(This is something originally posted on Swampland on what appears to be just a short time after Rowland’s passing).
with contributions from Simon Bonney, Kristian Brenchley, Robert Brokenmouth, Julie Finley, Cypress Grove, Gabriel Hart, Janne Perttula, Phil Shoenfelt, and Mark Steiner
photos by Carbie Warbie and Miles Standish Button photo by Ryan SkeletonBoy
by Simon Bonney
Since Rowland’s death in December I’ve wanted to put together some memories of Rowland to share with those who loved him and who were influenced by his work.
I have two favorite memories of Rowland, both from the late 70s.
In 1978 I was sixteen, living in a condemned apartment in North Sydney where bands would rehearse. It was beyond filthy, beyond decrepit – in the kitchen (which didn’t work) there was an electric frying pan in which strange green, purple and blue mold grew. Sydney punks at the time were very much of the English school – safety pins and Sid Vicious hair – I remember wearing a ripped up long john top with a picture of a Vogue model safety-pinned on my back – what did it mean, I have no idea? Into this dank scene two stylish gents with exotic outfits (one half of The Young Charlatans) one day wandered – silhouetted against the sun they entered the apartment like a visitation from another world. One was the very dapper Mr. Howard – I’d never met anyone like him before – I remember thinking just how interesting he looked and how focused and organized he was – he was like a living novel and I was intrigued – I wanted to be a part of his story. Rowland stayed awhile and regaled us with intoxicating tales and then he left to return to his home planet (Melbourne). In that short while he sowed the seeds of my future music direction and my eventual move to the South.
Some time later, I saw Rowland play with the Young Charlatans at Berhardts in Melbourne – it had a huge impact on my musical journey as well as being just a great show by a great band.
My second memory is circa 79 at the Seaview Ballroom watching Rowland with the Boys Next Door – Nick announced that they were going to play ‘Shivers’ and handed the floor to Rowland – it was when Rowland and Genevieve had just gotten together – it was such a heartfelt performance and Rowland just seemed so happy.
This is how I will remember the dear man that was Rowland S. Howard.
by Kristian Brenchley
I would see Rowland S. Howard play solo to usually no more than 20 people on many occasions in the mid to late ’90’s at Melbourne venues like the ‘Greyhound’, ‘Punter’s Club’ and ‘The Tote’. Having been a kid in the ’80’s, ‘The Birthday Party’ seemed like an abstract thing my Aunt Danae or a friend’s older brother would talk about, living near St. Kilda and being around Fitzroy St., the vibe was in the air. I went to Rowland’s old high school, Swinburne Community, where I’d meet all kinds of teenage characters with names like ‘Junky,’ who would be as intelligent and outspoken as their personas were strong.
When I started seeing Rowland in ’95 or so, these things from my past all seemed to lock together, I mean even though I had hardly heard of him, his influence had been around me since I first walked down Fitzroy St., and later met these kids at Swinburne. Rowland had been away from Melbourne for awhile and his solo shows were incredible early on. Every time I’d come away wondering about all these songs; ‘Silver Chain’, ‘Shut Me Down’, ‘Panic Moon’… I’d learn all these titles from the girl who’s lived upstairs from me on Barkly St., St. Kilda, Sam Difference. She, as far as I know has got nearly all Rowland’s solo shows on tape in the ’90’s and probably after. She would also tell me that ‘Big Sleep’ was an Only Ones cover, and Dolly wrote ‘Down from Dover’ for Lee and Nancy. Rowland’s choice in covers was impeccable, and Sam made me and a couple of friends mix tapes so we could learn all of Rowland’s incredible songs.
When I first heard ‘Teenage Snuff Film,’ I was a little disappointed. I hated the fact that the other instrumentation and studio necessities had taken away from the original intimacy of some of his songs. I’ve since come around and do really love that record. The memory of being so close at those solo shows will stay with me forever, and for a guy who didn’t release a lot of material later in life, I consider this a first hand encounter with a lot of great stuff. I’ve always kept up to date with what he was doing (since living overseas), and his death in December was very saddening indeed. His Presence and Music will however, live on!
by Robert Brokenmouth
‘You get the stars here.’ Rowland S. Howard seemed pleased, a sort of schoolboyish enthusiasm. I looked up. There they were. It had never occurred to me that Melbourne would be so gritty that the stars would be blotted out, just as it wouldn’t have occurred to me that Rowland would look up to see them.
From the beginning, The Boys Next Door knew they were stars. Or at least far more important than you or me. That they also had the intelligence and talent to raise the bar themselves, then consistently exceed it (according to themselves, at any rate) marked them out as so special Australia simply couldn’t contain them.
That’s the myth. It’s arguable, but I won’t do that here. The point is that the myth owed a large chunk to Rowland. Granted we don’t worship our rock stars that much over here (give or take a Barnsey or an Angus Young), and nor should we, but the total shrug of the shoulders concerning Rowland after he arrived back in Melbourne in, I think, 1992 was pretty lousy to say the least. Some people turned up to his gigs to laugh at a junkie (perhaps there wasn’t much on TV that night), others to bask in the myth, or assume the mantle of memory (nostalgia for something we’ve never known). But more likely, Melbourne’s night life played pool, gossipped and got pissed, never even noticing him.
