MELBOURNE musician Rowland S. Howard – the guitarist in Nick Cave’s cult punk-era bands The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party – died yesterday at the Austin Hospital from liver cancer. He was 50.
Howard wrote the 1979 cult hit Shivers for The Boys Next Door. He then played with Cave in The Birthday Party until the influential band split in 1983 amid turmoil and drug abuse.
Long-time friend and Birthday Party bandmate Mick Harvey, who played drums on Howard’s newest, critically acclaimed solo album Pop Crimes, said Howard did not want to die.
”Sometimes people are ready to go because they have been sick for a long time, but Rowland really wanted to live.
”Things were going well for him outside of his health and he wanted to take advantage of that and he was very disappointed that he wasn’t well enough to do so.”
Pop Crimes has been on many Australian music critics’ best-of-2009 lists, and the swansong album is considered a favourite in the upcoming Australian Music Prize.
Howard was due to play at Festival Hall on Tuesday – the night before he died – with American band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who had requested him, but he cancelled. Earlier this month, he had to cancel his show at the Northcote Social Club after being admitted to hospital.
Howard’s last public performance was at St Kilda’s Prince Bandroom in October. He struggled through the gig, coughing and spitting up blood, but a full house of older fans and young enthusiasts had come to pay their respects and celebrate his unique canon of work.
As his health deteriorated, he was forced to cancel subsequent performances.
Howard’s slashing, reverb-drenched guitar style with The Birthday Party and Boys Next Door, and then offshoot outfits including Crime and the City Solution and These Immortal Souls, influenced by jazz, blues and avant-garde music, inspired new generations of Melbourne guitarists.
But the gaunt and stick-thin musician recently told The Age that he would prefer it if young bands were inspired by his attitude, not his sound.
”Usually when people say to me that a new band sounds just like me, I feel that they have missed the point entirely,” he said.
”It’s not just about being noisy and aggressive, it’s a whole aesthetic, trying to meld genres into something new. So doing something that is based on that 30 years later is fairly redundant.
”They [young bands] should be looking for something that is of their own.”
Howard played a pivotal role in the Australian punk movement, which was captured in Richard Lowenstein’s punk documentary released this year, We’re Living on Dog Food.
Pop Crimes was Howard’s second solo album, released this year almost a decade after the first.
It described his feelings for his predicament – and it also described the world he saw around him, which he considered decaying.
On the album’s title track he prophetically sang: ”I guess that I won’t see you tomorrow/On this, our planet of perpetual sorrows”.
Music critics consider his legacy to be one of honesty and integrity.
”I think that the most important thing about music should be that it expresses some kind of humanity and it should express the personality of the person who is playing it,” he told The Age recently.
”And if you’re good enough, then people will be able to tell it’s you, not just anyone.”
Howard’s father, brother and sister all live in Melbourne. Funeral plans are yet to be announced.