Katie Couric and Bryant Gumble were reciting the Today Show billboard the other morning, doing their best to appear as good friends chatting over a cut of java.
Bryant took a sig. “And in the second hour, following our interview with Red Cross director Elizabeth Dole, we’ll be taking a look at the burgeoning rock album cover art market. It’s turning heads at the big action houses.”
“Do you mean it’s good that I saved my old Cowsills albums?” joshed the ever-perky Katie.
If she only knew.
The story of Billy Cowsill is the very stuff of rock ‘n’ roll mythology – with each of the requisite script development bullet points. Except, happily, without the untimely end. It begins with the family band the Cowsills, so-called back then “American’s First Family of Music,” with Billy leaving the band at the height of its success. As the record company bio says: “To paraphrase Neil Young, Billy left the middle of the road and headed for the ditch . . .He opened a bar in Austin and with the last of his Cowsills cash, drank it dry.”
The fact that the actual events, successes, failures and potential redemption have occasionally been mutated and exaggerated into irrelevance only adds to the myth.
Fact is, folks around these parts have heard bits of the legend for years, since we’ve been lucky enough to see and heart at least part of the man at a series of remarkable club dates, usually doing his “Dead Guys Music” shtick (playing music only by such dearly departed as Elvis or Roy Orbison) with bassist Elmar Spanier at the Sidetrack. He’s there again this week through the 21st as a partner in The Blue Shadows, but as true to the roots of the music as it will be, the stakes are vastly different.
After doing a stint in the musical desert of biblical proportions, Cowsill (with the Blue Shadows) is back with an album of original music, On the Floor of Heaven (Sony), ready to turn the page on a new chapter of one guy’s epic novel.
Billy’s been clean for years, but as one of his managers put it: “nothing that happens to this guy would surprise me; it’s weird.”
Our interview was to be a simple tree-way conference call involving Cowsill, Shadows partner Jeff Hatcher and me, but the operator keeps cutting in to tell us Billy’s line is busy.
We begin because Hatcher’s input into the band and album is very much a partnership. If a decade or so younger than his confrere, he’s no stranger to Canuck pop, having done stints in Winnipeg. Toronto and Vancouver in bands like the Big Beat, the Fuse and the Six. The two met via current co-manager Edmonton-boy-made-good Larry Wanagas, who happened to have k.d. lang walk into his old studio on 118th Avenue once upon a time. And they stuck.
Beginning as a guitar player in the Cowsill ensemble of ’90 (“a liberating experience because I was sick of fronting bands”), Hatcher found his role expanded into true partnership.
The combination almost makes you want invoke the dreaded work synery. Like Lennon-McCartney, Buck Owens and Don Rich, even family bands, the two have a musical chemistry onstage and in the studio that borders on the other-worldly.
“I think we bring two different side to the project,” says Hatcher. “We’ve heard the same things, but I can write heavier rock songs or delve into folk while Billy tends to the country. It’s two different side of the same coin.”
Suddenly, Billy is on the line.
“Finding (Jeff) has made all the difference, like falling off along,” says Cowsill. “It de-jaded me, it’s become fun again – mirror tennis. I was never prolific as a songwriter, and I actually was burning out at the end there. I’m re-jazzed. We can write together in a manager’s office or a broom closet. This is a new infusion.”
Recorded at home in Vancouver over two weeks in March, On The Floor Of Heaven is an unfettered piece of work, recalling dozens of monoliths from the Beatles to the Everlys, a high lonesome sound floating over the Mersey River. They call it “Hank goes to the Cavern Club.”
It would be nice to perfectly resolve the story at this point, announcing huge international advance orders and heavy radio/video rotation. But it doesn’t seem to work that way, and at least everyone involved on this mystery train knows it by rote. Backed by solid, big-time management and Sony Music in Canada, Nashville has so far declined to get involved in spite of major initiatives.
For his part, Hatcher takes a philosophic stance.
“We haven’t planned things so far and things have been working well. We’ve at least got a couple of more in us, and I’m sure people will see that.”
For his, Cowsill thinks Nashville will come around, since no one is really covering their turf and the creative barn door has been opened a crick in recent years.
“I can smell it. Not to slag anyone, but there’s very little out there. It’s a good day to die – I’m having a ball.”