Why did he ever return, you ask? When Rowland had recorded Shotgun Wedding in New Orleans with Lydia Lunch, he’d realised what he was missing in London: Norleens was alive, warm and vibrant. It was the heat of life he and Genevieve McGuckin were missing. Cold, poky, grim and lifeless London, where you break the ice in the cistern and toilet bowl in the mornings. So, when they had some publishing money thrust upon them, they couldn’t wait to stuff everything in tea-chests, get out and home to St Kilda. Where life bustles and throngs.
Back in St Kilda, Rowland kicked his habit. If anyone were paying attention, I suppose they wouldn’t have really believed it; it’s always far more convenient to assume once a junkie, always a slavering junkie. Much more interesting, apparently. Once a predator, always a predator.
Rowland played in his own band, These Immortal Souls (with Genevieve), and solo with an acoustic guitar and rented Fender reverb amp, and in Spencer P. Jones’ band, and in Shotgun Wedding when Lydia abruptly decided that a tour of Australia was essential.
Seeing Spencer and Rowland casually joust up against each other was phenomenal, they had a musical bond beyond science or mathematics. At one Shotgun Wedding gig, some characters in the crowd were insulting Lydia over and over; ‘Fat! Fat!’. After realising that this was likely to continue, Rowland smiled, went up to the mike and teased them back, taking the insult to himself; ‘I think you’re barking up the wrong tree there. I really don’t think I’m that fat.’ And so on.
‘Alcohol is a wonderful thing’, I once remarked to him, apropos of someone or other’s buffoonish behaviour. ‘It is!’, he agreed, taking my sardonicism and deliberately misinterpreting it as a straight-forward statement. Which changed my mind; not because it was Rowland, but because of the manner in which my thought had been altered.
Rowland did this to me quite a bit.
By ’96, after interviewing Rowland over several years (and trying his patience to various extremes) I knew that when I had first met him ten years earlier, I hadn’t really met him. Then, Crime and the City Solution had a gig to play, and I helped a little in a radio interview with Simon Bonney and Rowland for the local community radio station. Simon seemed quite calm, Rowland self-conscious, a little jittery. Simon gently put his hand over Rowland’s to stop him tapping while we were on air. A roadie came in a couple of times; battery problems with Rowland’s guitar pedal. They looked quietly tired and fed up.
During the course of the interview (and I use the term loosely) I asked them about professionalism. Rowland in particular was disgusted; comparing (from memory) ‘professionalism’ with people like Sinatra, concluding, by way of dismissing it entirely; ‘I’d rather remain hungry’.
Crime were great that night, Bonney looking like he was being carved in half by his astonishingly tight leather jeans as he unwound a personal enchantment from the stage. Hypnotic the band was, up there in the lights as Rowland’s guitar rose and fell like a scythe, chain-smoking, his cigarette occasionally wedged in his tuning knobs. Epic Soundtracks drums were tight with Rowland’s brother Harry’s bass, which grumbled from the shadows like an irritable god. As ever, it seemed, Mick Harvey looked like something was about to go wrong and he’d have something to say about it.
But the place was only half-full (unlike the same place six weeks prior when Nick Cave was in town). Crime were just as good. Different, granted, but so what?
I won’t go into this. You either agree or you don’t care. That’s fine.
No, I will. Listen. On numerous occasions in the mid-90s at Melbourne’s The Public Bar, Rowland played his acoustic guitar to a completely indifferent crowd. No man is an island? Horseshit. Airy-fairy nonsense made up to placate the children in the nursery. In the midst of, effectively, someone else’s party, Rowland, his voice, his playing, was brilliant, stopping time itself, the stars themselves (if we only could’ve seen them) surely pausing in their firey breath to listen, awed.
Alright. So I’m maudlin tonight. Sue me. After seeing him play like that just once, I roped a good friend into bringing Rowland to my town on three separate occasions for seven gigs over the next few years. He got paid, I made sure of that. He was as comfortable as I could make him – and, no, I never needed to score smack for him because he never needed it. I figured Rowland’s heroin use had been more an emotional addiction at first – like cigarettes, like lust, like a thirst, it filled a gap, made up for something. He wasn’t proud of it; if anything, around me he was a bit embarrassed about what was at that time part of his past.
On the other hand, I remember telling him about a fight I had as a child with the school bully, how I completely lost my temper, like a switch had been thrown, and eventually the bully just upped and fled, leaving me quite confused. ‘The Kentucky Click’, Rowland smiled, referring to an old Crime song.
Well, yeah. And then Rowland told a similar story, how he was about to stomp on this boy’s head, and he suddenly realised what he was about to do… and stopped.
He also told me about his first job, an ignominious one in London, stuffing sausages. He came home followed by a motley collection of interested dogs and … ‘that was it, I realised that working was not for me.’ Clearly, he felt that work and he were things at diametrically opposing points; neither of these two stories caused him any embarrassment.
