Option magazine #44 - May / June 1992
Soul On Ice
Immortalizing Rowland Howard
The day I interview Rowland S. Howard, a simpatico friend of mine hears Howard and Lydia Lunch's "Some Velvet Morning" emanating, inexplicably, from the vacant flat beneath him.
It's a song from under the floorboards.
You see, to me, Howard, the one-time Birthday Party guitarist, Lunch co-conspirator, former partner in Crime & The City Solution and cherished mastermind of These Immortal Souls, possesses this kind of spirit that could ricochet around the world counter-clockwise and still never miss an episode of his beloved EastEnders.
I'm saying he could bilocate. I'm saying we should all build shrines to Rowland S. Howard the way they do at accident sites on fatal curves in Baja. The way that becomes folk art, instantly.
All this ardor no doubt aligns me with Howard's most typical fan.
"I do seem to attract the sort of listener who, um..." he begins. "Oh, God, I got this letter the other day from Israel. And I get this kind of letter all the time. It was from a 15-year-old girl who'd drawn me this incredibly painstaking picture of this checkerboard floor, with a girl lying on the floor in a long, flowing gown, and blood at her breast. And the message was something along the lines of how her life was sheer hell and she knew I was the only person in the world who understood how she felt. And I can't write back to these people, 'cause what am I going to say? 'Yes, I know how you feel', or 'We're going on tour next month and our record comes out the month after that?"
Howard sighs, heavily. In a theatre bar off London's Kilburn High Road, in an oasis that beckons and hides mirage-style in the middle of the Irish wild west of London, he sips coffee and smokes. Most of all, he avoids the notion that it's New Year's Eve.
"No, I'm really wary of establishing a relationship with someone through letters," he continues. "I know Nikki Sudden answers every letter he gets - and he's got people that who've been writing to him for, like, ten years, and he'll write five-page letters to them. That's admirable, but he's so enwrapped in his persona that he can do that. I don't know what people expect from Nikki, but it's probably alot different from what they expect from me."
What is expected - indeed long overdue - from Howard is a follow-up to These Immortal Souls' 1987 debut Get Lost (Don't Lie!). The band, comprised of Howard, brother and bassist Harry Howard, drummer Epic Soundtracks, and keyboardist Genevieve McGuckin, created an album that was lush and romantic, a sort of paean to Rowland Howard's beloved Roxy Music, and a cosseted anathema to Birthday Party's scrapheap excesses.
"When we did the first record, we'd never played live. Also, I was really conscious of the fact that I didn't want it to be particularly guitarish, because I thought that was what people would expect me to do."
Get Lost was a tough but frail gem, and the only album by a non-American group to be released by that bastion of American punk bastards, SST. These Immortal Souls toured in support of the record, to crowds of varying size and interest, and then vanished.
"I didn't write anything for about two years, and the longer I didn't write anything, the more panicked I became, and the more horrifying it was," Howard explains, visibly tensing.
He went back to his home country, Australia, because he "thought it might make me write things - but it didn't. It was worse because when I go to Australia I go from someone who's incredibly anonymous in London to being a local legend. So it is like feeding the worst, most self-destructive parts of my personality.
"Australia is like a vortex that sucks everybody in. I guess it's like Los Angeles to an certain extent: Melbourne has incredibly big urban sprawl and it's fairly well off and it's sunny and it's nice. But it's boring. Unfortunately people take a lot of drugs, and it's sort of... it's really depressing. A large percentage of the people I know always seem to be that much worse off than when I was there before. And a great percentage of them seem to have died."
Still, Australia seems to be in the initial stages of forming its own, albeit diverse, identity. Outsiders are getting the idea that it's not all outback.
"One thing I've noticed these days is that I'm really pleased that I'm Australian. Whereas, when I lived in Australia I really hated the fact that I was Australian. But now I appreciate the things that I look upon as being intrinsically Australian.
"I saw The Year My Voice Broke for the first time the other night, and it was great. I don't know whether I liked it because I saw something that was a part of me... I'm sure this is a factor because whenever I go somewhere that's just big and flash I feel I'm more in touch with who I really am. That's one of the worst parts about living in London: it's so completely different and foreign. There's no nature. There's nothing alive.
"In Australia there are lifeforms everywhere - insects and things and, while I may not find insects a particularly delightful form of nature, at least it gives you the impression that there's something growing and alive around you."
