Graded on a Curve:
Rowland S. Howard,
Pop Crimes

Some souls just weren’t made for this world. You can hear it in their voice, see it in their eyes—their shoulders simply aren’t strong enough to bear the weight of gravity, and their hearts are simply too tender, and they come and go from this our mortal coil leaving behind the sense, no matter how much they accomplished, that they were never here at all.

Such is the feeling I get from listening to guitarist/vocalist Rowland S. Howard, who obviously found life on this planet one long and painful trial. His 2009 masterpiece Pop Crimes makes reference to “this planet of perpetual sorrows,” on not one but two songs, which he must have felt was necessary to get his point—that living is a nightmare from which we cannot escape—across.

But if Howard, who passed away very shortly after the release of Pop Crimes at age 50, harbored a bleak and Baudelairian view of existence, he didn’t let it stand in the way of making lots of great music with lots of different people. His list of accomplishments is remarkably long, especially for someone who battled drug addiction for as long as he did. He began his career with Nick Cave in Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party, went on to become a member of Crime & The City Solution, and finally founded Thee Immortal Souls before launching a solo career. Over the course of his too-short life he also worked with artists as diverse as Lydia Lunch, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Henry Rollins, not to mention numerous others.

His voice is fraught with pain and his unique reverb-drenched guitar sound was responsible, as his friend Kid Congo Powers told me, “for launching a gazillion bands.” The combination has a hypnotic effect, as demonstrated on his cover of Talk Talk’s propulsive “Life’s What You Make It,” which is basically one mesmeric groove, free of choruses and bridges and all that nonsense. He plays phenomenal slash-and-burn guitar—alternating between roaring, piercing, twangy, feedback-laden, stuttering, and flat-out frenzied—against a backdrop of organ and some fantastic percussion while basically repeating the title about 53 times. Yet I get the sense that what he is really saying—whilst repeating the title like a mantra, as if willing himself to believe it—is not that life is what you make it, but life is what makes, and breaks, you.

He also performs a cover of Townes van Zandt’s “Nothin’”—another song that forgoes choruses to increase the song’s unrelenting momentum. Howard plays a great repetitive razor-blade guitar riff—with lots of lingering reverb—to the accompaniment of some choppy percussion. And his vocals perfectly capture the bleakness of van Zandt’s tune; when he sings, “Sorrow and solitude/These are the precious things/And the only words/That are worth rememberin’” he sounds like he means it, and short of Bob Dylan’s “Too Much of Nothing” this is undoubtedly the greatest song on the subject of nothing ever, although now that I think of it Billy Preston’s “Nothing From Nothing” is pretty goddamn happening too.

“Shut Me Down” has a dark and atmospheric vibe to it, thanks to Howard’s very “Twin Peaks” guitar, the Lee Hazelwood echo on his vocals, and the song’s stately pace, which segues into a slightly faster interlude in which Howard sings, “I’m standing in a suit/As ragged as my nerves/And I agree what I’ve become/Is surely worth the hatred/That you spat on me,” before adding, “And still I see that you would dearly love/To shut me down.” That is when he isn’t repeating the words, “I miss you so much,” with each repetition sounding like another nail being driven into the coffin of his love.

Meanwhile, “Wayward Man” opens with a repeated bass line over which Howard delivers brief squalls of squealing feedback, and then sings, “I do all my best thinking/Unconscious on the floor/And when I kissed you darling/Did I stick in your craw?” He then plays a cool guitar solo that doesn’t really sizzle until the end, and says, “I’m a fly in the ointment/ Your major disappointment/Just because I can/Be your wayward man.”

“The Golden Age of Bloodshed” is one of the LP’s outstanding tracks, opening as it does with some quiet guitar feedback, which is joined by tambourine and a rumbling bass, all of which join in a melody reminiscent of the Velvet Underground. His guitar work is chilling as he sings, “I’m suspicious of my wife/I suspect she left long ago/I recall my finger on the button of the ejector seat/But I can’t recall letting her go,” before adding (as he lets rip with some very mean power chords), “It has to be said/It’s today’s edition of the Book of the Dead/It has to be said.” This is one dark song, especially when he delivers on a solo that is as every bit as much about fear as feedback. And adds the lines quoted above about ours being the worst of all possible worlds.

