I first saw Rowland S Howard, who died from liver cancer on 30 December, play live when he tore my world apart in 1980, as part of Melbourne’s the Birthday Party.
Singer Nick Cave was charismatic, a sardonic streak of energy and charm; bassist Tracy Pew was the sort of man you never wanted to be stuck inside a jail cell with; but it was Howard – with his nerve-jangling shards of feedback left hanging in the air – that my gaze was invariably drawn to. He cut a memorable figure on stage: lean, ravaged; omnipresent cigarette dangling from the lips; guitar being wrenched and pummelled until it could howl no more. He and Cave were natural foils (indeed, Cave to this day has never quite managed to find an on-stage sparring partner to match Howard). Howard’s live presence became the yardstick by which I still measure all other guitarists.
The Birthday Party imploded in 1983. Howard went on to record some startling collaborations during the 80s – notably a cover of the Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra track Some Velvet Morning (a duet with a like-minded spirit, No Wave’s sex goddess Lydia Lunch), and as part of Nikki Sudden’s underrated bunch of romantically doomed troubadours, the Jacobites.
There were Crime and the City Solution. They were great. There were These Immortal Souls. They were great, too. Both groups were melancholic, atmosphere-drenched and always in love with the deep bass throb of Hazlewood and the Velvet Underground, not to mention the teen angst traumas of the Shangri-Las.
I recall bumping into Howard on the tube at Kilburn in the early 90s – him in a shabby anorak and leather trousers, me astonished that he was speaking to me because … damn it, he was Rowland S Howard, one of the rock guitar gods of my world.
By the noughties, Howard had become a largely overlooked figure – although a 2007 tribute album, featuring kindred spirits such as Mick Harvey (the Birthday Party, the Bad Seeds), the Drones, Loene Carmen and actor Noah Taylor, attempted to rectify this. And rightly so: Howard was still electrifying on stage – as several solo and band sightings over the years confirmed – still (as the Birthday Party song had it), Rowland Around That Stuff. As I wrote last October in my review of (only his second solo album) 2009’s darkness-loving Pop Crimes: “You should bow to no one in your appreciation of Howard’s abrasive, tangled instrumentation”.
I last saw Howard play live in January last year, at ATP Australia. The Australian icon and Go-Betweens guitarist Robert Forster had dragged me the entire stretch of the Mount Buller ski resort to see Howard play. I was so glad he did. He was still mesmerising, still cutting those lean, nasty, abrasive shapes in the chill night air, still with a cigarette dangling from his lips.