Autoluminescent

November 5, 2011
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“I was a nightmare, but I’m not gonna go there again..” sings Rowland S. Howard in the plaintive song that gives this documentary its title. We never quite see the nightmarish side, but Howard was a long-term heroine user and few addicts are known for their charm and savoir faire. He was an addict ergo he was a nightmare.

There are lots of loose ends in this profile of a talented, sensitive individual who might have been a lyric poet in another age. The most eloquent interviewee in this film, the American rock musician, Henry Rollins, describes Howard as “the spectral man suffering from malaria – Rimbaud, pulled from Africa and given a guitar.” This image of Howard as Rimbaud feels just about right. Another Melbourne artist, the young Sidney Nolan, also identified with the French poète maudit

Rimbaud died at the age of 37, Nolan made it to 75, while Howard died of liver cancer aged 50. This is young in human terms but almost elderly among the ranks of rock idols who seem to find it hard to get past 27.

Howard was never the standard guitar hero. He was an old 16 and a youthful 50. He was a mass of contradictions: selfish and demanding, but painfully sensitive; egocentric and insecure; a born romantic who was able to look at himself with a critical eye. In this film by Richard Lowenstein (Dogs in Space, 1986), and Lynn-Maree Milburn, we get an affectionate, fragmented view of a figure who never wanted to grow up, but attained a new maturity just as his health let him down.

Howard is known as one of the two main creative forces behind the legendary Melbourne post-punk band, The Birthday Party, the other being singer, Nick Cave. I went to some of The Birthday Party’s Sydney gigs, and recall them as being wilder, louder and more menacing than anything else at that time. When they moved to Britain in 1980, they were completely at odds with the ‘New Romantic’ pop that dominated the scene. “Rowland took London personally,” says Cave, “as if someone had  built it to make him unhappy, but he may well have taken the world in that way.”

The Birthday Party would find their audiences in the United States, and later in Berlin, where they attained an extraordinary popularity.

Howard was a crucial part of the group’s sound, with a piercing guitar style that made liberal use of vibrato and feedback. He wrote songs that were dark and maudlin, and had a mournful singing voice pitched somewhere between a sneer and a tear.

Late in life Howard complained that everyone spoke to him about Shivers, a song he had written at the age of 16. The first lines are typical of what was to follow:

“I’ve been contemplating suicide, but it really wouldn’t suit my style..” This was heard by many as textbook teenage angst, but Howard conceived it as a send-up of the preposterous attitudes of schoolfriends acting like starstruck lovers.

When Howard sang Shivers his sarcasm was obvious, but Nick Cave made it into a big ballad, full of stage emotion. When the Birthday Party split up in 1984, it was largely because of growing creative differences between Howard and Cave.

Post-Birthday Party, Howard went through a series of bands and collaborations. First there was Crime and the City Solution, followed by These Immortal Souls. With New Yorker, Lydia Lunch, he recorded a cover version of Lee Hazelwood’s Some Velvet Morning, probably one of the weirdest pop songs of all time:

Some velvet morning when I’m straight

I’m gonna open up your gate!

And let me tell you about Phaedra…

Yes, Phaedra. Howard’s idolisation of Lee Hazelwood is a key to understanding much of his music, and the deep vocal style he affected, but it is merely one moment in a film that remains impressionistic from start to finish. Autoluminescent is a scrappy production that depends on the intrinsic interest of its subject, and perhaps the nostalgia it will invoke for many viewers.

The final portrait of Howard is made up of many touches and anecdotes, leaving a lot unsaid. Harry Howard talks briefly about the difficulties of playing in a band with a brother who had to have everything his own way.

Although he was probably best suited to a solo career, Howard produced only two albums, Teenage Snuff Movie (1999), and Pop Crimes (2009), both of which acquired a cult following. This is a pitifully small output for someone as talented as Howard. For every burst of creativity, there seems to have been a lot of gloom, procrastination and drug induced inertia. At one point he says: “I find it remarkable that most people don’t seem to see the world as essentially a very sad place, because I think it is..”

The world may be a very sad place, but Howard had no desire to leave it at the end of 2009. He was clean, he had a stable relationship, and was enjoying his music again. His tragedy is that he would die at the very point when he stopped being his own worst enemy.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, November 5, 2011

Australia. Rated M, 100 minutes.