It’s Halloween night and Oxford St is a ghost town. Solitary men go through the trash piled up outside the expensive boutiques with contemporary art window displays. Three men, one wearing a joker hat, pound on the window of the ACP, bellowing obscenities at a man inside, then stumble further up the street, in search of new confrontations.
We escape the scary, deserted street and go into the Chauvel cinema. Sitting inside the dark theatre, I feel comforted by the dark, my old coat pulled around me.
I know a lot about the scene surrounding Nick Cave, especially in the Boys Next Door and Birthday Party eras. This information lay dormant within my memory for a long time. When I was a teenager I was sponge for all kinds of music information. I studied with great passion, following all the branches out from the core bands I loved, digging deeper, on an endless search for detail. One of these threads was the Birthday Party. The video for Nick the Stripper, which was often played on Rage at the time, made a particular impression upon me. While Nick cavorted in what seemed to be a nappy, singing to goats, skipping and stumbling, I would watch for glimpses of Rowland S. Howard. He strolled around with his guitar in jerky steps, cigarette hanging from his lip, as if all the crawling and cavorting around him was something quite normal, but something he was too regal to take part in. At the time I thought he was possibly the coolest man alive.
This is a sentiment that is often repeated about Rowland S. Howard, by his fans and by the many people close to him who were interviewed in Autoluminescent, the documentary about him directed by Richard Lowenstein and Lynn-Maree Milburn. That he was somehow otherworldly, with his boyish, somewhat startled, aristocratic look, his distinctive guitar playing, and his deep, articulate voice. I’d always listen for him in the backing vocals of Birthday Party songs, sliding down the word “Capers” for example. I can’t pick up a jar of capers without thinking of him singing it.
Years later I was friends with a group of people who were conducting their own Birthday Party, a fifteen years later, Sydney version of it anyway. We had a strong shared mythology about Nick Cave and his entourage, and would often inhabit their world: impressions of Mick Harvey (the straight man of the group – the one who seemed less drug addled than the others) were a particular obsession. At our house in Camperdown we’d listen to the first These Immortal Souls (Rowland S. Howard’s band after the Birthday Party split) album often, especially the song “Marry Me (Lie Lie)”. It rolled out of the small black speakers of the ugly black 3-in-one record player in the corner of the living room as we sat around smoking, or, if feeling particularly inspired/intoxicated, waltzing around the room to the seasick piano riff that runs through the song.
One day Vic, the most magnetic person in our group and thus, very much the centre of it, came home bursting with some distressing news: “I heard Rowland S. Howard is working in market research!” We were horrified, and tried to work out how we might save him. Of course, at the time, we were hard pressed to even save ourselves, though we did go see Rowland every time he played a show in Sydney.
Around the same time as Vic dropped this bombshell – which I must say was a rumour that was never substantiated – we might have turned on Rage to see a video of Nick Cave dueting “Henry Lee” with PJ Harvey, building his path towards national hero.
In Autoluminescent, the interviews with Genevieve McGuckin, Rowland S. Howard’s partner for decades, gave the most insight into his character. He was a sensitive person, easily hurt, very smart, a gentleman. This was no surprise – it was easy to surmise this, especially when you saw him live. The one time me and the others spoke to him after a show he was so polite and gentle, I could see why he had been the one to eventually return to Melbourne while Nick strutted his way around London.
Watching the documentary I felt the same sadness that I always had when I thought about the Rowland story, compounded now by his death in 2009, after his struggle with liver cancer. His life was difficult and for long periods he slipped below the surface, into the Melbourne suburbs and heroin addiction.
On screen though, as Simon and I watched, Rowland was again a cute, 16 year old punk. This was the year he wrote the song “Shivers”, which was later recorded by the Boys Next Door, and is the song most commonly associated with Rowland, if people know of him at all.
“Imagine writing a song when you were 16 and having it follow you around for your entire life,” I said as Simon and I walked home later.
“Yes, and to have it covered by the Screaming Jets,” Simon replied. I’d forgotten about this, or perhaps repressed it.
At one show at the Newtown RSL in the late 90s, I remember MC, my boyfriend, yelling out for “Shivers” and me elbowing him hard in the belly and glaring at him. “Don’t!” I hissed, feeling protective of RSH, for whom the song must have been something of a millstone. We had seen him perform it at the recording of the tv show Studio 22 – I only remembered we were there that night when I saw clips from it in Autoluminescent and the memory of being there was reawakened.
