Rowland S. Howard (1959 – 2009) was a member of The Young Charlatans, Boys Next Door, The Birthday Party, Crime & the City Solution, and These Immortal Souls. He also made a frustratingly small number of solo records, and collaborated with Nikki Sudden, Lydia Lunch, and HTRK, among others. Most famous for his song “Shivers”, and although he may not be a familiar name, there’s a chance one of your musical heroes either played with him, alongside him, or just idolised him. He was a guitar hero with none of the machismo and idiotic posturing that phrase implies. He was a greatly underrated singer with an incredibly bruised and beautiful voice. He held his own alongside and somehow stole the show from Nick Cave at the peak of his smacked-out Aussie Iggy mania. He was a thin, frail androgyne with a delicate birdlike face and a broken boxer’s nose. He will be missed.
Rowland S. Howard & Ollie Olsen – Interview on ‘Music Around Us’
Young Charlatans – “Shivers”
For our feature on Rowland S. Howard’s work, Dan will be taking the reins with the writing, with Marilyn providing editing, images, and audio/video selections, and also stepping in for a moment later on to discuss Rowland and Lydia Lunch’s collaboration.
Boys Next Door / The Birthday Party
“I’ve been contemplating suicide, but it really doesn’t suit my style”
The Boys Next Door – “Shivers”
Rowland apparently wrote “Shivers”, a song that would later become his albatross, when he was sixteen (according to Nick Cave). He went on to write better songs, but only marginally. Irritating for him but fine when you consider what a great song that is and one you’d be happy to have written at any point in your life. Howard says it was a satire of over-dramatic love-songs, but it’s one that could only have been written by the tortured romantic he was (if the accounts of those who knew him and the documentary are anything to go by).
So the story goes, Nick Cave’s first words to Rowland were the question “So are you a punk or a poof?”, an early demonstration of his way with words that would lead to widespread critical acclaim later in life. This was the unlikely beginning of a beautiful friendship and a highly influential collaboration. Their first recorded work together is on the second side of the Boys Next Door album Door, Door (1979). The first side is quite tame and uninteresting compared to what they later went on to do, but out of context I’m sure it’d be a good listen.To be fair, the second side with Rowland playing on was recorded quite a while after the first (six months, which is an eternity for a developing young band), but the leap in quality really is astonishing. Cave hates the record now which is a bit strong: it’s got “Shivers” on it so can’t be all bad, there’s nothing really terrible on it and it’s an interesting document of some artists developing.
The Birthday Party’s self-titled debut (1980) isn’t a million miles away from the Boys Next Door record but is definitely a step in the right direction. It’s out of print, apparently, but you can get it along with the Hee Haw EP (1979) on the Hee Haw disc (for the collectors). There’re a few Rowland sung tracks from this time period, including “The Red Clock” (which I’ve only just realised is him, I thought it was Cave til I looked it up). There’re very few songs I’ve heard that Rowland both wrote and sung I’d call inessential but they’re all from around this time. If you’re only going to listen to one track, make it “The Friend Catcher”: Nick Cave’s vocals here anticipate Jamie Stewart’s on the more restrained Xiu Xiu songs, he gives a great performance. It’s also bookended by some incredibly beautiful and noisy Rowland guitar feedback-shaping, turning noise into melody and melody into noise. It sounds futuristic now, I can only imagine how it did then: one of his great performances.
Prayers On Fire (1981) was despised by the band at first, who were worried they’d made a slick record. Time has proved them wrong, and while it’s undoubtedly less raw than their live sound it’s leaps and bounds from everything they’d done up to this point and definitely not over-polished (unlike, say, later Bad Seeds records The Lyre of Orpheus / Abattoir Blues or Nocturama). The band are, well, on fire: Cave’s unhinged rants set against Tracey Pew’s sleazy, speaker thumping bass; Phill Calvert’s frankly insane jazz-punk drumming; Mick Harvey’s all-around skill both on rhythm guitar and most of the keyboards on the album; and of course, Rowland (who also takes the mic on “Ho-Ho”). Henry Rollins said it best when he described it as being “surf guitar in hell” although there’s something free jazz-esque about his playing here too. It stumbles around, sounding as addled as the band (Mick Harvey aside) no doubt were, especially on “King Ink” when he plays the descending melody line post-chorus along with Cave’s vocals and Pew’s bass.
