Dennis Cooper’s Blog: Dan Wreck and Marilyn Roxie Present … Rowland S. Howard (Part 2)

Originally posted on the previous incarnation of Dennis Cooper’s Blog. This section was written by Dan.
Teenage Snuff Film (1999)
“You’re bad for me like cigarettes, but I haven’t sucked enough of you yet”
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It may or may not be hyperbole to say that after I heard those opening words to “Dead Radio”, the first song on Teenage Snuff Film, there was no going back: my life isn’t over yet, it could be too early to say. It was a powerful moment though: subtle drums; a mournful violin; subterranean bass and, of course, that unmistakable guitar sound. Like Ennio Morricone soundtracking a teen drama directed by David Lynch. Or some equally trite metaphor: there’s simply nothing like it, and it’s a good job there’s no shortage of words as I recklessly waste them trying to describe the impact it had on me. I played the opening track a few times, then on to track two: Breakdown (and then…)

“Crown prince of the crying Jag, stuffs a towel in his mouth to gag”
 
Now, again, that’s one hell of an opening line: if more people had written about him, you can bet that “crown prince of the crying Jag” would be lazy rock-crit shorthand by now. On this track he demonstrates why this is (should have been) the case. It all sounded impossibly difficult to me on first listen but on maybe the twentieth listen the sheer economy of his playing throughout the album dawned on me and made it all the more frustrating. Then the following cover of The Shangri-Las’ “He Cried” (“She Cried”). Mick Harvey beats out Hal Blaine’s “Be My Baby” beat and the album title suddenly makes sense. There’s an adolescent drama to all of this, that feeling you get when you’re a teenager that you must be with this person or you’ll just crumble. Of course, at the same time there’s a sense of how ridiculous this all is in the mordant smirk Rowland sings in: he knows all too well how ridiculous it all is, now if only he could stop and pull himself together. Personally speaking, he’s my favourite singer. I first heard this album when I was 16, maybe the ideal time. It mattered to The Horrors, too: Faris Badwan and Josh Hayward are two obvious Rowland disciples and when I heard the “She Cried” nod in the breakdown to “Who Can Say” (from 2009’s Primary Colours) it was obvious which cover they were referring to.


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Photo by Andrew J. Cosgriff
The next track, “I Burnt Your Clothes”, is the first appearance on the album of the guitar savagery familiar from his work in The Birthday Party. It’s sparse again, a lot of the song is carried by Brian Hooper’s sleazy and slightly overdriven bass. There’s a brief, squalling anti-solo but that’s all for now from a rare guitar hero who plays only in service of the song.“Exit Everything” follows, a nihilistic title for what is superficially the cheeriest thing on the album with it’s almost funky bassline and absurdities “Exit everything, nodding dogs and valium”. Even here though he’s threatening us with powder burns to the face.


It abruptly sinks into the abyss again with “Silver Chain”, a song that has on many occasions reduced me to tears. Part of its beauty is, again, the simplicity of it: not an organ note, a drum hit or tremolo-arm guitar twitch is wasted. Co-written with his ex-girlfriend / These Immortal Souls bandmate Genevieve McGuinn this is a characteristically desperate song of lost love and self destruction. While all the rage of The Birthday Party’s “Deep In The Woods” is present here, it is turned inward where Cave lashed out at the world, and an earlier live version of this song from 1995 replaces the words “bottle” and “alcohol” with “needle” and “heroin”. Mournful violin leads us into a crescendo of double-tracked vocals and the band racing into oblivion, eventually all dropping out but for that sneer, drunk on its own pain and amused by it at the same time, catching on the words “I forgot my name on the day that you came”.


The following cover of “White Wedding” is what Billy Idol’s original would’ve sounded like if the menacing sex appeal he imagined he had actually existed, but it’s only a prelude to “Undone”, the greatest expression of the scorned lover fury running through this film. It also has the best guitar playing on the record, that trademark shower-of-splinters rhythm playing behind ringing powerchords; pealing, bell like sustained notes and squalls of feedback. If only you could walk into a guitar shop or practice room and hear people trying to play like this rather than strumming staidly through an earnest eunuch of a fashionably non-committal singer-songwriter’s passive-aggressive “you’d want me if I wasn’t such a nice guy” dirge or wanking themselves into oblivion at a thousand notes per second. While this is itself a “why don’t you want me” song it’s not that of an entitled man-child: it’s a song that begs the question “Yeah, actually that’s a good question, how could you resist this man?”, which quotes John Donne’s Elegy 20: To His Mistress Going To Bed in the quieter bridge section.


“License my roving hands and let them go; above, before, between, behind, below”


Then the bravado all evaporates in the final verse, the final words faltering on the edge of a slow-burn coda that does in around a minute what post-rock bands spend entire discographies trying and failing.


