The Cowsills In Magazines

Don't Look Back
Barry Cowsill is alive in the music.
September 28, 2007
by Alex Rawls
Oxford American Magazine

The Cowsills (Barry in striped jacket) in the early 1970s. Courtesy of Susan Cowsill.

"Help me out here! I don’t know how to get out of town except to wait days for a bus. Supplies are running low where I’m at. There’s a lot of looting, lot of shooting. It’’s bad. I’m so fucking lonely. I love you guys. I hope I get in touch with you. Bye."

Susan Cowsill discovered this voicemail message from her older brother Thursday, September 1, 2005, just a few days after Hurricane Katrina. Susan, a musician, had left New Orleans before the storm, going to Oklahoma before heading to Nashville to perform with her friend Kim Richey. When she couldn’t return to New Orleans, where she’d been living since 1993, she stayed with the songwriter Pat McLaughlin and his wife on their farm outside Nashville. Cowsill’s cellphone was useless because of downed towers, but it came to life inexplicably that Thursday. She had messages, but couldn’t keep a signal long enough to check them.

She drove to a wide spot in the road where they could get reception and checked the messages, all of which were from Barry. Though he couldn’t be convinced to evacuate before the hurricane, each message in the days that followed was more desperate than the one before. He didn’t always recognize the difference between voicemail and answering machines, so at one point he shouted, “This is not a time to screen your fucking phone! Come and get me!”

“It was intense,” Susan Cowsill now says. “It could only have been worse if it was one of your kids.”

She did find reasons for some hopefulness. When he ranted that he wasn’t going to get on any fucking bus, she thought, “This is good. At least he knows there are buses.” His sense of humor was also encouraging: After railing about the violence, he adopted a mock stentorian tone and extolled the genius of New Orleans blues singer Coco Robicheaux.

His last call came at 2:00 a.m., from a pay phone in the Warehouse District. Land lines still worked after the storm, and in his call, he said he would get in touch with her the next day—that Thursday. Susan parked by the side of the road and waited. She talked to brother Bob in California and they planned Barry’s rescue. All she needed to know was where to find him. Finally, at 3:00 p.m., they couldn’t watch a phone not ring any longer and left an outgoing message for him with the rest of their family’s numbers and word that the cavalry was ready to ride. No calls came.

Barry Cowsill was one of the famed Cowsills, the singing family band from Newport, Rhode Island, that had huge hits in the ’60s and ’70s. He had yet to turn ten when he started the band with his older brothers, Bill and Bob. When his younger brother John reached the ripe old age of eight, he joined as the drummer while Barry moved to bass. Bob, Billy, and Barry started as a serious Rolling Stones–like, r&b garage band. They wanted to be young and dangerous, just like all teenaged bands, but the family had an uncanny gift for singing harmony, so father/manager Bud insisted that they exploit it, and added their mother, Barbara, to the lineup. That novelty and the lovely, intersecting lines of harmony vocals made “The Rain, the Park & Other Things” their first big hit. The song tells the story of meeting a girl in the park, falling in love with her, then losing her, but any hint of melancholy is obscured by the chiming, insistent refrain, “She could make me happy,” the last word outlasting the rest of the thought as all the voices echo it. The song is buoyant and beautiful, and its uplifting sound became the band’s trademark. But if the harpsichord-like keyboard didn’t date the song, its chorus—“I love the flower girl”—pinned the song to 1967 in the same way that a butterfly is pinned to a corkboard.

The Cowsills lived on the borderline between pop and rock, mainstream music and psychedelia, the dominant culture and the counterculture. They were cute enough for Teen Beat and 16 magazines, but with their black bangs swept to the side, just above their eyes, they were credible when singing the theme to the hippie musical, Hair. Go to YouTube and you can see guest appearances on the Mike Douglas Show, the Ed Sullivan Show, the Dean Martin Show, then on Playboy After Dark.

The music has some genuine eccentricity. You can hear theatrical elements of the British music-hall style that American bands didn’t touch, but that the Beatles mined for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Ray Davies used for much of his work with the Kinks. Hair isn’t in that tradition, but at the production level, it, too, has an intriguing oddness. The song starts as a conversation when the family sings, “She asked him why.” That part is sung with a reverb so deep and metallic, it’s as if they’re enclosed in a gas tank twenty feet underground. Billy picks up the thought, “why I’m a hairy guy,” but his vocal is dry, with only a touch of natural vibrato. The contrast is jarring and an uncommon production touch, even in 1969. After that, a brief snare fill and a stinging fuzztone guitar note introduces the funky rock that everybody knows. In the full-band section, it’s less obvious how echo-drenched the family is unless you listen with headphones. You also notice how “hair” punctuates the verses and chorus, panning from side to side. At times they sing it so quickly that it’s more an exhalation than a word. The song’s overall sound and sentiment make it easy for those who were inclined to consider the Cowsills subversive.

