When Billy Cowsill, 58, died in his home on Saturday, February 18th after a long battle with emphysema and osteoporosis, the world may have lost a 1960s idol, but the Calgary roots music community lost its most vibrant and precise musical troubadour.
I first met Bill in 1998, when my editor assigned me a story on him based on the strength of my obsessive passion for the music of the 1960s, but suggested a few caveats. "Heís pretty fragile right now, having just come out of rehab, so no questions about drugs. And he hasnít had a hit single in nearly 30 years, so no mention of his past, OK?"
Daunted, I walked into the interview, wondering what the h*** was left to talk about. Plenty, as it turned out, from the horror of being stuck in Vegas as a nostalgia act with his mom and sister in The Cowsills when all he wanted to do was rock out and get laid, to learning the blues in Tulsa from J.J. Cale to borrowing John Lennonís guitar to capture "Vagabond," a song written when the universe flowed through his soul.
That was Bill to me Ė ever the sweetheart, quick with a kiss on the cheek, deliverer of real conversation. If you were into good music, then man, you were into Bill and he was into you. Over the years, I was blessed by Billís sweet greetings and insights. Not everyone had the same experiences, but as his friend Neil MacGonigill said, Bill had a soft spot for old dogs and children.
And while I learned in our talks that Billís eyes glazed at mention of his former family band The Cowsillís 1960s hits, like "The Rain, the Park and Other Things" and "Indian Lake" (although he still liked "Hair" to the end), his thirst to rock out was quenched with Vancouverís The Blue Shadows and later Calgaryís beloved Co-Dependents. According to MacGonigill, the often gruff singer said, "When Iím onstage I have the ability to give and receive love. Off stage life is more difficult." Calgarians agreed, as Co-Dís CDís flew off the shelves and so many fans came out to hear them, that they had to be shoehorned into the bandís gigs, captured by Cowsillís mystique.
Thatís how it was when Bill sang Ė everyone felt a little more alive, their ears and hearts opened up a little wider. He had that effect on other musicians, too, as evidenced by the precision with which he organized each note in the room. Tim Leacock, bassist for the Co-Dependents and Billís dear friend, once said that the reason the band achieved what they did was due to Billís high expectations of his bandmates and his precision in holding them to that expectation, a precision he honed working in Los Angeles with producers like Harry Nilsson.
In November of 2004, Bill worked with Tim Williams, Tom Phillips, Jane Hawley and a handful of other musicians on Ruby Moonís sessions for the forthcoming album inspired by Hank Williams (due for release March 11th). He directed musical traffic with the precision of a metronome, and each of the esteemed musicians in the room humbly and eagerly polished their performances based on his ear.
He was doing the same thing the last time I saw him at a friendís home on Boxing Day. I was thrilled that while he patted the couch beside him to make room for my 10-year-old daughter, he never quit moving his hands to cue harmonies from the various singers in the room or an acoustic pedal steel solo from Charlie Veilleux. All the while, Billís voice joined in on the Hank Williams songs, even as his oxygen tank hissed beside him. He fulfilled a request for "Vagabond," told a few stories about his old friend Warren Zevon, whom he referred to as a "f****** sweetheart," and then turned to me during a break.
"So you liked our new album?" he said with a smile, alluding to the review of The Co-Dependents Live at the Mecca: Volume 2 that had appeared in Fast Forward the week before. "Mary-Lynn, one thing you forgot to mention in your review is, that album f****** rocks."
Sorry for the oversight, Bill. It rocks indeed, and thank you for setting the record straight. And for the same record, Bill, most of us would agree you were quite the "f****** sweetheart" yourself.