Junkyard (1982) is yet another improvement. Though just as I’m not buying that Rowland was just satirising over the top love songs, I’m not convinced “Release The Bats” is just a “satire” of goth. Not from a band with a bassist who wore a see-through fishnet top and leather trousers, with that androgynous alien lead guitarist. Not to mention Nick Cave charging around with an atom bomb explosion of backcombed, dyed black hair, dressed in velvet suits. If The Birthday Party weren’t a goth band no one was. End of story. They were also the best.
This is made all the more apparent by the opening seconds of “She’s Hit”, that bleak empty plain atmosphere created by splashy cymbals, rumbling bass and of course the twin guitars of Rowland S. Howard and Mick Harvey. Not a single note is wasted here or across the rest of the album. The free-jazz influence is most apparent here on the songs where Mick Harvey drums (“Dead Joe” and “Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)”) and contributes atonal sax skronk (“Big-Jesus-Trash-Can”). Rowland’s lifelong friend and musical accomplice Harvey is in many respects as underlooked as him: he made more money out of music, undoubtedly, played on more prominent records, but I don’t think enough people who listen, really listen to this music realise that it’d all fall to pieces if you took his contributions away.
Nick Cave’s vocals on this album are terrifying: he does the insane gibbering madman thing perfectly but even his crooning vocals are scary on this. His screeches on the title track and “6″ Gold Blade” are almost inhuman. It’s as hard to believe the noise he made came from a human throat as it is to believe that some of Rowland’s guitar sounds didn’t. Incredible as the performance is, I do wish Rowland had sung the one he wrote (“Several Sins”): Nick even phrases it like Rowland would’ve. The influence of the Pop Group is just as obvious here as on Prayers On Fire but this is the record where, for me, The Birthday Party sound was really honed. Shame it’s their last proper album.
The two EPs, The Bad Seed EP and Mutiny (1983) are the best stuff The Birthday Party did. They’re available collected on the one CD and if you’re going to get one thing by them make it this. “Sonny’s Burning” opens with a cry of “Hands up, who wants to die?!” and that just about sets the tone for everything that follows. Mick Harvey is now drumming on everything, replacing Calvert’s busier style with a rhythmically eccentric primal stomp, leaving Howard playing most of the guitar. Which makes it easier to single him out for praise: as Mick Harvey’s tribute to his friend on 2011’s Sketches From The Book of The Dead demonstrates, he was pretty good at playing in Rowland’s style too. It’s hard to decide which my favourite is, between “Deep In The Woods” and “Wildworld”. “Deep In The Woods” is Cave’s best vocal performance and lyric up to this point, an unhinged post-punk blues murder ballad. The band’s understanding of dynamics is streets ahead of many contemporary acts, best shown in the cavernous gap of near-silence that can’t be more than a second but is still somehow louder than the sonic overload that preceded it.
The Birthday Party – “Deep In The Woods”
“Wildworld” is less sinister, more darkly romantic, Cave’s twin obsessions with the sacred and the profane popping up again with “our bodies melt together, we are one, post-crucifixion, baby.” This is a seam he’d continue mining up to the present day, still surprisingly successfully at times. The guitar moment of this song for me isn’t, surprisingly, the juddering Link Wray explosions in the chorus but the almost slinky down-strokes playing off Pew’s bass during Nick’s grunt solo at the end.
