The Cowsills In Magazines

Standing in the Shadow of The Blue Shadows
May 31, 2010
No Depression

Jeffrey Hatcher (left) and Billy Cowsill onstage in Austin, TX circa 1994

On June 15, Bumstead Records releases a two-disc deluxe edition of The Blue Shadows’ debut record On The Floor of Heaven. It is, quite simply, an album every alt country fan should have and it is particularly satisfying to see it available again after falling out of print in the 1990s. Fellow ND blogger Jeff Burger recently gave the reissue a thumbs up and I wrote a lengthy piece on the band for ND Bookazine #77 (get it here).

Full disclosure: I volunteered to write the liner notes for the reissue, and those notes – along with the album’s original liner notes and guitarist Jeffrey Hatcher’s song-by-song commentary -- can be downloaded here. You can, and should, buy the reissue of the album there, too, which comes with a full disc of outtakes and covers that doubles the fun. Below is a one of many memories of time spent in the shadow of The Blue Shadows.

April 29, 1995
I’m halfway through the second-most expensive cab ride of my life, winding and twisting through concrete curlicue overpasses, on what seems like an inexorable downward slope towards the Santa Monica seashore. Disappearing behind me is Beverly Hills, where I had been staying and working, at some movie studio’s expense to interview the stars of some film I (and the public, probably) have long forgotten. In a bit of promo-ethical larceny, I’ve slipped away from that night’s scheduled lavish post-screening dinner to make my way to Santa Monica and catch up with The Blue Shadows.

The Blue Shadows were at the time, a Vancouver-based Americana/alt-country band before there was really a critical lexicon to describe what they did. And what they did was make contemporary music which drew lovingly and knowingly from the best of early rock n roll and country, along with R&B, soul and Mersey pop. Blessed with the deft harmonies and adroit compositional skills of guitarists Billy Cowsill and Jeffrey Hatcher and backed by the pugnacious rhythm section of Jay Johnson (drums) and Barry Muir (bass), the Vancouver-based quartet had by this time released one stellar debut album, On The Floor Of Heaven, which excited almost everyone who got to hear it. Unfortunately, not many people got to hear it.

The band’s co-manager, Dave Chesney, had invited me to play hooky from the movie junket and join the band at a charity gig. And so, my cab rolls to a slow stop in front of a rundown Santa Monica gas station, our appointed rendez vous, and I emerge from the air conditioned taxi into early evening still blazing hot but with the air kissed by an offshore breeze which mercifully shooed away the smog and humidity of the previous day.

There I stand, a pasty Canadian marveling – as Canadians likely have since Quebec-born silent film maverick Mack Sennett set up shop in Hollywood circa1912 – at the gorgeous light and heat of Southern California, mentally calculating the consequences of failing to return northward as scheduled the following afternoon. A rollerblading young woman with impossibly long legs, not much clothing and a figure that defies the natural laws of body fat distribution, skates into the parking lot and does a lazy circle around me, shakes her finger in a mock scolding you-can’t-touch-this gesture (I had no intention!) and then glides away. A rental car pulls up, the driver side window rolls down and it’s Chesney. He’s the kind of man you like to have as a friend and dare not consider what he might be like to have as an enemy. Luckily since we first met two years earlier, during The Blue Shadows’ debut visit to Ottawa, we’ve become pals. “Get in, we’re late.”

En route to the venue, Chesney fills me in. My movie junket trip to L.A. coincided with an invitation extended to the group to perform at a tribute to the Everly Brothers. It’s a fundraiser for Sweet Relief – the charity devoted to helping musicians facing heavy health care costs. Organizers of the gig had, like myself, witnessed the group’s enthusiastically received showcase at the 1994 South By Southwest festival in Austin and felt the group’s close harmony sound would be ideal for the Everlys tribute. For this trip, The Blue Shadows’ front men Hatcher and Cowsill will be performing as an acoustic duo; the rhythm section of Johnson and Muir have, for reasons of cost, stayed home in Vancouver. Other heavy hitters on the schedule – Dave Alvin, the Williams Brothers and a rumored guest appearance by Brian Wilson. The latter will turn out to be an almost comically inept videotaped performance of Wilson and ex-3 Dog Night singer Danny Hutton attempting to harmonize on “All I Have To Do Is Dream”.

The Morgan-Wixson Theatre looks like an old movie palace converted into a theatrical and music venue. The conversion did not, apparently, include modern HVAC and the joint is stiflingly hot even as the crowd starts to arrive. Backstage I connect with Hatcher. I first saw him perform in our mutual hometown of Winnipeg, with his brothers in a group called Dark Horse at a junior high dance in 1977. In the years immediately following, Hatcher’s group morphed into The Fuse, which became a local sensation before relocating to Toronto, taking the name The Big Beat and garnering a modest hit album in Canada. Music from across that period can be heard and downloaded here.

The group ran aground in the late 80s, and Hatcher relocated to Vancouver, where he connected with Cowsill – former front man of 70s bubblegum stars The Cowsills. Yes, the same group of siblings which hit it huge in the late 60s with “The Rain, The Park & Other Things.” They make for an unlikely pair, until you hear them sing. Then it’s hard to imagine that between them, there is no shared DNA. I overhear Cowsill ask Hatcher, sotto voce, who I am. Moments after Hatcher explains that he’s introduced me a half-dozen times at previous shows, Cowsill theatrically makes eye contact with me, eyebrows go up in mock recognition and he saunters over for an elaborate hand pumping, shoulder slapping greeting.

