Cowsill Transcripts

Billy Cowsill on CKUA
December 12, 2004
Host: Tom Coxworth

Tom: Good afternoon Iím Tom Coxworth and welcome to Folk Routes. Well we have a special program for you this afternoon. A little earlier this week I spoke with Billy Cowsill. Heís got a CD thatís going to be hitting the streets. Eight tracks recorded from 1985. Letís start it off this way and weíll get into some conversation with Billy right after this. A musical journey, if you could. Letís let Billy introduce the band.

Billy: Thank you very much. Iíd like to introduce the band. On the upright doghouse bass Elmare 'Spins' Spanier there. We have Colin Munn 'The Bo-hunk Funk' on guitar for ya. And in the back Chris 'The Wrist' Nordquist on the drums there. My name is Billy Cowsill. Glad to be here at the Palace. Glad youíre having such a great time. Itís mostly dead guys kids. Theyíre gone. Hearts of gold and shit for brains, thatís what you get in the business.

Song: Rollover Beethoven

Tom: The first thing I have to ask, because everybody will want to know. How are you doing these days? Youíve had hip surgery. Youíve had some complications for the surgery.

Billy: Iíve had three major back surgeries, and the last back surgery was up by my right lung. And they had to deflate my lung for all of about eight hours. And when they re-inflated it, it didnít come back. You are looking at a man who is singing with one lung.

Tom: But youíre still singing.

Billy: It would appear so.

Tom: It would certainly appear so. (laughs)

Billy: Billy ĎOne Lungí

Tom: Billy ĎOne Lungí

Billy: Billy ĎOne Lungí

Tom: But you donít have a choice. You have to sing. I mean, you Ė there was the Bob Dylan interview just last night and he said something about destiny is something that only the person knows them self. And you didnít have a choice in being a singer. Ah, even if you had wanted to be a postal carrier or something.

Billy: I was like a bird man

Tom: Yeah?

Billy: It would appear so. I was born a bird. Thatís what I do. Iím a singer. I wack at the guitar a bit and people thing Iím a fairly great rhythm guitar player and itís a real drag BUT I do it cuz thatís what I have to except. And I do it with gratitude that Iím even able to do it.

Song: Vagabond

Tom: So when you are recording a Hank Snow song or a Hank Williams song or something like that, you like to use older equipment rather than the digital equipment?

Billy: Yeah I do and thatís because it blends itself to the human voice much more warmer I find.

Tom: What was, for you, the first thing that awakened you? Not just to being in the family group, but what was the first thing that Billy Cowsill heard that went ďAh thereís something out there.Ē Either being part of the family or ...

Billy: There was a song called "I Want To Hold Your Hand."

Tom: That was it? The harmonies

Billy: When I heard that ďI get highĒ ďI get highĒ Thereís that first interval, I believe right there. And thatís what brought that Everlyís third thing out.

Tom: And it was the combination Ö

Billy: I may have the intervals wrong here but I believe thatís what it is. But it had those two voices, so tight together, so immaculately joined that it elicited a third tone. That and "Donít Worry Baby" by the Beach Boys.

Tom: Oh yeah

Billy: That did it to me too.

Tom: I was just reading about John Phillips and I just bought the box set of The Mama and The Papas. And he talked about getting in the studio and how they would rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse and they would get to the certain frustration and all of a sudden there were no longer four voices but there was a fifth voice. Do you find that kind of fifth voice when you hear this song?

Billy: Yeah Yes the fifth voice is provoked by harmonics. That is if you get two voices singing a fifth spread like the Everly Brothers sang. They sang, I believe, a first and a fifth. What happens is you get Ďem close enough, shimmering next to each other that a third is elicited out of that. And that third is a harmonic of the fifth and the first, I believe. So you canít get that, you can kind of get it and things are a lot sharper and clearer and crispier with a digital signed wave, but again itís not really a wave. Itís a function.

Tom: It doesnít carry any warmth to it.

Billy: Itís icy. Itís cool. Itís crisp. Itís sharp. Itís edgy and yes you can hear more clarity. And you can hear things you never heard before coming out. But all those things were in there to begin with. They were just masked by other sign waves a bit. And I believe that thereís a way to get that without going digital.

