Other than a voice bestowed on him by heaven, the thing I remember most about Billy Cowsill is the Mark Messier stare. I saw it one night when Cowsill was performing with The Blue Shadows at a bar in Edmonton. A drunk stumbled up to the front of the stage and said something to Cowsill, who stopped the show. A nervous hush fell over the room as Cowsill fixed an intense gaze at the man and said in a low voice off mic: "F—k off." There was stunned silence as the man froze in his tracks. "Go on. Get out of here," Cowsill continued in a low, barely-audible voice. "F—k off." And with that, the drunk skulked away into the night like an unruly child who had been ordered to go sit in a corner.
It would require such foolish drunkeness to interrupt a show by Billy Cowsill. In addition to an on-stage persona that could hold a room in awe, Cowsill had an intense, almost fierce look that matched his sometimes volatile personality. "He was very high-strung. Hair trigger sometimes," says Mitzi Gibbs, of Vancouver, Cowsill's partner of 15 years. But Gibbs also recalls a man capable of great tenderness, a trait that became even more evident when the couple had a son, Del.
"He loved animals, cats, and he was great with young kids because he was the oldest of seven. He could bathe and diaper like a pro. When Del was six months he moved in. He loved Del so much," Gibbs says. "We miss him." The last time I saw Cowsill, about six months before he died peacefully in his bed on Feb. 18, the Messier stare was gone. His face and belly bloated from Cushing's Syndrome, the once-lean Cowsill, who was also suffering from advanced osteoperosis and other health problems, walked with a cane. He had reading glasses halfway down his nose, which made him look a bit like Santa Claus. He also had a collapsed lung, a complication from surgery on his back.
Cowsill had come to see honky-tonk singer-songwriter Tom Phillips at a downtown bar. Phillips invited Cowsill to sing a song. Cowsill did two numbers, singing better with one lung than most people with two. Later, Phillips helped him out of the bar. i watched as Cowsill, who once possessed a ferocity both in voice and demeanor, shuffled off into the night. At that point his bones, according to Gibbs, had literally started turning to dust. "A sneeze could result in a broken rib."
Dylan Sadlier-Brown, a Calgary rockabilly-style bass player, roomed with Cowsill for eight months until about a year before he died. Sadlier-Brown, 26, moved into the old house Cowsill lived at two blocks south of 17th Avenue just after Cowsill had gotten out of hospital for back surgery. "He was in severe disrepair, but his spirits were good," says Sadlier-Brown, who had known Cowsill since he was a little kid. When he was nine, his dad, guitarist Mark Sadlier-Brown, took Dylan to see Cowsill playing at a bar.
"He boosted me up to the window from the
restaurant side to watch Bill," says Dylan. It
was the early '90s and Cowsill had recently
moved to Calgary from Vancouver at the urging of a group of Calgary musical friends who
basically rescued him from substance abuse.
"He had his demons," said Gibbs. "He was
morbidly depressed because he was in such
pain all the time." Trying to keep himself on
the straight and narrow, Cowsill would go out
with Sadlier-Brown's dad to the movies.
"They'd go to sci-fi movies, mostly involving
bugs," Dylan recalls.
As a young musician, he received some valuable advice from Cowsill, who told him, "Emulate. Don't imitate." In the often snobbish and pretentious world of singer-songwriters, Cowsill commanded respect doing what many of them eschewed, covering other people's songs. He sang Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers, Elvis—"dead guy music," as he called it. Cowsill chose his material well, saying: "I only do skinny Elvis." Nobody ever thought less of Cowsill for doing covers, simply because he was so damn good at it. Says Sadlier-Brown: "When he sang that music, Roy Orbison was in the room. Elvis was in the room. It wasn't covering, it was channeling."
Sadlier-Brown also got some valuable life advice from his roommate. "I was in pretty dire straits. I had no place to go and he took me in. He said, 'OK, you can stay, but you have to take care of business.' He had done a lot of rehab and in rehab you re-learn a lot of the basics. He insisted that the dishes were done and the garbage was taken out. He was a fun guy. I loved him. When he was in good repair and good spirits, there was no better person."
Sadlier-Brown was also at the now-legendary, three-night show at the Mecca Cafe in June 2001 as a string changer for the hard-strumming Cowswill and the Co-Dependents. "I changed 53 strings in three nights. I was in tears from the adrenalin. It was the best rock-and-roll show I ever saw, and I was a part of it." At home, they listened to jazz and classical music. "To him, rock and roll was work. So he listened to a lot of Mickey Baker and Mozart, stuff he said was beyond him."
If Cowsill channeled Orbison and the Everlys and skinny Elvis, the world lost a true musical clairvoyant. And when Sadlier-Brown and Cowsill's other friends gather for the musical tribute at Knox United Church on May 18,1' II bet my bottom dollar that Billy Cowsill will be in the room.