Once we went to a huge secondhand book sale and I later took him to a masseur (for a massage). As we approached the front door in the quiet suburban street, he turned to me with some amusement and remarked, ‘I feel like a ‘gentleman caller’. That tickled me no end. Here was someone who’d pursued heroin into all sorts of mucky entanglements (as people do, apparently) excepting theft and violence, all around the world, and yet he was slightly embarrassed – and amused by his embarrassment – to be feeling a little like a ‘john’ outside an ordinary home.
This self-knowledge was one part of how he could write songs like small, granular snapshots into other worlds; or like a family picnic photographed from a kilometre away. ‘I love stories’, he once told me. Rowland was an enthusiastic lover of life and many of its abstruse byways. Collecting watches (even on a small scale) revealed his fascination with style, movement, life and time – all elements wedged into his songs like jewels in a fine timepiece.
From my perspective, Australia let a major talent slip through its fingers when Rowland succumbed to liver cancer. George Best ended up with a new liver, and was fairly quickly back on the piss because, effectively, he was beloved by the English (despite crowing about how he shat his talent and truckloads of money away like a cow with diahorrea). By contrast, Rowland was never beloved by Australia – strangely, his former bandmate Nick seems to be revered across the board these days – yet Rowland’s unique approach to the guitar was such that his music and his influence will be felt by musicians all over the world for decades to come. Best had an awesome talent, but there are precious few now who you could say were influenced by him in any positive way.
The stars are still up there, even if we can’t see them all the time. Wheeling, circling, hurling out huge incandescent gouts of flame of unimaginable heat, instantly cooled by the icy vacuums of space. Rowland was always a star, but unlike many other folk we call star, Rowland deserved the title.
By Julie Finley (originally published in Popshifter)
I had recently paid my respects towards Rowland S. Howard’s latest album, Pop Crimes. . . as it was my favorite record of 2009 (and probably one of my favorite albums of the entire decade!) With reluctance I need to pay my respects in the way I wish I never had to, but. . . Rowland has unfortunately passed away.
This news has been particularly gut-wrenching for me to take, as I always perceived Rowland as a beau ideal. . . mi El Ídolo. I know there are many fans out there who are probably feeling as knifed in the heart as I do, but I’m also positive that many people out there probably cannot relate to that feeling in regards to him (I’m sure if one of their favorite musicians passed on, they might begin to understand).
At the same time, there are some people who will never comprehend the idea of feeling distraught over a passing icon. . . they would prey upon someone else’s sorrow and persecute what they saw as a weakness for fun.
In essence, when you’re an adult, you’re expected to carry on with the business at hand (but somehow its OK to gush tears for an “A-lister”. . . explain that one!) Its easier to explain idolatry when you’re younger. . . but when you get older, the world expects that you’ve gotten over shit like that. So I’ve been forced to “keep a poker face so well. . . ” on the surface.
However, that’s on the surface. Under the surface. . . Rowland’s death mortifies me like it was a death of one of my friends or family. I guess I attribute that to the fact that for more than half of my life, I’ve been a diehard fan of his. . . not a casual listener, a diehard with a vengeance! I never met him or communicated with him, nor did I ever get to see him perform live. I knew nothing of him personally, but somehow what he conveyed through his music, was unflinchingly honest, a characteristic that I find trustworthy and comforting, even if what is being said is cynical and ugly!
The truth will beat out a bullshit story any day, and I appreciate the fact that many moments of my life have been graced with his soundtrack. His approach to lyrics, along with the musical accompaniment, honestly made me feel like I did know him. He opened up and bled. . . and he bled on the page and ear! His music affected my feelings in ways that are hard to describe, but easy to feel. His style and delivery made it very easy to muster up inner emotions, and that wouldn’t have been possible without his vulnerable talents that seethed from his soul! How could I NOT fall in love with that?
I am reluctant to admit that the day I learned of his passing, I came home from work and I cried to myself in the shower. . . let the snot and tears wash down the drain, and the running water covered up my yelps and heaves. I’m not sure if that makes me weaker or stronger, but I definitely needed to, as I felt like I was going to explode! I still feel sallow. . . like I’ve been kicked in the stomach. . . this is a bitter pill to swallow! As much as this tugs at my heart-strings, I feel more empathy for his family and close friends. As a fan, I feel loss. . . but he was someone’s son, brother, lover, and best friend! They have my boundless condolences, and my infinite respect.
The night before he died, I had a dream with him in it—I don’t remember if he spoke or whatever—but I remember seeing him with a cigarette, sort of grinning through a cloud of smoke. I have heard from another diehard fan of his that he dreamt of Rowland that night, too. . . that Rowland had an acoustic guitar he played to a very select handful of fans. Maybe that was Rowland’s way of saying goodbye to his fans. . . telepathically. If so, thank you, Rowland. Thank you. . . forever!
He is now “. . . Outta the black, and into the ether. . . “
by Cypress Grove
I only met Rowland a couple of times, but on each occasion I found him to be utterly charming and delightful company. It was 1990, and The Gun Club had just released their “return” album – “Pastoral Hide And Seek”. The single from the album, ‘The Great Divide” was made ‘Single of the Week’ by Melody Maker – a now defunct British Music Paper. The trouble was there were so many guitar parts on it that it was difficult to do live. So I was roped in on extra guitar duty for the London show at The Town And Country Club.
