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Rowland S. Howard: ‘Blood On The Tracks’

Sadness and style intertwine in the late Rowland S. Howard’s art-punk legacy, from Nick Cave’s shadow to his own “Pop Crimes”

Rowland Howard was not much longer for this world by the late spring of 2008. His skeletal frame wrapped in a crisp black suit was a familiar sight at a particular corner cafe in St Kilda. Waiters would stop to light the cigarette in his trembling fingers as pale blue eyes surveyed the streets of his best and worst days. “I got sent this questionnaire by a fanzine the other day,” the ailing legend recalled one such morning, “and the first question was ‘Did you believe in [the Sex Pistols’ refrain], “no future”?’ To me, punk rock was very much about believing there was a future, because it legitimised you. It gave you confidence. It said that technical ability wasn’t the important thing.

What was important was what you were saying, and the way that you said it. All great rock & roll,” he declared with a wry twist of blood-red lips, “is about the style in which it is said.”

Six years have since flown by, taking with them one of rock’s great stylists. Rowland S. Howard died of liver cancer on December 30th, 2009, leaving behind a clamorous legacy that echoed from the Boys Next Door and the Birthday Party to These Immortal Souls and a late-blooming solo career. Six Strings That Drew Blood is a double-album survey of all that and more, compiled by those who knew him best. Today, a stone’s throw from that St Kilda café, Mick Harvey, Genevieve McGuckin and Harry Howard sit remembering their friend, band-mate and brother in the kind of boisterous spirits that pointedly defy mortality.

“Ambition,” Harvey says with a laugh when asked what drove Howard as a teenager in the Young Charlatans. The band he formed with Ollie Olsen in ’77 was more or less ground zero for Melbourne punk, the vehicle for which Howard originally sang the early Boys Next Door classic, “Shivers”.

“David Bowie was probably his main impetus,” Howard’s younger brother Harry remembers. “I think he wanted to be a fantastic rock & roll creature along those sort of lines: intelligent and artistic and fabulously pop-worthy.”

“And a bit edgy as well,” McGuckin adds. “We loved the New York Dolls and the Stooges as well as Bryan Ferry and Eno.” And then there was McGuckin’s multi-track tape machine, which expanded Howard’s creative palette through the magic of sound-on-sound recording.

All fairly stock influences, it might seem, with the panoramic luxury of hindsight. But as Howard recalled shortly before his passing, even knowing about that first Stooges album signified a rare bond of belonging in the primordial St Kilda underground of the late Seventies.

“I was on the periphery for a long time,” he remembered, “because I’m not somebody who really forces my presence on other people. Eventually, I can’t remember how, but I got invited to this party – there were all these people like Tracy Pew and Nick Cave and various other figures who became important to the scene.”

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With the Boys Next Door in Nick Cave’s bedroom.

McGuckin reveals that Howard had written to Bowie’s guitarist Adrian Belew to find out what effect pedal he’d used at the famous Melbourne Showgrounds concert in 1978 – the one immortalised in Richard Lowenstein’s film, Dogs in Space. The MXR Blue Box, came Belew’s gracious reply. So was born one salvo in a highly individual arsenal.

Harvey says, “There were a few different sounds Rowland used that were really distinctive, [including] wrenching at the whammy bar while he was striking a chord… On the first Birthday Party album we were two guitarists playing all the time. Loads of guitar. So we were very alert to what each other was doing.”

Ironically, it was Howard’s trademark style that led to his ousting from company Cave in 1983, as the Birthday Party morphed into the Bad Seeds. There were “some disagreements about songwriting credits”, Harvey recalls, but the main issue was that, “Nick, at the end of the Birthday Party, said he couldn’t relate to the music – which was clearly an indication that he needed to be doing something different. Rowland was a big part of that sound so it was just logical [that they split].”

Howard would guest with the Bad Seeds on occasion over the next few years, but one infamous gig at Manchester’s Hacienda Club sealed his fate when fans repeatedly called out for Birthday Party songs, culminating in a chant that “Rowland do a solo” – much to Cave’s chagrin.

Harry Howard says his brother had been going solo in his head for years, often showing him songs he’d earmarked for some unspecified future project. The brothers would both join Harvey in Crime and the City Solution in the mid Eighties, but “Rowland was always searching,” McGuckin says, until she and Harry joined him in These Immortal Souls towards the end of that desolate decade.

“He had a way of writing, even in the Young Charlatans, that was from the heart,” she says. “Intensely romantic songs, often. But the songs he wrote for the Birthday Party, because he was writing them for someone else to sing, he wrote in an entirely different way and they became more and more abstract.”

Howard identified his Achilles heel as a person and his strength as an artist in one succinct statement back in 2008: “I’m a person who is totally governed by my emotions,” he confessed. “I just don’t have the ability to hide what I’m feeling.”

“No,” McGuckin reflects now, “he didn’t. He had a lot of sadness. He was also very funny. Hilarious! Which was different to being happy. He used to say to me, ‘Why would I write a song if I was happy?’ He’d say, ‘God, if I wrote a song when I was happy it might turn out like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”!'”

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Howard with These Immortal Souls bandmates Harry Howard and Genevieve McGuckin.

“He did feel pain quite acutely, didn’t he?” Harry says. McGuckin sighs. “That’s why . . . well, drugs, I guess.”
Howard’s decades of addiction – “the worst job ever,” he would note with trademark gallows wit – reached a climax in the 2000s after a series of personal tragedies including a marital break-up, estrangement from his stepson and the death of his mother. “The good thing,” he observed in his final year, “is that my life finally became so intolerable that I could no longer be bothered to go out and buy drugs.”

“That’s true,” McGuckin says. “He had this moment where he went, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ He said to me, ‘Gen, why didn’t anyone ever try to stop us?’ He saw it as a massive waste of time in his life. And he really regretted it.”

The 10 songs featured from Howard’s two late solo albums, Teenage Snuff Film and Pop Crimes, bring a sustained air of vindication to the Six Strings That Drew Blood compilation. After the clanging and growling of the Eighties and the sinewy reclaimed purpose of These Immortal Souls, in many ways the tracks deliver on the promise evident in the Young Charlatans.

“I hope it will help people understand his trajectory,” McGuckin says. “Everything Rowley did bleeds and leaps into everything else and everything influences everything else. Some of These Immortal Souls’ songs went into Teenage Snuff Film – I hope people get that. I hope his legacy from this blossoms and history gives some of the credit which was lacking when he was alive.”

A rolling album launch featuring all present, plus Adalita, Brian Hooper, Hugo Race and others performing his songs, has written the name Rowland S. Howard on larger marquees than he saw in life. In similar spirit, the packaging of Six Strings That Drew Blood eschews the words of others in favour of the songwriters’s own, mostly in his own hand. “People do write their own narrative,” Harry says simply. One lyric in blue ink dated October 1991 sums up much of it with humour and pathos:

“The story goes you know every detail/ Everybody knows the books that I’m in/ The story goes I’ve been self-destructive/ Everybody knows that I’m steeped in sin/ Everybody knows I’ve got no sense of humour/ I’m too morose and too damn peculiar/ And the weakness shows.”

This feature originally appeared in issue #757 (December, 2014).