I don’t think Rowland even plays on the highlight of the Mutiny EP, “Mutiny In Heaven”: one of my all-time favourite Cave lyrics and vocal performances, from the opening howl to the multi-tracked speaking in tongues and snarling, held in place by Pew’s perverted-Motown bass riff. He’d left by this point, replaced by Blixa Bargeld from Einstürzende Neubauten. Blixa was later to be a Bad Seed, only leaving after Nocturama (which would make me leave too, although the opening and closing tracks of that album would both make my own personal two disc Bad Seeds best of). Their playing styles are quite similar but I don’t think it’s a question of influence, other than maybe being influenced by similar things, just a shared sensibility. Nick definitely had good luck with guitarists. Rowland does, however, play on the rest of the EP which contains another eerie murder ballad in the form of the pitch-black, capital-G-Gothic “Jennifer’s Veil”. It’s a shame the two couldn’t have worked together longer, the differences obviously being more artistic than strictly personal as Howard pops up on a few Bad Seeds records further down the line (contributing backing vocals and guitar to tracks on Kicking Against The Pricks, Let Love In, and Murder Ballads).
Just as Nick took Mick Harvey and a man who plays guitar in a similar way to Rowland and formed The Bad Seeds, Rowland took Mick Harvey, led by a man who sings in a similar way to Nick (Simon Bonney) to form the 1985 incarnation of Crime & the City Solution. The two bands appear side by side in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, the Bad Seeds performing “The Carny” from Your Funeral, My Trial (my favourite Bad Seeds album) — that’s enough about Nick Cave, though, as this day isn’t about him — and Crime & the City Solution with “Six Bells Chime” from 1986 release Room of Lights.
Wings of Desire (1987) – “Six Bells Chime” by Crime & the City Solution
These Immortal Souls
The first These Immortal Souls album Get Lost (Don’t Lie!) (1987) is my favourite of Rowland’s works alongside the first solo record Teenage Snuff Film, a fact I realised listening to it now as I write this. I’d forgotten about it like pretty much everyone else in the world has. It was the song “These Immortal Souls” prompted this realisation. Now I’m a sucker for bands naming songs after themselves (or vice versa): it can’t be a coincidence that the best thing Black Sabbath ever did was that self-titled track, but that’s just an aside. The song “These Immortal Souls” is a brooding 8 minute epic starting in slow jazzy “Wild Is The Wind” territory with rolling, ride cymbal heavy drums, dramatic piano and glimmers of sheet metal guitar in the background. When the tempo picks up Rowland switches from a croon to a feral desperation closer to Nick Cave’s early delivery than anything else in Howard’s solo career. This album is a great showcase for Rowland’s guitar playing, and the rest of the band (including his brother Harry on bass) are on fire too. There’s a rawer edge to his vocals absent on the rest of his work, and it comes highly recommended for fans of Swans more accessible material.
The single “Marry Me (Lie! Lie!)” is one of those mystifyingly overlooked twisted pop gems he seemed to have so little trouble writing when he felt like it. Why it wasn’t more of a success I don’t know: the cascading piano is a great opening hook, the chorus is infectious and that voice (equal parts Joey Ramone, Mary Weiss and David Bowie) gets under your skin and lingers. The problem was probably that it was too dark for the already codified “indie” types, but too funny for the goths and too intelligent and passionate for both. The accompanying video has some stunning shots of Rowland, one minute wide eyed and incredibly pretty the next minute looking like the perfect anti-heroin PSA.
These Immortal Souls – “Marry Me (Lie! Lie!)”
I’m Never Gonna Die Again (1992) is another unjustly underlooked record. The opening lines of the first song “King of Kalifornia” make a similar argument to the one I’m making now, “You must allow me my significance.” “So The Story Goes” is my favourite, an incredibly moving song, and one that with the right exposure could’ve been commercially successful, as could many of his songs; he was a great un-pop songwriter after all. It’s the self-awareness of the lyric that cuts deepest (another recurring theme), but here the unflinching self-analysis is set to an alternate universe power ballad arrangement with pretty piano arpeggios and cymbal heavy drumming.
These Immortal Souls – “King of Kalifornia”
“Hyperspace” has a hypnotic riff, mood-swing drums and a fantastically snotty vocal performance that is in places double-tracked. The ominous piano line all but buried in the mix is a nice touch. Finally, “Crowned” is the highpoint of the record, with outbreaks of fuzz guitar tantrum married to splashy reverb piano and propulsive tribal drums. Not only is this song full of the kind of religious references that are a staple in the work of his former Birthday Party sparring partner, but “through the vaporous veil of my shotgun bride” seems to be a reference to his project with Lydia Lunch, Shotgun Wedding (1991).
Lydia Lunch & Rowland S. Howard – Shotgun Wedding (1991)
Marilyn: Lydia Lunch has always scared me. A lot of my own baggage around gender had gotten in the way of me being able to appreciate strong women — personality, talents, the whole bit — until very recently. Lydia is the sort of artist I had run away from, mentally screaming, too sonically intimidated to get involved. I did go through a period a few years ago of replaying “Atomic Bongos” just because it is so damn catchy, but other than that, I was just brimming with a mixture of fright and confusion over why her bored murmur or scary caterwauling was considered artistically relevant. I stayed far away, I rolled my eyes and scrolled right past if one of her photos appeared wherever I was browsing around online.
Then, Dan had gotten me into Rowland S. Howard, thanks to the inclusion of “Undone” from Teenage Snuff Film (which you’ll find out about in part 2) as the final track on a playlist for me – and who could not be smitten by that? Before long, I just had to listen to everything Rowland had to do with, and revisited the Birthday Party with a more acute knowledge of the role of his guitar-playing…before long, I realized I would have to come back to revisit Lydia, thanks to this collaborative album from 1991. I was partially upset about the idea of Rowland’s music running out eventually, trying to listen to things as slowly, piece by piece, so I put it aside for that reason as well. I made some exciting discoveries in the process, namely that he figured in haunting keys and guitar parts for HTRK’s Marry Me Tonight (2009), also covered in part 2, an album that I have listened to repeatedly without a clue of his involvement.
So, Shotgun Wedding, apparently “Lydia’s hymn to living in New Orleans”, does nothing to make me any less scared of Lydia, but I am for once able to rest within the fear somehow. I am safe because there is at least something familiar here (Rowland’s ever-majestic guitar); safe, even with titles like “Burning Skulls”, “Solar Hex”, and “Endless Fall”.
Lydia Lunch & Rowland S. Howard – “Burning Skulls”
Nearly 10 years earlier, Lydia and Rowland had collaborated on an unsettlingly weird, still enjoyable cover of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra’s “Some Velvet Morning”.
Lydia Lunch & Rowland S. Howard – “Some Velvet Morning”
Teenage Snuff Film (1999)
“You’re bad for me like cigarettes, but I haven’t sucked enough of you yet”
It may or may not be hyperbole to say that after I heard those opening words to “Dead Radio”, the first song on Teenage Snuff Film, there was no going back: my life isn’t over yet, it could be too early to say. It was a powerful moment though: subtle drums; a mournful violin; subterranean bass and, of course, that unmistakable guitar sound. Like Ennio Morricone soundtracking a teen drama directed by David Lynch. Or some equally trite metaphor: there’s simply nothing like it, and it’s a good job there’s no shortage of words as I recklessly waste them trying to describe the impact it had on me. I played the opening track a few times, then on to track two: Breakdown (and then…)
“Crown prince of the crying Jag, stuffs a towel in his mouth to gag”
Now, again, that’s one hell of an opening line: if more people had written about him, you can bet that “crown prince of the crying Jag” would be lazy rock-crit shorthand by now. On this track he demonstrates why this is (should have been) the case. It all sounded impossibly difficult to me on first listen but on maybe the twentieth listen the sheer economy of his playing throughout the album dawned on me and made it all the more frustrating. Then the following cover of The Shangri-Las’ “He Cried” (“She Cried”). Mick Harvey beats out Hal Blaine’s “Be My Baby” beat and the album title suddenly makes sense. There’s an adolescent drama to all of this, that feeling you get when you’re a teenager that you must be with this person or you’ll just crumble. Of course, at the same time there’s a sense of how ridiculous this all is in the mordant smirk Rowland sings in: he knows all too well how ridiculous it all is, now if only he could stop and pull himself together. Personally speaking, he’s my favourite singer. I first heard this album when I was 16, maybe the ideal time. It mattered to The Horrors, too: Faris Badwan and Josh Hayward are two obvious Rowland disciples and when I heard the “She Cried” nod in the breakdown to “Who Can Say” (from 2009’s Primary Colours) it was obvious which cover they were referring to.