The support band was These Immortal Souls. After the sound check we went back to the dressing room, joined by Rowland. Jeffrey had lured him there with the promise that The Gun Club dressing room contained tea-making facilities –something that was apparently not present in the dressing room of These Immortal Souls. So Rowland proceeded to brew and brew – and then brew some more. I have never seen anyone consume so much tea!
The dressing room also contained quite a lot of alcohol. Drummer Nick Sanderson (sadly, also no longer with us) only drank after the show, and everyone else was teetotaler (at that stage at least). So surrounded by booze and with only two songs to play on (The Great Divide and Breaking Hands), it seemed churlish not to have a glass or two.
The atmosphere grew increasingly convivial (for me anyway), and Rowland, who had initially only really seemed comfortable talking to Jeffrey, started to open up. With his incredibly dry sense of humour, his discourses and anecdotes made the couple of hours till show time absolutely fly by – and what a show it was.
I have admired Rowland’s work for as long as I can remember. From The Boys Next Door through to his collaborations with Nikki Sudden and with Lydia Lunch. Like Jeffrey, he invented a sound – a truly unique guitar sound that has been imitated by numerous bands of every scale. I hope that before he passed he realised just how incredibly influential he was. A gentleman in every sense of the word. A Legend.
By Gabriel Hart
Music, poetry, all this emotional vomit we call “art”…when created at it’s most undiluted blood and gut level can have the ability to transcend time and space (not to mention morals), whisking the recipient to the exact moment it was created by the artist themselves, while simultaneously striking a similar chord inside of us, whether it be born of experience, sympathy, or the vital igniting of our overactive imaginations. Rowland S. Howard has the distinction of being one of these “artists”, an alchemical master at turning a darkness into beauty, turning all shadowy presences into ones we revisit as some kind of timeless jewel mine.
When I heard the first couple lines of “Dead Radio” off his flawless “Teenage Snuff Film” 10 or so years ago (“You’re bad for me like cigarettes, but I haven’t sucked enough of you yet…”), I froze in the aisle in that long forgotten record store and didn’t really move again until the record was done. Already a fan of his past bands, this far surpassed any of them and I bought a copy that very instant.
I was in the middle of a very, very bad relationship and every line on that record seemed to put into perfect words the uphill battle I faced being with a jealous, manipulative zombie of a woman who had somehow inherited every phobia in the world while I juggled my very own vices she didn’t understand. She had recently also morphed into a monsterous pill-fiend and was ALSO on tetracycline (“…and your tetracycline overdose…”). I lived a daily vengeance vicariously through that record until I had the guts to finally kick her out of my life, leaving her to collect dust in that scary live-in hotel on the corner of Vine and Lexington. Even after that chapter of my life that record continued to haunt me, having the ability to somehow accompany my mood which ever way it swung. It remains to this day my favorite record of all time. So much a part of me in fact that whenever I find myself in my daily existential panics, the last frantic, swirling dizzy minute of the song “Undone” is broadcasted in my own head in a very involuntary audio hallucination!
His guitar playing has since taken permanent residence under my own skin, my style at times so derivative of his it borders on embarrassment! But this is love! Not any unimaginative imitation, I say in my defense…the voice couldn’t be more distinct, somehow making the coldest deadpan tone and delivery also the most emotionally splayed. A man at the end of his rope finally confessing all the forbidden, gnostic virtues of life and love because he no longer cares of the consequences.
Perhaps we all take this for granted, believing some people will always just stay there, dangling? Mold broken, and a well-deserved rest granted!
by Janne Perttula
Rowland S. Howard is the only person whom I’ve never met, whose death made me cry.
To me he was many things. He still is. He is the musician who has influenced me most; my creativity, but also as a person. I don’t think his stamp on me will ever wear off.
Probably the most important and encouraging influence Rowland S.Howard has had on me was his proving that you can make art without making compromises. He proved that you don’t have to listen to anyone else other than yourself. You don’t have to play guitar the way it’s been played before, you don’t necessarily have to know how to play an instrument in order to play it, you don’t have to try to be commercially successful to be artistically successful etc. The greatest artists create a world of their own, where only their own rules matter. Howard was one of them.
I think I was 19 when I first found out about him. I’ve never seen anything as cool as him walking circles on stage in Der Himmel Über Berlin, with cigarette dangling from his mouth and picking the beautiful, howling chords of Six Bells Chime. Or maybe it was some Birthday Party promo picture where I first saw him. Anyway, he looked rock ‘n’ roll, but at the same time he looked like a poet, an outlaw and a space alien. I’m not ashamed to admit that when I was younger I spent some time trying to mimic him. Some people just have that kind of an effect on other people.