Rowland S. Howard – “Undone”

The next song, “Autoluminescent” is another that can choke me up if it catches me in the wrong / right mood. Simplicity is key here again, funereal organ chords draped over sparse rhythm section, almost imperceptible picked acoustic guitars and electric shivers a velvet backdrop.“I’m bigger than Jesus Christ
I’m sharper than God in light
I am dangerous, I cut like the sharpest knife
I’m going nova, I hope I can hold her in”
Once more the moodswing, the bravado and bragadocio evaporating.


“Sleep Alone” closes the album on a high note. Of course it does, everything on the album is great: by this point the fact that I quite like Rowland S. Howard should be apparent. If you’re not into the brooding lovelorn stuff and just want to hear the man who squalled on Birthday Party songs while Nick Cave struggled to stay upright this track is still one to check out, ending as it does with an extended feedback drone-scape. The playing is a lot less restrained than elsewhere on the album, the riff staggering around in the same way as on Sonny’s Burning and exploding into squeals with alarming frequency. That could be in part because Mick Harvey’s on rhythm guitar, though. Lyrically, you can’t accuse the man of not being self-aware: “This is a journey to the edge of the night, I’ve got no companions Louis Celine’s on my side” is as good a description of the album as any, and the way he repeatedly opines “I’m a misanthropic man” goes all the way back to “Shivers” and echoes on “Wayward Man” on his second and final solo album Pop Crimes.


Pop Crimes (2009)


2780504.jpegPop Crimes was the final solo album by Rowland S. Howard under his own name, which is a shame because it’s also only his second. By the time it came out he was dead, poised to make a comeback of sorts, getting a crumb of the recognition he deserves having been feted by The Horrors and produced and played guitar and keys on certain tracks of HTRK’s excellent Marry Me Tonight album. That album is a favourite of Marilyn Roxie, who coaxed me into writing this post, and one I heard and enjoyed recently.


2591535.jpegMarry Me Tonight quite prominently displays the Rowland influence and a post-punk influence in general but does it the right way: by trying to create its own language, melding diverse influences together including those outside of rock music and even outside of music (i.e. books, films, art, stuff a lot of bands don’t touch with a bargepole) rather than sounding like a post-punk band by copying a few post-punk bands. Most tracks pivot around hypnotic guitar, bass and simple programmed drum grooves with washes of synthesizer and Jonnine Standish’s almost monotone vocals on top. It’s a short album of trancelike repetition.


HTRK – “Ha”

HTRK are also present on the opening track of Pop Crimes, with “(I Know) a Girl Called Jonny” being a duet between Rowland and Jonnine Standish named in her honour. The Hal Blaine beat from “She Cried” reappears here, faint echoes of his work with Lydia Lunch through this queasily erotic song written by a dying man. This is followed by “Shut Me Down”, a song available earlier on some editions of Teenage Snuff Film but present here in a different setting. The Teenage Snuff Film version (which I personally prefer but there’s not a lot between them) is a lot sparser and while the backing sounds more damaged his vocal is a lot stronger. This is the total opposite, with the feel of a grand 60’s pop song by a doomed tragic figure like Billy Fury or Gene Pitney, or perhaps a girl-group. Production-wise it’s a lot more hi-fi while the vocal is worn but still defiant. “I’m standing in a suit as ragged as my nerves”, chimes drifting soft-focus as the song closes with a repeated “I miss you so much”.


Rowland S. Howard – “Shut Me Down”

 

I hate Talk Talk. I love These New Puritans, who always get compared to them, and I get the feeling I should like them but something about them just makes me see red. Mark Hollis’ quavering voice just reminds me of the choreographed “emotiveness” of a lot of today’s stadium indie groups who coincidentally like to namedrop Talk Talk. It’s not his fault and I’m sure he wouldn’t like me either. However, as songwriters they’re clearly excellent and Rowland’s version of “Life’s What You Make It” illustrates that. I refused to believe it at first but sure enough that prowling, sleazy bassline is present in the original amid the rolled up jacket sleeves and gated reverb snares. However, Howard’s braying guitar asides and sepulchral vocal lifts it into a whole other realm. Like Johnny Cash’s covers of NIN’s “Hurt” or Bonnie Prince Billy’s “I See a Darkness”, this recording takes a song recorded by an artist in their youth and alters it. Here, the title repeated throughout is the bitter statement of a man languishing on a waiting list for treatment for grave health problems of his own making through years of destroying his body, regretful but still sneering at the idea of preaching to anyone about how they should be living their life.

There’s a similar dynamic through the title track, the rhythm section laying down a solid foundation for Rowland’s musings on guitar and vocals. This track contains something resembling conventional rock guitar solos, albeit through the Rowland filter. The second cover of the album follows, a version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin’”. Van Zandt similarly lived a life blighted by addiction, homelessness and mental illness and it was only on checking the lyric booklet that I realised this wasn’t a Howard original. “Wayward Man”, as mentioned earlier, is consistent with the self deprecation present in a lot of his other songs. There’s a strange swagger to this song’s lurching rhythm and air raid siren guitar asides, Howard’s mush-mouth delivery is a double edged sword on “I do all my best thinking unconscious on the floor”: simultaneously the epitome of elegantly wasted rock cliche and an illustration of how dangerous that notion really is unless you’re rich enough to afford the good stuff.


