The Cowsills In Magazines

Jeffrey Hatcher's healing
Paul Cantin
Spring 2009
No Depression Magazine


This may seem like an odd question, coming from a music publication, but ... is music ... Jeffrey Hatcher's healing

... and finally alongside fallen '60s teen-idol Bill Cowsill in the Blue Shadows, considered by some to be one of the great lost groups of the alt-country movement.

. . .

It so happened that Rosanne Cash was performing in Vancouver, and Hatcher (via an old contact with her manager) convinced the promoter to let him open the show as a solo act, but he could not rent a guitar without a reference from a fellow musician. Hatcher dialed his pal, guitarist Danny Casavant, who vouched for him. During the conversation, Casavant casually mentioned he was about to leave a local group. Perhaps Hatcher was interested in taking on his spot with Billy Cowsill?

Some weeks later, Hatcher was finishing a Vancouver club gig with Cowsill when, for reasons never identified, an ornery patron approached Cowsill and expressed both his displeasure with the singer and his desire to settle the matter with fisticuffs. Cowsill responded by picking up his acoustic guitar and hammering the fellow's head.

"Billy gave him a wood shampoo with a Takamine," recalls Cowsill's manager, Dave Chesney. "Laid him out on the dance floor and they dragged him out by his boot heels and dumped him in the street."

The Cowsills, on the cover of their album Captain Sad & His Ship Of Fools, ca. 1968.

Elmar Spanier, who played upright bass with the Blue Shadows through recording of their debut album, and Billy Cowsill.

The Blue Shadows (clockwise from bottom left): J.D. Johnson, Barry Muir, Billy Cowsill, and Jeffrey Hatcher

Hatcher told Chesney and his management partner, Larry Wanagas, that he was alarmed. Was this going to be a regular feature of his new life as sideman to Cowsill? The managers assured the new guitarist that the incident was totally out of character. You could gig with Billy Cowsill for 100 years and something like that will never happen again. Reassured, Hatcher returned for the next night's performance. Like clockwork, a friend of the previous night's victim came after Cowsill hellbent on payback, with predictable results.

"Billy coco-bonked him, too," Chesney says. "Two nights, two guitars."

It would be hard to contain the full life of William Cowsill Jr. within these pages, and even harder to exaggerate the ups and downs of his tumultuous life. Born in 1948 in Middletown, Rhode Island, Cowsill was the eldest member of the singing family band known as the Cowsills. Considered by some the quintessential bubblegum group of the late '60s and early '70s, the Cowsills earned an indelible spot in pop history with the million-selling "The Rain, The Park And Other Things." Although the siblings (and also mom Barbara) sang, it was big brother Bill who performed lead on that signature song. (Singer-songwriter Susan Cowsill was the group's tambourine-banging youngest member.) The group served as the model for "The Partridge Family" TV series; David Cassidy's character was modeled on Bill. Other chart songs would follow, along with numerous TV appearances, tours, and a milk marketing campaign built around their wholesome looks.

But Bill chafed at the group's teeny-bopper image, and after he was caught smoking pot in 1969, he was fired from the group and (as Bill often joked) booted from the family. He fell in with a coterie of Los Angeles musicians, including Waddy Wachtel and Warren Zevon, and was subsequently asked to sub for Brian Wilson on tour with the Beach Boys; Cowsill said he turned the gig down after being warned off by a then-bed-bound Brian. (In 2000, I asked Zevon about his relationship with Cowsill. Zevon was silent for about ten seconds and then answered in a flat, unreadable tone: "I knew him." Next question...)

Cowsill set out on an odyssey that took him to Tulsa, where he played with J. J. Gale. Then to Greenwich Village, where he ran with Joe Ely (Chesney says Cowsill claimed he and Ely traveled with an heiress named Peaches to visit Buddy Holly's grave in Lubbock). Then Austin, where Cowsill was part of the scene at a bar called McNeil Depot (now called Donn's Depot), and then back to Los Angeles where he worked for a time as a session musician. In 1971, he cut an eccentric pop album for MGM entitled Nervous Breakthrough, which failed to break through.