In a way Howard seemed like a character in a novel or a comic book. I studied his personal history almost as much as I devoured his music. He was a talented musician, but one can’t really say that his musical “career” was a continuing success story. There were periods of productivity as well as periods of almost complete disappearance. In a way all these ups and downs has made him so much more interesting to me. I rarely can listen to his music without thinking about the man and in my thoughts he was a man living his art.
One of my biggest dreams had been to hear that Rowland S. Howard had heard my music. That never happened. I guess I feel something similar to the trauma a man experiences when his father dies young, and the son hasn’t had a chance to prove his worth to his creator. I’m heartbroken because he’s dead. One can always still listen to his records. First few seconds of Dead Radio, and you remember that he is immortal.
By Phil Shoenfelt
2009 was a death ray for the True & Wayward Geniuses Of Rock & Roll. It came in like a lion with the death of Ron Asheton, and went out like a jackal with the wasted form of Rowland S. Howard in its slavering jaws. In between, it took several other seminal figures from the nebulous kingdom of independently-minded rock music: English folkie John Martyn in January; Lux Interior of The Cramps in February; our own Bruno Adams of Fatal Shore in April; psychedelic garage-guru Sky Saxon in June; Willy Deville in August; my friend and ex-manager Nat Finkelstein in October (okay, he wasn’t a musician, but he was a genius photographer and took most of those iconic b & w photos of The Velvet Underground, so he qualifies). I’m sure there are many more indie stars who fell foul of Mr. Reaper in 2009 – these are just a few of the Illustrious Greats who immediately spring to mind.
Maybe it’s because of the age I’m at now, coupled with the fact that many of these guys didn’t lead such healthy lifestyles. We’re talking balls-out rock & roll here, and the average life-expectancy for people who “live the life” is closer to the 19th century norm than it is to that of the early 21st century. In other words, if you reach 55 or 60 years of age in this particular demi-monde you can count yourself quite lucky. Having said this, 2009 does seem to have been a particularly harsh year for the people who make the music we all know and love.
I wouldn’t claim to have been a close friend of Rowland’s. In fact, I can count the number of times I met him in person on the fingers of two hands. However, his guitar playing, songwriting and no compromise attitude exerted a huge influence on me, as it did on thousands of others.
I first met him on the Lower East Side of New York, sometime in the frozen winter of 1981/1982. It was in the flat of the ex-pat Melbourne theatre director Lindzee Smith (who himself shuffled off this mortal coil in 2007). The Birthday Party were hanging out with Lindzee and his cohorts, dressed in their trademark black suits and extremely pointy boots. In truth, most of the people in attendance (including myself and my American wife) were there to buy drugs from one of Lindzee’s street-dealing Puerto Rican friends. I hadn’t heard of The Birthday Party before (only the Pinter play of the same name), but Lindzee told me they were a fantastic, innovative band. As I had tremendous respect for his opinion on all things literary and dramatic, I went along the next night to see their gig.
Dramatic they certainly were. I’d never seen anything like them before, and I was completely blown away. With their mutant swamp-Blues firing on all cylinders, they assaulted the sensibilities of the audience like a five-headed rapist on parole. Nick was all over the stage, a whirling dervish on heat with the most unlikely hairstyle in history. Tracy, Mick and Phil kept the music together, the still eye at the centre of the sonic hurricane, Tracy looking like a redneck from Hell with his moustache, cowboy hat and leather strides. Rowland, meanwhile, jerked spasmodically in and out of the shadows, an ash-laden cigarette dangling from his lips, his bruised-looking eyes spitting danger and contempt.
But it was his guitar playing that really got to you. Visceral, almost painful, it cut through the mix and sliced directly into your brain, seemingly bypassing the ears completely. With strange, inverted melodies derived from Blues, Country and the music of film noir, his guitar work seemed to be in a perpetual battle with Nick’s grand guignol vocals. The overall effect was hallucinogenic and disturbing – more moonshine whiskey and William Faulkner than Timothy Leary and LSD.
The Birthday Party were too intense to live, and everybody knows what happened next. Nick and Mick went on to bigger things, Tracy died, and Rowland went on to join another of my favourite bands, Crime & The City Solution. Still searching for his own vehicle, he finally wound up forming These Immortal Souls, and although he wasn’t the most accomplished vocalist in the world, he managed to convey his tortured inner visions in a suitably bleak manner. And still that guitar sound continued to develop, as Rowland found ways to pitch his fucked up, distorted melodies ever deeper into the reptile brain. With his partner-in-crime Genevieve McGuckin on keyboards, he kicked up a swirling carnival nightmare of a sound, a parallel universe of seedy hotel rooms, spectral, half-glimpsed figures, and doomed blood weddings that made you shudder with fear. Commercial he certainly wasn’t.
But the songs actually were. Or they could have been if Rowland had produced them in a less abrasive way. Right from the beginning, with the cult indie-hit “Shivers”, he revealed a pop sensibility that could have taken the charts by storm – but only in a fictive music world where hype and bullshit weren’t the order of the day. And right at the end he returned to the Pop theme with the brilliant and critically-acclaimed “Pop Crimes” – a metalingustic anti-pop that will continue to resonate down the years. But Rowland was way too smart to ever hope for widespread acceptance, and continued to lay his melodic pearls at the feet of a swinish world that never really understood where he was coming from. No fucking compromise. Only the elite were tuned in, and we considered ourselves to be part of a very exclusive club indeed.
