Mess+Noise - January 22, 2010
Rowland S Howard: A Tribute
Reproduced here with permission.
In the days following Rowland S Howard’s recent death, TREVOR BLOCK approached many of his friends and former bandmates asking if they would like to pay written tribute to him. The contributions below cover a broad range, but they all speak volumes about Howard as a person and the effect he had on people. Photos courtesy BRUCE MILNE.
Former girlfriend and bandmate, These Immortal Souls
Rowland S Howard (the “W” in Rowland and the “S” in the middle were not negotiable) was one of this world's most ridiculously singular and charismatic individuals. He was himself to the nth degree. He was beautiful, extraordinary, intelligent, funny, wickedly talented, wickedly human, affectionate, warm loving and always entertaining to the precious people in his life. He was as dapper as the devil, at times as shabby as an aristocrat who'd fallen on hard times.
He felt things in a wholly unimpeded way, there were no walls between his heart and his mouth, his skin was thin. When he love he loved with all his heart, soul and mind, he could break hearts and did. He railed and writhed in agony when his own heart was broken. He devoured life and books and films and music and pop culture with a curiosity and zest for new information that was astonishing. He was a popular criminal. He was great and he was flawed, and life tested him again and again, but he arose from times of gloom and adversity to charm and amuse and spark and spin and produce songs and music that came straight from the centre of his being with an honesty and intensity that was bone-deep. He didn't suffer fools gladly, if at all, yet he was always a gentleman.
His life was 50 years long, different periods of friends, cities, bands. So much happened it would be impossible to cover or do justice to them all. This is a eulogy, not a biography.
I'll miss his blue eyes, his face, his downturned smirk, his raised eyebrow, his fount of information, his devilish humour, the sound of his voice. His compassion and empathy, his loyalty, his chuckle, his mocking laugh, his huge vocabulary. I'll miss him telling me exactly what to read and see. I'll miss his presence, the light he shed on those around him, his music, his singing, his words that made us cry, and watching and hearing him skip and strut and swing that guitar like a screechy demon, wringing the most bone shatteringly beautiful noises out of the ether while he sang his heart out all over the place. It all came from the most profound regions of his soul. It was how he expressed himself.
Through everything Rowland, you were the best friend of my life. I couldn't have asked for more.
This is an abridged version of McGuckin’s eulogy.
Ex-Magazine, The Bad Seeds
A man of outrageous elegance, Rowland S Howard was for me, the epitome of the celebrated gallant. He had a je ne sais quoi that affected all who came into contact with him. Then he played the guitar. That lacerating sound. That swagger. That flailing right leg. That dangling smoke. Everything that we could want in a guitar hero, all served up with veritable aplomb. I will also remember him for his intense vulnerability, and when called upon, one of the kindest and friendliest people you could ever meet. 'Glittering Blade' refers to a title that Rowland offered to a piece of music of mine he graciously played on, his enthusiasm extending way beyond merely showing up to play. Actually the title was 'Glittering Blades'. As he made his suggestion he gave me a look that was all at once erudite, generous and inclusive, his blasé demeanour and sparkling wit cutting through exactly like the song's image that he now presented! I was so pleased that I got to see him again, two years ago in Melbourne. Debonair as ever and with an idea that we might play music again. I shall miss the “glittering blade” dearly.
Brother and former bandmate, These Immortal Souls
Rowland met the Boys Next Door at a party somewhere. Nick Cave accused him of being a "poofta", but Rowland was more than witty enough to deal with that unimaginative missive, and they probably found themselves amusing one another. They are both very funny. Soon they were in direct competition. Rowland's band, the Young Charlatans, with Ian "Ollie" Olsen sharing vocals, guitar and songwriting, began playing live. They were instantly applauded as a less punky and more arty alternative to the Boys Next Door. People (well, the Melbourne post-punk scene) loved them. It was here Rowland launched the song ‘Shivers’. Written at 16, it will probably make him more money than any other single thing in his career.
I might say that his mother insisted that she could tell - but what she could tell exactly, I don't know. (Is this is in context? It seems to have slipped what she could tell, and I don’t recall it being about ‘Shivers’?).
