Henry Rollins says Rowland S. Howard was physically onomatopoeic: he looked like the sounds made by his guitar. He was barely sixteen, already dressing like a dandied art-punk, when he wrote ‘Shivers’ - a song so good Nick Cave says anyone could’ve quit music afterwards and been satisfied. Howard never quit, of course, and the new documentary Autoluminescent tracks his entire musical career: from The New Charlatans to Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party (fronted by Cave) and onto later projects like These Immortal Souls.
Directed by Lynn-Maree Milburn and Dogs In Space’s Richard Lowenstein, Autoluminescent follows Howard from the streets of Melbourne in the late 70s to London, New York, Berlin, and back again. It’s told by two Howards: the swaggering young artist in its archival footage, and the softer, older, somewhat wiser one in its later interviews. It makes you feel like you know him personally - and his music, too, even if it’s unfamiliar. He was always more experimental than his Birthday Party bandmates, influenced by Dada and Duchamp, once playing his guitar with only the occasional light touch to manipulate its musical feedback.
The doco focuses so tightly and passionately on Howard, though, that it doesn’t flesh out the era around him - unlike, say, how The Filth and The Fury situated the Sex Pistols in popular culture. It also periodically transforms into a first year art school project by illustrating sections of Howard’s unpublished novel with eye-rollingly cheesy imagery: slo-mo cats! Close-up typewriters! Tombstones and Tim Burton toys!
But it’s fascinating how even with two Howards - and the insightful commentary from both those who knew him and musicians he later influenced - the truth can be slippery. Howard claims 'Shivers' was meant to be satire on the ridiculousness of love, but we're then told he was the ultimate tortured romantic, pining after every girl he met. And while at first the film seems to gloss over his growing dependence on heroin, it later slams shut like a bear trap hidden under snow.
Rowland S. Howard gets the last words in Autoluminescent: his own name. It’s fitting for someone who seemed to create himself from scratch, born fully-formed.