And then there were the brilliant and idiosyncratic collaborations with all kinds of underground luminaries – those with Lydia Lunch and Nikki Sudden (died 2006) spring to mind, but there were many, many more.
It had been clear for some time that Rowland wasn’t going to be with us too much longer. Bruno Adams had filled me in on the situation two or three years ago, at a time when Bruno himself was struggling bravely against the cancer that finally killed him. And my friend Mark Steiner had hung out with Rowland and Genevieve when he played in Melbourne last autumn. In his opinion, the prognosis wasn’t good, and he reported that Rowland looked incredibly frail and weak, basically one step away from the abyss. Even so, Rowland continued to play gigs almost till the end, and the growing wave of critical acclaim must have meant a lot to him after all the years spent proclaiming his musical message in the wilderness. But it would have been so much better if he’d lived long enough, and been healthy enough, to enjoy the material fruits of his success. Such is the irony and tragedy of life, and Rowland seems destined to join that select band of artistic visionaries who are only fully appreciated after their demise.
Rowland S. Howard:
born October 24th, 1959;
died December 30th 2009
Phil Shoenfelt, Prague, January 2010
By Mark Steiner
Rowland S. Howard: The Dark Prince who was Too Smart to Become King While attending college in New York’s Hudson Valley back in the late eighties, my roommate Ted and I went to Upstate Films in Rhinebeck to watch Wim Wenders’ 1987 film, “Wings of Desire” (aka “Der Himmel Über Berlin”). What I didn’t realize at the time was how such a tiny event would open the doors to so many personal life-changing experiences to come.
The 35mm film, rendered in an “Oz”-like black & white to color transitional fashion, brought me immediately back to the excitement of my brief time in Berlin in 1985. This was way before the advent of the Internet, long before the fall of the Iron Curtain. West Berlin was a cultural island for international artists and musicians, and as they snubbed the Soviet face of communism, they also resented the capitalist forces which kept their city afloat. As a fifteen year-old high school student, I was fortunate enough to spend a long weekend in Berlin with some friends, drinking green wheat beer at McDonalds in the West, while puffing rank Soviet tobacco cigarettes in the East with my classmates. Evidently, the impact of this divided city had yet to make a real impression on me.
In the existentialist masterpiece “Wings of Desire,” Wenders evokes and exposes an atmosphere of brooding humans. As everyday people suffer and contemplate the ups and downs of life and death, invisible angels observe their thoughts from a spiritual dimension within. Then came the scenes with black clad art-rockers. Yeah, I was of course already familiar with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, yet I was mesmerized by the incredibly intimate and mysterious live music performances exposed in the film. The band Crime & the City Solution caught my further attention, with singer Simon Bonney’s wavering hands and gesticulating body moves. In particular, there was a certain gaunt guitarist pacing almost nervously around the stage with a cigarette hanging off of his lip. This was my visual introduction to the underground Berlin music scene of the day, and to the Australian artists who made it breathe. I wanted to be in that audience, on that stage even. This was my introduction to Rowland S. Howard. Within the next few years, on my regular excursions to Manhattan’s East Village, I had managed to locate and purchase vinyl records (and eventually CDs) of bands like Crime & the City Solution and These Immortal Souls, who remained unknown to most of America at the time. Somehow, I managed to miss the debut U.S. tour of These Immortal Souls, of which Rowland was both frontman and songwriter, singer and guitarist. I found his sonic approach to playing guitar remarkable, coupled with his uncanny ability to throw off-key notes into a guitar riff and somehow make them sound right. And then there were the beautifully played piano scales delivered by his partner-in-crime, his feline familiar, Genevieve McGuckin. These two, accompanied by the magnificent bass-playing of Rowland’s brother Harry, and by the pounding drums of legendary Epic Soundtracks, helped provide my own music with a new direction, and a sense of inspiration. I had already been secretly gravitating toward the dynamic arrangements of Crime & the City Solution (which Rowland had left after some artistic differences with Simon Bonney), but it was These Immortal Souls who truly blew my mind. The combination of melancholia and self-destructive lyrics (with quite the witty sense of humour), and the unique crossroads of noise guitar and ballroom / barroom piano, struck something deep within my own soul.
