Song: On The Floor Of Heaven
Allison: Good morning. My name is Allison Brock and welcome to Wide Cut Country. This morning, we are going to tribute Billy Cowsill. Billy Cowsill passed away last Saturday and it’s had a huge impact on his community which I have discovered, although I thought I knew how big it was, it’s actually immensely huge. Billy was a dear friend of mine for over 20 years and his death has had a huge impact on me personally, as well. You know, Billy was a gunfighter. He was a poet. He was a sweet guy. But most of all, he was a singer. He didn’t make his life easy, but he sure left a huge imprint. This is my tribute to Billy Cowsill. We’re going to start off with a guy who is probably one of the people who has known Billy the longest, Neil MacGonigill. Neil has been a huge impact on the Alberta music scene for well over 30 years. God you’re getting old Neil. He’s worked with Ian Tyson, Jan Arden, Carla Anderson, and of course the Co-D’s. He’s basically Neil’s (Note: I think she meant Billy’s) last manager. So let’s hear from Neil and how he met Billy.
Neil: I remember meeting Billy – how it happen – he was in Hay River, how he ended up in Hay River – I read a thing the other day that said, “Why Hay River?” and Billy said, “Why not.” So I have no idea how Barry Cowsill and Billy Cowsill ended up in Hay River, Northwest Territories but they did. My old friend and his family ran the dairy distribution business in Hay River and Bill Morris, my friend, met Billy Cowsill and brought him home or something like that and Billy stayed overnight there at their place and the next morning he was singing. And I remember my friend, Bill Morris, phoning me and saying, “I don’t know who this guy is, but you have to hear him sing.” And he put Billy on a bus and sent him to Calgary. And I got a phone call. He was at the International Hotel and I went down and there was quite a party going on. QUITE a party going on. Bill was hungry and there was a pizza in the hallway from somebody else’s room and Bill was having a snack when I first met him. I can’t remember if I joined him or not. I was hungry too, so …
Allison: It happens.
Neil: It happens, so that’s how I we met and of course he ended up in Vancouver. He went to Austin first I think and then he came to Vancouver and we always maintained contact with him since I met him and that would have been ’74 and Warren Zevon had just put out his album and somehow we got it – 2 or 3 t-shirts of Warren Zevon that said, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” And I have a picture of Billy wearing the Warren Zevon t-shirt that says “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” That was circa. 1974 or something like that – ’74 or ’75 – so that’s when I met Bill and we just maintained our friendship from that point on. Calgary was a good place for Bill from the first day that he got here because he came to a place where somebody was waiting for him the first time. And from that point on, there was always someone waiting for him and you live in a town, as he lived in Vancouver, you become familiar – too familiar in many ways – and people start taking you for granted. Because Billy never lived in Calgary, when he came here, he came here really as royalty almost. His shows were legendary and we used to laugh because every room Billy would come into town to play I would get him a gig, you know, and he would come in and play the room and two weeks later it’d go broke. And really it happen about 5 or 6 times in a row. We went through the Cadillac Bar and Slack Alice’s and there was a place called Pardon My Garden one time and there was a whole list of them and so Billy and Elmar would come to town and they would play and the next time we’d have to do a different room because the one he had played last time had gone broke. But there were some memorable spots and Slack Alice’s initially and then more famously upstairs when they had the Cadillac Bar. And Bill played there a lot. I remember taking Guy Clark and Suzanne Clark to see Billy there if they were in town. And they fell in love with him. They just – Guy to this day any time I see Guy he asks how Billy Cowsill is doing and they were just wild about him as a singer – obviously – but as a human being too. They – the three of them – Guy, Billy and Suzanne Clark – all kind of suffered from the same affliction in many ways and so they didn’t do well in public – they were introverts.
Song: Baby, It’s You
Allison: The Co-dependents from their most recent album, Live at the Mecca Café Volume 2. Well Peter North has been hugely impactful as well, on the roots music scene in Alberta. He’s been a journalist in print, still is for the Edmonton Journal. He’s been in radio, television. He’s been a promoter. I think he’s been named Media Person of the Year about a million times. So let’s hear from Peter North.
Peter: When I think of Billy Cowsill, there’s a million things that come to mind. And there’s a million antidotes, but I remember when I first booked him on the Sun Country TV show in Edmonton which was hosted by Ian Tyson back in early thru mid ‘80’s. Billy was working with the Train Wreck band at the time and playing with Chris Norquist and Elmar and one thing, but that show we had them on the show as his own guy and I’ll never forget the fact that we used to record all the instrumentals the day before the taping at Sundown Studios and all the vocals would be live at the shoot. And other than Emilu Harris, and we did twenty six a year for 5 years, I never say anybody work as hard as with the background vocalists, Kenny D. Jensen and Susan Gilmore, as Billy did. It goes without saying of course that the night of that particular taping everybody nailed their parts vocally and they really stand out and there’s tapes of that performance kicking around and “The Embers Keep Burning” sent shivers up your spine and I remember Ian Tyson saying that somebody’s got to get that song to George Jones. And it was a Billy original. So that’s one of the things I remember about Bill was when it was time for business, it was time for business. And he understood that. And it was show business. It’s another thing in the live shows that sense of show business didn’t negate artistic credibility. He understood that and because of that, no stage was treated any different by Billy. It didn’t matter whether it was in a lounge and it was a 4 x 4 platform or if it was a Jubilee Auditorium stage. When the lights went on and he lit the fuse and kicked in. I saw him everywhere from Slack Alice’s – just doing the duo with Elmar – to the Spinning Wheel Cabaret with Blue Northern to the Comadore Ballroom to all the places we saw The Blue Shadows and his sense of entertaining people was pretty much unlike anybody I’ve ever seen. And I think that was instilled in him at a very early age. Like I say, it never negated the artist credibility. As for what he meant to this scene. He was an incredible gift to Western Canadian music scene and you listen to those early Blue Northern tracks and he produced all that stuff and mixed all that stuff and he came up here with a resume that was pretty much unlike anyone else’s at that time. I still – when I listened to those records the other night after Billy passing – and to hear those Beach Boys harmonies and The Beatle like melodies all mixed together into what was country-rock was just such an incredible recipe for success and for something that was going to resonate with a lot of people and that’s why that band had a few hits and everyone likes hits, especially when they are good ones. He was such a great mentor to so many young guys in Western Canada. And I think on any number of levels where there was production, I remember sitting watching Billy mix and perform vocals on Steve Pineo’s Perfectly Good Friendship album at the Beta Studios in Edmonton and once again his attention to detail. He wouldn’t be less than 100%. He would go over and over something or come up with other ideas. The clock wasn’t running, really, when Billy was in the studio. We’re going to do the best we can. He set the bar at another level whether it was on stage, in the studio, rehearsing or writing. I think when you have somebody around who thinks like that, it can’t help but rub off on the whole community and I think we see that with people like Pineo, Leacock and Ross Watson and all the other he touched.
Allison: That is Blue Northern Vagabond It’s so great to hear these songs again! It’s just wonderful. Well I think it’s time that we actually hear from Billy. A year ago, December 04 Tom Coxworth interviewed Billy and by the way he’s going to be re-airing that interview tomorrow on Folk Routes, of course that’s between 4 and 6. Do yourself a favor and definitely tune in but right now, let’s hear from Billy.
Billy: I did play for $150 a night in a bar in Fort McMurray and I want to tell you it was one of the best times I ever had in my life. Cuz I love playing bass.
Tom: And was that a cover band or …
Billy: Yeah I played bass and I sang back up. That was the most fun I ever had. In fact if I had my druthers, I’d rather be in a cover band playing bass, singing background harmonies. That’s what I’d rather be doing and that’s all I really wanted to do. But I was put in a position that you see me in now. And I had to take the reins and ride. Cuz that’s my job.
Tom: Yeah, yeah it is your job. You are the leader. Nobody is going to challenge your voice. Nobody is going to challenge your thought process for arranging a voice. You have to be the man out front. I think that’s where you gained the respect, whether you wanted to be shoved to the front or not.
Billy: You notice when I play, I never play in the middle.
Tom: That’s right. Humm
Billy: I play on the side right next to the drummer, which is my other big desire is to be the drummer. I’d rather be everybody else in the band but what I play and sing.
Song: Sweet Nothin’
Steve Pineo: Well I mean Bill, I mean his identity was a performer. I think he always wanted to be, he wanted to be the guy that, he never really wanted Billy Cowsill and The Co-Dependents. He wanted to just be part of the gang, but his natural inclination was to be the leader and he just couldn’t help it. I think one time we were at Kid Johnson’s house and he was having a little house party and Billy really never showed up to parties that much. You know, he was – that sort of made him nervous, but we got the guitars out. We were singing in the kitchen and all of a sudden the party turned into a rehearsal and tried to get the parts down. “Hey let’s try that one again.”
Allison: That is perfect.
Steve Pineo: Yeah he was always working on things and thinking about different angles. He loved word play and he had a nickname for everybody – well except for me. Nobody’s got a nickname for me. It was just a – Steven – he’s the only guy other than my mother who calls me Steven. But he had nicknames for just about everybody else, his car, his guitar and …
Allison: That is Steve Pineo of course of The Co-Dependents and well Steve in an integral part of this scene as well. In case you’re not from Alberta and not familiar with him, he wrote Paul Brant’s hit “Canadian Man.” And has won a Prairie Music Award for Outstanding Roots Recording for his CD – A Perfectly Good Friendship. My name is Allison Brock and this is Wide Cut Country and this is my tribute to Billy Cowsill so stick around – coming up Joe Ely.
Allison: Good Morning. My name is Allison Brock and welcome back to Wide Cut Country. This is a tribute to Billy Cowsill who unfortunately passed last Saturday. Well if you’re a roots fan you definitely know Joe Ely. He is a roots music legend. He has released more than 20 albums to date and I got to speak to Joe.