Tom: Was it so natural, for you and the rest of the members of your family to rehearse and get that fifth voice in there?

Billy: Yep

Tom: It was just Ö

Billy: Well the point is we didnít know what it was, but we knew we were doing it. We knew what it was and it made my hair stand on ends.

Tom: When you look at some of those early recordings and the technology today is easier and faster and cheaper. So are we losing a lot of what you are trying to hold on to?

Billy: I think so. I feel so. I donít think so, I feel so. Itís a feeling thing too.

Song: Hair

Tom: Susan, Barbara, Paul, Bob, John, Harry (yes this was a mistake by Tom Coxworth) April of 1969 A #1 and Iím here with Billy Cowsill of The Cowsill family. What do you feel was a critical part for you, after you left the family, for developing the Billy style. Because you were really more punk and all country before it ever existed. You had more cowboy influence than anybody else and ...

Billy: Well there were two things I wanted to be when I grew up. One was a cowboy and one was to be a rock 'n roller. And that was it. And one was like Beatles rock Ďn roller. That was my rock Ďn roll. I missed Elvis Presley and all those early guys. I was like 8 and 9. I wasnít 12 or 11, 13. I wasnít a teenager when that went down. I missed it by about 2 years as far as being conscious of what it was. My young adolescent, I was growing fast. I grew into my adolescence fast. So I got the joke, as I call it, of what was stirring and what the music was doing to me because itís very sexual, you know. Rock Ďn roll is extremely sexual music. As I would imagine, the music of my forbearers was considered sexual too. The jive and the Charleston and some things like that were considered really radical and very loaded with innuendos. And before that, and before that. I think music, to a degree, has always had a sexual influence. Even Mozart and guys like that. That was the pop music of their time, and people danced to it.

Tom: Let me ask you, when did you cross over into country? Was that in ...

Billy: Iíve always been country.

Tom: Right from the beginning?

Billy: Right from the beginning. My mother was a country-western fan. Uh, traditional country-western fan. Uh, we lived in Virginia. She just loved that hillbilly music.

Song: Jackson

Tom: When you struck out on your own, what was the, what were you going to do and what did you do? You did the solo album.

Billy: I had no idea what I was going to do, so I ended up with a #1 record in the country, started drinking, didnít know I was an alcoholic and was soon to become one. No, I was one but soon to have it brought forth. And, uh, got married, was married to a wonderful woman who was an artist, had a son. Pregnant wife actually when we broke off. And, uh, was living in Laurel Canyon and I walked into Hormel Studios one day, which was the state of the art studio of the time. Met Geordie Hormel who introduced me to Gary Usher, who wrote ĎIn My Roomí with Brian. And, uh, Gary came to me and said, ďListen, thereís a movie coming out called M.A.S.H. Would you like to sing the title song called "Suicide Is Painless"?Ē which is di did di did di dida Da da da da da da da da. And I listened to the song. I said ďNaw.Ē But then he played me this acetate, this song on an acetate, I believe it was. Which for you boys and girls out there was one of the early demos. Rather than burn something out there back then we cut an acetate for the demo. It was good for about 10 plays. Then it was lacquer of shellac painted onto an aluminum disc. And it was literally an acetate. It was acetate. It was tar. But it played great for about 5-6 plays, really well and then it started deteriorating. So you had to balance your needle a little lighter. But he played me a Billy Sherrill song by this woman who was just coming out called Tammy Wynette. And the song he played me was "Stand By Your Man." And I dropped dead on the stop. It was so good, I couldnít believe it. It was like a female George Jones, and I couldnít believe it. It was unbelievable sounding. Unbelievable song, the production was just sterling, stellar production. And I lost it and you get by something like that, you donít forget it.

Song: Stand By Your Man

Tom: Itís such a unique talent to tap into that, to be able to find the real root of music. If I was to put in this program music that is Billyís music, what song from The Everly Brothers?

Billy: Um, "Cathyís Clown"

Tom: Why does that work so much?