|Photo by Andrew J. Cosgriff|
The next track, “I Burnt Your Clothes”, is the first appearance on the album of the guitar savagery familiar from his work in The Birthday Party. It’s sparse again, a lot of the song is carried by Brian Hooper’s sleazy and slightly overdriven bass. There’s a brief, squalling anti-solo but that’s all for now from a rare guitar hero who plays only in service of the song.“Exit Everything” follows, a nihilistic title for what is superficially the cheeriest thing on the album with it’s almost funky bassline and absurdities “Exit everything, nodding dogs and valium”. Even here though he’s threatening us with powder burns to the face.
It abruptly sinks into the abyss again with “Silver Chain”, a song that has on many occasions reduced me to tears. Part of its beauty is, again, the simplicity of it: not an organ note, a drum hit or tremolo-arm guitar twitch is wasted. Co-written with his ex-girlfriend / These Immortal Souls bandmate Genevieve McGuinn this is a characteristically desperate song of lost love and self destruction. While all the rage of The Birthday Party’s “Deep In The Woods” is present here, it is turned inward where Cave lashed out at the world, and an earlier live version of this song from 1995 replaces the words “bottle” and “alcohol” with “needle” and “heroin”. Mournful violin leads us into a crescendo of double-tracked vocals and the band racing into oblivion, eventually all dropping out but for that sneer, drunk on its own pain and amused by it at the same time, catching on the words “I forgot my name on the day that you came”
The following cover of “White Wedding” is what Billy Idol’s original would’ve sounded like if the menacing sex appeal he imagined he had actually existed, but it’s only a prelude to “Undone”, the greatest expression of the scorned lover fury running through this film. It also has the best guitar playing on the record, that trademark shower-of-splinters rhythm playing behind ringing powerchords; pealing, bell like sustained notes and squalls of feedback. If only you could walk into a guitar shop or practice room and hear people trying to play like this rather than strumming staidly through an earnest eunuch of a fashionably non-committal singer-songwriter’s passive-aggressive “you’d want me if I wasn’t such a nice guy” dirge or wanking themselves into oblivion at a thousand notes per second. While this is itself a “why don’t you want me” song it’s not that of an entitled man-child: it’s a song that begs the question “Yeah, actually that’s a good question, how could you resist this man?”, which quotes John Donne’s Elegy 20: To His Mistress Going To Bed in the quieter bridge section.
“License my roving hands and let them go; above, before, between, behind, below”
Then the bravado all evaporates in the final verse, the final words faltering on the edge of a slow-burn coda that does in around a minute what post-rock bands spend entire discographies trying and failing.
Rowland S. Howard – “Undone”
The next song, “Autoluminescent” is another that can choke me up if it catches me in the wrong / right mood. Simplicity is key here again, funereal organ chords draped over sparse rhythm section, almost imperceptible picked acoustic guitars and electric shivers a velvet backdrop.
“I’m bigger than Jesus Christ
I’m sharper than God in light
I am dangerous, I cut like the sharpest knife
I’m going nova, I hope I can hold her in”
Once more the moodswing, the bravado and bragadocio evaporating.
