Video: Autoluminescent Rowland S. Howard Official Trailer (2011)
Instrumental in defining the The Birthday Party sound the documentary on the intriguing guitarist Rowland S. Howard is an exploration through Rowland’s life and loves. Directed by Lynn-Maree Milburn and Richard Lowenstein (Dogs in Space, INXS video clips), Autoluminescent Rowland S. Howard was produced in association with the Melbourne International Film Festival Premiere Fund (thanks MIFF!).
Featuring significant interview footage with Rowland S. Howard, and interviews with his former band mates, family and friends, this is a personal in-depth look into an inspirational musician whose career spanned an amazing four decades. Fans of The Birthday Party and Rowland’s work will be suitably rewarded with footage from early The Boys Next Door (circa 1977), photos and music of Rowland’s first band The Young Charlatans, tracks from These Immortal Souls, and obviously Rowland’s epic solo material. The film also explores excerpts from Rowland’s manuscript Etceteracide between chapters in the film read by JP Shilo (Hungry Ghosts).
Head honcho of the Bad Seeds, Nick Cave talks about his first impressions of Rowland and how he liked how Rowland had his own sense of dress, played music in his own way, and was to Nick “hugely inspiring”. Former lover and band member of These Immortal Souls, Genevieve McGuckin talks fondly of her mate “Rowlie” as does his band member of The Young Charlatans, Ian “Ollie” Olsen (Max Q).
Ollie cites bands like Television as forming the musical bond between himself and Rowland, and Rowland explains how they formed a new wave band the very day after they met, and penned songs about self-mutilation! Jeffrey Wegener also of the The Young Charlatans recalls Rowland’s interesting songwriting energy, particularly in writing the song Shivers in 1977.
Rowland says he wrote the song at the age of 16 while studying at the Swinburne Community School and the song depicted his cynical view of his vapid young friends over-dramatizing their relationships. Shivers is an Australian classic and has one of the best lines I’ve ever heard in a song – “my baby’s so vain that she is almost a mirror”. How the fuck does a 16-year-old come up with that magic?
After Ollie Olsen leaves The Young Charlatans for the fourth time in 13 gigs Rowland pulls the pin and joins The Boys Next Door after finding an affinity with Nick Cave while seeing The Saints and Radio Birdman gigs together. From that point onward people note the sound of band starts to dramatically change, with the introduction of Rowland’s guitar feedback and the band becoming more explosive in nature. Rowland muses that once he joined the band Mushroom Records never came to see The Boys Next Door again!
The Boys Next Door take on Shivers for the Door, Door record and a bit of argie-bargie ensues in the studio. Producer Tony Cohen suggests Rowland sing his own tracks on the album to add a layer of depth, however Nick won’t have a bar of it. The documentary is worth watching alone to hear the regret in Nick’s voice discussing his decision in retrospect and as Rowland describes his frustration with the final recording. The mood explains the underlying tension in the band that led to its ultimate destruction.
The women and friends in Rowland’s life discuss his hopeless romantic side, falling in love with the women who featured heavily in his life, and how he represented that love in his music. Rowland apparently even once fell for the Melbourne queen of comedy – Gina Riley (Kath & Kim, Fast Forward)! Rowland’s brother Harry Howard (and band member of These Immortal Souls) also recalls a time when Rowland and Genevieve wanted to get married.
Musicians heavily inspired by Rowland such as Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), and Bobby Gillespie (Primal Scream) try to describe his guitar sound in the film. The most amusing include “it sounded like it came from outer space” – Douglas Hart (The Jesus & Mary Chain) or “he looks like that guitar sounds” – Henry Rollins (Black Flag & Rollins Band).
The introduction of heroin onto the St Kilda scene is briefly mentioned before The Boys Next Door relocate to England and rename themselves as The Birthday Party after a tune written by Rowland & Nick called Happy Birthday. The band lived in squalor with 10 people sharing a one-bedroom flat in London, with next to no money, and Rowland complaining of severe malnutrition.
The Birthday Party hated England in the early 80’s as it was full of shiny pop like Culture Club and Spandex Ballet that Nick refers to as “retarded” so they skipped over to New York. New York didn’t like them either as they subsequently were kicked off stage after 10 minutes for inciting a riot. Rowland couldn’t fathom how an RSL 100 kilometres away from Sydney would allow The Birthday Party to perform but the supposed “sophisticated” city of New York would not!
Controversial performer Lydia Lunch describes her time with Rowland and why she followed him all the way back to London from the US. The two record a classic from Rowland’s favourite songwriter Lee Hazelwood, Some Velvet Morning and a mutual respect between them is formed. Completely sick of England The Birthday Party decide to relocate once again, this time they move to Berlin were they are treated like musical gods.
A meeting of the minds between Blixa Bargeld (Einsturzende Neubaute) and Nick eventuates in the decline of Rowland’s status within The Birthday Party. Drummer Mick Harvey describes Rowland’s frustration with his music and lyrics being ignored as the band start to head in a different musical direction and Nick can’t bring himself to sing songs penned by Rowland. Mick calls a meeting to bring everything to a head and results in the end of The Birthday Party. Rowland is particularly displeased when the new guise of Man or Myth return to Melbourne and perform his tunes (and thus begins Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds).
Mick Harvey gently encourages Rowland out of depression to reform Crime & the City Solution in 1985, and when Rowland is sick of that band he fronts his new band These Immortal Souls in 1988. Director Wim Wenders captures live performances of both the Bad Seeds and the Crime & the City Solution in his picturesque film Wings of Desire but he is most enamoured with the swagger of Rowland and his guitar on stage.
The later half of the documentary explores Rowland’s battle to give up heroin (his ‘black milk’ and poison), and how the drugs ultimately were responsible for the breakdown of his marriage. An insightful and deeply sad part of the film is listening to Rowland talk about his regrets on using drugs for most of his life. He viewed that time as wasted and thrown away as he could have better spent his time doing meaningful things. Given the film was produced after his passing and his battles with illness it was poignant to hear him reflect so starkly on his life.
He finally did give up the drugs for several years and even recovered from Hepatitis C, and his friends recall he seemed in a great place with his last solo album Pop Crimes being critically lauded all over the world. In Australia, Pop Crimes was regarded by many journalists as the best album of 2009! He was starting to plan international tours, and held an album launch when he fell ill once again.
Rowland S. Howard unfortunately passed away in the Austin Hospital on 30 December 2009 due to liver cancer at the age of 50. The night before he died he was poised to play a gig supporting the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at Festival Hall. I remember it was a really shit way for the year to end.
I first saw Autoluminescent Rowland S. Howard when the documentary first aired at the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival in the company of his loving friends and family (including his brother and sister Harry & Angela Howard). I wanted to hug them all during the Q&A after the film for bravely honouring Rowland with this film!
If you’re a fan of Rowland hunt down a copy of his 1999 performance on the ABC’s Studio 22. It was fantastic.
A laneway in St Kilda, Melbourne is due to be named in Rowland’s honour. It was near the street he once lived on, Eildon Road (near Jackson Street).
Previously on Sampling Station: