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
thousnads 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 hallucenogenic 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
collaboartions 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 growiing 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