Joe: We were both at kind of a cross roads in our lives. We – I had just finished recording the – oh the first Flatlanders record and realizing that it was not going to come out. Me and a friend of mine jumped on a freight train and headed to New York City. That must have been, that must have been late ’72 I guess or late ’73 I can’t remember which, but I ended up spending about 6 months in New York and that is where I ran into Billy. I was just playing a little acoustic show at some little biker bar down in Greenwich Village and Billy happen to be in there and I had just played a song called “Honky Tonk Angels” I didn’t know God made Honky Tonk Angels and this guy walks up to me and says, “I didn’t appreciate that song one little bit.” And I said, “What do you mean?” and he said, “That was a song degrading my club.” I said, “Wait a minute here. Let’s get on the right page.” And Billy overheard all of this and he came up and defended me and said, “That’s a honky tonk song. It’s not about motorcycle gangs.” And so that is where we met and we just hit it off immediately and I remember packing up and leaving the bar and walking in a cold stiff wind down to a bar where we pooled our money and had enough to get a drink and that was the beginning of our friendship. I stayed in New York all spring – oh till about mid-spring I guess – and sold my leather shirt to Billy to buy plane fare back to Texas and then I told him if he was so inclined to come to Lubbock and hang out, which he did several weeks after I got back there. So he came and actually stayed where the Flatlander, Butch and Jimmy had a house there and so Billy came down and stayed there and we ended up playing shows around Lubbock together. He knew what a good song was made of and so it made – that was when I was first starting to write songs and I guess oh you know I had started writing songs with Butch and Jimmy, who had gotten together with the Flatlanders, and they were from kind of a folk past and everything. But when I ran into Billy, he had this amazing sense of just – you know, just what made a real – he – you know, songs that really tugged at your heart. And that really opened my writing up to eventually what became the songs that I started writing when I actually was putting my band together back in ’75 before I signed with MCA. And so I starting writing a whole different kind of songs, like, songs like “Honky Tonk Masquerade” and some of the ones on the first two albums. He definitely had an influence on early stuff when I actually got a – you know my honky tonk band together and started traveling around west Texas and playing all the joints around there.
Billy: This next song was written by a friend of mine from Austin, Texas. His name is Joe Ely. You might have seen him around town here and there. He’s a real good entertainer and songwriter. It’s called “The West Texas Border”
Song: West Texas Border
Allison: What a wonderful version. That basically is a live bootleg that I was sent and if I tell you the name of the person who gave it to me, well I – somebody would have to die. Of Billy doing Joe’s “West Texas Border” Billy was a big fan of Joe’s and Joe was a huge fan of Billy’s. You know I only had a couple days to put this show and all these interviews together. These aren’t previous interviews. These all happened in the last couple of days and, you know, it was really cool because I got in touch with Joe’s manager and boom, called me right back, got in touch with Joe, done deal, the interview was set up for the next day. It was really, really neat. I have gone on record before, and this is a big thing for me to say cuz Lord knows I’m a BIG Johnny Cash fan, but I would put up – I’m not saying better just saying equal – Billy and Julie Kerr’s version of “Jackson” against Johnny and June’s. I mean it’s, in my opinion, it is as good. They nail it. That was released on Craig Korth’s album Bankview. So, I ask Julie what it was like to work with Billy.
Julie: Well it was definitely a magical moment. You know you could feel the stars aligning. I had very little experience in the studio and I mistakenly thought, ‘Oh you just go in and sing in a microphone.’ Easy. But it’s not really that way. And the money’s going and the people are all staring at you and you got to be standing there and you got to be on. And Billy was so cool. He just – like he just helped me through it. And I just felt like we just came together. It was so fantastic. And it’s interesting because Craig had suggest the song. I didn’t really know the song before so I started learning the words and apparently when Craig told it to Billy, Billy said, “Yeahhhh.” Totally into that song. Huge Johnny Cash fan. Want to do it, so Billy phoned me up. I got a call from Billy Cowsill, isn’t that great and we started having these rehearsals and the first rehearsal – yeah OK I can see this is just going to fly. This is going to be great. It’s going to be magic. Went to the studio, we did it in a couple takes, it was just a magical moment. Just wonderful. And I think also Billy too had a little – you know – Billy had some hard edges about him for sure, I mean he was nobody’s – no denying that but he certainly had a soft spot too and I think his family is spread all over the country. He didn’t see a lot of them and Craig and I just had a new little baby and Craig was playing banjo and I am singing and then half the time I have my baby on my lap and I think Billy just like the little sort of familyness of it and it all just came together. It was great. It was really, really great.
Allison: Yeah, call me crazy, I think they nailed it. That was Billy and Julie Kerr and their version of “Jackson” from Craig Korth’s album actually Bankview. Well Tim Leacock has been a very dear friend of mine for – well – over 20 years. In fact I first met him when he was in the band The Burners and I was working at another radio station in town and we had our very first battle of the bands. And The Burners won and we have stayed friends ever since. Of course it was Tim who started the Co-Dependents with Billy. Let’s hear from Tim.