Billy: Because Iíve never had anybody who could sing it properly except Jeffrey Hatcher. And we never got around to it and it pisses me off.

Song: Cathyís Clown

Tom: You are listening to a special feature on CKUA radio network. My name is Tom Coxworth and weíre taking a journey, a musical journey with Calgaryís own, Billy Cowsill, through his long and varied history. For a list of the songs you can go to and check out the play list at the Folk Routes page. Billy Cowsill will have a new CD in the streets in the next few weeks. And actually itís vintage Billy going back to 1985. Live at the Crystal Ballroom here in Calgary from 1985. More of that when we get back after these messages. Stay tuned.


Tom: Tell me a little bit about this disc that is coming out this week.

Billy: Well Neil MacGonigill was rummaging through his dusty top drawer and came up with, uh, some ancient Billy Cowsill. And itís me opening for k.d. lang in 1985 at the Palliser Hotel. Itís vault stuff man. Itís something you canít get on the internet right now, but maybe we can get that up and running somehow. And what it is, itís eight songs. So itís like this bootleg, remastering of a board tape which happen to get recorded by Grant Macary whoís again has a level of conscience that astounds me and has the best sound system in Canada, and it came out just fine.

Tom: To tap into one of the great heroes, Hank Snow.

Billy: And that version of that is from, uh, the version I do with the funny lyrics in there are from Homer and Jethro. My mother used to get this magazine called Your Hit Parade. And, uh, the real lyrics to that song are in there with these Homer and Jethro lyrics. The comedy lyrics. And thatís what she learned and thatís what she taught me. So thatís how Iíve been singing it all these years. But the melody is just killer. So it doesnít matter if you sang, uh, "Little Red Riding Hood" to it, it would still be cool cuz itís such a cool driving song. So thatís whatís coming out.

Song: Iím Moviní On

Tom: Musically, what are some of the high points that you want to put on the anthology of Billy Cowsill songs?

Billy: Standing where Paul McCartney stood on the Ed Sullivan show.

Tom: laughs Yes but we canít play that on a record player. Did you stand right on the spot?

Billy: Right on the spot

Tom: Did they take you right over to it. Say thereís the X where they had you stand on it?

Billy: No, but I knew it.

Tom: If we but a double CD together of Billy Cowsillís music, what is some of the music youíd put right in that CD and say ďThis is the one that should have been the #1 hit. This is the one ...Ē

Billy: The best song I ever wrote I think was "On The Floor Of Heaven".

Tom: And that was The Blue Shadows

Billy: Yep

Tom: You put yourself into the lyric? Was that lyric right out of ...?Ē

Billy: It came through the Ö. Jeffrey and I channeled a lot. That was one of those things that were evoked by the universe.

Tom: Do you still listen to those recordings today? Can you still listen to those recordings today?

Billy: Yes

Tom: As a perfectionist, do you re-record some of those things?

Billy: No

Tom: Youíre happy because they are like ...

Billy: Yes

Tom: they are like an Everly Brothers song and you canít re-record. You canít get back again.

Billy: No we sang on serial microphone together, when we sang together in the studio.

Song: On The Floor Of Heaven

Tom: When youíre with The Co-Dependents, how does that work for you?

Billy: It works like The Beatles work. Thatís why I loved that band. Because weíve attained that kind of conviction level and that kind of comradery, and the imperceptible seething of Ö Well itís comradery, that feeling that you canít be touched. And if you just do your job really well youíre going to be adored.

Song: Sweet Nothinsí

Tom: (broken tape) to keep doiní what youíre doiní?

Billy: Well in a way no, in a way yes. In a way no because I donít have the power that I used to, uh, invoke and so part of me wants to go no. I canít do this because itís too heart breaking. Breaks my heart.

Tom: Is that because youíre a perfectionist? People have always said that there is only one man. That youíre so on the mark when youíre producing voice. You can tap into, not only that fifth voice we talked about before, but you can tap into something else that that person didnít know they had. How do you step up to a person thatís a singer and that you have to guide them. Kevin Dunn that you helped a few years ago. He said that you did some of the most amazing guiding for him. Cindy Church did the same thing.

