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Cowsill's death a loss for Calgary
Artist's influence will be sorely missed by community
by Mike Bell
February 26, 2006
jam! Showbiz

Normally this space and this column is used to mock or poke fun at or merely report on the lives of celebrities.

Or performers. Or entertainers. Call them what you want, but please don't refer to the majority of them as artists or musicians.

They don't deserve it and they certainly haven't earned it.

Not the way Billy Cowsill did.

It's been just over a week since the passing of Cowsill, since the 58-year-old finally succumbed to a number of ailments and injuries including emphysema and osteoporosis, which resulted in a recent broken shoulder.

And for many in the local music community it's been a long week, an emotional time and a difficult adjustment.

Neil MacGonigill, longtime friend and one-time manager of Cowsill has spent the entire time trying to put it all in perspective.

He'd visited the musician in the hospital two days prior to his passing and admits when he received the news he wasn't entirely surprised, noting Cowsill seemed down and beaten.

"The struggle of trying to fight it every day ... I just think he couldn't put up the fight any more," says MacGonigill, who had known Cowsill for the past three decades, describing their relationship as being more like brothers.

"You have to want to do it and I think he was just tired.

"He put up a hell of a struggle," he says, "and he did it with dignity."

That's some, though very little consolation for the community he had become something of a father figure to.

Because despite the fact he was born in the U.S. and made his name down there with '60s family pop group The Cowsills, over the past decade or so the singer, songwriter and artist had become synonymous with Calgary and its musicians.

He had made a connection with the city back in the '80s when he was based in Vancouver but performed here frequently with his solo act -- which included a young, unknown guitarist named Colin James -- as well as the tragically short-lived group The Blue Shadows.

But it was when he moved here in the '90s to deal with and eventually conquer his demons that he was fully embraced and returned the genuine affection in kind.

"I think he really understood that Calgary was his home that that's where his friends were and his support system was and that's where people that cared about Billy Cowsill, the human being, as opposed to Billy Cowsill, the singer, that's where they lived," MacGonigill says.

"And I think he really accepted his role as a mentor here, he really felt proud that he could come here and teach a lot of young players and some not-so young players how to be better at what they did."

And it wasn't just those he had direct interaction with, such as the gifted crew of talent -- Tim Leacock, Steve Pineo and Ross Watson -- he hooked up to form The Co-Dependents, an act which, musician for musician, you'd be hard pressed to find a match for anywhere in the world.

It was the community as a whole.

Everyone -- musician and music lover alike -- was and is better for him having called the city home.

That's apparent every time you talk to someone connected with it.

In fact, the number of interviews I conducted over the past decade with local musicians where his name wasn't mentioned were few.

Further evidence should come in the number of musical tributes you'll see to Cowsill in the coming weeks and the number of personal stories you'll hear.

As far as my own personal stories, well, admittedly the number of times I'd spoken with him wasn't great and only ever on a professional level.

The last lengthy conversation I had with him was an interview we did just over four years ago.

It was soon after the release of the now classic Co-D CD Live Recording Event, which captured Cowsill and the band at their peak -- the second volume of which was released just over a month ago -- and he was in incredible spirits.

He'd just celebrated his 54th birthday, had recently undergone an operation to deal with chronic back pain, and was looking forward to getting back onstage and doing what he loved.

He was warm, honest and open about who he was and what he'd done, both personally and professionally, and seemed very much content with both.

"It's been a ride, man," Cowsill said at one point with an easy laugh. "Thirty-five years of rock 'n' rolling and pop music-ing -- it's been a ride."

Amen, Billy. Amen.

Thanks for sharing it with the rest of us.

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