As the years went on, the idea of ever seeing These Immortal Souls perform live remained a dream on the back-burner. I ended up picking up where I had left off just before going to college. I searched for a new band, first auditioning as a singer, but I failed to meet anyone who fit the bill. Eventually, I finally built up some courage, and so started my own band in New York City. Piker Ryan’s Folly was originally intended to have more of a Birthday Party-meets-Stooges sound, but swerved off into its own chaotic theatrical drunken parody of 19th Century New York gangland decadence. After the band’s rise and decline, I focused on Kundera, a spin-off project with my friend Eric Wolter, which became an attempt to regain lost footing. As I desperately needed a more serious and more “mature” project, Kundera turned whiskey into wine, and naturally, Crime & the City Solution became more a guiding light as much as Tindersticks. Then, almost suddenly, I met a Norwegian woman, and we got married. Three days later, September 11th happened – my life was turned upside-down, the chronic anxiety kicked in, and the music stopped. Well, almost. My (soon-to-be ex-) wife and I retreated to Oslo, my guitar in its case, my pedals in the trunk at the foot of our bed. But I did at least have my record collection, which included various bands from the New York scene like The Gunga Din and Chrome Cranks. When the marriage inevitably crumbled, I decided to stay put in Oslo contrary to the expectations of my friends and family. I had my music, and I had family and friends in Norway. And I still had my ragged copy of Rowland’s 1999 solo CD “Teenage Snuff Film,” which spoke more to me then than ever before. I just needed to relocate my creative drive, and hopefully rediscover my pride, and my desire to make music. In 2006, I heard rumours of a Rowland S. Howard tribute CD being produced by some French guys. Initially, I wondered if something had happened to Rowland. After all, how often is a tribute album recorded to hail a living artist? My friend Peter Mavrogeorgis of the NYC bands Bellmer Dolls and Alice Texas were going to be involved, as were Mick Harvey and even Nikki Sudden, along with a slew of Australian artists (who were not yet that familiar to me at the time). I wanted in too. I approached Dimi Dero in Paris, via MySpace, and at first he said that the CD was already filled up to its quota, and that they weren’t accepting any more submissions to the compilation. But he seemed friendly enough, and we stayed in touch. My old New York band, the name now simply abbreviated to “Piker Ryan,” was going to perform a European “reunion” mini-tour that September with fellow New York band Alice Texas. As the summer went on, I received an email from Dimi that the tribute was now going to be a double-CD, and that if I still wanted to submit a track, they needed it “yesterday.” The CD was scheduled to be sent to mastering on Monday, and it was already Thursday evening. Shit! I had work to do. I chose, without hesitation, to cover “Silver Chain,” (off of Teenage Snuff Film,) as the lyrics seemed to fit my then-current mind-set. I quickly recorded and overdubbed at home, alone, using a drum machine, a Guild bass guitar, my Washburn, and some heavy, wet reverb wash to give it a live “pub” feel. A few months later, on a whim, and with the aid of my new MySpace friend Michelle in Melbourne, I managed to get a copy of the song to Genevieve McGuckin in the hopes of seeking her approval. Her response was simple, yet perfect. “Not was I only flattered that someone had chosen to do a cover of my song, but I was surprised that I actually liked it!” Needless to say, I was floored.
Dimi and I already had a few MySpace friends in common. Michelle of Melbourne became one of my best friends (almost instantaneously), as did Monsieur Dero, when we finally met in person. Michelle proved to be extremely influential, kind, loving and decent, introducing me to her friend Lou Ridsdale, who eventually would sign me to her label Z-Man Records. When we finally all met in the “real” world, at a showcase gig in Paris in May, 2008, both Lou and Michelle convinced me to come to Australia to do a tour. They introduced me to so many wonderful people. A close friends of both Rowland and Genevieve, Michelle also magically arranged for me (along with my new touring band of Australian musicians) an actual support slot for RSH at The Toff in Town in Melbourne.
Having worked for several years in the film and music video industry in New York City back in the nineties, I was rarely ever star-struck. By the time I met Genevieve McGuckin at The Pelican, a local haunt in St. Kilda, I was too old, jaded and jetlagged to be speechless. But Gen unexpectedly grabbed my soul and gave it a tickle, the uniquely funny, quirky, lovely creature that she is. We met again at a private dinner party, and in walked Rowland Stuart Howard, along with his girlfriend Bianca. I’ll admit, I was nervous. Not really because I held his music with such high esteem, (which I did then and still do,) and not so much because he looked other worldly (which he was indeed). It was because I felt like I had been set up on some twisted blind date. Ha! The funny thing is, it seemed that Rowland arrived with the similar sense of embarrassment and suspicion that I had. Of course, Rowland in the flesh proved to be the coy, intellectual gentleman that I had imagined him to be. Perhaps even more so. I had a few drinks to loosen up, and we stumbled into a discussion of the history of Manhattan. We realized that both of us had a shared peculiar passion in Luc Santé’s obscure book, “Lowlife,” and that we also shared a sense of humour in the dark and twisted tales of the gangs of 19th Century New York.
Toward the end of the tour, as I packed up my gear after the set at The Toff in Town, Rowland did a last-minute line-check with his Fender Jaguar. He seemed a bit distracted. As it turned out, the amp Rowland had borrowed for his solo set lacked the amount of wet reverb which he normally drenched himself in, so I loaned him my Fender ’65 Deluxe reverb pedal. I’m still not quite sure, but by the tiny smirk on his face, I think that he actually dug the random spring reverb slap-back effect. Rowland played his songs solo, staring up at the rafters, looking oddly enough like an innocent little boy. It was a great set, even though it was a bit short. The enthusiastic audience applauded, insisting that he perform an encore. Rowland graciously declined. “But I’m tired, and I’m old…” he smiled, and put his guitar back in its case before heading home.