Tim: In terms of playing with him and in terms of – I think I can speak for other musicians to anyone who got to work with him was an honor to work with someone that good. That great, he was great. Undoubtedly everyone would agree with that I’m sure. On a personal level, yeah, we’d been friends for almost 20 years and we started working together, well we made records together long before he moved here but when he did move here, his idea wasn’t to come here to try and play, it was to try and shake off sort of the effects of his last band. And just 30 years of music had really just worn him out. He was looking more for companionship than a bass player. He – I know I told his story before – he told me one day, “Well you got a car and I need to work, so you better get a bass.” And so that’s kind of how it started and it was – I mean it was ugly – I mean I didn’t know stuff he was callin’ and we’d just go and play as a duo and you know, of course, everybody loved everything he was doing and there’d be other bass players show up scalling at me the whole set, going “What the h….” But I had a car, so. But The Co-dependents grew out of that. He’d been friends also with Ross Watson and Steve Pineo for a long time and those guys, you know I mean , first and foremost we were friends with each other but obviously it made sense for us to become musical compatriots as well. So that just gradually blossomed into a really wonderful, short-lived band. It was great for all of us. I think Bill included really enjoyed being in that band. But, yeah, I mean on a personal level that’s really more where I think things fell between me and Bill and Suzanne, my wife, and our son Josh was just – it was a lot more just about – he was --- At shows people would often see him sort of as a rough hard edged guy and very unapproachable. And I think that that was a bit of a defense mechanism because I think to conjure up and capture the kind of energy it took to do what he did, you had to sort of set up a bit of a boundary. But, outside of that, he was one of the most caring, compassionate, kind people that you would want to meet. I was lucky to know that part of him. I remember the day our son Josh was born, Billy was very, very excited and Suzie had a great pregnancy but a really tough labor and delivery and so I was in the room with her the next day and our GP had showed up and he’s holding on to Josh and you know kind of checking everything out. Checking that Suzanne is fine. Well Billy bursts into the room. He’s got a teddy bear and a bouquet of flowers and a balloon and I thought “Poor Holiday, our doctor” I thought he was going to keel over, this guy cuz he was such a bull in a china shop. “Give me that kid, doc.” And the doctor looks at me and I’m like “It’s OK.” He said, “Give me the kid. I got two of my own.” And he grabs him and he’s bouncing him around the room.
Song: You Win Again
Allison: That is Billy from a project called Sorrow Bound – Hank Williams Re-examined. Now it’s interesting that project was recorded in ’04 then, very sadly, Joel Short who had put Ruby Moon Records together, passed away. So people were very concerned as to if this project would actually ever come out, but Tim Williams, bless your soul Tim, made it happen and literally--. He’s been on the road for a month. He drove in yesterday, went to Canada Disk and Tape, picked up the disks and brought me one down so that I could play this today. I mean, that’s just awesome. We’ll be hearing lots more from that project, but that was Billy’s version of “You Win Again” Now someone else that has worked with Billy and is also a very, very great friend, is Stewart MacDougall. Stewart has been making music for – ppttt I don’t know – 25 or 30 years. He’s worked with a very diverse list of musicians and songwriters Laura Vincent, k d lang, Ian Tyson, and of course The Great Western Orchestra. His songs have been recorded by Randy Travis, One Horse Blue, Crystal Plamondon, Easy Waters and I checked in with Stewart as well. Here’s Stewart MacDougall.
Stewart: We were playing in Edmonton at Wood Croft Hall for the Uptown folk, that’s correct. I think it was in 2003 and we were doing a – we had a wonderful duo. After one great set, Billy tripped leaving the stage and fell down and cracked his wrist and was unable to finish the night. And I had to go back and finish it up by myself, which was very strange, because I really wanted to go with him to the hospital. But, I had to stay and finish the gig. And I got a standing ovation when it was over. And when I went to check on Bill in his hotel room after – the next morning when I was getting him back down to Calgary where he did play with The Co-Dependents that night with a cast on his wrist, back in the bullet-proof days. He said to me, “Gee sorry about that Stew. I was pretty sure we were on our way to standing O.” And I said, “Well, I’m afraid to give you the bad news, but we did get one, but you weren’t there.” It was a career highlight. The music we made for 40 minutes that night was right up there with the best I ever made with anybody and I mean I remember a comment that someone in the audience made that night. It was aware of his history and his background. Said “Here we are at Wood Croft Hall and he’s taking this gig just as seriously as if he was on The Ed Sullivan Show.” I think I may have been paraphrasing that slightly but the message is still clear.
Song: I’m Better On The Days I’m With The Horses
Allison: That is Stewart MacDougall and Billy doing the background vocals. He always knew exactly what to do and I found out a couple things. Number one, Stewart had never heard the song, so Stewart, buddy, thank you. That was for you. Number two, it could possible be the last studio work that Billy Cowsill did. And keep in mind that he did that with – as he called himself – Billy One Lung. He really only had one lung because after one of the surgeries they had to deflat the lung, and when they re-inflated it, it didn’t really take. And so that, you know, it’s just mind blowing. It’s from a project called Rivers To Rails that one of Billy’s closest friends, Ralph Boyd Johnson, is actually working on. Billy actually produced Ralph’s album and I have to thank Ralph for giving me that. I’ll keep you posted. It’s not out yet. It’s not absolutely complete, but definitely – as I said, I’ll keep you posted on that. Alright it’s time for a break, but stick around. We’ll be right back.