“Sleep Alone” closes the album on a high note. Of course it does, everything on the album is great: by this point the fact that I quite like Rowland S. Howard should be apparent. If you’re not into the brooding lovelorn stuff and just want to hear the man who squalled on Birthday Party songs while Nick Cave struggled to stay upright this track is still one to check out, ending as it does with an extended feedback drone-scape. The playing is a lot less restrained than elsewhere on the album, the riff staggering around in the same way as on Sonny’s Burning and exploding into squeals with alarming frequency. That could be in part because Mick Harvey’s on rhythm guitar, though. Lyrically, you can’t accuse the man of not being self-aware: “This is a journey to the edge of the night, I’ve got no companions Louis Celine’s on my side” is as good a description of the album as any, and the way he repeatedly opines “I’m a misanthropic man” goes all the way back to “Shivers” and echoes on “Wayward Man” on his second and final solo album Pop Crimes
Pop Crimes (2009)
Pop Crimes was the final solo album by Rowland S. Howard under his own name, which is a shame because it’s also only his second. By the time it came out he was dead, poised to make a comeback of sorts, getting a crumb of the recognition he deserves having been feted by The Horrors and produced and played guitar and keys on certain tracks of HTRK’s excellent Marry Me Tonight album. That album is a favourite of Marilyn Roxie, who coaxed me into writing this post, and one I heard and enjoyed recently.
Marry Me Tonight quite prominently displays the Rowland influence and a post-punk influence in general but does it the right way: by trying to create its own language, melding diverse influences together including those outside of rock music and even outside of music (i.e. books, films, art, stuff a lot of bands don’t touch with a bargepole) rather than sounding like a post-punk band by copying a few post-punk bands. Most tracks pivot around hypnotic guitar, bass and simple programmed drum grooves with washes of synthesizer and Jonnine Standish’s almost monotone vocals on top. It’s a short album of trancelike repetition.
HTRK – “Ha”
HTRK are also present on the opening track of Pop Crimes, with “(I Know) a Girl Called Jonny” being a duet between Rowland and Jonnine Standish named in her honour. The Hal Blaine beat from “She Cried” reappears here, faint echoes of his work with Lydia Lunch through this queasily erotic song written by a dying man. This is followed by “Shut Me Down”, a song available earlier on some editions of Teenage Snuff Film but present here in a different setting. The Teenage Snuff Film version (which I personally prefer but there’s not a lot between them) is a lot sparser and while the backing sounds more damaged his vocal is a lot stronger. This is the total opposite, with the feel of a grand 60’s pop song by a doomed tragic figure like Billy Fury or Gene Pitney, or perhaps a girl-group. Production-wise it’s a lot more hi-fi while the vocal is worn but still defiant. “I’m standing in a suit as ragged as my nerves”, chimes drifting soft-focus as the song closes with a repeated “I miss you so much”.
Rowland S. Howard – “Shut Me Down”
I hate Talk Talk. I love These New Puritans, who always get compared to them, and I get the feeling I should like them but something about them just makes me see red. Mark Hollis’ quavering voice just reminds me of the choreographed “emotiveness” of a lot of today’s stadium indie groups who coincidentally like to namedrop Talk Talk. It’s not his fault and I’m sure he wouldn’t like me either. However, as songwriters they’re clearly excellent and Rowland’s version of “Life’s What You Make It” illustrates that. I refused to believe it at first but sure enough that prowling, sleazy bassline is present in the original amid the rolled up jacket sleeves and gated reverb snares. However, Howard’s braying guitar asides and sepulchral vocal lifts it into a whole other realm. Like Johnny Cash’s covers of NIN’s “Hurt” or Bonnie Prince Billy’s “I See a Darkness”, this recording takes a song recorded by an artist in their youth and alters it. Here, the title repeated throughout is the bitter statement of a man languishing on a waiting list for treatment for grave health problems of his own making through years of destroying his body, regretful but still sneering at the idea of preaching to anyone about how they should be living their life.