Rowland dressed in tight, mainly black clothes. His hair was short, he wore armbands saying “THE MODEL OF YOUTH” and a badge that said “OCT”, part of a date set he removed from a bank. His white socks alone were enough to get you a beating in the sunny suburbs of Melbourne. Rowland looked so extreme for the time that I don't think people could visually register him ... and so he got away with it.
The Young Charlatans imploded upon Ollie's unwillingness to share a band. By this time, Rowland's friendship with Nick, Mick Harvey, Tracy Pew and Phill Calvert had grown. The Boys Next Door admired his abilities and saw Rowland as a possible way to help out with their slowish songwriting. So he took that role played by quite a number now: that of friend, helper, collaborator and inspiration to Nicholas Cave. He was assured he could do some singing, so he was happy. The Boys Next Door were transformed overnight. See side One vs side Two of their Door, Door album.
I've been asked to comment on Rowland's Fender Jaguar. Rowland's first guitar of note was an Ibanez Fyrebird copy. It was a very stylish guitar - used by Phil Manzanera and Brian Jones and Johnny Winter most notably. However, he had always been impressed with an old Fender Jaguar that Ollie Olsen had briefly owned. Rowland found his Jaguar in a shop in the centre of Melbourne. When he asked to see it, he was informed by the shop owner that if he expected him to get it down from the wall, then he would have to buy it. I saw it at his house the next day. My request to have a turn wasn't overly welcome and I felt like a crippled gorilla as I delicately raised it from its case to place on my knee. It is a post-1966 model (I don't know the actual age) with “block inlays” and “bound neck”, but I'm really getting nerdy now and it has fuck all to do with the way Rowland “plays” guitar.
This is an extract of a biography Harry Howard wrote recently. Full text here.
Dolores San Miguel
Opened Melbourne’s Crystal Ballroom, 1978
I booked the Boys Next Door throughout 1978 and although Rowland did not join them until December of that year, he was always at the Crystal Ballroom, usually arriving with the band, Pierre Sutcliffe and other handsome young rebels of the era. The first time I saw him, I felt like I was in the presence of a medieval vampire from some exotic planet, an immortal soul who knew all the secrets of the universe. I now wonder if indeed this is perhaps true. I was totally in awe of Rowland, especially when I saw him play. Tall and lanky with a striking appearance, his guitar expertise/style was unique, spontaneous and extremely idiosyncratic.
Rowland had a fierce presence. An aura of white light seemed to surround him on stage and although Nick was the dynamic and electrifying frontman, it was Rowland’s unorthodox charisma and talent that helped The Boys Next Door evolve through their incarnation to the Birthday Party and into a world wide phenomenon.
Although Rowland no longer played ‘Shivers’ at his solo performances, I think many will agree the version as recorded and performed by The Boys Next Door was the epitome of the art school/punk generation, an iconic song that still reverberates throughout time and opens a portal to those Ballroom days when we were passionate free spirits and forever young, a song like no other, a masterpiece that truly does and always will send a shiver down my spine!
The Dark Prince may have left the building, but his memory and music will live on for an eternity and he may now rest in peace.
Music writer, author of Inner City Sound
Rowland was one of the first three people I met in Melbourne when I moved back there to live at the start of 1978. The other two were Bruce Milne and Ollie Olsen. This was all I could think of to write in the tribute book leaving the church, and that in a way it was kind of nice all four of us were back together again in the same room with nothing but good feelings for each other. Maybe this is love, transcending any amount of water under the bridge.
I should have added in the tribute book that Rowland’s life was one well led, that he left a supreme artistic legacy and a legion of true friends and great admirers the world over, and that all that’s no small achievement.
In the church I sat next to Jeffrey Wegener and Ollie Olsen, and like everyone we were moved and amused by the service. One thing that struck me, as mention was oft-made of the Young Charlatans, and I was sitting next to the two surviving members of the band (bassist Janine Hall sadly died two years ago), that even as I may have been accused of over-mythologising the Charlatans, I’m thinking now that I might have even under-mythologised them!