The Boys Next Door version of Shivers was recorded with Nick Cave singing, and has become an iconic song. In one of the Nick Cave interview segments of Autoluminescent, he talks about the song and how Rowland should have sung it instead. While he says this though, I noticed he rubbed at his face, as people often do when they lie.
I don’t think particularly badly of Nick Cave, by the way, though I take issue with the god-like status he has created which is upheld by the media. In this interview, though, he was quite subdued and respectful of his position as for once not being the centre of attention. Other interview subjects, particularly Henry Rollins, inspired a groan from us and the other people watching, “I can’t really imagine them hanging out,” I whispered to Simon. I can’t imagine Rowland and Henry hanging out too often. By far the worst celebrity interview, however, was Bobby Gillespie, who, in an attempt to show his appreciation of Rowland’s guitar playing, utters a most inappropriate and ridiculous proposition. I will not ruin it for those who have yet to see it.
Watching Autoluminescent was to rekindle all the facets of my earlier knowledge and fandom. The faces on the screen were familiar but aged, people in their 50s who I was more used to thinking eternally 20 years old. It made me think of how time passes for everyone. In 2030 might make a ten second appearance in the documentary of someone I knew when I was young, and hopefully not in a Bobby Gillespie kind of capacity. I hadn’t thought much about Bobby Gillespie for a long time, since the 1990s. Yet he has been living his life the whole time, as has Henry Rollins and Lydia Lunch and all the rest. People don’t just disappear when the light of fame and fashion, or of my personal interest, slips off them.
In the last few years of his life, there was an upsurge of interest in Rowland’s music, and he worked hard to put together his album “Pop Crimes” despite his illness. Ever the optimist, Simon argued with me that this was a great thing, in response to my sadness that recognition came so late. “Think how much he did in his life!” Simon said – and he is right, of course, but it didn’t take away my feeling of sorrow. In my own way I know how hard it is to live as a creative person, in a world where being a self promoting bully is the best way to guarantee success.
“It was different in the 80s,” I said to S as we walked home, past the dark apartment buildings and then the bright and odorous KFC. “You could hang around on the dole and write songs and take drugs.” I could still feel the shadow of this world at the end of the 90s. People older than me harked back to those days, or they clung onto the tiniest wisps of it.
“But it was gone,” S said.
“Does authenticity even matter? People still try and live that life now, and they’re not worried about the fact they missed it by 30 years,” I said. I felt very 90s saying “authenticity”. It is hard to know whether authenticity even still exists in a world where so much of life is archived online.
Yet I think that, ridiculous as the concept might now be, this idea of authenticity is what draws people to Rowland S. Howard. Nick Cave described him as a teenager already fully formed with his look, ideas, and identity, which never seemed like affectations. Whatever he did musically came from his heart but never seemed overly earnest, just real.
I don’t want to be a cynic and make a big point of how people are drawn towards the more obscure figures in culture although I think this mainstream/alternative binary that has been around since the 90s persists more than ever. Mainstream here equals “popular” (in its most judgemental bourgeois sense), whereas alternative is “real”, clever and progressive. I don’t believe in this as utter idiots can drone on about their love of the most obscure music and be total conservatives with no interest in anything beyond proving their superior taste. They might as well be bragging about their new 4 wheel drives.
The danger in this thinking is that it prefers artists to suffer, the more adversities the better, rather than enjoy success. A story of struggle also fits in with stereotypes of the tortured artist, a myth which helps no one. Along with this comes the idea of artistic purity, that people can be born with a gift, a powerful genius which is the source of much pleasure and pain. This drives them forward, and sometimes drives them mad.
All these big ideas are touched on in Autoluminescent, although you don’t have to engage with them. While it can never break free of the sometimes Spinal Tap-ness of all rock documentaries, it is a remarkably open-ended film, which comes to no conclusions and has many elements you can either ponder or ignore. It is a film about an distinctive person and his legacy, as well as being about fame, and music, and life as an artist. Since I saw it last week the film has stuck with me like a ghost.
Before Simon and I had left home to go to the cinema earlier that evening we’d listened to Brian Wilson singing “You are my Sunshine” from the Smile Sessions. So we were surprised that at the end of the film, just before the “Rowland S. Howard 1959 – 2009” epitaph, there was a moment when Rowland was enthusing about the sadness of this very song. S and I froze and looked at each other, spooked. Happy Halloween.