“The only person who could have invented Rowland was Rowland,” said musician Conrad Standish in his eulogy at Rowland S Howard’s funeral in 2010. That fact couldn’t be more evident tonight, at this second of two tribute concerts from Rowland’s peers, friends and bandmates, many of whom fondly describe his lofty, regal air, his dapper look from another era and, of course, that otherworldly guitar playing – like the soul rendered sonic.
Last year, Boys Next Door/Birthday Party alumni Mick Harvey and Phill Calvert joined forces for the first time in 30 years to pay tribute to their friend at the St Kilda Bowls Club, joined by Rowland’s sister Angela Howard and guitarist Ron Rude. Tonight the four reunite again, this time with musicians marking every era of Rowland’s career.
The turn-out of talent is incredible, and with such a whirlwind of gear and guests some “dramatic pauses” are inevitable, but no one’s complaining when it means we get to ogle the glittering array of Fender finery on stage here at the St Kilda Memo. As musical director, Mick Harvey keeps a stern eye on proceedings (Rowland once told me in an interview, “he went spare when I bought a guitar with a whammy bar”). His good work is tempered by MC Dave Graney, who detonates any overly reverent feelings we may be having for the occasion with tales that are as tall as they are entertaining.
The Boys Next Door formed in 1973 while its members were still at Caulfield Grammar. A teenage Rowland used to review their shows for fanzines and wound up joining them as second guitarist; then, in 1978, they morphed into the Birthday Party. Tonight they’re represented by drummer Phill Calvert, Harvey on guitar, Chris Walsh on bass and Harry Howard – who frequently performed in bands with his big brother – on vocals and guitar. The knife-sharpening guitar effect that Rowland intended to be a “hot-rodded version of Duane Eddy”, is lovingly recreated, and Harvey steps up to the plate to sing ‘Ho-Ho’, after Tex Perkins – standing in for the conspicuously absent Nick Cave – goes AWOL. It’s not the strongest section of the night, but it’s interesting to hear the genesis of that talent, because it was perhaps Rowland’s early recognition as a guitar hero that contributed to the Birthday Party’s demise in 1983. Having two forces of nature powering the band could only result in them repelling each other.
The stage is cleared for the next era. These Immortal Souls diminutive keyboardist Genevieve McGuckin is popular with the crowd, dwarfed by her NORD and dressed in velvet finery. She’s joined by Harry, drummer Craig Williamson are guitarist JP Shilo. Harry warns us gravely, “This is probably the last These Immortal Souls performance you’ll ever see.” Jonnine Standish from HTRK is welcomed on stage for a rendition of ‘Marry Me’. Her band followed in These Immortal Souls’ footsteps by making Berlin their base, and along with husband Conrad, she came to collaborate with Rowland in later years.
The Drones’ Gareth Liddiard – another Fender Jag fan – bashes his guitar against his knee, chokes the whammy bar and fits his way through a frantic version of ‘Hyperspace’. Gallic ’throbs Dimi Dero and Tex Napalm come on for flamboyant turns at the mic that make me wish like a motherfucker I’d caught their own Melbourne show, but behind them it’s Craig Williamson who grabs most of my attention, by way of his expressive beats that seem to tell their own tale.
Even so, it’s JP Shilo who is the star of the show. Rowland was a musician who thought the beauty of electric guitars was that you could defeat their purpose. It’s probably a bit coarse to describe Shilo as Rowland’s protégé since he’s an in-demand guitarist and violinist in his own right, but he’s perfectly captured that mercurial method of playing. He sings as sinisterly as a man pasting up newspaper clippings on his bedroom wall, but he can make a guitar cry, stagger and die with much less effort.
Bronwyn Bonney, Rowland’s bandmate in Crime and the City Solution, comes on to sing the ethereal ‘Black Milk’, smiling beatifically throughout. She tells us she met Rowland when she was 13 and he’d given her a musical education, correcting her love for Suzi Quatro by introducing her to the Stooges and the Velvets.