He drifted up to Canada and made his living gigging with country acts in Alberta, working for a time as a big rig driver on the northern ice highways before relocating to Vancouver and recording with the country-rock band Blue Northern. Then as a solo act, accompanied by upright bassist Elmar Spanier and some occasional side players, he developed a following in western Canada performing the "Dead Guys Set" covers only by artists who had left this mortal coil. He was, by some accounts, a deeply troubled soul, but his love of music was undiminished. "Despite his foibles and ups and downs, he always got work," says Chesney. "You could put him in a corner with a guitar and a P.A. and he could go for hours on end. He'd sing Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, the Beatles. People sat there slack-jawed. There was always that recognition the fallen star. But nobody really held a lot of pity for Billy unless they dealt with him on a personal level because when he went onstage, he would destroy the place."

"I had heard he was a wild man with a golden voice. And he was all that," Hatcher recalls of meeting Cowsill. "He was funny and savvy. Intelligent. Fun to talk to but erratic; his attention was all over the place. He was kind of crazy but kind-hearted." After the back-to-back guitar-smashing gigs, however, Hatcher was uncertain about their future. "It was brutality. I thought, this guy has horseshoes up his butt. How has he not been killed? It was outrageous behavior."

They made for an unlikely pair. Hatcher enjoys a comparatively healthy lifestyle and laid-back demeanor. Rail-skinny Cowsill subsisted on nicotine, caffeine and not much else that was healthy. But they were prepared to forgive each other their differences for one simple reason: They found they could make some great music together. They shared a common love of the sounds of the '50s and '60s. As they began to harmonize together, they locked into a tight, intuitive blend that usually requires shared DNA. Hatcher remembers the moment when they hit on that sound in the dressing room of a Vancouver club.

"I played Billy this song and when we got to the chorus, he did the harmony above that. He got it. It sounded fantastic. It was a country tune, a pop tune. It was the Everly Brothers and Hank Williams and all these things together. I probably slapped him and said, 'This is exactly what it should sound like. Let's keep doing it!'"

As Hatcher stepped up his role in the group and the combo morphed from a Cowsill support band into a group entity of its own, the change in Cowsill's demeanor was notable. "He became Mr. Love after that. He started to turn on the charm. It became more of a two-frontman act. He was the golden voice and we were the harmonizing duo," says Hatcher.

With drummer Jay Johnson and Spanier on bass (later replaced by Barry Muir), it was obvious this could no longer be simply the Billy Cowsill Band. Always a fan of astronomy, Cowsill first offered up the name the Blue Stragglers, after a phenomenon defined by Wikipedia thusly: "The merger of two stars [which would] create a single star with larger mass, making it hotter and more luminous than stars of a similar age." Cowsill explained that blue stragglers were actually the reflected light of stars that had already died. "I thought that might be hitting a little too close to home," Chesney laughs. In the end, they settled on the Blue Shadows. Hatcher's partner Leah suggested the name, after the old Sons Of The Pioneers number "Blue Shadows On The Trail," which had become a favorite after Syd Straw's cover version on the Disney tribute album Stay Awake.

Onstage they evolved into a nimble, versatile outfit. Their sound hit some middle ground between hardscrabble country and chiming '60s pop. Covers included the Beatles' "Anytime At All," George Jones' "Hell Stays Open All Night," Canadian cult rocker Michel Pagliaro's "What The Hell I Got," and Joni Mitchell's "Raised On Robbery." When asked to define their style, they called it "Hank goes to the Cavern Club."

Alone at the microphone, Cowsill could summon a voice that brought to mind both Hank Williams and Roy Orbison. When Hatcher joined in, their voices locked and soared. The rudimentary rhythm section (including Cowsill's driving acoustic guitar) pumped like a piston as Hatcher coaxed simple, melodic, tremelo-laden melodies and stinging solos from his custom-made hollowbody guitar.

