There's something almost fitting about Barry Cowsill going out in a hurricane.
That's pretty much how he came in - and how he lived in between. Barry was always in the middle of some kind of storm.
He was one of the singing Cowsills, the squeaky-clean family band that was the real-life model for "The Partridge Family" TV show. With radio hits like "We Can Fly," "The Rain, the Park and Other Things" and "Hair," their exuberant pop harmonies helped make flower power safe for the American suburbs.
The Cowsills - brothers Bill, Bob, Barry and John, joined later by sister, Susan, and mother, Barbara - appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and had their own network TV special.
Barry played bass and sang. With his dark, wavy hair and easy smile, he was the cute, cut-up Cowsill, a perfect cover boy for 16, Tiger Beat and the era's other teen fan magazines. There was a time - the '60s and early '70s - when thousands of American girls drifted off to sleep at night with full-color Barry Cowsill posters gazing down on them.
The truth, of course, was more complicated than the fan mags let on. Their manager-dad, an irascible Navy vet named Bud Cowsill, could be a hard-driving tyrant, and he wasn't so great with the money, it turned out. There was another Cowsill boy, Richard, who was cruelly pushed aside. And when ABC television was ready to let the Cowsill kids play themselves on a sitcom that became "The Partridge Family," Bud refused. He didn't like the idea of actress Shirley Jones playing their mom.
Bad, bad career move.
Soon enough, this wholesome family band disintegrated in predictable acrimony.
By the time I met Barry Cowsill, he was in his 40s, living on Plum Street in New Orleans with a wife and three beautiful children, working on cargo ships to get by, playing guitar and singing in small bars at night.
He still had thick, wavy hair and a real magnetic charm. But the money was ancient history. "When I turned 18," he told me, "I had a trust fund with $1,800." And fame a vaguest memory, faded with the passage of time and maybe a little too much drinking and some demons that were harder to explain.
The Barry Cowsill I got to know was a sweet and troubled guy in a world that didn't have much patience for either trait. He was warm and generous and tortured, all rolled into one. And talented to the end. The first time I saw him play, at The Kerry pub on Decatur Street, he did a brilliant one-hour set between two guys I'd never heard of. His voice was strong, and he was a shockingly deft guitarist.
"There's something in the Cowsill DNA," he shrugged when I asked why the old gang had never reunited for a lucrative ghost-band tour, beyond a couple of one-shots in their hometown of Newport, R.I. "We're not the kind of family that could run a business together long-term. We're all over the place - in every imaginable way."
Barry spent the past few years bouncing between New Orleans, Newport and California. He'd recorded an album in 1998 that didn't do much. He was talking about recording another. When Hurricane Katrina hit in August, he was in New Orleans, telling his brother Bob he might join him in California.
The last anyone heard from Barry was an answering-machine message left at the home of his sister, Susan, four days after the hurricane.
"I don't know how to get out of town except wait for a bus," he said on the tape.
And then this: "I've been so ... lonely ... I hope I get in touch with you."
In the four-plus months since Barry left that message, various family members and friends searched frantically for him. Posters went up around New Orleans. Pleas were posted on the last remaining Cowsill fan sites.
No one heard anything.
Then on December 28th, a decomposing male body was found, face down in the water and mud beneath the Chartres Street Wharf near downtown New Orleans. It took more than a week, but from dental records the body was identified.
Barry Cowsill, musician, age 51.
No cause of death has been determined yet.
For a brief, shining moment in a far more innocent time, he was a real, live teenage heartthrob and a hit-making singing star. Then some storms blew in.