A better case for the Cowsills as agents for the counterculture could be made with their broader body of work, which, even at its sunniest, featured a psychedelic interplay among the voices, regardless of the lyrics or musical context. II x II, released in 1970, has been held up as the album that most validates this perception. It has been described as “overlooked” and “neglected”—two adjectives that are catnip for those who live in a race to dub such an album an underappreciated masterpiece (and I speak as someone who has done exactly that for The Beach Boys Love You).

Really, though, II x II and the rest of the Cowsills’ catalogue are charming documents of a time and a family. For every subversive moment when they appeared on television with lavender suits, magenta bow ties, and hair hanging in the eyes, there were twice as many appearances that presented them in yellow summer shirts, white slacks, and white tennis shoes.

The album received a lot of attention for the psychedelic mini-epic “The Prophesy of Daniel and John the Divine,” in which backing vocalists sing “six, six, six.” The song is entertaining, but it is the same sort of fun you have looking at old yearbooks and goofing on the fashion crimes of the day. Nothing else in the Cowsills’ catalogue has dated as badly as “The Prophesy of Daniel and John the Divine,” but II x II also features the song that has held up the best—Barry’s “Don’t Look Back.”

The song is a ballad, and its era remains obvious, but instead of sounding like the Electric Prunes or Iron Butterfly, “Don’t Look Back” is closer to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It’s emotionally complex, but it’s also emotionally precise, with only an acoustic guitar and a melodic electric bass underneath the more naturally arranged voices, and the lyrics are simple and direct:

We will miss you
When you go away from here
We know you will miss us too
Don’t let all your sadness through
And don’t look back.
Don’t look back.

Unfortunately, Barry couldn’t follow his song’s advice. The Cowsills were a never-ending embarrassment for him. Playing in a rock band is one of the things a young man does to draw the line between himself and his parents. It’s the only pursuit less likely to pay off than professional sports, and the hours are worse, all of which had to make it strange when Dad insisted that he manage them, and that they include Mom in the band. When the hits came as a direct result of her presence…well, somewhere a therapist heard a cash register ring. Add a baby sister to the mix, and the issues were predictable.

“I was put in the band and it drove him [Barry] crazy,” Susan says. “They were a serious rock band and now their little sister’s there stealing the limelight for no good reason other than that she’s little and cute.” Bud told the boys that one day they’d be big enough to also be able to do their rock thing, but that day was always put off. To make matters worse, “Barry was the one in the teen magazines—‘Sweetheart of the Month’ in 16—and that annoyed him, too. ‘I’m not a pin-up boy; I’m Keith-fucking-Richards and nobody knows!’”

By then they lived in California, and their stories—certainly Barry’s and Susan’s—sound very familiar. They made music, drank, did drugs, fell in love, fell out of love, and dealt with the question of “What happens next?” They were creative, had fans, stayed busy, and flirted with the big time, but you’re forgiven if you didn’t notice. The Cowsills stopped performing as a group in the early ’70s, when Mike Curb reportedly dropped them from MGM Records for what he considered their pro-drug leanings.

In late 1991, the nomadic Barry moved to New Orleans. By that time, Susan and former Bangle Vicki Peterson played together as an acoustic duo called the Psycho Sisters, and they found themselves part of the Continental Drifters community, a collection of singer/songwriters who played together weekly at Raji’s in Los Angeles with a num-ber of auxiliary members. When Ray Ganucheau and Carlo Nuccio, two members of the Drifters, decided to move home to New Orleans, most of the band relocated there. In 1993, Susan, now a full-time member, accompanied them.

Barry and Susan’s relationship was never simple. She often seemed to be in the place he wanted to be, blithely uninterested in the musical potential he thought he would realize if he were only in the same boat. In Los Angeles in the ’70s, she fell into a circle of friends that included Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, and the “Hotel California crowd,” as she puts it, but she was more into hanging out than making music.

For all of their hoodoo, though, Barry was the brother she was closest to. “Our souls were very similar, and I think that freaked him out,” she says, and it was that similarity that was the basis for their uneasy co-existence in New Orleans. “He struggled with paranoia,” Susan says, and the move was one more in a long list of perceived slights. A few years after the founding member of the Drifters, Peter Holsapple, discussed producing an album with Barry, Holsapple and Susan were married, which Barry interpreted as a betrayal (Holsapple and Susan would divorce in 2001).