Hatcher and Cowsill began writing together, too, and their contrasts were complementary. If Cowsill was a zoom lens, instinctively drawing from a personal well of sadness or joy, Hatcher was wide-angled, looking for opportunities to transform those personal perspectives into something more universal. "Is Anybody Here" starts as a solipsistic cry from the heart, but by the end it converts into a broader social observation. Cowsill's seed for "Don't Expect A Reply" used the runaway train cliche to assert his badass stature; Hatcher used the later verses to comment on manifest destiny, linking hell-bent, personal destructiveness with the history of rapacious westward expansion: "I used to roll on through when it was countryside/Then the cities they grew until they reached the sky."

Their debut album On The Floor Of Heaven arrived in 1993, and it still sounds like it dropped from another era. The lead off track "Coming On Strong" erupts on a surge of sawing fiddles, Hatcher's chugging guitar and some sly wordplay. "When Will This Heartache End" could serve as a model for simplicity and elegance in pop songcraft. Hatcher resurrected his old Big Beat number "Deliver Me," and Cowsill's gravitas found new depth in the song.

Before the album's release, the group traveled to Nashville and played a showcase at 12th & Porter. "The band went onstage and it was the who's who of the music industry and they absolutely burned it to the ground," recalls Chesney. "If there was a moment I had where I thought things are about to change for us, that was it." Sony in Canada issued the album via co-manager Dave Wanagas' Bumstead Records, but a U.S. release remained elusive.

At South By Southwest in 1994, the response was equally enthusiastic. Cowsill and Hatcher were invited to perform at a later charity concert in Santa Monica in honor of the Everly Brothers. Amid a cast packed with heavyweights (including Dave Alvin and a taped performance by Brian Wilson), the pair performed a brief acoustic set that received a riotous response and the evening's only encore. They toured with The Band (which had reunited sans Robbie Robertson), appeared on TV in Canada, and garnered critical raves across the board.

And yet, no U.S. release. The Blue Shadows' tour T-shirts carried a motto: "Low Tech, High Torque." Modern country music, at the time infatuated with line dancing and New Country gloss, betrayed a different attitude: High Tech, Low Standards. Label personnel would tell Chesney that they loved the band and asked that he send them a copy when they did sign with a label. But none of those execs stepped forward to release it themselves. Says Chesney: "The resounding response [from Nashville] was: I love this band, but they scare me.'"

Still, there was enough promise and enthusiasm to take a run at a second album. Chesney still recalls in awe a day when Hatcher and Cowsill arrived at his Vancouver office to work up new material. As the manager walked by the pair to fetch coffee, Hatcher asked Cowsill what he'd been up to the night before. Cowsill mentioned he'd watched an old movie where someone used the phrase "my time's out of place." In the time it took Chesney to grab coffee and return, the duo had the song a stately, moving ballad that would be a highlight of their sophomore effort nearly completed.

Chesney was so energized by the song's potential, he couriered a cassette of the demo to friends, with no information on the tape case except these words: Cadillacs for everybody!

As the Blue Shadows moved ahead with work on their second record, something had changed with Cowsill. "We were kind of thrown together and it was expected of us that we would come up with equal weight in material, and he wasn't up to it," Hatcher reflects. "I used to say, 'What is the big deal if I bring in more songs? It'll be a co-write in the end. Relax about it.' He put a lot of pressure on himself, and that, with the emotional instability, produced a lot of canceled songwriting sessions."

Beyond songwriting, rehearsing became a chore. Then so did gigging. "He was fragile enough and difficult to work with," Hatcher says. "We all started to resent him. Every show was a fight right before, and every rehearsal he would pick a fight with somebody. So for months we couldn't learn a new song. It was professionally frustrating and irritating."

Hatcher pauses for a moment: "The poor guy is not here. I am trying to be objective; he is not here to speak for himself, but ultimately it is the way I saw it....Maybe I made him nervous. I'm sure my darker side, when I would get irritated with him...he would not handle that well."