And the slow but lovely “(I Know) A Girl Called Jonny is even better; a duet between Howard and HTRK’s Jonnine Standish, its sound can only be described as David Lynch meets Motown. Opening with tambourine, a simple drum beat, and some swirling organ, it features Howard and Standish—who has a remarkable voice—swapping lines, with Howard opening the song by singing, “I know a girl called Jonny/She’s a bullet, she’s a villainess” to which Standish responds, “In my silver dress, I’m the disasteress.” On the choruses he sings, “She’s my narcotic lollipop” after which she sings, “I put my fingers in his mouth.” I have no idea whether this is a love song to a woman or heroin, but I do know the song has a hypnotic power and mystery that keep me coming back to it over and over.

“Ave Maria” opens slowly with some simple guitar and tambourine, then proceeds to mine the same romantic territory as “(I Know) A Boy Called Jonny,” with Howard singing about “My sweetest girl, my dangeress/Broke the window of my chest/My heart shot far from this world/Until it slowly came to rest/Inside the strangeness of her breast/My danger-girl, my tigress.” It’s a muted affair, “Ave Maria,” with just a single brief but beautiful instrumental interlude in the song’s middle, but that’s appropriate to a song about looking back, and back to a wedding day to be more specific, and to the shambles the singer subsequently made of the marriage, which he describes in the stanza that ends the song: “For though my crimes remain unnamed/All my treasons, all my shames/Later you would rightly say/’We didn’t dance upon our wedding day’.”

Finally, there’s the great “Pop Crimes,” which opens with a booming bass riff and some equally natty drum work contributing to one supercool beat, over which Howard proceeds to play one very frenetic and tremolo-heavy solo that builds and builds, before he ceases and desists long enough to sing, “Are you Stalin’s secret daughter?/Did you murder history?/Your twin pals, genocide and slaughter/Were born on Calvary.” I have no idea what he’s singing about, but I know a great guitar solo when I hear one, and Howard plays a pile of them, all of which follow his frequent repetitions of the phrases, “These were pop crimes” or “This was a pop crime.”

Echo-laden and sinuous, but not lacking in raw power, Howard’s solos possess the repetitive nature of Neil Young’s guitar work, but as for the tone of his guitar, and how he achieved that keening feedback sound, well, who knows? He wails and wails and then suddenly shuts things down with a brief squall of feedback, only to start up again, and on and on goes the song as Howard lets ‘er rip. The only thing I’ve ever heard that comes close is Kid Congo Powers’ live guitar playing, and while it’s tempting to describe the harrowing sound of Howard’s mix ringing tones and sheer shredding discordant noise as the outward manifestation of internal pain, that is purest conjecture and quite possibly romantic bullshit. Whatever, Howard is one of the greatest guitarists I’ve ever heard, and “Pop Crimes,” with its big bass rumble and sheer propulsion, is one of the coolest songs I’ve heard in a while.

Howard’s death at age 50 is a tragedy for rock, even if most rock fans don’t know it, or even know his name for that matter. Howard may forever remain best known for “Shivers,” an instant cult classic he wrote at 16 that became a staple of both The Birthday Party and its precursor band, Boys Next Door, as well as an albatross around his neck.

Which pained him to no end, because Howard went on to deliver the goods for a number of great bands thanks to some great songwriting and a guitar that was sharp as a stiletto to the heart. I, for one, think Howard’s best work was ahead of him, but he never got the chance. But then Howard, poet maudit and musical visionary, never expected much from life on this, our planet of perpetual sorrows. Nor did it disappoint. A pessimist swallowed whole by his despondency, like Jonah by the whale, Howard lived, to quote E.M. Cioran, with “the awareness of the impossibility of living,” while still succeeding in producing great art. And it’s for the way he lived, just as much as for his prodigious talents, that I admire him.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • MattKassay

    Good detailed review of the album, but Rowland wasn’t the morose, negative person you describe in the introduction. I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with.him at a number of his solo shows during his last decade and always found him friendly, upbeat and positive. Best of all, he was completely unpretentious and actually very humble about his incredible catalogue of work.