Billy: Itís, itís, itís just what I know. I just know it. I have absolute conviction when it comes to working with the human voice. Iím not afraid of it. Iím convinces anybody can do it. I believe itís a learned task. I believe some are born with more of a predisposition to do so, like myself perhaps maybe. Humbly I say. But thereís a lot of people who could be singing now that arenít. That donít think that they have good voices, but they do because somebody said ďShut upĒ to them when they were really young. Everybody can sing and I have a few students that I work with. And Iím convinced that they can do anything that they want to do with their voice, if theyíll just do it.

Tom: Man we need educators like you more and more and more to help guide people. To give people the confidence. Give people that guidance that you have in your voice. Even now today, do you practice every day?

Billy: Uh, I just started picking it up again. Iíve been a bit blue and Iíve been a bit in pain. Uh, but yes up until about 2 weeks ago I was doing it every day because I had to do a show. So if a show comes up or I have to sing, Iíll take a couple weeks and exercise every single day. I have a bit of a regime that I follow for myself and uh, teach to my students that allows them to at least have a good time with themselves.

Tom: At least be comfortable with them.

Billy: Be comfortable with themselves and know that they can do things that they didnít think they could do again because somebody told them to stand in the back of the room and keep their mouth shut. To really learn a song you got to study it.

Tom: You are still to me one of the people that have always believed in rock Ďn roll. I mean believed in the true heart of rock Ďn roll. When I first saw you, I couldnít believe, not only that the voice came out, anybody can sing a note, but nobody can get into the song like you. Nobody can become the lyric of the song. Nobody could that song.

Billy: Because, thereís a reason for that. Itís because I get outside of the song. I donít get into it MAN, I get outside of it and view it and love it and realize that I am delivering this the way it should be delivered. Itís from out there man. Itís not from in here. It comes through here, but itís not anyway related to me in any way, shape or form. Itís not personal. Personable, but not personal.

Song: The Race Is On

Tom: Where did you get your writing style from?

Billy: The Beatles and uh Hank Williams mostly. Beatles, Hank, The Merseys The Merseys stuff and Hank Williams and The Beach Boys. I can only take a little bits because when I take a little bit thereís so much to itÖ.

Tom: Oh yeah

Billy: so I couldnít really get into a general base of information and Iím not really great at retaining it either. So what I know is just what I know and what Iíve lived mainly. You know, experience.

Tom: You made your own bed, for better or for worse, and still today youíre still making music.

Billy: Well my family is in awe of me. They look at me like that too. ďOh the diva,Ē they say.

Tom: The Diva (laughs) Your brother John introduced you as ďOur Brian WilsonĒ I thought that was pretty perfect.

Billy: Thatís adorable. Iím adored by them and Iím adored by my fans and Iím just so thankful for that. Thatís a hard job to do.

Tom: Through all of the health situations that is that what helps you when you use the word fan. Because people want to see you back singing, One song, two songs.

Billy: Most assuredly. Thereís one thing, probably above all others, that keeps me going, are the fans. And the respect and reverence that they show me. Iím am bowled away by it. I donít get it. I donít understand it. Iím just a singer, man. Iím just a singer.

Tom: But rock Ďn roll has brought you here.

Billy: Yep

Tom: Whatís the moral of the story. Letís uh

Billy; The moral of the story is just to keep on rockiní. Do not stop rockiní ever. You stop rockiní, you die. Thatís the moral of my story.

Song: The Fool Is The Last One to Know

Tom: Billy Cowsill here on Folk Routes this afternoon. The black sheep of the family. The contender and the vagabond. We went through a bit of a musical journey through his amazing musical career. The brand new live CD should be in the stores very likely in Megatunes certainly within the next couple weeks in time for Christmas. Check out Megatunes both in Edminton and Calgary So the live CD that was recorded in 1985. Billy has also contributed three songs to a brand new Hank Williams tribute that will be out in the next few months. Thanks a lot to Billy and thanks especially to Neil MacGonigill for setting this all up. Be sure to support local music. My name is Tom Coxworth. This is Folk Routes. You can check out Folk Routes page at for the playlist from this last hour. Stay tuned. Weíll be right back.

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