It was with great sadness that we heard last month of the passing of Rowland S. Howard. While searching for something that might encapsulate the spirit and passion of the late musical visionary, a eulogy of sorts, I found this as-yet-unpublished review of his last live performance.
Howard played the Prince Bandroom in Melbourne on the 29th October, 2009, before increasing medical problems forced him to cancel several planned appearances, including a spot on the national Homebake festival lineup. Our reviewer Greg Moskovitch was patently aware at the time that Howard’s days were numbered, and I struggled for quite some time as to whether or not to present this review in it’s graphic, unedited entirety.
I’ve decided to leave it exactly as Greg wrote it – Ed.
It’s been said that the best a performer can do is go out there, do their thing and leave a pint of blood on the stage. Before tonight, I had never actually seen it happen.
Rowland S. Howard – the legendary poète maudit of Melbourne – steps on to the stage of the Prince Bandroom looking emaciated and frail, like a glass skeleton covered in pockmarked wax. He has the gaunt face of a sickly child and elongated frame of some giant stalking mantis. Still, there’s an immeasurable amount of charm in Rowland’s appearance, from his warm smile to his impeccably shined shoes. Greeting the audience like our favourite school teacher – ‘Hello children’ – he warns the audience that he’s feeling queasy and they shouldn’t be alarmed if he vomits on stage. Rowland and co. then launch into Pop Crimes, from the new LP of the same name.
Bass-heavy, drenched in feedback and loud as you can make it is the only way to listen to Pop Crimes. I begin to wonder where the noise ends and the music begins, as the two are married in idyllic harmony. For those of you who missed out on seeing Exploding Plastic Inevitable, feel free to attend a Rowland S. Howard show. Rowland effortlessly strains the blaze of the first two Velvet Underground albums, and the heartfelt lyrical sincerity of the third through his own derisive filter.
Peering down at lyric sheets during instrumental breaks in songs, Rowland at first looks like a deer in headlights. You’d almost think he was nervous, staring wide-eyed into the distance as he announces Dead Radio, a classic among Rowland fans. A song I’d listened to, ad nauseam, since first getting a copy of the Teenage Snuff Film album. It was one of my favourites – a sardonic love song with sharp lyrics and plenty of romance to boot – but hearing it in the flesh for the first time, laden with feedback and Rowland muddling the odd lyric, the song takes on a new meaning for me. It transforms into a dark and mournful dirge. I become deeply disturbed by the smiling faces and dancing bodies that shift and writhe around me.
Rowland has always been a romantic figure to the luminaries of the Melbourne hipster and Goth scenes (all of whom are present at tonight’s show). They’re in love with the image of the supremely talented but utterly under appreciated songwriter, sprawled out on the floor of some suburban Melbourne loft with a bottle of booze and a cigarette pinched between his lips – a heroin chic hero for the alternistas. It’s a sound notion, but not the Rowland S. Howard perched several feet away from me, slugging back a bottle of Pepsi between songs.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever knowingly been this close to a dying man. A man who’s spent virtually every waking moment since the late ’70s living what most others only see and hear in Mick Rock photos and rock’n’roll urban legend. But there’s no romance or illusion here. Every toll that could be taken has been done so and – at least for me – Rowland has been stripped of his ‘down and out’ allure.
Yet this wasn’t Rowland S. Howard either, at least not all of him. A living embodiment of rock’n’roll casualty he may be, but Rowland is first and foremost, a gentleman – a witty, affable and utterly charming individual with personality in abundance. This is something you don’t see every day, especially in rock’n’roll. Taking everything in his stride, catching most things in his blood that we all lose between rooms. To a fan’s drunken declaration of love, this wayward man simply replies with a sincere ‘Thank you’ and that warm Rowland smile, followed by ‘It’s good to be loved.’
Soon, the looming ever-repeating bassline of Talk Talk’s Life’s What You Make It rears its head. Rowland seemingly hasn’t kicked his habit of covering ’80s pop hits on his albums (a cover of White Wedding was included on Teenage Snuff Film). It’s a song that I, in the past, have confessed to loathing (I never liked the original White Wedding either). Nevertheless, I can’t help but like Rowland’s menacing, stripped down cover version. Also, unlike the original, his vocals don’t piss me off.
‘Beauty is naked’ – could serve as a maxim for Rowland’s career; from the incendiary post-punk of the Birthday Party to his underexposed work with Lydia Lunch and others to his moving solo work. In all his pursuits, Rowland has always reveled in the stripped down, the minimal and the raw, always with staggeringly beautiful results.
The band finishes their set and leaves the stage before quickly returning. Apparently Rowland has made a mistake – ‘I left without playing the last song in the set’ – he apologizes and the instantly recognizable bassline of Exit Everything starts rocking Goth kids young and old. Halfway through the song something falls from Rowland’s mouth, but not a poignant lyric. It happens again. ‘Sweat or saliva…’ I think to myself ‘…dripping from his lips.’ He wipes his mouth off and returns his grip to his Fender Jaguar but not before stalling to glimpse the blood that now covers his hand and finger, blood that continues to drip from his mouth and on to the microphone before crashing down on the stage. He licks it from his finger and the show goes on, as it must.
Afterwards, Rowland declares that he’s ‘leaking’ and adds ‘Let’s do one more, just to prove that you can squeeze blood from a stone’ which suddenly doesn’t seem as impossible as I’d previously heard.
Seemingly, Rowland can defy anything from medical convention to dull proverbs and rock’n’roll ego. And that’s the other Rowland S. Howard that makes himself apparent to me: the transcendent and virtually unstoppable performer who stands on the stage like the Colossus of Rhodes as a barrage of Kleenexes hurtle towards his feet and Iggy eats his heart out.
I leave the Prince Bandroom not disturbed or afraid, only grateful. Thank you, Rowland S. Howard for giving me the first sobering epiphany I’ve had in a long time, thank you for releasing a new LP (thereby giving me something new to listen to). And thank you for being the only friend we need.