  • Michael Little

    Thanks for your comments. I apologize if I made him sound morose. I simply meant to say he had a pessimistic view of life. As do I, and I like to think I’m friendly, upbeat and positive in person. But in my heart, I believe this world is a charnelhouse, just as I believe Schopenhauer’s statement that “man is that which should not be.” Anyway, thanks for writing, Matt. You were a lucky fellow to have gotten the chance to meet him.

  • Hugh Marchant

    I saw him play in Melbourne years before I met him in about ’95, well after his mistreatment at the hands of the Birthday Party and he’d travelled and collaborated in Europe and America. We had breakfast at least once every week for a couple of years. As a personal friend I can assure you he was usually quite relaxed, incredibly well-read, sophisticated and witty, filled with ideas about music, art, literature, fashion – the works… He had strong, sometimes truly wicked opinions about people and life. He led an intense messed up existence and far too much time was wasted between albums as he struggled with his demons and his women… but eventually he levelled out and found a way to focus his writing. He was always a professional and he never sold out – I don’t think commercial success was ever important to him. Of all the people I’ve met in the Australian music industry he was the most sincere and talented… and then he got sick. He withdrew and felt at a loss at the unfairness of it.

  • Michael Little

    Thank you for the wonderful words, Hugh. He sounds like the person my pal Kid Congo Powers described to me. Thanks for reading, my friend.

  • dan_oz

    Thanks for your thoughtful review, particularly as I know you aren’t a slavish Birthday Party/ Nick Cave acolyte.

    ‘as for the tone of his guitar, and how he achieved that keening feedback sound, well, who knows’?
    I searched out this quote from Australian Guitar, May 2006.
     “Junkyard was a flawed experiment in the sense that we were looking for
    extremes of sound but it didn’t really have the extreme bottom end that
    we wanted it to have,” Rowland muses, “it just turned into this white
    noise. We surrounded the amp with a tunnel of corrugated iron and then
    attached contact mics to it. As you can imagine it was extremely thin
    and unpleasant. The first time we did it we did it with Nick Launay at
    the Townhouse when we were doing ‘Release The Bats’. I was running the
    guitar through a 24-band graphic equalizer and you just couldn’t be in
    the room, it was so unbelievably offensive! But it just didn’t translate
    to record and that happened quite a lot on Junkyard.”
    full interview  http://thewoodenscapegoat.tumblr.com/post/4755482350/rowland-s-howard

  • Michael Little

    Thanks Dan. These guitarists will try anything!

  • Michael Little

    Hi Dan. Thanks for the information. Those guitarists will try anything!

  • Hugh D Marchant

    Hi Michael – it’s all good, but after reading what I wrote I’d like to correct myself;

    “…but eventually he levelled out and found a way to focus his writing.”

    As far as I know RSH was always writing and and collaborating and sharing to resolve creative thoughts… I doubt he had a day off from that, and fewer nights. He was a dreamer, a wild card killer and a wit. And because the ground is never level, he was always climbing a ladder of some kind. There was something of the higher plane in the way he would stride along the pavement, light a cigarette or sign his name.

    “…he never sold out – I don’t think commercial success was ever important to him.”

    Silly me… he never did sell out, but of course the idea of success was dear to him. I think he would have enjoyed success because he knew he deserved it – 

    “Of all the people I’ve met in the Australian music industry he was the most sincere and talented..”

    He was also extremely gentle, kind, loyal, thoughtful, focused, instinctive, expressive, funny, sweet, measured, gestural, emphatic, mailgned, insecure and sometimes cruel. 

    “…and then he got sick. He withdrew and felt at a loss at the unfairness of it.”

    He didn’t withdraw at all. More people were responding to him and his music than ever in his life – he was at last on the verge of something greater than greatness… he pursued his work and his life with delight and courage, and his good health and his relationships were richer and deeper than ever. He hoped for the best and dealt with the worst with discretion and honour. He worked even harder and shared his strength and intelligence with those closest to him at that time, even though he was probably in a state of confusion and dreadful pain and din’t want to be seen that way. 

    That’s it… thanks Michael.

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