I tell Howard I saw a documentary on television the other night about the rise of the domestic cat, and it told how Australia's native spotted cat is being endangered by the domestic feline. As a result there's a housecat curfew in Queensland, and any pet breaking it is fair game. The idea of spotted cats about seems so exotic. "It's pretty exotic to me, too," he says, "because you never see any of those things when you live in Melbourne!"
What else is exotic is Howard himself, the distinctive guitarist who, along with Nick Cave and Mick Harvey, forged the Birthday Party's sound, a sound that still alarms. "It took the Birthday Party a long time until we got to what we were trying to do," he says. "And when we got to it, it was like telepathy. "The Birthday Party were a series of cliches. We were like the cliched rock band, almost to the letter. The singer, the guitarist, the rock songs with rock cliches in them. Nick's conviction made it work." Both Howard (as part of Crime & the City Solution) and Cave appeared to much larger public awareness in Wim Wenders' film Wings of Desire. While the dreamy tale of angels falling to Earth in Berlin wasn't the archetypal rock film, it did have that element to it. "The thing about rock films is that when you see one, the best thing you can say is that it wasn't as bad as you thought it would be," Howard allows. "Wings of Desire is a nice film, but I didn't really see the point of having bands in it, other than the fact that Wim Wenders liked them." "With Crime, it wasn't even like he had a particular song in mind. He knew that he wanted to have Nick doing 'The Carney' and 'From Her To Eternity,' but he didn't have any idea what of what he wanted us to do. Plus, many people who saw the film didn't even know it was two different groups - they thought it was the same one."
As indeed it once was, more or less. After the demise of the Birthday Party, Crime & the City Solution shared drummer Mick Harvey with Nick Cave's Bad Seeds, even as Crime featured the curiously Cave-like singer, Simon Bonney. And Howard's driving, blinding guitar sound was a critical part of the pioneering stance in each of his groups. Though there's no slighting Howard's creativity and vision, his 1978 purchase of a crucial piece of hardware has helped define his sound.
"Before I bought my guitar, the Fender Jaguar, I'd been going on to Mick Harvey about buying a guitar with a tremolo arm. He was horrified at the idea - at the thought of the appalling noises I'd be able to create with the added bonus of the tremolo arm. This inspired me on; made me really want to buy it 'cause I knew if Mick Harvey thought it was an appalling idea, it had to have merit. I've only ever had one guitar - that same Jaguar."
Kind of like B.B. and Lucille?
"I think there's been quite a few Lucilles 'cause they've been stolen. I've just been lucky mine never has been. I've never really had enough money to go around buying guitars. Plus, I like the idea of having only one guitar; it's sort of perverse.
"What I like most about my guitar is how it looks. It's so beaten up I don't really mind what happens to it. Whereas if I went out and bought a new guitar I'd be incredibly paranoid about something happening to it, and I wouldn't be able to throw it around as much, mistreat it as badly, which would be a shame. Half the fun of playing is that it's so incredibly physical - I can drop it and hit things with it."
Which must make it easier to tour.
"It's bad enough carrying one guitar around, let alone two! I wouldn't have any arms to carry my suitcases with. I read an interview with J.J. Cale and he said that his entire set-up was dictated by how much he could carry. And I think that's good when you have a level of limitation thrust on you. You have to work really hard within those limitations. It's the same with not being able to play the guitar very well: you end up with your own sort of incredibly retarded version."
Howard's guitar style does have its well-defined boundaries, in terms of the sound he generates and the licks he plays. But much like technically "limited" players such as Neil Young, Howard manages to say something new each time out, by shaping his music in different ways or creating novel contexts for himself. Yet if moving on leaves little time for refinement, he avoids perfectionism while still caring very much about the results he achieves.
"I take great pains over the words," he offers a bit defensively, "but I think that ultimately the music is what has to carry it off. But I try not to be precious because I think that's the worst thing you can be in music. I'm slapdash to the extent that I don't really care if the song is necessarily in time."
Or of its time. As a largely unsung pioneer who's done so much to shape the sound of contemporary rock guitar, does it matter how he'll be remembered?
Howard shifts his position in the folding chair. "I'm more interested in what happens now," he insists. "I was talking to Lydia and she was saying she didn't care what people thought of her now; all she cared about was how she was remembered. And I thought that was really bizarre.
"I'd much prefer to have the respect of my peers than to be appreciated by people whose opinion I care nothing for, when I'm dead or 60 years old or something. Plus, I am looking forward to having the sort of authority age gives you. I really liked Leonard Cohen's last record; it has an incredible authority and simplicity about it; it doesn't have the feeling of trying. It's like Marianne Faithfull - she's doing her best work. It's irrelevant that she's no longer a beautiful young girl."
