From Boys Next Door
and Birthday Party to Crime & the City Solution and These Immortal Souls,
the man helped sculpt a guitar sound and an attitude that was quintessentially
By Fred Mills / Photos by John Raptis
As we near the end of a year that’s been unnaturally dotted
with deaths of much-loved and -respected rock musicians – from Ron Asheton on
Jan. 6 to Vic Chesnutt on Christmas – we learn of another sad, premature
passing. Guitarist Rowland S. Howard died early today in a Melbourne,
hospital from liver cancer at the age of 50.
Howard of course formed the Boys Next Door and then the
Birthday Party with Nick
Cave, coming to
international fame, and at times notoriety, in the latter outfit until its
demise in 1983. He later wielded his dissonant/feedback-laden but potently
bluesy six-string with Crime and the City Solution and These Immortal Souls and
has long been considered one of Australia’s
great musicians. He also recorded some memorable sides with Nikki Sudden and
Lydia Lunch, no less. His most recent recording was a solo album titled,
appropriately enough, Pop Crimes.
According to Australia’s
The Age, Howard had been in poor
health for some time and had recently been forced to cancel several scheduled
gigs, including one yesterday at Festival Hall supporting the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Reports
The Age, “Howard’s last public
performance was at St Kilda’s Prince Bandroomin October. He struggled through
the gig, coughing and spitting up blood, but a full house of older fans and
young enthusiasts had come to pay their respects and celebrate his unique canon
of work.” (Photos on this page are from the final gig. orth adding, by way of a side note, is that Howard had cut his lip on the microphone, hence the source of the blood. But he was still in poor health at that point.)
Howard’s close friend Mick Harvey (Birthday Party/Bad Seeds) told a reporter
that Howard had hoped to beat the cancer: “Sometimes people are ready to go
because they have been sick for a long time, but Rowland really wanted to live.
Things were going well for him outside of his health and he wanted to take
advantage of that and he was very disappointed that he wasn’t well enough to do
Read the full account, including a heartfelt summary of Howard’s career, at The Age.
On a more personal note, I was a huge fan of Howard’s guitar work and
songwriting dating back to when I started collecting those early BND/BP records
– an Australian pen pal had been sending me tapes of some of the bands Down
Under, and I later began avidly doing overseas mail order in order to obtain
the real artifacts. Not long after I would author a regular column about
Australian and New Zealand
music for east coast rock mag The Bob and anytime there was a Howard-related release, I’d cover it.
In the late ‘80s These Immortal Souls came to Charlotte, NC,
where I was living at the time, and put on an entirely memorable show. Meeting
Howard before the concert, I was struck by how completely non-rock star he was,
seemingly humbled that someone would bother to come out to the soundcheck to
welcome him to town (and get a few records signed too). He asked me to stick
around until after the show, and we must
have spent two hours in the dressing room and out in the parking lot drinking
and swapping music stories. A true gentleman and a bit of a musical scholar as
well – he seemed to have a story about every single Australian band or artist I
wanted to pick his brain about (including more than a few about Nick Cave!)
– he instantly became my best friend for those two hours, and I have no doubt
that he treated other fans he met on the tour with a similar level of grace.
He will be greatly, deeply missed.
Rowland S. Howard Wikipedia page is here.
[Australian photographer John Raptis took the shots on this page, and you can view many more from the same gig at his Visceral Industry website. He’s also penned a nice remembrance of the guitarist at the site.]