In the days before Katrina, Susan tried to help Barry check himself into rehab. He was a drinker who also liked ephedrine—trucker speed—and “he had the schizo gene,” Susan says. One visit by Barry to see Susan and her daughter ended up in a drunken drama that prompted Susan to tell him he couldn’t come back to the house until he had sobered up. “He was about as saturated as I’ve ever seen him,” she says.

Barry decided he would check-in to the MusiCares rehab facility in Los Angeles on Monday, August 29. A friend bought him a plane ticket, and he pawned his guitar for spending money. He also wanted to straighten up a bit before going to rehab, not wanting brother Bob—who still lived out West—to see the condition he was in. Susan tried to tell him that it’d be like cleaning your house before the maid came. But, Barry explained, Warren Zevon, who’d died in 2003, “came to me the other night. I’m not shitting you, Susan—he was there. He told me it was okay; he said I could go.”

“Into rehab?”

“I’m not sure.” Later, Susan found notebooks Barry was keeping at the time. In one, he wrote about Zevon’s visit, and that Zevon had told him it was okay to die, that nobody would be upset with him.

On the Wednesday before Katrina hit, Susan tried to check Barry into Charity Hospital’s rehab unit. But you couldn’t dry out without an appointment. Defeated, they went outside, bought two tallboys, sat on the hospital steps, and ate the box of chocolates Barry had brought with him. He asked if he could stay with her until Monday, confessing he was scared, but Susan refused. She wasn’t going to be there (more importantly, his previous visit had frightened her daughter).

She starts to say that had she let him stay, he could have evacuated with her husband, drummer Russ Broussard, but she catches herself. “He wouldn’t have left. He had his plane ticket, figured the hurricane would blow over, and didn’t want to give up his ticket. His friend Brad tried to get him to go and he wouldn’t.”

So what happened after the phone calls? CNN had video footage from the Convention Center of a shirtless man lying on the sidewalk wearing a hat low over his eyes, and he could have been Barry. Susan and Bob appeared on Entertainment Tonight and similar shows in a desperate search for anyone who might know something. On ET, Bob spoke directly to his younger brother: “Barry, just wake up and look up at the TV right now. It’s brother Bob. Just recognize me and tell somebody that ‘That’s my brother’ and surface and we’ll come and get you. We have a plan. We’ll pick you up within twenty-four hours of any phone call. So just surface. Tell somebody who you are. Recognize me right now.”

Calls came in, but not from Barry. A private eye thought he had seen him in Albuquerque, and Barry was spotted at studios on both coasts. Someone saw a man who looked just like Barry playing at a Gulf-side bar in Alabama, and so on.

None of those sightings produced him, though. Nor did searches for Elvis Franklin, Barry Scott, and Barry Bartholomew—aliases he assumed during periods when he was too embarrassed by the Cowsills’ musical legacy to use his own name. Meanwhile, Susan forced herself to pay attention to the album she had to promote. Her first solo album, Just Believe It, was released nationally just weeks before the hurricane. She played some gigs around the country after Katrina, haphazardly trying to support it, but the circumstances made it difficult to focus. In November, she returned to her monthly gig at Carrollton Station in New Orleans, where she performed her own music as well as a set that covered a classic album in its entirety. November’s choice: Band on the Run.

New Orleans was a small town in November 2005. Much of it still lacked power, so it was pitch-black at night. Going to clubs almost always meant seeing friends for the first time since the storm. The night of Susan’s return to Carrollton Station, everybody hugged, everybody kissed, everybody got joyously drunk. Friends helped Susan and her band navigate the complexities of Paul McCartney’s songs. When the set ended with “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me),” the crowd mirrored the song’s feel, woozy and warmly melancholic, glad to be singing sad songs with friends. Barry was missed, but it was a night about those who were there, those who’d returned to plant the flag.

The “Barry-watch” was still in effect, and sightings continued to come in, but by December they took on a Where’s Waldo? tinge, unreal and vaguely comic. “When Christmas came and went, I knew,” Susan says. “We’re Christmas animals.”

Barry was found in the Mississippi River on December 28, and identified seven days later by dental records. Susan performed shortly afterward at Carrollton Station. She was uncharacteristically reserved, seemingly in shock. She didn’t learn an album for the occasion, but she added Lucinda Williams’s “Drunken Angel” to the set list, dedicating it to Barry as she has done at most shows since. Like some of Williams’s tributes to specific people, the lyrics are a little ham-handed, but some lines such as: “Followers would cling to you/Hang around just to meet you/Some threw roses at your feet/And watched you pass out on the street” seemed startlingly accurate when connected to Barry, who was a minor celebrity at the Kerry, his primary watering hole in the French Quarter.

