This originally appeared on Rock’s Backpages, October 26th, 2009 and was written by Mark Mordue.
WHAT COST? When the former Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S. Howard walks into his song ‘Pop Crimes’, the title track to his new solo album, his first record in ten years, it’s as if he is barely there.
His band sound nonetheless grand, luxuriously shaded and spacious. They’re a serious night act distinguished by Mick Harvey’s (ex Bad Seeds/Birthday Party) loose-feeling, jazz-tinged drum approaches, which appear to verge on primitive collapse, then punch through with unmistakable drama. It’s a rhythm roped tight by Brian Hooper (ex Beasts of Bourbon/Kim Salmon and the Surrealists) on bass, who makes you feel every string being played, pulled, and more than anything lifted up, an erotically animal sound full of guts, guts. This is one hell of a rhythm section to have at your back.
On violin J.P. Shilo (ex Hungry Ghosts) has a distracting crop of rooster-headed hair that makes him a dead spit for the guy from Eraserhead. It’s a look that comes off as vaguely ridiculous, then vaguely intimidating. Shilo’s sound is your classic pulsating-and-falling-away, violin swim-and soar, alarmed and melodic at once. It makes me think of warnings that a submarine is sinking, of panicked birds and stars, of dead Russian composers (of course, of course, of course); sometimes it’s pretty too, in a brief and urgent way, small cuts of necessary light within the band’s smouldering attitude.
Great music is always like this, don’t you think, a kind of narrative for your dreaming mind? You can already tell these people know how to take you places.
But out front the song has passed and Rowland S. Howard appears unable to raise the bar and match his band’s energy – which makes for a depressing picture. The audience here is surprisingly young and hip, the room is packed, drawn maybe by an old story: that Howard was – and they’d both HATE this comparison – the Keith Richards to Nick Cave’s Mick Jagger in The Birthday Party. How somewhere back in time when that band were terrifyingly good, it was Howard’s unique guitar sound, his use of distortion and feedback, a smoking cigarette perpetually hanging from the lips, his bird-like looks, that were all the very definition of incendiary rock ‘n’ roll cool.
These days the coinage of his face is more wasted Roman Emperor, death’s door thin, hedonism’s cautionary message, shocked monkey. The bird of youth has flown, that’s for sure. A devastating article in The Age less than a year ago had shown Howard to be a broken man, wasted by years of addiction. Of recent years Howard admitted: “I’m a person who is totally governed by my emotions. I just don’t have the ability to hide what I’m feeling. I would just walk around the streets of St Kilda [Melbourne] sobbing. If someone asked me how I was, I would just break down, unable to speak. It was impossible for me to work.”
Inevitably something about this evening augurs in the phrase “comeback”, or more nervously, a hoped-for-yet-unlikely resurrection. Just when the night seems ready to slide towards such pathos from the start, Howard turns and delivers ‘Dead Radio’ and the band somehow comes together, finds another level. It might sound trite to say this, but there’s some kind of love going on here tonight. Some desire by his fellow musicians to raise Howard up to where he should be if he can make the climb. And contrary to initial expectations, Howard can.
So then, first song well played with the star barely flickering out front; second song genuinely stunning. The set moves this way and that, affected less by obvious talent and fine material than Howard’s physicality, his inability to seize the day as often as he might. The stage prowler of the past is certainly long gone. But Howard has his moments anyway: ‘The Golden Age of Violence’ is epic; ‘Life Is What You Make It’ is a knockout blow with its moral self-delivered; and in a typically half-there, half-not-able-to-make-it-way, ‘Ave Maria’ becomes special too, the final lines ringing out like Howard has just lost the love of his life and discovered it was his destiny from the beginning: “And you would later say / We didn’t dance upon our wedding day / Ave Maria.”
It makes me think about how hard it is to just be good, let alone great. And how this is both a good and great evening, for all the limitations that spring from Howard’s diminished vitality. It also delivers inevitable flashbacks to Birthday Party days when Howard lunged about the stage sending out shafts of white noise that the band erupted over like demons: “prayers on fire”, remember? Though he seems oddly embarrassed by it these days, Howard always had a counter-pointing knack for the poppy and the beautiful, as [the pre-Birthday Party] Boys Next Door’s “hit” ‘Shivers’ – which he wrote – showed.
Filtered through some underground musical muslin, classic pop-rock textures continue to inform Howard’s songs today: the Roy Orbison yearning in that nasal, droll Lee Hazelwood nearly-singing voice of his; the early ’50s rock ‘n’ roll menace that still shines off his guitar sound; that Spector-like sense of drama and space in the arrangements; the heart-of-darkness, Velvet Underground spirit of hedonistic affection that runs across the songwriting; the spaghetti Western, fly-swatting tensions and sweaty textures that affirm the musician as an urban cowboy out on the Existential range.
Howard tells all these song stories as if there should be a coffee and half-spent cigarette in front of him: as part confession, part fucked up love letter and excuse, and even a type of lie too, a delusion matched at other times by the rawest of admissions. It would be easy to say then what we were watching here is the ghost of the man, someone who used to really be something romanticizing himself. But that’s surprisingly not true. Physically depleted and older, lacking confidence in his own revealingly sweet way: yeah, it’s all there for us to witness. But Howard also displays flashes of the old plumage and dark grace, and something deeper, even poetic, a sort of greater vulnerable truth about himself now.
The wounds of time, I guess, make his best songs stronger than they’ve ever been. Like he sings it, “Life’s what you make it. Yesterday’s hero – don’t you hate it? Life’s what’s you make it. Don’t backdate it. Celebrate it.” Here’s to his health on that valedictory note. And if it holds out, the golden age of Rowland S. Howard after all.
© Mark Mordue, 2009