a lot of friends in Calgary, lots of support. And he gave support back to lots of people. Certainly in the time that he was quite healthy, he was doing all sorts of positive things—going to meetings and being the leader of an AA support group. He and Mark Sadlier-Brown would go to the Foothills and play for kids in comas. They had gone to play for one young guy who'd been in a car accident. Bill always thought that he was giving him this kind of look. Finally, months later, after the kid came out of the coma, Bill went back to see him and he asked, 'Do you remember that? What were you trying to tell me?' The kid said, 'I was wishing I could tell you to shut the f-k up.' "
NEIL MACGONIGILL: "I know why Bill chose to live in Calgary. He could be a regular guy here. He learned he could let his guard down. He didn't have to be the tough guy."
TIM LEACOCK "Give credit where credit is due. The reason he came here is because he was really sick. Neil sent him a plane ticket. This was a place where he got clean and confident. He had been coming here since the early '80s, so he had 15 years of history here."
NEIL MACGONIGILL: "I remember him telling me one time after he flew back from a visit to Vancouver, he said, 'Coming in from the south over the foothills and downtown Calgary, for the first time I felt like I was flying home.' "
BILLY COWSILL: "I was born a bird. That's what I do. I'm a singer. I do it because that's what I have to accept. And I do it with gratitude that I'm even able to do it."
Note: The above flyer reads:
A Wake For Billy
On The Floor of Heaven
Thursday, May 18th
KNOX UNITED CHURCH,
506 4th St. S.W.
Available only at Megatunes,
932 17th Ave. S.W., 229-3022
DOORS AT 6.30 P.M.
SHOW AT 8 P.M.
HOSTED BY STEWART MACDOUGALL
Tim Leacock, Steve Pineo and Ross Watson
Ralph Boyd Johnson
Those wishing to honour Billy are invited
to make a donation in his name to:
1835 House, Recovery Acres Society,
1835 27th Ave. S.W., Calgary, AB, T2T 1H2