Sydney Morning Herald - November 1, 2008
Still the boy next door
GUITARIST Rowland S. Howard is recently returned from eight years in hell. Sitting on the porch of a St Kilda cafe, he's still tender enough from the experience to hide his water-blue eyes behind dark glasses.
The waiter addresses him by name with a mixture of respect and affection and helps him light the first in a series of cigarettes perched in a trembling hand.
"I'm a person who is totally governed by my emotions. I just don't have the ability to hide what I'm feeling," Howard says. "I would just walk around the streets of St Kilda sobbing. If someone asked me how I was, I would just break down, unable to speak. It was impossible for me to work."
The one-time member of Nick Cave's Birthday Party shares the agonies of his recent past with brutal candour, beginning with the end of his marriage, separation from his young stepson and the death of his mother.
"My drug addiction became the worst it has ever been," he says. "I didn't want to wake up in the morning any more. It was just too painful to keep on."
For about a year he stayed in bed, wrestling the depressive side effects of hepatitis C medication. He stopped writing songs, playing the guitar, seeing friends.
"The good thing is that my life finally became so intolerable that I could no longer be bothered to go out and buy drugs," he concludes with a parched cackle that shakes his wraithlike body. "As a consequence, in the last year and a half, a lot of good things have started to happen to me."
He counts among them an invitation to London to help celebrate the work of Lydia Lunch, his frequent collaborator from New York's no-wave fringe. He's also "amazed" at his looming Spiegeltent gig on the Sydney Opera House forecourt.
From the Birthday Party to Crime & the City Solution to These Immortal Souls, Howard's howling blues guitar technique, his gallows outlook and uncompromising attitude have forged a hallowed cavern in the rock underground.
"Yes. I have made a life of it," he agrees, with palpable reservations. "My particular life choices that have nothing to do with creativity have meant that that life has not always been easy. But, yes, I can usually work when I want to."
A gripping and witty solo performer, Howard has seen his profile rise in Melbourne in the past 18 months. He has begun to play shows, maintain his own MySpace page and talk up a new album under construction, his first since Teenage Snuff Film in 1999.
By accident or design, that title recalled the song that remains his best known, Shivers: a black meditation on doomed love and suicide written shortly after he joined Cave's first, nihilistic '70s outfit, the Boys Next Door.
At first the songwriter evades the suggestion that his last album signified an abiding obsession with the same, sombre aspects of the human spirit that have haunted his work since he was 16.
"I think it was one of the most accessible records I have ever made," he says. "There are songs on there - like Dead Radio or Exit Everything - where everything starts badly but ends up well. So there is some kind of redemption. And I can't take wholly seriously any record with a Billy Idol song on it [White Wedding]."
Then again, he'll hardly claim that songs such as Breakdown, She Cried, I Burnt Your Clothes and Sleep Alone represent a happy-go-lucky change of heart.
"I hate to say it but don't you think the world is an intrinsically sad place?" he asks. "I don't see how anybody can look at the world and not think that, when so many people live in circumstances that are just intolerable.
"And while I am writing about my own experience, I do believe that there is some kind of global spirituality that somehow suffuses the souls of everyone."
In strictly cultural terms, the spirit of St Kilda has changed beyond recognition since Howard helped pioneer Melbourne's punk dreamtime there with the Young Charlatans, a band that included future members of the Saints and the Laughing Clowns.
He shares a nostalgic recollection of searching for the first Stooges album for two years before finally finding it "like buried treasure" in a cardboard box at a nearby market. "It was the same with all aspects of what is now an easily attainable culture," he says.
The advantage was a degree of fringe camaraderie virtually impossible in the digital age. Howard speaks of being drawn to Cave and his coterie by a kind of glaring, mutual otherness back in '77, the year the Australian charts were owned by Boz Scaggs, ELO, Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles.
He was thrown clear when the Birthday Party imploded in Berlin seven years later, though he has sporadically continued to work and play with Cave and with Bad Seeds mainstay Mick Harvey. At their invitation he'll play the inaugural All Tomorrow's Parties festival on Cockatoo Island in January.
And yet, for reasons both obvious and cruelly random, he has tasted none of the Bad Seeds' calibre of success.
"I think what most people want out of music is the same as what they want out of television: light entertainment," he says, with a hint of exasperation. "And then you get people who say they don't even like music, which I find so baffling it blows my mind."
In solo mode, Howard's repertoire is as fluid as any given song's dynamics, veering between brilliantly reclaimed covers (the Velvet Underground, Lee Hazlewood, Alice Cooper, the Shangri-Las) and various eras of his own work.
Only Shivers is unlikely to rear its maudlin head, he says, musing without sentiment that last time he hauled it out, "it seemed to have lost its icon-hood". That said, after the song was covered by electronic anarchists No in the '80s and hard rockers the Screaming Jets in the '90s, he agrees it is possibly due for an emo tweak. Hairstyles may change but teenage misery is eternal.
Before stalking off down the street, Howard shares a tragicomic story that neatly encapsulates the fundamental sense of estrangement at the core of his art and being.
"My father came to one Boys Next Door gig in about 1978," he says, "and when asked on subsequent occasions whether he was going to see me play he said, 'I've seen him.' As late as 1997 he asked somebody if people applauded at my gigs. I'm sure he'll be astounded I'm playing the Spiegeltent."
Rowland S. Howard plays the Famous Spiegeltent at the Sydney Opera House forecourt on Thursday, 9.30pm.
- Michael Dwyer