Next up is Spencer P Jones, who breaks the tradition of the evening by wielding a naughty Gibson. He’d briefly joined These Immortal Souls as a guitarist, but tonight he’s playing Rowland’s favourite covers: The Only Ones’ ‘The Whole of the Law’ and Lou Reed’s ‘Oh Jim’. He fixes the front rows with a pop-eyed squint between songs. “There’s a lot of budding Spielbergs down here,” he notes evilly, causing every cameraphone in the house to hastily drop. “I like to control my own performances.” He winds up with ‘In My Time of Dying’, taken from Shotgun Wedding – the album Rowland recorded with Lydia Lunch. Watching Dimi Dero, who’s joined him mid-song, desperately try and figure out when to apply his last flourish on the drum kit in this flying-by-the-seat-of-pants performance is actually a thrilling highlight of the evening.
Teenage Snuff Film, Rowland’s first solo album, is a shivery, cinematic collection of work, with flourishes of Ennio Morricone. It’s laden with his love of film noir imagery and pulp novel kitsch. Gareth Liddiard returns to sing the moody ‘Shut Me Down’, joined by Beasts of Bourbon’s Brian Hooper on bass, Harvey on drums, Shilo on guitar and TJ Howden on violin. Jonnine takes a turn for a duet of the song Rowland wrote for her, ‘(I Know) a Girl Called Johnny’. It’s a recent number that many in the audience have been waiting for, but it’s the one track tonight that doesn’t work for me. It’s a lust song, from the throbbing guitar to the refrain “I put my fingers in his mouth”, but Gaz doesn’t really seem to be a “narcotic lollipop” kind of guy. Not in public anyway.
Next up is a real treat, though: Penny Ikinger doing ‘Dead Radio’, followed by ‘Breakdown (And Then…)’. Something weird happens to everyone on stage. Howden’s smiling with his eyes shut; everyone else looks like their revolutions-per-minute have almost slowed to a halt and they’re playing through treacle. There’s a feeling of both reverence and reverie. It’s a moment of real connection.
Mark Steiner, over from Norway via New York specially for these shows, admits freely he’s a songwriter and guitarist heavily influenced by Rowland’s work, and tonight he leads the band through ‘Silver Chain’. He’s followed by Hugo Race, who delivers the darkly erotic ‘Undone’, that swipes John Donne’s ‘Eulogy XIX’: “License my roving hands, and let them go, Behind, before, above, between, below…” He delivers it with compelling urgency, shifty-looking in a spiv suit and the kind of villainous vim Tarantino would try and bottle. It’s followed up with the existential ‘Exit Everything’, and I’d bet anything that nobody goes to the bar during these two numbers.
Tex Perkins has been located and commands the stage with a powerful version of ‘Wayward Man’ (“When I kissed you, darling / Did I stick in your craw?") from Rowland’s second solo album, Pop Crimes (Ron Rude writes some great stuff about that album here). There’s no mugging for the crowd tonight, no playful hamming it up: this is direct, dangerous stuff – ideal for the cruel streak that follows in ‘She Cried’. Harry Howard sings ‘Pop Crimes’ itself, giving Brian the chance to reproduce live what may be the best loafing-down-the-street-up-to-no-good bass line ever written. The band exits the stage to the howling and moaning of Shilo’s unfettered guitar.
Everybody here knows that Rowland’s most enduring number is ‘Shivers’ – immortalised in the film Dogs In Space – so Mick and Harry gamely encore with an acoustic version, trading lines. You can almost hear Rowland’s ‘Last Post’ guitar echoing over the top. “We love you Rowland,” Harry bids us shout as we leave.
A NOTE ON THE ST KILDA MEMO
Tonight also marks the launch party of the St Kilda Memo, a beautiful dance hall and theatre built in 1924 after the local community banded together after the First World War and raised the funds. In the thirties to fifties it was a cinema, then a recording studio in the 1960s, then fell into disrepair until now. (As David Carruthers remarks ruefully, the building’s troubles continued when it took them two years to get a permit from the local council.) It’s a fitting venue to host a night dedicated to a prophet of St Kilda.