You don’t buy a face like that. You don’t even rent it. You earn it.
Lean-jawed and gum-chewing, it is Billy Cowsill’s face, and it tells its stories from the Club Soda stage as he and his band, the Blue Shadows, kick off the first night of the rest of their lives.
Mostly, though, this story is aural, as in how tow voices came together to maybe give a guy one second chance.
By now, older subscribers will have taken the nitro pills and calmed the fibrillation set off by that surname. If any of you remember vocal group The Cowsills, then welcome, first-time readers to this column.
Billy Cowsill himself remembers that he last recorded with his family “27, 28 years ago.” He was a teen star then, not the well-travelled 45-year-old bouncing on the balls of his feet at Club Soda’s backstage door with the energy of a man half his age.
Earlier in the evening, during the first of two Monday sets, Cowsill had spelled the Shadows out in plain terms.
“Here’s the band’s motto,” he’d said, legs bowing under his acoustic guitar.
“If it ain’t rockin’ … it jes’ ain’t rockin’. “
The truth has a little more magic to it.
Billy (Bud) Cowsill and his singin’ family bailed out of stardom sometime after Monterey Pop and before mood rings. Cowsill rattled around L.A. with Harry Nilsson, Oklahoma with J.J. Cale, and Texas with Joe Ely. Not bad company. Then he bought a bar in Austin, got older, and went 10 rounds with the bottle until his Cowsills saving were a memory.
Somehow, he ended up in Vancouver, where he met son-to-be-longtime cohort bassist Elmar Spanier.
While the world worked thorough singer-songwriter, metal, disco, new wave and punk in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Cowsill and Spanier worked prairie roadhouses, invoking the spirits of Hank and Roy.
Music was Cowsill’s life, but he “felt like a Clydesdale hooked up to a Budweiser wagon.” One voice, however seasoned with grit and soaring with passion, was just one voice, and he probably missed the fraternal rightness of singing with siblings whose voices are yours, give or take a chromosome.
Now, if the concept of kismet stretches credulity, multiply it was 1,000 and you have kismet in Winnipeg, which is where Cowsill met Jeffrey Hatcher.
Hatcher sang and played tight, jangling Rickenbacker and hollow-body guitar in bands around town, and showed up to audition for a band Cowsill was putting together, a band that would take the best of Beatlesque ‘60s pop and true-blue country and put some color back in the airwaves.
Cowsill remembers they were singing I’ll Follow the Sun. There’s a part where Lennon goes high and McCartney goes low, then a part where only one voice sings. When Hatcher’s voice came in just right and wrapped around his like snakes in a mating dance. Cowsill swears “the hair on the right side of my head stood up. I mean, I got a woody. I said, ‘this guy ain’t going nowhere.’ “
They did, though. The Blue Shadows, as they were now alled, started writing.
They went to Nashville and, on a Civil War operating table, wrote a song called A Thousand Times with songwriter Mark Irwin. They recorded a debut album called On the Floor Of Heaven for about $20,000.
Monday night, they played that music for a small but appreciative first-time crowd in Montreal.
Without visible exception, everybody loved it. Some loved it because the tight, hook-laden songs and stunning harmonies reminded them of a bygone era, but this was less a re-re-revival of Beatlesque pop, Orbison drama and Everlys harmonies than of the art and raft of simple tunefulness.
The band’s own material, including a drop-dead ballad, Is Anybody Here, that could make Ditka weep, is in the running as the strongest country-influenced stuff released in 1993. They tore off a cover of Pag’s What the Hell I Got that is a reminder of how great a song it is. Cowsill added in obvious understatement.
“This is a lark,” he said, beaming with the eyes of somebody who remember when it hasn’t been.
“Maybe I’ll get that 10-speed I’ve had my eyes on.
“And if I don’t, my kids will.”
The Blue shadows ride back into Montreal sometime in December.