Allison: Good morning, welcome back. I’m Allison Brock. You’re listening to Wide Cut Country. This is my tribute to Billy Cowsill, if you’ve just tuned in. Now one of the people that Billy worked with was Larry Wanagas. Larry Wanagas for those of us in Alberta know him quite well. He from Edmonton originally. He started out as a talent buyer at the University of Alberta. He’s the founder of Homestead Recorders and Bumstead Production. He managed k d lang for many years as well as Susan Glucart, Big Sugar, Colin James, a million bands including – he’s the guy that basically signed and released The Blue Shadows.
Larry: This chapter in Bill’s life came at a time when an old friend of mine, Jeffrey Hatcher, showed up in Vancouver. And I had worked with Jeffrey years ago when I was booking gigs and the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He came through with a band called The Fuse from Winnipeg, him and two of his brothers, they all sang like angels. And years later, many years later Jeffrey showed up after spending some time in New York. He showed up in Vancouver and we decided let’s introduce him to Billy and see what these two guys can do together and that became The Blue Shadows.
Allison: When you first saw Billy, what did it do for you?
Larry: Well I think the thing about Billy was I was attracted to him like a moth to a light. I could just never get enough of listening to this guy sing. At the time I first came across Billy, he was based in Vancouver. I was living in Edmonton. If he came and played an Edmonton club for three nights, I’d go every night. Might even pack my bags and go down and catch a night or two in Calgary if he went….. He was just – I just couldn’t believe the voice this guy had. After becoming a fan, we then became friends and later became business associates. But, I just loved his voice and the repertoire as well. I mean back then – sounds kind of funny to say it now, we’re sad perhaps – but back then he would only – he would say from the stage, “We only sing songs by dead guys.” It wasn’t like they had a ton of original material at the time but the songs he would pick – Del Shannon and Roy Orbison and The Beatles and Hank Williams – I mean the material, he made it his own. And for the most part, back then, they were covers. But it was the voice, it just unbelievable. I was just attracted to the guy’s voice.
Song: The Fool Is The Last To Know
Dave: So Billy was in need of a guitar player, so Larry phoned up Jeffrey and said, “Listen, we have this artist Billy Cowsill who needs a guitar player and I know you just arrived in town and you’re looking for some work. Would you be interested in playing with him?” And Jeffrey started saying, “Well you know I’ve heard a little bit about Billy, kind of scares me a little bit because I don’t know if he’s the type of guy who’d hit it off but whatever. I’ll go out and gig with him. Give me his phone number and we’ll see what happens.” So he phones up Billy and I guess they went out and played. Darby Dawes I think was the first gig. Then a couple days later Jeffrey comes in and so he says to Larry and I, “You know Billy is asking me if I’d be interested in writing with him and I’d be interested in writing with him. Looks like I’m going to be playing with him again this weekend at the Fairview Pub, but again I got to tell you we’re kind of different, Billy and I. We’re like ‘Well that’s pretty obvious.’ So anyways, this is like a Tuesday or Wednesday so Jeffrey goes and plays Thursday night at the Fairview Pub with Billy and Elmar. And I don’t even know if they had a drummer in those days. I think maybe Jay was playing with them. Cut to the quick, Jeffrey comes into the office on Friday morning and – like he’s there at 9:05 and he goes, “Larry I can’t play with that Billy Cowsill anymore.” And Larry goes, “Why what happen, Jeffrey?” “Well we finished the gig last night and there was a guy heckling us most of the night and at the end of the night we’re standing up on the stage packing up our gear. This guy comes up to the front of the stage and starts giving us all a hard time. Billy sort of told the guy ‘Hey give it a rest. We’re just trying to make a living here.’ I guess the guy wouldn’t give it a rest and he jumped up on the stage and took a swing at Billy and Billy ducked and came up swinging with his guitar. Split the guy – his forehead wide open, busted the guitar, the guy went down in a hump on the dance floor and they threw him out of the club.” Larry goes, “Listen Jeffrey you could play with Billy for a hundred years and you’d never see that happen again in your life. This is isolated incident and believe me, don’t worry, it will never happen again. I can guarantee that.” Friday night, end of the gig, guy walks up to the front of the stage says, “Hey, you. Understand you plunked my buddy with your guitar last night.” And the guys in the band are thinking, “Oh no. This guy has come to avenge his buddy getting clocked last night,” and they’re all sort of standing there. Meanwhile Billy is just merrily going about packing his guitars up and this guy is enraged. He’s come and just stewed in the back of the bar all night ready to take Billy on. And finishes the set and comes up and starts in on Billy and Billy just turns and looks at the guy and goes, “I hear you’re a good dancer.” And that’s all it took for the guy’s whole demeanor to just die down for a split second. Soon as he gave up his overt actions, Billy clocked him with his guitar. Busted up another guitar. Layed another guy out on the dance floor. Two nights, two guitars, two guys on the dance floor. So that was the start of The Blue Shadows.
