I first heard Billy Cowsill, like many of my generation, in the late sixties, on the push button radio of my 1953 Plymouth Cranbrook. The music was not coming through with the clarity of todays Bose car speakers, but it was still able to get through to our little rock – starved souls. I remember the songs, Indian Lake and The Rain, The Park and Other Things but their short shelf life left us moving on to other artists.
I do recall a bit of the controversy when the Partridge Family television show started to get us youngsters tuned into the visual side of the music. I also remember being aware of the sense of frustration that the show had been inspired by the Cowsills. It seemed like the Cowsills were dumped for the Hollywood notion that real folks could not possibly play real folks. I suppose David Cassidy was prettier than Billy and fit the bill of a pretend singer much better than Billy, who we found out later, was a real singer, actually as good as any of the greats.
So for quite some time I lost the plot …
I had no idea about what may have happened to Billy Cowsill or indeed any of the Cowsills for a couple of decades. I had no idea that Billy Cowsill had, like so many other refugee Americans, left the Promised Land for the hope of Canada. He crossed the border and headed north with his guitar in his hand and a monkey on his back. He must have been such a treat for the folks in those rough northern pubs such as the Gold Range in Yellowknife where he would have been the closest thing to finding that Elvis was still alive and hiding out in the Territories.
As he would describe later, those days were perhaps good for the audiences but for Billy, he may be lighting up the pub hounds, but he was burning up the last of his personal means and reserves. He would later say that an early death walked with him on those northern gravel roads, long past midnight, lost in mind and spirit and passing out in the icy grip of 30 below.
I was living in Vancouver in the late eighties and early nineties and still enjoying my part time dalliance with freelance writing. During a chat with Colin James, he casually suggested that if I wanted to write a “real” story about an authentic musician who had lived the good, bad and ugly of the life, then I should go talk to Billy Cowsill. He went on to tell me more about his friendship and mentoring by Billy and how he, as a young musician, was more influenced by Billy than any other musician.
I called Billy and he agreed to meet me for breakfast later that week. We both lived in Kits and both loved the iconic Sunshine Diner on Broadway. It was a longtime favorite with musicians and way ahead of the curve, with its policy of serving you a good breakfast whenever you might happen to want it.
Billy wanted it around two in the afternoon.
We both ordered the legendary eggs benedict and the conversation headed down a gravel road. I couldn’t take my eyes of that face. Novelists write about faces that tell a story, but this face was a Hemingway novel. Like the proverbial hundred miles of bad road, this face told stories of loneliness, loss and big longing. As he spoke I knew I was in the company of a classic storyteller. He was not the loud, long-winded or self-absorbed storyteller, rather more the quiet, reflective and poetic sort. I have no notes from that time but I recollect him spinning out stories of a messed up childhood, a sketchy music business and the daily perils of bedding down with the seductive twins of booze and junk.
I don’t believe that I had ever met anyone before, in my sheltered life, that was so deep into those heavy weights. He was, as well, a truth teller, so willing to talk about this stuff in the service of being the canary in the coal mine, for someone still vulnerable, out there.
A lot of that breakfast and that conversation has disappeared into the increasing fog of my own faltering, hard drive but there were two things that stood out for me … Billy had a passion for the roots of rock and roll music and he had a passion for the artistic work of the young people who were still committed to making it.
I remember one of his stories that was about the infamous Everly Brothers. His storytelling flowed from the incredible genius of their work, to the wonder of close harmony with siblings, to the crashing disharmonies of sibling rivalry. He spoke of the thrill of working with gifted kids like Colin and being able to grab hold of all that good stuff with a new generation.
He left the diner and a gob smacked me, and poured his lanky frame into an old vintage Cadillac and headed back into the heart of Kitsalano. I never got to speak with him again but I would often head down to the Fairview Pub, further down Broadway, to catch Billy just rockin’ the house. “Here’s another one from the crypt,” he would yell, and launch into another of his patented dead guys set.
I lost him for a while then found him again in Calgary. To my delight, when we moved to Calgary just over a decade ago, I discovered that Billy Cowsill had been here since ’95. He killed this town. To young roots musicians like Tim Leacock, Mark Sadler Brown and Ralph Boyd Johnson, he became a project, a good friend and a mentor. To old hands like local heavyweight producer Neil MacGonigill, he was an unfinished canvas. The old canvas needed a little cleaning up, but the masterful marks were all there and had been there for years. Someone burned the Mecca before I got to town but I would see him in the Ironwood, Mikey’s and various community halls where he broke our hearts with his song, Vagabond and got those same heart’s blood pressure back up covering Elvis on “That’s all Right Mama.” Sometimes when a singer covers someone else’s song, one feels little disappointed. When Billy covered Elvis or Roy, we felt a little disappointed for Elvis and Roy, like they didn’t quite nail it as hard as Billy … the boy could sing a lark off a fencepost.
One of my favorite Billy Cowsill stories was spun out to a group of us by Mark Sadler-Brown. He was telling a class he was teaching a Billy story about dealing with the constant musician based misery of low turnouts for gigs. Billy was notorious for doing things right. If you played a “clam” or a bad note, Billy would give you “the look.” You did not want to get the look under any circumstances, says Mark. So one day Billy calls him up with some bad news. A friend’s daughter has been in a bad accident and is in Foothills in a coma. (* the girl recovered) Billy told Mark to grab his guitar and they were going up there to play for her. So the two show up in the girl’s room, no one else around, and they start to sing to her. Mark figures it is going quite well and pleased that they could do something positive for her and their friend when all of a sudden he gets “the look” from Billy. He says nothing at the time, but later, as they were leaving the hospital, he checks in with Bill. “Hey man, what was with the look? We were playing to one person and she was in a coma … ?”
Billy wheeled around, looked him in the eye and said, “five hundred in a hall or one in a coma, we leave it all in the room …”
And that was that …
Calgary still mourns Billy. CKUA radio still has him in heavy rotation, the Ironwood still honors him and for some, a visit to his last residence in town is an important pilgrimage. How lucky was I to have shared a breakfast with this guy. It may have been just another of those serendipitous moments with a musician but that breakfast still lingers.
I tried to grab that moment in an early song I wrote about the phenomenon of watching musicians playing out their last days … it’s called
Dyin’ on Stage.
He was the pesticide neighbour in organic Kits
His old caddy cruised forth like a dame at the Ritz
But having breakfast with Billy long past high noon
Was like living for a moment, in a Hank Williams tune
Both his body and his songs were hurtin’
As the notes rocked out joy and pure rage
He’s knockin em dead, but the light’s turnin’ red
Cause tonight he just dyin … dyin’ on stage.