“Ave Maria” follows, opening with a quiet guitar line strikingly similar to the Velvet Underground’s “Ocean”, a song Rowland covered. The sparse arrangement ebbs and flows around the voice and guitar and while it’s a cliche to describe music as cinematic, this really is. By the same token, I almost feel the write-up on Teenage Snuff Film could do with spoiler warnings. I could pick it apart line by line and phrase by phrase but that’d only be fun for me. I will say that “The rain fell on a street of grey, the steeple lightning rod the cross” equals the opening of “Dead Radio” for emotional impact. Words on paper or on a screen can’t do justice to his delivery of “History led her to me” sighed and spilling over with grim inevitability. I’ll also add the closing verse moves me to tears almost every time but that almost goes without saying. Most of the impact is down to the preceding instrumental section: the rhythm section moves with new-found purpose, the strings swell and Howard plays a series of sparkling arpeggios leading upwards only to descend to earth, thick with loss in that final verse. Something about this music makes me speak and write in the kind of flowery terms I’d otherwise dismiss: I feel like Sean Penn in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown crying whenever he hears his idol Django Reinhardt.


“The Golden Age of Bloodshed”, is pretty self explanatory. Ominous bass-pulse, granite solid drums and drones and colour streaks behind the guitar and vocals. Lyrically it swings between absurdist gallows humour and an unsentimental appraisal of the situation he was living in, beginning with Catholic girls with uzis and wives disappearing with ejector seats and ending with the realisation“My life plays like Grand Guignol, blood and portents everywhere.” and a Schopenhauer quoting chorus. The phrase “planet of perpetual sorrow” from the earlier “Pop Crimes” recurs here, and the final emotional knife between the shoulder blades comes in the final seconds, when the last repetition of “She’s pure and white and bright as tomorrow” gives way to the final chord, all motorbike roar and the sputter of picked harmonics. It was a bright tomorrow that never came: two months after the album’s release he was dead. It was a tragic loss, cruelly timed as he was, based on the evidence here and his work on HTRK’s record, at the peak of his powers.


The sky is empty, silent
The earth as still as stone
Nothing stands above me
Now I can sleep alone


Sleep well, baby. It all goes back around to that first album with a name almost designed to get Dennis Cooper fans’ ears (among other body parts) to stand up and pay attention. The influence hangs over all the music I write with The Bordellos, The Nero Felines, or Neurotic Wreck: that last one where I’m the frontman recorded a Rowland tribute called “Crowned”, on the I’m Laura Palmer EP. Marilyn Roxie helped me edit that one down from a huge backlog of songs. They’re great, whether it be being pretty much my only fan or getting me to write about my favourite artist in a post that will be read my favourite author. “Crowned” isn’t a subtle tribute, bearing as it does the name of a These Immortal Souls song that listening to now I realise it bears a striking similarity to (but obviously is nowhere near as good as).


The news of Rowland’s death hit me quite hard. He ruined 2010 for me, selfish prick, dying at the end of 2009. I listened to Teenage Snuff Film over and over and cried: Pop Crimes hadn’t yet come out over here and he’s an artist I respected too much to just go on a downloading spree. Stupid, really, he’s hardly going to get any money for it now. I ranted about Rowland S. Howard more than usual. It’s safe to rave about him now, he’s dead and there’s no danger of supporting a worthwhile artist and helping make their life easier. He’s frozen as an icon. Now I don’t sneer quite as much when someone cries over the death of someone they never met and now never will. I turn the “Dead Radio” on again: “I don’t get any younger, you don’t get any older”.


Autoluminescent (2011)
 
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The last word on the subject, for now, is this documentary by Ghost Pictures where various people who loved and/or worked with Rowland eulogise him. The subject matter is tragic enough but it’s really hammered home by the endless procession of icons (Henry Rollins, Lydia Lunch, Nick Cave, etc.) looking absolutely shattered, struggling for words to describe the man’s talents. This is no hagiography, though: it looks that way at first, but in the second half his addictions are examined unsparingly. A boy who was, effectively, Rowland’s adopted son speaks movingly of his relationship with him in the early years of his life. Footage of him in the hospital at the end of his life contrasts with him onstage in The Birthday Party: a reverse chronology from a sad, broken presence to the force of nature grappling for the spotlight with Nick Cave. However it’s not all that clear cut: even at the end of his life he was a force to be reckoned with and knew how to command a stage, and even as a healthier young man his fragility was apparent and unconcealed. Even at the end, he left us wanting more.

Autoluminescent Rowland S. Howard (2011) – Official Trailer

 

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