Allison: Oh, you know I could listen to that story over and over and over. That was Dave Chesney who co-managed The Blue Shadows. Listen I say let’s just keep on rockin’ here and jump to another tune. This is from the second Blue Shadows album, Lucky One, and it’s called “Don’t Expect A Reply”.
Song: Don’t Expect A Reply
Allison: The Blue Shadows and “Don’t Expect A Reply” You know what I just thought of and every girl who has ever seen Billy is going to understand this. He had this way when he was playing guitar of shaking his ass. And I mean, hey, Billy and I we were really good friends, but we were like brother and sister. But, I got to tell you, man when he started ass shaking he was hot !!! It’s true. Oh, and every girl listening is nodding her head I can guarantee it. Well of course Jeffrey Hatcher was Billy’s partner in The Blue Shadows and Billy loved singing with Jeffrey because of their harmonizing. I mean, it’s legendary and I was living in Vancouver when The Blue Shadows first got together. And it just so happen that they had a weekly gig at this pub called Darby Dawes. And as it turned out that baseball team I played on, which included Dave Chesney and John Mackey from The Vancouver Sun who we’re going to hear from later, our whole team would head down to Darby Dawes after a game and we would either, of course, be drowning our sorrows or celebrating our victory. And they would do a Beatles set. And I can guarantee you, I would close my eyes and I heard The Beatles. It was just astounding. But obviously I wanted to hear - to talk to Jeffrey. Let’s hear from Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: Life with Billy is a broad topic. It’s a big topic. Billy was a big character and we did a lot of things together for a good solid, very hard working four years. So, it’s hard to sum up the whole experience in a few words. It was pretty intense for all of us and it tends to be that way whether you have a colorful character like Billy or not because the work is so intense, so fast moving. You’re playing or you’re rehearsing or you’re writing or recording or driving or flying or whatever you do. So that kind of intensity you get on the road, we certainly had that with Billy. Plus we had his extra colorful, extra personality. And I think he wouldn’t mind me saying, you know, as wild and crazy as Bill could be, especially him. He wouldn’t mind me saying that either. I think he wouldn’t mind me saying that we drove each other a bit nuts sometimes, which is part of being on the road. But …
Allison: Billy has a quote. He call it ‘three vegetarians and a junkie.’
Jeffrey: Well, yes, he nails it. He may have exaggerated a tiny bit, but actually not by much. He certainly had a self-destructive streak that I didn’t like to see, it wasn’t great to see. And you know what’s not great to see about that with somebody is that it comes a really low sense of self worth, which usually has it’s roots way, way, way back, you know. And it hurts to see that because – it hurt us to see that, it hurt me to see that because I could see that he was a very worthy guy.
Allison: Making music with Billy.
Jeffrey: Well, making music with Billy was very easy. And right from the first day that I auditioned for the band, Vancouver listeners or people from ???? will know The Fairview Pub on Broadway in Vancouver. I auditioned for the band there. And right from the first note I felt like this is so easy. This was much more fun, workmanlike in a fun way, and really satisfying. We were coming to the center from two opposite sides of a lot of things. Really did help the creativity, it’s true and excitement and energy. The sheer intensity of that of working under different circumstances sometimes, took a predictable toll.
Song: The Embers
Billy: It came through the …. 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?
Tom: As a perfectionist, do you re-record some of those things?
Tom: You’re happy because they are like ...
Tom: they are like an Everly Brothers song and you can’t re-record. You can’t get back again.
Billy: No we sang on serial microphone together, when we sang together in the studio.
Allison: That was Billy, of course, talking about working with Jeffrey Hatcher and it’s from an interview that Tom Coxworth did and is going to be re-airing tomorrow during his program Folk Routes between 4-6. And as I mentioned earlier, do yourself a favor and definitely try and catch it. Ross Watson was the drummer in The Co-Dependents and I’ve know Ross, as well, for many, many years and I wanted to check in with Ross to see what it was like to work with Billy.
Ross: Our good friend Kelly Jay was on the news the other night saying that Billy had in idealic fanaticism about nailing it which was an interesting way to put it. And he sort of did, about playing it perfectly, which in some ways he did, but it wasn’t a perfectionism in the sense that never meeting the bar. It was more just getting the right ethic. If you had the right approach, then within that approach, he gave you tons of latitude. As long as you were playing it in the right style, and weren’t throwing in things that you know he would hate, which, you know, there was a lot of. And the key was just not to do that. The music we play, and the music he played, with the exception of The Cowsill’s psychedelic music, but most of the stuff that he loved – you know Hank meets The Beatles meets Keith Richards was all very straight. It’s very straight music. It’s not syncopated. It doesn’t have a lot of fancy stuff going on in it. It’s pretty simple music. Like any track on The Co-Dependents record anybody can play each of those songs in about five minutes. They’re all really simple songs but it’s how you play them. And a lot of musicians approximate things and they throw in stuff that isn’t really there. But he does teach you things. Like he taught us to play a Chuck Barry the way it was really played and that’s kind of a fun musician club. Those who can play Chuck Barry properly and those who can’t. And it always feels good to be in the club. And that’s just sort of a swing thing. Certain musician either know how to get it the certain swing and others just don’t. And it was just a fun club to be in. The Billy Club of ‘knowing the book’ as he used to put it.