There’s a similar dynamic through the title track, the rhythm section laying down a solid foundation for Rowland’s musings on guitar and vocals. This track contains something resembling conventional rock guitar solos, albeit through the Rowland filter. The second cover of the album follows, a version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin’”. Van Zandt similarly lived a life blighted by addiction, homelessness and mental illness and it was only on checking the lyric booklet that I realised this wasn’t a Howard original. “Wayward Man”, as mentioned earlier, is consistent with the self deprecation present in a lot of his other songs. There’s a strange swagger to this song’s lurching rhythm and air raid siren guitar asides, Howard’s mush-mouth delivery is a double edged sword on “I do all my best thinking unconscious on the floor”: simultaneously the epitome of elegantly wasted rock cliche and an illustration of how dangerous that notion really is unless you’re rich enough to afford the good stuff.
“Ave Maria” follows, opening with a quiet guitar line strikingly similar to the Velvet Underground’s “Ocean”, a song Rowland covered. The sparse arrangement ebbs and flows around the voice and guitar and while it’s a cliche to describe music as cinematic, this really is. By the same token, I almost feel the write-up on Teenage Snuff Film could do with spoiler warnings. I could pick it apart line by line and phrase by phrase but that’d only be fun for me. I will say that “The rain fell on a street of grey, the steeple lightning rod the cross” equals the opening of “Dead Radio” for emotional impact. Words on paper or on a screen can’t do justice to his delivery of “History led her to me” sighed and spilling over with grim inevitability. I’ll also add the closing verse moves me to tears almost every time but that almost goes without saying. Most of the impact is down to the preceding instrumental section: the rhythm section moves with new-found purpose, the strings swell and Howard plays a series of sparkling arpeggios leading upwards only to descend to earth, thick with loss in that final verse. Something about this music makes me speak and write in the kind of flowery terms I’d otherwise dismiss: I feel like Sean Penn in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown crying whenever he hears his idol Django Reinhardt.
“The Golden Age of Bloodshed”, is pretty self explanatory. Ominous bass-pulse, granite solid drums and drones and colour streaks behind the guitar and vocals. Lyrically it swings between absurdist gallows humour and an unsentimental appraisal of the situation he was living in, beginning with Catholic girls with uzis and wives disappearing with ejector seats and ending with the realisation “My life plays like Grand Guignol, blood and portents everywhere.” and a Schopenhauer quoting chorus. The phrase “planet of perpetual sorrow” from the earlier “Pop Crimes” recurs here, and the final emotional knife between the shoulder blades comes in the final seconds, when the last repetition of “She’s pure and white and bright as tomorrow” gives way to the final chord, all motorbike roar and the sputter of picked harmonics. It was a bright tomorrow that never came: two months after the album’s release he was dead. It was a tragic loss, cruelly timed as he was, based on the evidence here and his work on HTRK’s record, at the peak of his powers.
The sky is empty, silent
The earth as still as stone
Nothing stands above me
Now I can sleep alone
Sleep well, baby. It all goes back around to that first album with a name almost designed to get Dennis Cooper fans’ ears (among other body parts) to stand up and pay attention. The influence hangs over all the music I write with The Bordellos, The Nero Felines, or Neurotic Wreck: that last one where I’m the frontman recorded a Rowland tribute called “Crowned”, on the I’m Laura Palmer EP. Marilyn Roxie helped me edit that one down from a huge backlog of songs. They’re great, whether it be being pretty much my only fan or getting me to write about my favourite artist in a post that will be read my favourite author. “Crowned” isn’t a subtle tribute, bearing as it does the name of a These Immortal Souls song that listening to now I realise it bears a striking similarity to (but obviously is nowhere near as good as).
The news of Rowland’s death hit me quite hard. He ruined 2010 for me, selfish prick, dying at the end of 2009. I listened to Teenage Snuff Film over and over and cried: Pop Crimes hadn’t yet come out over here and he’s an artist I respected too much to just go on a downloading spree. Stupid, really, he’s hardly going to get any money for it now. I ranted about Rowland S. Howard more than usual. It’s safe to rave about him now, he’s dead and there’s no danger of supporting a worthwhile artist and helping make their life easier. He’s frozen as an icon. Now I don’t sneer quite as much when someone cries over the death of someone they never met and now never will. I turn the “Dead Radio” on again: “I don’t get any younger, you don’t get any older”.
