It was early in his partnership with the late Billy Cowsill when Jeffrey Hatcher realized this musical venture – which was to become the Blue Shadows – was going to be a wild ride.
That revelation came to him during one of their first gigs together, around 1992, when Hatcher watched the roots rocker and former teen pop sensation smash his guitar over an obnoxious fan’s head in a Vancouver bar.
“(Billy) was in a really bad mood . . . and he was, maybe, a little high,” recalls Hatcher. “He was frustrated with people on the dance floor falling into his microphone (causing it to) whack him in the mouth. . . In the end of night somebody started giving him a hard time and he told the guy to get lost. The guy gave him some more attitude and Billy let him have it.”
The offending fan, laid out on the dirty floor, was dragging by his boot heels into the street.
Hatcher had never seen such a sight and he suddenly had doubts about joining Cowsill’s band. What was he getting himself into?
The band’s management assured him this was totally out of character for the rock ‘n’ roll veteran.
The next night, however, a friend of the assaulted fan came to confront Cowsill. As the Blue Shadows’ co-manager Dave Chesney described the scene in No Depression magazine: “Billy coco-bonked him, too. Two nights, two guitars.”
Hatcher was horrified. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, spiritually, I can’t be involved in an enterprise like this. It’s too awful,’ “ says the singer-songwriter, now 53.
Thankfully, when Hatcher and the band’s managers read Cowsill the riot act about his behavior, the singer amended his ways – for a time. “Shortly after that he turned into Mr. Love,” says Hatcher with a laugh from his Winnipeg home.
Within a few months, Hatcher – who scored a hit in the ‘80s with his band Jeffrey Hatcher & The Big Beat – found he and Cowsill shared a special chemistry.
Their harmony singing won them great acclaim, garnering comparisons to Lennon & McCartney and The Everly Brothers. They had common ground musically, too, inspired by old-time rock ‘n’ roll and classic country, and the two men began writing songs together.
When Hatcher joined Cowsill initially, he came aboard as a sideman, but soon it became apparent that this was a band. Along with bassist Elmar Spanier and drummer J.B. Johnson, The Blue Shadows was born.
Cowsill welcomed a creative foil.
“I think he felt a lot of relief having some of the weight taken off,” says Hatcher. “(Before the Shadows formed) he was the star of the show, which he didn’t always like. . . He said he felt like a Clydesdale pulling the plow after so many years playing the bars.”
To be sure, Cowsill, who would’ve been 44 at the time, had put on a lot of hard miles.
Hailing from Newport, Rhode Island, Billy experienced international fame in the late ‘60s as part of family pop band The Cowsills, teeny bopper heartthrobs who would be the inspiration for TV’s The Partridge Family.
Despite the perks of fame – appearing on the Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson and Johnny Cash shows – Billy, a Beatles devotee, bristled at the band’s bubblegum pop and at the dictatorial management of his father, Bud Cowsill.
Bud finally fired his oldest son from the band when he caught Billy smoking marijuana.
For a few years Billy tried to start a rock solo career and when that didn’t fly, he drifted north, towards Canada.
“He took off for Hay River (in the Northwest Territories),” says Hatcher. “How much farther away (from his old life) could he get? . . . He told me he drove a truck for awhile on the ice roads.”
By the ‘80s Cowsill moved to Vancouver where he became a fixture on the city’s music scene.
When The Blue Shadows began picking up momentum, some felt this was Cowsill’s ticket back to the big time. By 1993, the band had a Canadian record deal, with its first album, On The Floor Of Heaven earning rave reviews. Labels in the U.S. were beginning to take notice, too, with the Shadows turning heads at Austin’s South By Southwest music festival and in Nashville.
But the band’s timing was off. Slick pop-country and line dancing was all the rage then and the major labels ultimately passed on them.
Still, there’s little doubt the group could have carved out a long, prosperous career. That is, if Cowsill hadn’t come unraveled.
“Billy became very difficult to work with,” says Hatcher. “He had several different personalities, depending on how he woke up . . . and that can really wear on people after awhile.”
Many of the band’s problems can be attributed to Cowsill’s life-style. “Between pills and pot, he was pretty fuzzy a lot of the time,” Hatcher says. “He was sleepless too . . . and malnourished. He’d get by on coffee and cigarettes. He wasn’t operating on all cylinders.”
Consequently, relations within the band became strained. Cowsill grew paranoid and he felt on the outs, once describing the Shadows as “three vegetarians and a junkie.” He began opposing new songs and would storm out of writing sessions and rehearsals.
Hatcher admits there was a wall between Billy and the rest of the band – one that formed as a sort of defence mechanism. “We had to naturally stick together,” he says. “It’s like having an alcoholic father. ‘How do we deal with him today?’ “
By 1996, the Blue Shadow were finished.
Hatcher moved back to his hometown of Winnipeg, where he became a musical therapist, while Cowsill was rescued by Neil MacGonigill, a Calgary-based music manager who helped the singer clean up.
Cowsill’s final band, The Co-Dependents became a staple of Calgary’s music scene for a time, until years of hard living caught up with the rock ‘n’ roll soldier.
In the final years of his life he was struggling with, among other ailments, osteoporosis and emphysema, which had him breathing with the aid of an oxygen tank.
Compounding his depression, his brother Barry, another wayward member of The Cowsills, was killed in New Orleans, during hurricane Katrina. The family was holding a memorial service for Barry in Rhode Island on the very weekend Billy died, in February 2006.
Hatcher will always be grateful that he got to talk to Billy – the one and only time following their breakup – just before Cowsill died at the age of 58.
Hatcher had written Billy a letter expressing condolences after he heard about Barry. That led to a phone call from his old bandmate.
The two had a “sweet conversation” says Hatcher. It was emotional, too. “He sounded like he was near the end,” Hatcher recalls, adding that after he hung up the phone he had “a good cry.”
Despite their harsh breakup, Hatcher insists any bitterness he had towards Billy had long subsided. “I just had affection for the old guy,” he adds.
There’s no question, working with Cowsill had come with its share of pain. “He was incredibly emotionally unstable,” Hatcher says. “He was really not comfortable with himself. He had a lot of ups and downs and he really didn’t have a handle on it . . . He was sometimes pretty fragile.”
Despite all that, Hatcher will always cherish the time he spent with the revered roots rocker.
“When it was at its best, playing and writing with Billy was like taking a holiday,” he says. “He thought that playing together took a lot of weight off him, but it did the same for me.”