Song: Only You
Allison: That was Billy Cowsill Live From The Crystal Ballroom, Calgary, Alberta, July 1985. I hope I didn’t offend anybody, but I figured if you’re a Billy fan, I didn’t. I didn’t offend you. But that is where I met Billy Cowsill. I introduced this show and playing with him on guitar at the time was Collin Munn who became, of course, Collin James. And it wasn’t even Billy who said the nasty word. It was Elmar. It’s all Elmar’s fault. I’m Allison Brock. This is my tribute to Billy Cowsill. Stick around, we’re going to be right back.
Allison: Good morning. I’m Allison Brock. You’re listening to Wide Cut Country. This is my tribute to Billy Cowsill. John Mackey has been the entertainment writer at The Vancouver Sun for over 20 years and has had a huge influence on the roots scene, musical scene period there. The poor guy was as sick as a dog with pneumonia, but when I called him up, there was no way he wouldn’t do it. Let’s hear from John Mackey.
John: His influence on things – I think every single alternate country and rockabilly person in Vancouver, when they saw Cowsill – I mean – he was the real deal, right? I mean guys like that don’t come on trees. He was a one of a kind. He was kind like a Dave Edmonds or Everly Brothers kind of character. You know, very influential, very - you know like giving his time to young bands and stuff like that. But I think what I’ll remember most personally is that he had this really unique take on music. I mean I – he was a weird guy because he could actually take a song that you knew note for note, that you’d heard a million times, and then actually do it and do a spot on cover – so it was like exactly the same – but it would be different because it would be his song. It was a really bizarre thing that he had. Very few people have that. I think Dave Edmonds has that. George Jones can do that as well. And Cowsill is every bit as good as them. People I don’t think have any idea, you had to see him live to really get him because he – you had to see him sing a ballad where – like “Evergreen” or “Lonesome Town” some like obscure kind of pop song – and he just brought unbelievable emotions to it. He had this incredible pitch, incredible tone. It was like he came from outer space or something. He was like perfect all the time.
Allison: That is a wonderful version of “Evergreen” from a live bootleg recording that I can’t talk about. We’re going to go again to Neil MacGonigill who is going to talk to us about how the recordings of The Co-Dependents came about.
Neil: He started playing at the Mecca. And the Mecca was out of the way, in the woods kind of thing and that’s was good for Bill because he was – he was just timid at that point in time. So he enjoyed going out there on Sunday afternoons and doing that little gig. And Tim and Billy would do it and then Steve started coming out and hanging and then Ross came out and started playing the snare drum behind them. And then we had a bright idea to – thought we’d move the band from that little corner where they were all trying to cram over against the wall by the windows. And it was a memorable time. The Mecca was just perfect, the combination of The Mecca and Billy and The Co-Dependents and Tom Phillips and the band playing there. That was a very magical couple of years through The Co-Dependents recording. The Co-Dependents recording – the seed that grew that recording came from Karma. It was just the tri that night but it was Steve and Tim and Billy playing. I think Ross might have been there, but I don’t think he was playing. They were just hitting their stride. It was so great and we just talking – we had always talked about recording Billy, but that night, that performance was so great that it just became apparent that we needed to record this. It’s very special, very special. So that’s really – the seed was sprung there but The Mecca was the place to do it. The Mecca and Billy will forever be synonymous. There as always speculation around who burned down The Mecca. How The Mecca burned down? Well I’ll tell you how The Mecca burned down, The Co-Dependents burned The Mecca down and Bill’s performances. How could it not burn down? It was the greatest. There was a comment made one night during the recording of The Co-Dependents at The Mecca that – somebody said that the Trans-Canada Highway runs for 4500 miles and tonight the best place on it is The Mecca Café. And it was true. Every Friday night when Billy and those guys played there it was best place on the Trans-Canada Highway.
Allison: The Co-Dependents and “Anna.” Billy was a big, big fan of Arthur Alexanders stuff. Well I don’t even know now I really had the balls to do it, but I got in touch with Susan Cowsill’s publicist to see if Susan wanted to take part, because I knew how much Billy loved Susan. Although she had said no, obviously given the week she was having, to all interviews, she made the exception, not only because of her love for Billy, but specifically because of her appreciation to this community who had taken care of her big brother.