Associates of Cowsill confirm he was quietly abusing prescription medications and suffered bouts of bulimia. Cowsill hinted to Hatcher some darker issues in his past. "He had a lot of frustrations. There is a lot of pressure to be more and better and get bigger, and he hit the top young and got thrown down and came up with a lot of bruises,' he says. "My outsider's sense was Billy was not comfortable with things going well. He was unnerved by things not being in crisis all the time."

Arguments during the making of the second album became more intense. Cowsill falsely suspected Hatcher of sneaking extra songs onto the record. Relations began to frost over on the road, with Hatcher, Muir and Johnson remaining close, but growing distant from Cowsill, who would from time to time burst into tears in front of his bandmates. "I'm glad for him that he was able to do that because he needed a good cry," says Hatcher. "But it showed us how thin his resources were."

It all came to a bizarre head during a three-day layover in Ottawa. Hatcher looked out his hotel window and saw the group's van crashed halfway through a laundromat. Cowsill had gone to retrieve his guitar from the van, but somehow their vehicle shot across the parking lot and slammed through a brick wall. It was totaled. "I do not know how it happened," Hatcher says. "He didn't know. It was a complete mystery. And he came out unscathed. What the hell was he doing?"

Hatcher felt that matters were getting so out of hand, they should have scrubbed the second album, which came out in 1995 under the ironic title Lucky To Me. "I was so shattered by the craziness of that period that I could actually not hear," Hatcher says. "I must have given the thumbs up just to get out of the studio. Although I like parts of the second album, I feel divorced from it." The situation was dire enough that he suggested the Blue Shadows slam on the brakes to see if Cowsill could get right. "I said, 'We don't have to keep going. We can just stop playing. There is no law that says we have to keep playing.' Billy's answer was: I am in this for the long haul,'" Hatcher says.

The long haul was not much longer. And it was a haul. Hatcher went to management and declared: "We have to stop this train." And that was it. After a few contractual obligation gigs were dispensed with, the Blue Shadows were over. Cowsill briefly assembled a new Blue Shadows and played a brace of shows, but his condition deteriorated rapidly. Chesney learned Cowsill was drinking again, and the two old friends had a final confrontation that ended with the singer screaming at Chesney's back: "I was a good soldier!" With that last bridge burned, Cowsill bottomed out.

It may have ended there, but something miraculous happened. Against all odds, and with the help of his friend Neil MacGonigill (proprietor of the Calgary-based indie label Indelible Music), Cowsill turned his life around. He relocated to Calgary and got control of his demons. He put on weight and appeared healthy and happier than he had been in years. He worked with a new band, the Co-Dependents, released two albums, and became a guru to young musicians. And then just when he had his mental and spiritual house in order, fate delivered a cruel blow. He suffered Cushing's Syndrome (an overexposure to the hormone cortisol) and severe osteoporosis. Back surgery left him with a permanently collapsed lung, and the brittleness of his bones left him with two broken hips. Perhaps most harshly, he also developed emphysema, which required the use of an oxygen tank to breathe and made singing especially challenging. Then in early 2006, Billy received another blow. The body of his brother and Cowsills bandmate, bassist Barry Cowsill, had been recovered in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Chesney and Cowsill had by then buried the hatchet and were communicating by phone. During one call, Chesney remarked that his pal sounded especially chipper and asked why. "Hank wrote me a love letter," Cowsill replied, using a pet name for Hatcher. Hatcher's anger and disappointment at the Blue Shadows' failure had long ago subsided.

"I wrote to Bill to see how he was doing, but the spark for it was my hearing of his brother Barry's death. Bill and I had both performed for years with siblings, and I felt for him particularly because of that bond," Hatcher says. Cowsill phoned Hatcher to respond to the letter. The two spoke for about ten tearful minutes. "He sounded like he was on his way out. He sounded like he wasn't going to last much longer. It was a very sweet conversation," Hatcher recalls.

In February 2006, the very day Cowsill's family and friends were scattering Barry's ashes in their home state of Rhode Island, they received news of Billy Cowsill's passing.

"He was a diamond with many facets," says Chesney, who adds he used one of his final conversations with Cowsill to belatedly assure his friend: He was a good soldier.

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