Knowing that both health and financial issues lurked on the domestic front, I sent Rowland and Genevieve a care-package at Christmas, which included a copy of Herbert Asbury’s novel, “The Gangs of New York.” Weeks passed, and I heard nothing. That is, until my parcel reappeared at the post office in Oslo. I then sent the same package back to Melbourne, this time via Michelle’s address. I found out later that Rowland and Genevieve never made it to the St. Kilda post-office, as they weren’t expecting anything in the mail. Apparently, they feared that my package was yet another boxed pile of bills to for them to pay!
As time passed, I knew that Rowland’s health was declining, but I did my best to respect Rowl and Gen’s privacy. I had a gut feeling that I might not ever see the two of them ever again, even though I was already planning on returning to do a follow-up tour of Australia. “Pop Crimes” arrived in Europe as a 7” single the following September, and by the time I arrived in Melbourne in late October, the full-length album was out as well. Needless to say, it was worth the decade-long wait for those of us who were already “in the know” over the years. ‘Nuff said.
By then, a year had passed since my last visit to Melbourne, and timing had made it so that Rowland and I would cross paths again St. Kilda. The morning after the arrival of my Danish bass player (and dedicated wing man) Thomas Borge, while staying with friends on Jackson Street, Rowl strolled by and stopped in briefly to say hello. I immediately noticed a remarkable difference in his complexion, an obvious deterioration, and it struck me in that moment that he was probably not going to recover this time. His handshake wasn’t as firm as it had been a year earlier. He appeared so frail, but he was still Rowland. Always the gentleman, he asked me where my tour would bring me this time. I mentioned Sydney, and also Hobart. “Tassie?!” he exclaimed. “Why are you goin’ ta’ Tasmania?!” I explained that I was going back to The Brisbane Hotel, as I’d had a great time playing there last year. Rowland laughed out loud, adding, “I haven’t been ta’ Tassie since 1979!”
Thomas, Michelle and just about everyone else I knew in Melbourne was at that last gig at The Prince of Wales, where Rowl showed such incredible strength. It was painful to watch, yet we all couldn’t help ourselves but be in awe, smiling through our sorrow-filled eyes. I’d never seen Mick Harvey play like he did that night, following Rowland’s lead 100%. (I mentioned this to Mick in an email – he pointed out that I must have never seen him play drums, which I HAD, but that was with The Bad Seeds, never with The Birthday Party – who to me were as revolutionary to punk rock and music in general as were The Stooges!) Brian Hooper’s bass-playing and JP Shilo’s haunting violin were equally spot on. The songs themselves wavered in tempo from time to time, but this is one of those many wonderful, charming qualities I always enjoyed with Rowland’s music. He always knew how to add authentic emotional punch, even if it was slow and almost invisible. And his guitar still cut beautifully, like a perfect knife. Again, I always admired his incredible ability, his agility, to deliberately throw in “wrong” notes, and yet he always managed to make them sound right. I’ll never forget that drop of blood, which hung like a frozen red tear from Rowland’s microphone, after he mustered up just enough strength to perform “Exit Everything.” And I’m grateful to all of those photographers out there that evening who chose to ignore that final image, the only evidence which remained on stage after Rowland and the band had finally left the room.
A few days after the gig, I had one final encounter with Rowland. Michelle and I had gone to meet with Genevieve at The Pelican Café in St. Kilda, aptly named, as the place is “slow and has a big bill” – thanks, Michelle). Rowl appeared out of nowhere. His condition had grown worse, and to me I saw him nearing death’s door. The two of them were now staying at a hotel across the street, as they had no air conditioning at home. Fortunately, Rowl’s manager had managed to book a couple of nights at a reduced rate. The two familiars could temporarily retreat from the excessive heat, which was already starting to paralyze Melbourne’s inhabitants. I knew that Rowl was dying. When he left for the cool sanctity of the hotel room, after barely touching his soup, I informed Gen that I was going to purchase an air conditioner for them to have at home. We actually argued, Gen and I, but the two of them had indeed created music which was inspiring to me back in the day, so I insisted that this was my small way of paying them back. I wouldn’t take no for an answer. The next day, I took my credit card to an electronics store, and bought them each their own portable air conditioning unit. As much as Rowl needed and deserved to rest and spend his final days in the comfort and privacy of his own home, Genevieve also needed to have her strength and personal comfortable space. (I’m sharing this moment now, not to self-indulgently brag of this deed, but because I felt that I had no choice but to do the right thing. I should also add that good ol’ Spencer P Jones contributed some money as well!) Anyway, that was only a week before I departed for Norway, the other side of the world, and that was the last time that I would ever see Rowland. Weeks later, just one day before year’s end, Michelle awoke me in the middle of the night with a phone call. It was the dreaded, inevitable news we all had hoped to avoid.
It’s been a couple of weeks now since his passing, and when I listen to Rowland’s songs, part of me still weeps inside. To quote “Autoluminescent,” written by the dark prince who was too smart to become king, I reckon that Rowl’s now “soaring through outer space – there is no better place to be.”