A Short Trip Into Musical Headspace

Last winter there was only one vinyl set I needed to purchase: Six Strings That Drew Blood, a four-record anthology chronicling the career of Australian singer-songwriter Rowland S. Howard. For the short time that my record player was still working, I liked listening to these records whenever I was home alone. The music made sense when echoing through empty walls. Since today is RSH’s birthday, I figured I would share with you four songs included on Six Strings That Drew Blood, music that I go out of my way to share with practically everyone I meet since it’s just that good, that powerful.

“Some Velvet Morning” (1982, duet with Lydia Lunch – cover of 1967 original by Lee Hazelwood/Nancy Sinatra) – John Robb wrote in a 2010 piece for The Quietus that “[Howard] made a singularity brilliant record with Lydia Lunch – a powerful swaggering take on Lee Hazelwood’s ‘Some Velvet Morning’ which for me is the record that I will always remember him by. His sneering vocal alone on that record makes it one of the great releases of the period and the cover shot of him and Lydia Lunch drips pure sex. The pair of them further collaborated on other songs that dripped full of erotic violence and melancholy.” More to the point, with regard to RSH as a musician, Robb noted that “in a world of too many guitar players Rowland Howard actually managed to produce a distinctive sound all of his own. Far too rare an achievement with an instrument that is regularly abused by the average and the cloth eared who adhere to tired old rules, techniques and clichés. Players like Rowland Howard arrive only occasionally – a handful in each generation – are barely recognised by the dull mainstream that rewards effort over genius and plodding hard work over brave and instinctive originality.”

“Six Bells Chime” (Wings of Desire concert scene, filmed 1986/released 1987) – I’m sure that by now my most of my friends and family are sick of me talking about how much I love Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. But if you felt the way I do, and you had had the opportunity that I had to see the film on the big screen, watching Crime & the City Solution perform “Six Bells Chime” and the rare, beautiful moments in which Rowland S. Howard’s guitar reverb echoed through a Berlin hotel ballroom, you would want to talk about it too.

“Shivers” (1999 performance on TV) – Intended as a sarcastic punk anthem when Rowland wrote it at age 16 and later recorded it with the Young Charlatans in 1978, “Shivers” turned into the ultimate morose-teen ballad when he joined the Boys Next Door and the song was reinterpreted by lead singer Nick Cave a year later. (The treacly difference probably explains why Rowland looks so thoroughly bored and/or despondent in the accompanying music video from that second link.) When RSH performed the cult-classic song twenty years later, it was a kind of cover of his own work, taking on a different tone, one that has the gravity that comes from two additional decades of life experience. I’m glad that this 1999 version is the one that’s included on Six Strings That Drew Blood, the track that opens the collection on disc 1, side A.

“The Golden Age of Bloodshed” (2009) – Some time ago I read a customer review on Amazon.com for Howard’s final album, Pop Crimes, and the writing has stuck with me: “If RSH had had his hand in 1000 different albums you would just have to have them all. Unfortunately the totality of his output is rather slim, thankfully not vanishingly slim. Anything Howard touched was imbued with black magic, regardless his co-conspirators. His mark is always undeniable and inimitable. That which he penned himself or appropriated to cover, as on this epitaph album, is exceptional. I could seriously do with a dozen RSH solo records, another dozen from These Immortal Souls and the same again from his other bands. Not the least of which would be in partnership with the also late and woefully under-appreciated Nikki Sudden. Check out Teenage Snuff Film which is equally terrific. If I had any inclination towards the melodramatic, which I do not, I would call Howard’s work devastating. Apparently our man released into the world just so much wickedly beautiful stuff as was his destiny. A catalog of undiluted splendor. Thank you Rowland and a fond farewell…” It’s beyond sad that the music video for “The Golden Age of Bloodshed,” which is the last track on Howard’s last album, is footage from his final concert, but at least we have the memories and the music. And I have my four-record set.

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