Susan: It’s so funny because, as a younger sister and a fellow musician – fledgling as it is – you know whenever he would talk to me about my music, I mean he would give me like kudos where they were given and he’d tell me, “Well I didn’t like that so much and you could do that over here.” He was brutally honest about that kind of stuff.
Allison: Yeah with everybody.
Susan: Yeah, we called him The Professor or Bill the Pill because he was – you know nothing was funny unless it was his joke of course. But, he was always instructional. I mean, almost to the point of – it’s like I was confused as to who our Dad was. However he was always very, very sweet and in fact, when I was maybe five years old – six maybe five – and we were in Rhode Island and I had pretty much had it with all the women, girls coming around and like my brothers taking them out on dates. When the chicks started coming around, I started getting my back up cuz I was the only girl. And I got so upset at one point that Bill came over and sat down. He was going out on anther date. And he said, “Look, how about I take you out on a date sometime?” and I was like, “Yeah, now you’re talking.” And he said, “OK we’re going to set it up,” and we did. We went to a movie and we went to dinner and he got me flowers. And I got to have a date with my big brother. And then I was pretty much over it because I was like, “Is this what you guys are doing out here? This is so boring.” He was a sweet guy but he also – and he was just – he thought things should be correct, you now, musically for sure. He was – he’s why we sounded so good. And he was also trying to keep all these little kids in line and stop giggling long enough to get a take of a background vocal. He was amazing and he was always a dear, just a sweet guy.
Allison: You know it’s interesting hearing you speak of him in those years because he didn’t change. He started that way and he ended that way.
Susan: Isn’t that funny. He was a mentor, he was my brother, musically I mean. He, when he would see talent, and he saw it in all of us. In fact, I wasn’t in the group in the beginning and in the beginning my Dad was like, “Let her be in.” – like I’m talking ’66, ’65. And my brother Bill said, “She can’t sing, Dad. No, no! She can NOT sing and so she can’t do it. I’m not going to compromise the music.” And one day Billy and I were driving around in Newport. I was seven and I started singing along to some Monkees song and evidently I was harmonizing and he goes, “Hey, do that again.” I’m like, “What?” He’s like, he turned up the radio and goes, “Keep singing.” I was like OK. I was singing along and he went “Well, I’ll be damned.” And boy, next thing I knew I was in the band. He cared so much. He was just the truest, trust artist/musician. My thinking is – as we were growing up – and probably most families think this way, I don’t know. I’ll take a survey later, but we were pretty much our own parents. We took care of each other. I’m thinking, he’s thinking his body is done and he probably made a little wish on a star and wanted to – you know – he didn’t want Barry out there alone. One of us out there alone, NO! I just think he – and I think he wanted to come to the party that we were having. You know I just think he did the right big brother thing and willed himself where he needed to be. OK first remarks upon hearing. Because we were at – we did the Barry memorial which was the ashes and we had a private mass as a family and then had a public thing down at our favorite park in Rhode Island. And then we were going to have our wake because Barry asked for a party. He always said, “When I die, I want a big party.” So, of course, we had to give him a big party. We were over at a friends, Biggie’s, our long time friend, his restaurant and we were just chilling out and actually starting to feel the lightness and feel the joy and start getting into the party mode and we get this call about Billy. So now we’re all sitting around this table bawling and like “What is going on here” and I think we all cried for like 15-20 minutes. Then Bob goes, “He couldn’t stand it. He just couldn’t stand it, Barry’s getting all this attention.” Somebody else goes, “Yeah and he couldn’t stand it that he couldn’t be here, so he fixed that.”
Song: The Rain, The Park and Other Things
Allison: The Cowsills and “The Rain, The Park, and Other Things” Well, I hope that this has helped in some small way and it was absolutely one of the – the greatest thing that I have ever done or worked on. I have never laughed so hard or cried so much during this. There’s a ton of people that I have to thank. Truly I couldn’t have done this without their help. First and foremost, David Ward for being my technical producer this morning and putting up with me cuz I was a little intense this morning, shall we say. Don Marquot, the Calgary team for letting me totally disrupt their routine, all the interviewees. I’m sorry that some of you didn’t get to make it. We just didn’t have enough time. Tom Coxworth for letting me use the Billy clips. Susan Cowsill, my new soul sister, who during this most unimaginable grief still wanted to take part. All of the emails that I have received that were so inspirational. And most of all, well actually, Martin Hill, my partner in everything and withstood me barking orders, I’ll tell you what. And most of all, to Billy for letting me be a part of his most incredible life. I know that the band in heaven just got a whole bunch better and Billy is putting them through their paces, I tell you what. Take care Billy. I love ya. Happy trails.
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. There’s one thing, probably above all others, that keeps me going, are the fans. And the respect and reverence that they show me. I’m am bowled away by it. I don’t get it. I don’t understand it. I’m just a singer, man. I’m just a singer.
Tom: But rock ‘n roll has brought you here.
Tom: What’s the moral of the story. Let’s uh
Billy; The moral of the story is just to keep on rockin’. Do not stop rockin’ ever. You stop rockin’, you die. That’s the moral of my story.
Song: This Can’t Go On