The last word on the subject, for now, is this documentary by Ghost Pictures where various people who loved and/or worked with Rowland eulogise him. The subject matter is tragic enough but it’s really hammered home by the endless procession of icons (Henry Rollins, Lydia Lunch, Nick Cave, etc.) looking absolutely shattered, struggling for words to describe the man’s talents. This is no hagiography, though: it looks that way at first, but in the second half his addictions are examined unsparingly. A boy who was, effectively, Rowland’s adopted son speaks movingly of his relationship with him in the early years of his life. Footage of him in the hospital at the end of his life contrasts with him onstage in The Birthday Party: a reverse chronology from a sad, broken presence to the force of nature grappling for the spotlight with Nick Cave. However it’s not all that clear cut: even at the end of his life he was a force to be reckoned with and knew how to command a stage, and even as a healthier young man his fragility was apparent and unconcealed. Even at the end, he left us wanting more.
Autoluminescent Rowland S. Howard (2011) – Official Trailer
p.s. Hey. Warning: something in the code of this restored post may result in a scrunched looking p,.s. for reasons unknown. ** Ferdinand, Well, sure, it’s awfully nice to hear some good news in this world of ours. Sure, a coffee whenever. Your honeymoon should be untrammelled in advance by outsiders. Thanks, man, and inspiration galore to you should you need any extra. ** _Black_Acrylic, Sounds like your Xmas filled the bill. My buche sparkled prettily but did not reinvent itself, but it tasted good so I won. Thank you for the Xmas link. It hit the spot. And I’ve added Angry People to my Facebook melange. ** Kyler, Hi, K! My Xmas was nothing much but quite okay. Hugs about feeling those losses. I haven’t seen the Almodovar. I want to but not passionately, it seems. Obviously I’m happy that you also loved the Malick. That recent Malicks are so hard for people to get is depressively telling to me. So many people’s addictions to their own defence mechanisms is a very sad state of affairs. But so it goes. I suspect that by the time I knew you were reading someone here and tried projecting a nudge you had long since blown his mind by phone. Happiness through the New Year to you! ** David Ehrenstein, Curious, those simultaneous shoots. Ah, such filmic excitement back then. ** Misanthrope, I was in a Books-A-Million once. In rural Georgia, I think. I don’t think they exist out west, or not in LA, I should say. I think you’ll like ‘JS’. Bit of a crossover deal, that novel. Seems to satisfy both prose junkies and people who just want to be told stories. Buche was hit. There’s still a lot left to hit. Gonna have to call in some troops. Ah, I do remember you doing that post about your friend. Huh. I should go find it in the Weaklings’ refrigerator/trash heap. Happy that he’s writing again, and I trust you guys had the requisite blast in combo. ** Sypha, Happy just post-Xmas! Well, yes, those are two very fine gifts you got there. Hope you dig ’em. ** Dominik, Hi, D! A very, very happy (belatedly) Xmas to you, and a very, very, very (in advance) happy New Year (although I hope to see you again before that clock strikes 12). Kilometers of love, me. ** Bill, I thought so too. Hence, the launch. Ha ha, watching ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ in flight would be a horrible idea. That’s insane. Are you enjoying everything where you are? Any exciting plans? Is it nuts there, assuming you’re where I think you are (?), for the obvious reasons? ** Steve Erickson, That book sounds very interesting. Well, I’ll wait for your review before I spring for it. Good premise, obviously. ** Keaton, Hey, Keaton! Your name is so naked. I like nakedness, though, duh. Have your holidays been fucking amazing so far? Hope so. Hugs to you, man. ** Okay. Today I bring back this until recently dead post from quite some years ago, made by the artists Marilyn Roxie, who’s no stranger to this blog, and Dan Wreck, and concerning the tragically prematurely late Roland S. Howard. Let it be your guide. See you tomorrow.