It was that period, 1978-’79 in Melbourne, when I knew Rowland best, when Bruce Milne was managing the Charlatans and he and I were co-editing the fanzine Pulp, to which Rowland contributed, and I was sharing a house with Jeffrey. The Boys Next Door were the only band we thought came anywhere near the Charlatans. That Janet Austin and I were able to embrace at Rowland’s wake and trade chorus lines from old Charlatans songs we STILL remember even though they were never recorded is surely some indication of their primacy. They were so perfectly fully-formed so precociously early. Indeed, had they been located in London or New York, as the usual hypotheticals go, they could have been so much more than just, say, like Television before Richard Hell left, they could have been … but it’s all hypothetical anyway isn’t it?
And besides, Rowland went on to join the Birthday Party and through that and all the rest of his output, he has, I think, got a fair bit of his due as one of the great rock’n’roll guitarists.
Former manager, Young Charlatans
I was digging through a box of old cassettes recently and came across one that Rowland had given me in ’74 or ’75. His distinct handwriting was instantly recognizable – “Iggy & the Stooges RAW POWER” written on one side, “Velvet Underground WL/WH” on the other. Even as a school-kid, he knew which music mattered.
We were at school together, a tiny school of a 100 misfits, the Swinburne Community School in Hawthorn. He formed a band with some of the others there, Simon McLean and Clint Small, called Tootho & the Ring of Confidence (TATROC). Rowland played squawking sax and rhythm guitar. TATROC eventually morphed into the Obsessions, with Graham Pitt and Simon. I can’t remember if they ever played a gig, I just remember rehearsals.
In 1977 Clinton Walker and Janet Austin and I started a fanzine, Pulp. Rowland designed the logo and page headers. At the time, he wanted to pursue commercial design and carried his expensive Rotring pen set everywhere he went. He wrote a few reviews, too. He had strong opinions.
I organised a concert at Swinburne College in August ’77 with the Boys Next Door, The Reals and The Obsessions. Just before the concert, Rowland announced that the Obsessions were over and he was forming a band with a guy he’d met at a party, Ollie Olsen. They traveled up to Sydney and stayed at a squalid squat (no doors, no toilet) in North Sydney that The Saints had occupied at some stage. They hooked up with Jeff Wegener (ex-Saints, Last Words) and a crazy New Zealander, Janine Hall, and all moved back to a place in North Melbourne together. They called themselves The Young Charlatans. I co-managed them with Philip Morland and thought they were the best band in the world. Somewhere, I have some live cassettes that prove I was right. I planned to start a record label, Au-Go-Go, to release a Young Charlatans 7”. The label eventually started but without the Young Charlatans. On the eve of an Adelaide tour, they split up.
Rowland joined the Boys Next Door and I started working for their label, Missing Link. Keith Glass and I went guitar shopping with him one day to a store on Brunswick Street where he spied a white Fender Jaguar for $400 sitting on a wall of Flying Vs and Gibson SGs. It was the perfect instrument for his jagged, jerking, unique guitar style.
Many years later I had the pleasure (and occasional frustration) of working with Rowland on releasing his solo album, Teenage Snuff Film, and the wonderful Hungry Ghosts album he produced with Lindsay Gravina. The London Sunday Times magazine wanted to do a story on Rowland after Teenage Snuff Film came out there. The journalist rang me in a frantic state because he couldn’t get Rowland to answer his phone or return a call. I couldn’t either. The promotion/publicity side of things just wasn’t a priority with Rowland.
Though others may hold memories of Rowland as the “dark prince of (whatever)”, they’re not mine. To me he was always the smarter, younger, school friend. The one I was jealous of because he’d found a copy of Raw Power before me.
Ex-Young Charlatans, The Laughing Clowns
I remember clearly first meeting Rowland. In 1978 I caught a flight to Melbourne during a very bad thunderstorm, got quite drunk on the flight in the process, and went to a house in Carlton where I met Rowland and Ollie Olsen who I had been “referred” to by my friends in The Saints. We were to form a band called the Young Charlatans, with wonderful Janine Hall on bass.