She's also the subject of a recent biography, the mention of which turns the conversation to books. The unassuming but literate guitarist brightens and turns more attentive. Ian Hunter's Diary of a Rock And Roll Star comes up.
"I read that when I was about 13, and the last time I was back in Australia I found it and meant to read it again, but I left it at someone's house. At the time I read it I loved it, but I would have loved it then no matter what it was like. Another book I would like to read is called Coming Through Slaughter. It's about this jazz trumpeter called Buddy Bolden, who was this incredibly poor barber before he became famous and then just burned himself out within ten years, to the extent that he was in an insane asylum.
"There's also a biography of Nick Cave that's being written by Ian Johnson, and an Australian guy is writing about the Birthday Party. I think he's trying to tie the Birthday Party into its place and time in the universe, sort of like a 20,000-page thesis. Mick Harvey read some of it and he said it was a bit convoluted."
The notion of convolution reminds Howard of Lipstick Traces, a massive cultural/historical tome inspired by Greil Marcus' epiphanic experience with the Sex Pistols. "I thought Lipstick Traces was hideous, a complete load of trash! I found it bizarre that Greil Marcus went on so much about Never Mind the Bollocks because, whereas I think the Sex Pistols were a great group, I don't think the record is a good record. I thought the first two singles were great, but that record to me just sounds sludgy and uninspired."
Howard's own literary inclinations parallel his musical ambitions. Much as he reworks the raw basics of rock'n'roll and forges something distinctive with the material, he feels he'd take the same approach to writing. "I would like to write a book, but it would be very different from Nick's (And the Ass Saw the Angel ). The books I like best are the ones that are basically easy to read. You shouldn't have to struggle through something, and you shouldn't have to find it difficult to know what someone is writing about. I like it best when people write about something that is basically hackneyed, but manage to inject something new so that it turns the whole thing around."
Another thing Howard appreciates is the element of surprise, kind of like his recent recorded collaboration with Lydia Lunch, Shotgun Wedding. Given Lunch's history and the noisier aspects of Howard's career, what may have surprised some listeners was that the album was decidedly musical.
"I think Lydia's problem is that she hasn't been known these days for musical output, which is a shame because she does it really well. The record was substantial - not just atmospheric noise for Lydia to speak over. There was one review that said something to the effect that no one was particularly interested in what Lydia and I were doing these days. Be that as it may, it shouldn't really matter - it should matter that it was a good record.
"When we were in Europe people kept saying, 'Everyone who comes over from England complains about the English music press; why do you think that is?' And I said it's because they're worth complaining about. When i was in Europe, too, a lot of people expressed great interest in These Immortal Souls, and that gave me a lot of confidence. In London, it's very easy to imagine that no one's interested because the English press could care less, basically. They are only interested in people who are new or currently successful."
Still, Howard is far from discouraged, as his plans suggest a resurgence of activity. "Lydia and I are planning to make another record this year in America and touring, maybe five dates. But it depends on the time, because I'll be working really hard with These Immortal Souls, re-establishing ourselves in people's minds as an ongoing concern."
Yet touring is something Howard does not look forward to. "I've passed the point where I can go on tour and stay up all night doing things like playing the guitar and drinking or something. It's hard enough to get up in the morning after going straight to bed after the gig. It's pathetic."
If age has caught up with Howard, for me 1991 was the year I got old. Which brings us, unavoidably, to the subject of this New Year's Eve. Howard, too, gets distraught at the prospect of another passing year.
"I find New Year's Eve incredibly depressing, " he confides, unwittingly spiking his dark, fine hair. "I suppose on one level I prefer it to Christmas Eve because at least it doesn't have the same level of near-hysterical happiness. I always seem to end up having a completely miserable New Year's, and New Year's Eve in Kilburn sounds like a frightening, terrifying experience."
Almost as stultifying as New Year's resolutions. Howard doesn't admit to making any, though he concedes, "I intend to work really hard." But as his bout with writer's block attests, the best intentions can sometimes bring about the opposite results. "When These Immortal Souls put out the first record, we worked about a year and a half; we were on tour 70 percent of the time, and then we couldn't do any more tours until we did another album. And I couldn't write anything, so things just ground to a halt. The more I worried about it, the more I couldn't write."
Howard darts his jet-blue eyes frantically.
"I'm sick of being at a kind of halfway point."
- Susan Compo