(This originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on January 7, 2010)
Rowland S. Howard, the guitarist and songwriter, was half of the dual creative force in Australia’s seminal underground bands Boys Next Door and the Birthday Party, with Nick Cave.
He spent a troubled lifetime making uncompromising music; but wrote what remains his most famous song, Shivers, at age 16.
Pale and thin, with angular, wraithlike features and a permanent cigarette dangling from his lip, he was, according to Cave, “Australia’s most unique, gifted and uncompromising guitarist”. Few fans of the Australian underground would disagree.
He once revealed to a persistent fan what the “S” in his name stood for (it was Stuart), and decided not to do that again.
The second of three children born to John Stanton Howard and Lorraine Stuart Howard in Melbourne on October 24, 1959, Howard swapped his saxophone for an electric guitar as a teenager. He played in bands in Melbourne’s underground scene including Young Charlatans, before joining Mick Harvey and Nick Cave in their band Boys Next Door in 1978. Shortly afterwards, the band rerecorded side two of their first album Door, Door with three songs by Howard, including Shivers.
Sung by Cave, the dramatic ballad about teen heartbreak and suicide exhibits Howard’s enduring gallows humour in its wry treatment of the overwrought protagonist. It has since been considered an Australian classic, although Howard distanced himself from the song.
In 1980, the band relocated to London, recognising, as Howard once put it, that their “type of music had a limited audience in Australia”. They changed their name to the Birthday Party and within four years released four albums and several EPs of apocalyptic post-punk. Howard’s incendiary guitar-playing influenced generations of independent bands after him.
The band’s discordant, menacing, sometimes chaotic live shows and unrelentingly hard living marked them as something dangerously subversive in an era when Men At Work and Olivia Newton-John were Australia’s biggest music exports. Yet they remain one of a handful of Australian bands who have been influential overseas.
Creative tensions and drug use led to the Birthday Party’s implosion in 1983. A year later, Howard and Mick Harvey joined Crime & the City Solution, an Australian band playing in Berlin. Things fell apart. Howard took two musicians from that band, including his younger brother, Harry Howard, and formed These Immortal Souls as a vehicle for his own songwriting. The band’s music was described in glowing terms by the Los Angeles Times as “post-punk Brechtian blues … in some dingy cabaret”. They released two albums between 1987 and 1992. Over that time, Howard also collaborated with the English singer-songwriter Nikki Sudden (who died in 2006) and the American punk poet and singer Lydia Lunch.
Howard left London to move back to Melbourne in 1995. He married Jane Usher in 1998, but they separated before his death.
Howard released only two solo albums, Teenage Snuff Film in 1999 and Pop Crimes in October last year. Both were critically acclaimed but commercially obscure, displaying his sense of humour (a dark Billy Idol cover, for example), his distinctive guitar-playing and his fascination with the dark side of shimmering girl-band pop.
Howard spent much of the last decade in obscurity, plagued by health problems. But he began to find a new audience in the few years before his death and was regularly playing live in Melbourne.
A tribute album to Howard appeared in 2007 on a French label, featuring performances of his songs by Mick Harvey, the Drones and Spencer Jones, among others. He featured in a 2009 documentary on the Melbourne punk scene of the late 1970s called We’re Livin’ on Dog Food.
For much of his life Howard suffered hepatitis C and struggled with the debilitating effects of the medication. He spoke with candour of his enduring heroin addiction, which he kicked in the last two years of his life. In late 2008 he was diagnosed with liver cancer and was awaiting a liver transplant at the time of his death. His last live appearance was at St Kilda’s Prince Bandroom in October.
He recently told The Age: ”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 is playing it. And if you’re good enough, then people will be able to tell it’s you, not just anyone.”
Rowland Howard is survived by his brother, Harry, sister, Angela and father, John, who all live in Melbourne. His mother died in 2003. A public funeral is to be held today in Melbourne.
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