At our first meeting Rowland had a dark suit on with a badge with a photo of himself on it. It had the name of one of his songs on it. I think it was ‘The Model of Youth’. I thought “These guys are really great”, and they were. When I heard the songs I was blown away. Even then a very young Rowland - he was about 17 or 18 - had written fabulous songs like ‘Shivers’, ‘Broken Hands’, ‘She’s Not The Chosen One’, and more. Rowland and Ollie both sang, and both played the most incredible though different styles of guitar. Those songs I have listed stand the test of time because they were the work of one of the most amazing, and talented, and wonderful people I have known, Rowland S Howard.
Though our band broke up, I embrace that experience so very much, being so lucky to have played with him and got to know him. I also played with him in other bands, including the Birthday Party, and other situations over the years. He was kind and encouraging, and playing with him was a dream. He liked my playing and told me so, in the most kind and sincere way. That meant a lot, and still does.
People often talk about integrity in music. Like the best creative people who I have met, Rowland didn’t need to even think about that stuff. He was himself and he did what he did, and that was great, and it is as simple as that.
He was also really fucking funny. I can still hear him saying, “Hi, I’m Chuck Connors” - at the time it was hilarious. He had a form of sweet sarcasm that was strangely reassuring. I would be raving on about something silly and he would say, “Uummm, that’s good, Jeff.” He did this great thing with his eyebrows, a bit like Simon Templar in The Saint.
Rowland wrote in his songs about that strange side of our condition that we are both burning so bright - “white hot”, but that we are paradoxically so vulnerable. Like being a nightmare, about not going back there again, “until I can hold her”. I find this very powerful, honest, brave, and moving. Rowland was passionate and loved a lot.
I have been blessed in my life by knowing and working with Rowland Howard. I am still trying to make sense of his death, but what I can make sense of is what he has given me. He was lovely, kind, vulnerable, brilliant, creative, funny and so very much more. He played the most amazing guitar and wrote incredible songs – some that I had the honour and privilege to play. He was a fan of my old band The Laughing Clowns and that still means so very much coming from him.
When we play again soon, I will think of him a lot. He inspired me those years ago, after that thunderstorm in that house in Carlton when he first played me his songs, and we talked about music so very passionately, and he continues to inspire me today.
I love him and miss him. And I will never, never forget Rowland, and the so very powerful gifts he has so unselfishly given to me. Thank you Rowland so very very much.
Rowland was the coolest. He was otherwordly. A room full of the greatest minds in science and the arts could not have invented Rowland Howard. The only person who could have invented Rowland, was Rowland.
He did have a regal air about him. I could never imagine him doing the most everyday of things - riding a bike, sending a text. When I walked into his flat one day to find him hunched over in front of the TV, playing shoot-em-up videogames, I could have fainted. Yet, for all his otherworldliness, he remained the most human of friends.
He wore his heart on his sleeve, without apology. He was consistent. I always knew exactly where I was with Rowland. His wit was ferocious, and he was one of the funniest people I knew, even though I never heard him tell anything remotely resembling a joke. He was incredibly encouraging to me in the times I needed it the most, and he was the most loyal friend I ever could have asked for.
Rowland was always searching for new and wonderful things - whether in art, writing, film or music. When he found something he liked, he'd tell me about it with such excitement and zeal, it was impossible to not get swept up in it all. To hear Rowland say, "That's soooo fantastic", was always a pleasure. His own artistic vision was singular and it was magical. He wrote some of the most amazing songs that I have ever heard.
The last few days that my wife and I had with Rowland in the Austin Hospital, were heart wrenchingly sad, yet filled with a kind of a beauty I can't easily put into words. I feel honoured that we could share these moments with him. I'll never be the same again.
I'll miss Rowland's laugh, his enthusiasm, his words. I'll miss seeing sad films on hot days with him, walking out of the cinema weeping, and frightening four-year-olds on Fitzroy Street.
He was a masterclass in elegance and eloquence. He never compromised and he fought until the end. I'll miss him every day for the rest of my life. He was a wicked fairytale and a true and a beautiful friend.
Rest in peace, Rowly.
This is the eulogy Conrad Standish delivered at Howard’s funeral.
