Newspaper Articles

Rock legend Cowsill dies in Calgary home
By Heath McCoy
January 20, 2006
Calgary Herald
Calgary, Canada

Billy Cowsill was a veteran rock 'n' roller; a man who had been through the wringer after 40 years in the harsh music business.

He had weathered it all: fame on an international level and the fall from glory; drugs and booze; stunning musical highs and soul crushing lows when it all fell apart. His music was his great love and that had pulled him up from the darkest depths so many times. He was determined that this time was not going to be any different, even as he laid in a nursing home bed with a broken hip, breathing with the aid of an oxygen tank because of his emphysema.

But as grizzled and ailing as he was, Cowsill's manager Neil MacGonigill said the old rocker looked like a little boy last September, his excitement infectious as he sat up in bed listening to the tapes that were brought for his approval.

The music was from a live recording that was made in June 2001 of Cowsill's popular local band, The Co-Dependents.

MacGonigill was having the tapes remixed for the album, Live At The Mecca Cafe: Volume 2, which was released in December.

"It was as cute as can be, because I've known Billy for a long time and he was a bad boy, a real gun fighter, and here he is in his pyjamas sitting on the edge of his bed listening to those songs," MacGonigill said.

"He was like a hawk too, (focused on) every little nuance. Half way through (the recording) he looks over and says 'I was pretty good, wasn't I, Neil?' He was digging it. That was a nice thing for Billy."

But childlike enthusiasm aside, Cowsill -- who died Saturday at his Calgary home, at the age of 58 -- was notoriously tough, and despite the ailments that plagued him in his final years, including osteoporosis and Cushing syndrome, he was not going down without a fight.

With his respiratory problems, he could no longer muster the powerful harmonies he was revered for, and he had spent months stubbornly retraining himself to sing.

Just over a year ago he sang on a Hank Williams tribute album, which is still in the works. And, as recently as New Year's Day he hobbled upon the stage at the Ironwood bar with two canes, to sing three Williams tunes alongside some of the city's top local musicians.

"With one lung and being on oxygen he couldn't belt it out like he did in his heyday, but it still sounded great." says Josh Marantz, manager of the Ironwood.

The tragedy of Billy Cowsill's death must have struck his family particularly hard, as they were gathered in Rhode Island holding a memorial service for Billy's younger sibling Barry when they heard the news. Barry, who died at the age of 51, was found face down in the mud under a New Orleans wharf on Dec. 28, four months after he had disappeared following hurricane Katrina, which had devastated the city in August.

At press time the Cowsill family could not be reached for comment.

Barry and Billy were both members of The Cowsills, a family pop band from Rhode Island that achieved international fame in the late '60s with such massive hits as The Rain, The Park & Other Things, Indian Lake, and the title song from the rock musical, Hair.

Teeny bopper heartthrobs of the day, who appeared on the Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson shows, guitarist Billy fronted the band while Barry played bass. Brothers Bob and John played organ and drums. Eventually their mother Barbara and little sister Susan joined the band too, under the direction of the family's patriarch, the reputedly dictatorial Bud Cowsill.

The Cowsills, who provided the inspiration for TV's The Partridge Family, eventually broke up in a storm of bitter acrimony that left some members estranged from each other for several years. But Billy and Barry always had a bond, as the brothers who wanted The Cowsills to move away from their family-friendly pop past and become an edgy rock band.

Both Billy and Barry lived through tumultuous times after the breakup of The Cowsills, hitting the landmines typical of the rock world.

Each of them experienced the ups and downs of the music business. Each of them struggled with substance abuse. In fact, the day hurricane Katrina struck, Barry Cowsill was set for a trip to a Los Angeles rehab centre.

In an old interview with the Herald, Calgary filmmaker Joel Stewart, who did a TV documentary on Billy Cowsill in 2004, spoke of the singer's wild times in the 1970s: "hanging out with Warren Zevon and doing qualudes with (guitarist) Waddy Wachtel."

Billy's nomadic road led him to Vancouver in the 1980s where he fronted The Blue Shadows, who were known for their breathtaking Everly Brothers-like harmonies. But Billy continued to indulge his vices in those years, going so far as to describe the Shadows as "three vegetarians and a junkie."

Eventually he was rescued by members of Calgary's music scene, included McGonigill and Jann Arden, who, essentially, held an intervention for him. Newly sober, Billy formed The Co-Dependents in the late '90s, a country-rock quartet that was much-loved on Calgary's thriving roots-music scene.

At first when Billy moved to Calgary, he didn't play at all, says his former bandmate in The Co-Dependents, Tim Leacock. "Finally he said, 'Look, you got a car and I need to work, so you better get a bass (guitar)," Leacock says. "We started playing as a duo and it was awful at first because I had never really played bass and here I am trying to back up this guy. He'd just play whatever he felt like playing and he'd be choked that I didn't know some obscure George Jones tune."

Even after the Co-Dependents parted ways, due to Billy's health problems, Leacock and Cowsill remained close.

"Him and I still get together and sing all the time," said Leacock in a recent interview. "He's still kicking my butt too. 'C'mon! You can hit that note! You gotta breathe! Do you want some of my oxygen?' . . . . He made me so much better at what I do, just being a part of that. I didn't just learn about music through Billy. I learned how to keep on keepin' on, you know?"

McGonigill best described Billy's commanding stage presence. "Listen to Slow Down (on Live At The Mecca Cafe: Volume 2)," McGonigill said. "(Guitarist) Steve Pineo's solos are so great, because Billy's encouraging him by almost yelling at him. The way Billy put it was: 'Yeah, I always thought of it as a chuck wagon race. I was the driver and the boys were the horses.'"

But Billy battled depression in his final days, McGonigill said. "He'd like to sing and play all the time, but he's on that oxygen and he can't get around much because of his bone disorder. . . . For years Billy was a three-pack-a-day guy (with cigarettes). . . . And for years he was a codeine addict, a pill-popper, and I think he's experiencing the cumulative effects of all that stuff. . . . So he just can't sing like he used to. He sings quiet now, and he beats himself up over it. A guy like Bill, his self esteem hinges on his performances. That's where he was always the winner."

Despite Billy's fears, however, when news of his death filtered through the Calgary music scene on the long weekend, his rich legacy was fondly recalled. "My wife and I, some of our happiest times came listening to Billy," says Gerry Garvey, former manager of the now defunct King Eddy blues bar. "You'd see him and he looked like this grizzled old Keith Richards-guy. But he'd open his mouth and he sounded like an angel."

An interview with McGonigill, weeks before Billy's death, confirmed the forgotten legend's enduring popularity on the Calgary scene. "I started bringing him here in the mid-70s and people just loved him," McGonigill said. "College kids, punk rockers, grannies, they all loved him, even when he swore like a trooper."

Rock legend Billy Cowsill in 1993

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