The Blue Shadows used as their walk-on theme at live shows a recording of the old cowboy nugget “Blue Shadows On The Trail.” But I thought a more representative overture would be the theme from the old Odd Couple sitcom. Hatcher, laconic, settled, sensible, and Cowsill, rail skinny, jittery, extravagant in his moods, are a study in contrasts. They do share a history of making music with siblings, a similar taste in musical styles, a love for war stories from showbiz’s bygone days. And of course, they make a glorious sound. For now, that’s plenty to keep the act together.

I’ve known Hatcher for a couple of decades and have been following the development of The Blue Shadows since Hatcher first sent me a cassette of their earliest demos. To me, and to my more discerning friends, The Blue Shadows were the missing piece between the alternative country insurgency and the great musical melting pot of 60s and 70s radio, when country and R&B and soul and rock n roll cohabitated on the charts and radio playlists and record collections. But I wonder, as I watch them fidget offstage before emerging from the wings, if they’ll make a similar splash before a jaded Los Angeles music biz insider crowd which has already witnessed a parade of performances by acolytes of the Everly sound?

They open with a number freighted with a hefty degree of difficulty – “Like Strangers.” With Hatcher plucking tremolo-trembling grace notes from his big custom hollow-body electric guitar and Cowsill strumming accompaniment, their voices soar in daring close tandem in a manner that makes me think of an aerial circus. Whatever oxygen is left inside the stifling Morgan-Wixson Theatre is sucked up by the crowd’s collective gasp; breath is taken. As the audience roars appreciation, I look around and see people turning to their neighbor with knotted brows that telegraph the conversation: “Who are these guys?”

As they re-tune, Hatcher tells the crowd: “I’ve been dying to say this for years. Appearing onstage in California for the first time since 1968, Bill Cowsill.” Cowsill responds by crediting Hatcher as the guy “who put the zip back in my zap.” And then they return to wielding their spell with “Devoted To You” and a sublimely heartbroken “Maybe Tomorrow.” I know nobody has dropped a pin during these performances, or I would have heard it. That should be the closing number, but before the last note dies from Hatcher’s guitar, the audience is yelling for more and in the wings, someone is doing that circular hand gesture for “don’t stop.”

With a nod to the evening’s charitable intent, Hatcher comments on the Clinton administration’s failed attempt to render unto the American people universal health care, gets in a plug for Canadian care and appeals for the hope of one day seeing a similar set-up in place in America. Cowsill thanks Phil and Don Everly for providing his early inspiration. And then they are off at a gallop with “Leave My Woman Alone” – Cowsill stretching out his voice on the verses and Hatcher adding some nifty picking. The night’s only encore is followed by the evening’s first standing ovation. Chesney later tells me that when Hatcher came offstage, he said: “Dave, what just happened out there?” Chesney replied: “Magic.”

There is a tangible buzz in the room following The Blue Shadows’ performance. But the heat and the lateness of the hour cause Hatcher, Cowsill, Chesney and I to slip out of the theatre and into Santa Monica, where we find a patio restaurant to dine and revel in the moment. As our waitress approaches, Hatcher whispers in my ear: “Bill will ask the waitress her name.” Which he promptly does. It’s something I had witnessed before – Cowsill’s penchant for greeting strangers like dear lost friends and everyday colleagues with amiable indifference. Hatcher’s nickname for Bill: Friend of the service industry.

Cowsill is a serious coffee addict, and when he’s served a cup of crud at this eatery, he gets up from the table, walks across the road with his branded restaurant mug in hand to a designer coffee joint and sweetly asks the counter girl if she’ll oblige him with a free refill, even though he’s a customer at the restaurant across the street. Hatcher, Chesney and I make bets on whether he’ll succeed as we watch the Chaplin-worthy pantomime of sweet talking chit-chat through the café’s window; the server blushes, pours Cowsill a freebie and waves goodbye. Cowsill strides back across the street, mug in fist, dodging traffic and rejoins our table like nothing happened.

The conversation is a combination of reveling in moments from the evening’s performance, Cowsill’s colorful anecdotes about his early years in L.A. during The Cowsills’ salad days and the fallow period that followed for the singer, plus speculation about what will be next for the band. Chesney is optimistic that with South By Southwest and this show, they’ve stirred the buzz pot and, if On The Floor of Heaven fails to get a release outside Canada, then there’s hope for album number two, which was awaiting release. The last evidence of the sun has long vanished over the nearby Pacific. I have early interviews back in Beverly Hills and the other three have an early flight.

My cab trip back to L.A. is snarled in bottleneck traffic, making the return trip the most expensive cab ride of my life. As streams of cars herd forward on the freeway, I’m wondering if I’ll remember this night as one of those nights where a talented artist has experienced a breakthrough. Could the buzz and momentum from tonight’s show inspire some belated interest in the group and signal a turning point?

We could not have known then that despite a cult following, critical acclaim and relentless touring, On The Floor of Heaven would never receive a release outside Canada. Nor would the 1995 follow-up, Lucky To Me. And who could tell on that happy night that, despite heavy touring and decent commercial performance in Canada, The Blue Shadows would run aground in 1996 and 10 years later, Cowsill – after besting his personal demons – would succumb to the disease Cushing’s Syndrome?

None of this sadness, disappointment and eventual loss was in our minds that night as we said goodbye. There was only hope and confidence in the power of the music. Now, we have treasured memories of those days and nights of making and sharing music. But we also still have the music itself. It outlives the transitive frustrations and setbacks. Sometimes it even outlives the players and it’s still as powerful and enjoyable as it was the day it was made.

Billy Cowsill (fifth from left), photographed with his mom and siblings for the cover of The Cowsills' 1968 LP Captain Sad & His Ship of Fools

Email Me 6/9/10 Home