“He’s a pin-up poster high school crush/He’s a full-sugar UV gloss/He’s a new dance, he zips me up/He’s changing all the boys into girls…” (“(I Know) A Girl Called Jonny,” 2009)
The nice thing about most forms of art is that they are often so intertwined with their influences, contemporaries and successors that it is easy to discover all the links backwards and forwards. Such has been the case with my music-listening for the past few months. I know I usually focus my writing here on film, but I think when something changes your being so extraordinarily, the thing in question deserves a bit of a moment in the sun. No, I’m not writing about 20,000 Days on Earth or Nick Cave again, though I’m headed in a related direction. If you read my sort of recent post about Wings of Desire, you may recall the laudatory space I carved out to mention the scene featuring a Crime & the City Solution concert. Herein lies the hero of today’s piece: the virtuosic Rowland S. Howard, whose presence I praised in that scene in Wings. A poète maudit in all senses of the phrase, his transition from the lead guitarist in what a lot of people tend to call “Nick Cave’s first band” (The Boys Next Door/The Birthday Party) to his work in the aforementioned Crime & the City Solution, then as the frontman of These Immortal Souls and later as a solo artist, provides the fuel for this brief tribute. A few paragraphs can’t suffice to explain why Howard’s music has transfixed me so, but it will have to do for now.
Photo on the back of Crime and the City Solution’s Just South of Heaven EP, 1985.
Music is vital to me in a way that even my greatest love, film, is not. The right song at the right moment – or maybe any moment at all – can unlock a bolted door in my brain, wrap a comforting embrace around my heart or eat away at an already fragile bundle of nerves. One chord can drag all the constellations in my galaxy into perfect alignment for four or five or however many minutes. It’s the feeling of something greater than myself being able to strike the depths of my soul. I wish I could recall precisely which Birthday Party song was the catalyst for my realization of Rowland S. Howard’s talent, but at some point I recognized that I was paying attention to more than Nick Cave’s vocals. All of a sudden I was aware of this astounding maelstrom of feedback and sharp little slices of melody that could only have been given life in the six strings of Rowland S. Howard’s beloved Fender Jaguar.
Photographed by Jonathan Ganley in Auckland, New Zealand, May 1983.
Henry Rollins is quoted in the documentary Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard: “He looks like that guitar sounds… this spectral man suffering from malaria. Rimbaud, pulled from Africa and given a guitar.” Howard always appeared like a figure that had stepped out of a Weimar painting; tall, spindly, displaying pronounced and sharply-defined facial features, closer to Nosferatu than to any of the guys in AC/DC (the latter certainly being Australia’s biggest musical export of the 1970s and 80s), eyes shaded by makeup.
Howard played guitar like a bard crafts odes: blisteringly, romantically, religiously. When you browse his discography – the adolescent sneer of the Young Charlatans’ “Shivers” (penned at the tender age of sixteen and later balladized by Nick Cave when he sang it in the iconic Boys Next Door version), the endless crunch of the Birthday Party’s “The Friend Catcher” and “Sonny’s Burning,” the sultry carnival-gone-mad “Some Velvet Morning” cover duet with Lydia Lunch, the yelping shockwaves of Crime & the City Solution’s “Shakin’ Chill,” late-90s standout “Breakdown (And Then…),” etc., etc. – you realize more than ever the gaping chasm between the rock songs that become popular and all the other music that has, for whatever reason, a limited audience. Consider the capital-a Artist who morphs into a progressively more accepted performer (see: Nick Cave), then consider the little-a (but no less important) artist who does not sell out or discard the musical style that he believes in. I think that’s what you get with Rowland S. Howard: an unfailing sense of This is who I am and this is what I do.
Photographed in the late 2000s.
There is a common thread tied throughout his music, a personal and identifiable stamp put on everything from the occasional lead vocal for the Birthday Party (“Ho Ho”) to the keyboard-laden anthems of These Immortal Souls (“Marry Me (Lie! Lie!),” the self-mocking “So the Story Goes”) to more reclamations of songs from various genres (Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain”; The Shangri-Las’ “He Cried” changed to “She Cried”; The Gun Club’s “Mother of Earth”; Velvet Underground/Lou Reed’s “Ocean”; Talk Talk’s “Life’s What You Make It”). One has to smile sadly and sigh a little at the differences between how Cave and Howard each ended up a quarter-century after the Birthday Party split up: Cave’s epic pseudo-documentary 20,000 Days on Earth ends with the Bad Seeds playing a packed theater at the Sydney Opera House (I doubt that Cave as a twentysomething rabble-rouser ever could have predicted that he would do that… or that he would want to), while in November 2008, Rowland S. Howard played a gig at the Famous Spiegeltent, an impermanent structure that was on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House at the time. I guess that that’s not literally just a tent on the lawn, but symbolically it might as well have been. Nick Cave is now a seen as a veteran rock star and he has sold out stadiums around the world; Rowland S. Howard, by comparison, was scheduled to be the opening act for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at a Melbourne concert the night before he passed away. It’s not quite the same. If this were a term paper, I might put forth the thesis that Cave’s career wouldn’t be a fraction of what it is had Howard not joined the Boys Next Door in ’78 and caused the band to evolve from merely another New Wave group into a unique tempest of post-punk vitality.
Photographed by Jaakko Filppula, 1987.
I am chagrined to admit that I heard of Rowland S. Howard years before I actually became a fan of his work. Five Decembers ago I read a reference to his passing either in Pitchfork or some other general news service. Howard’s name rang no bells for me and when I listened to his 1999 cover of Billy Idol’s “White Wedding,” it made so slight an impression on me that I didn’t listen to it again until a few months ago, when I was solidly on my way to becoming a real devotee of Howard’s career. Seventeen-year-old me didn’t ask Who is this man? What was his impact on the music world? It took me so long to get around to wondering. Twenty-two-year-old me is grateful that the accessibility of the Internet and the resurgence of LPs is giving me a chance to get to know this long-overlooked performer. (In recent years the American bands Divine Fits and Against Me! have covered “Shivers,” introducing it to a whole new generation.) For the holidays I bought myself the recent Rowland S. Howard vinyl compilation Six Strings That Drew Blood; I can’t wait to fill the house with thirty years’ worth of beautiful sounds. (Thank goodness I found a seller that will ship merchandise from Australia to Brooklyn.)
(A page from the magazine Uncut, currently taped up on my wall.)
When I develop an enthusiasm for any creator of great art – it could be a singer, a director, a short-story writer – I have a persistent desire to publicize my admiration for the person with everyone within earshot. I don’t know yet if my friends are tired of seeing the name of the same Australian musician repeated endlessly in my recommendations of music, but I don’t know how to stay quiet when I feel so compelled to share the joys of experiences that I hope others can have too. If one person listens to a song that I have linked to and likes it enough to return to it sometime, that’s a wonderful thing. You allow yourself to venture down a path that you might not have known existed. And that’s what all the fuss is about.