The emotional heart of the song that night was the end of the final verse. Cowsill sang, “Why’d you let go of your guitar/Why’d you ever let it go that far/Drunken angel?” emphasizing why each time. Why was the start to every question asked in New Orleans in the months after the storm. In this case, Cowsill was asking Barry a question she could only ask in song. He’d flirted with suicide before, and no one wanted to wonder too loudly if he’d actually jumped. Singing, though, Susan could ask it.

The death certificate listed the location of Barry’s death as the Chartres Street Wharf—simple enough, except there is no Chartres Street Wharf. When documentary filmmakers offered to take Cowsill and Broussard to the site of Barry’s death, they said the coroner’s office told them it was at St. Philip Street and the Riverwalk, which made more sense. That was on the edge of the French Quarter. Still, the confusion and contradiction was enough to give Cowsill reason to wonder if something nefarious had occurred. Today, that might seem like grasping at straws, but in a city where the unthinkable had happened and the unreal was day-to-day, her fears didn’t seem far-fetched.

Two weeks later, she received a call from a friend who told her, “That was a really sweet plaque on the tree, really nice.”

“What plaque? What tree?”

A copper plaque in tribute to Barry was nailed to the “Tree of Life” in Audubon Park, in Uptown New Orleans, three or four miles from the French Quarter. Later, Cowsill and Broussard took their kids to the park for a picnic, and while he spread out the lunch, she found the plaque, which read, IN HONOR OF BARRY COWSILL WHO DIED A TRUE GENIUS ON THE LEVEE SEPTEMBER 2. That was the day after Barry left his last message and the day after they waited for a call by a country road outside Nashville.

For Cowsill, the plaque suggested that there was someone out there who knew something, someone who was around to document the when and where of Barry’s passing. Someone who’d draped Barry’s rawhide choker over the plaque. “Now I have a murder on my hands,” says Cowsill, laughing at her conspiratorial frame of mind. That January, though, her suspicion was real, as was the sense of being adrift. Barry’s death was not only the loss of a brother; it called her identity into question. Susan spent her childhood as part of a hit-making family band, and the Cowsill name and reputation has been the elephant in every room she has entered since. When Barry’s death was confirmed, followed on February 17 by the death of brother Billy, who suffered from emphysema, Cushing’s syndrome, and osteoporosis, Susan wondered, “Because of how we were a family, after two pass, now who are we?”

For much of January, Cowsill visited the tree, the copper plaque, the warehouse where Barry last stayed, and the friend who owned it, hoping the circuit would answer questions. It didn’t, and, to add insult to injury, one day she visited the tree and found the plaque gone. (She hopes whoever took it would put it back or send it to her.) She did discover that the friend who owned the warehouse kept copper there, and that Barry had seen him work with it, which suggested that there was no shadowy figure behind Barry’s death, and that he might have put up his own dark-humored memorial.

Susan didn’t tell the family about this chapter of Barry’s saga when they met in Newport in mid-February for a memorial, and then again in New Orleans on Sunday, February 26, for a wake at the Kerry, his home bar. The Kerry was the first place Susan looked for him after the storm—it wasn’t open—and Barry had left a note in one of his notebooks asking Doris, the owner, to come and get him, a note he never got around to putting on the door.

After Sunday’s ceremony, during which Barry’s ashes were spread over the Mississippi River, videos of Barry were shown in the Kerry. You can see them on YouTube, including the clip from Playboy After Dark, when Barry sang “II x II.” Susan couldn’t watch, burying her face in the back of Bob’s shirt. Friends and family performed, Susan singing one of the better songs to come out of Katrina, “Crescent City Snow.” It contrasts the hurricane with Christmas Day 2004, when it last snowed in New Orleans, and it has a Counting Crows–like sprawl. Under the best conditions, her performance of it evokes the longing for the certainty that accompanies home. That afternoon, she was almost shouting in tears when she sang, “I know that I am going back to the place/Where I know who I am,” and it was as if she hoped saying it would make it true.

Still, one of the most powerful moments of the afternoon was when, in memory, Barry became a musician again. Peter Holsapple tried his hand at “River of Love,” from Barry’s 1998 album, As Is. He wasn’t sure about the words, and the performance was a little tentative at first, but by the chorus, Holsapple played it with the kind of drive and sheer love of pop that he hadn’t manifested since his days in the ’80s power-pop band, the dB’s. His guitar was edgy and immediate, sounding as if he was in the midst of pouring the song out in the rush of creation. “River of Love” would replace “Drunken Angel” as Susan’s tribute to Barry, but it was more than that. She would find her own place in the song, particularly in its theme of acceptance.

The wake ended with a Cowsills song, but the lines that stuck in everybody’s ear were Barry’s: “I’ll be waiting by the River of Love/I’ll be waiting by the River of Love.”

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