Rowland was the first interview I ever did as an aspiring teenage music writer, when I was commissioned to write about the Birthday Party for my friend's fanzine. Jangling with nerves, I met him backstage at the RMIT Storey Hall show and turned on the tape recorder I'd borrowed from 3CR for the occasion. Amazingly, Rowland seemed even more nervous and shy than I was; he mumbled a few hesitant responses to my questions, kept looking nervously over his shoulder and then half fell down the stairs. So it wasn't much of an interview, but my hopeless teenage crush was fixed forever.
More than 20 years later I had the great honour of Rowland agreeing to perform at a show I'd organised with my partner Ash Miles, Summer Tones at the Espy. At this show and later at ATP on Mount Buller and Cockatoo Island, I was struck by the legions of starry-eyed teenagers lining up for the front row long before Rowland came on stage. How cool it was that he was still adored by young people, and that he had transcended the nostalgia circuit fate of so many of his peers.
We were so sad to cancel this year's Summer Tones when it became apparent that Rowland's health was worsening. It seems horribly unfair that he didn't live long enough to enjoy the new illustriousness that was dawning for him. There was, at least, an outpouring of love for him in the past year, and I hope he revelled in it.
I met Rowland through Ollie Olsen who asked me to record a demo of ‘Shivers’ featuring Marie Hoy with Rowland for Dogs in Space in my loungeroom on a 4-track. I was fucking honoured. This was 23-plus years, and at the time The Birthday Party’s ‘Deep in the Woods’ was still a song I played so loud it must have annoyed the neighbours next door. Recording his guitar that day, it was my personal introduction to one hell of a great man that I admired and loved till the day he died.
I was a fan of The Boys Next Door, The Birthday Party and These Immortal Souls, but that's a long story and there’s no need to bore people. They were all bands that changed my life, with a special mention to Tony Cohen as well.
Twelve years or so later, Teenage Snuff Film came out and I was again so in awe of this talent that I just walked up to Rowland after all these years and said, "I need to mix this", and it worked. The time I spent mixing Rowland live will forever ring true in my heart and soul. I'll never forget that sound that captivated me way back when I was just a kid at the Seaview Ballroom.
Rowland. You changed my life as a kid, as a musician, as a sound engineer, as a believer in art, and I will always channel your spirit when I mix, because you had it. And I'm gonna miss you like hell. Love You Forever.
Rowland S Howard is the prince of teenage romance. There is mischief and heartbreak in all of his moves and in the sounds that he makes. But I loved Rowland's voice the most. His songs tear me up inside like that of Nina Simone. It's crazy, isn't it? He was magical-looking whether the lighting was good or bad. He was as curious as a cat, if he liked you.
I became friends with Rowland in February 2006 when he produced HTRK's debut album Marry Me Tonight with Lindsay Gravina. We were so over the moon when Rowland approached us to make an album. Wow. For our aesthetic he was our dream producer. We shared a love of smoking cigarettes, pop culture and adolescent romances. Teenagers are like a feared third sex, and it became the concept of Marry Me Tonight. He could hear the pop in our songs that others heard as noise. He wanted to explore this further and he encouraged us to create an otherworldly album made for teenage kicks. For all of us it still has the same impact and urgency it did when we first recorded it.
It was his encouragement and belief in us that has given HTRK our longevity and myself an extra smirk. He became a dear friend in the years since. Even just meeting up with Rowland for coffee and a cigarette felt like being in the coolest of gangs.
We got to work on a duet together in early 2008. He thought our voices would complement each other and we both share the same humour in twisting pop music on its head. We met for coffee on Fitzroy Street. This is where Rowland first revealed the line, “She's my narcotic lollipop”, which he was thrilled about, and then told me that I would be singing, “I put my fingers in his mouth”. I tried not to blush too much. He had that cute Rowland smirk with the one eyebrow lifted. It's amazing to have shared this fantastic song that will outlast both of us. I'll miss his beautiful face and friendship every day.
Thank you Rowly.
- Trevor Block
- Boys Next Door photo by Peter Milne, photographers for other pictures unknown.
- Pulp logo by Rowland.