March 26, 2012
Autoluminescent (or, the St Kilda of the damned)
It would seem that Richard Lowenstein’s documentary Autoluminescent was anticipated back here, when his 80s rock-star drug-house romance Dogs in Space was revived as part of a Melbourne Underground season at the Melbourne Film Festival in 2009. Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S Howard was a key part of that scene – evocatively called “the St Kilda of the damned”, in a link that’s since gone dead – and he was living back in Melbourne after stretches in London and Berlin, sick but off drugs, so it probably seemed a good idea to start documenting him. And just in time too: Howard died at the end of 2009, aged 50, of liver cancer, having contracting hepatitis C, the Australian rock and roll disease.
Autoluminescent – named for a Howard song – runs in the World Cinema Showcase, in four cities (details). I hadn't paid attention, and didn't know it was coming – it's a rare and brilliant thing to see a film in a festival programme that is a complete surprise. The Australian reviews, from its screenings there last October, are very good and when it played on the ABC in January, the nicely-written blurb paid as much attention to Howard's famously striking appearance – “a phantom out of Kafkaesque Prague or Bram Stoker's Dracula ... A beautifully gaunt and gothic aristocrat” – as his revolutionary guitar playing (from all of what gets called post-punk, arguably he and Sonic Youth's Lee and Thurston have the most recognisable, original guitar sounds). That blurb gets at his otherness, too. Especially in Australia in the 1970s. Even Nick Cave, on first meeting him, called him a poofter.
One of the problems Howard had – in terms of posterity, anyway – is that his post-Birthday Party work was so overshadowed by the stature and charisma of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds that the present sometimes seemed to turn around and reinterpret the past: the Birthday Party risked becoming erroneously regarded as Cave’s pre-Bad Seeds vehicle. But look at any coverage from the period and you note that Cave and Howard were considered equally important (as in the NME column above, from 1982), and contributed equally to the look, sound and reputation of the band: if Cave had an air of violence about him, was more barbaric, comic and macho, Howard’s look was more dandy-ish. He also wrote the band’s first great song – in fact, it was by the Boys Next Door, the band the Birthday Party evolved from. He was 16 when he wrote it. “Shivers” also featured on the Dogs in Space soundtrack, in two versions. I prefer this much later version, sung by Howard in 1999 on an ABC show called Studio 22, to the new-wave crooning of the Cave one:
Then, the Birthday Party. The Rowland S Howard Wikipedia page describes Birthday Party shows as “wickedly gleeful romps”. How utterly delightful! Wickedly gleeful romps is certainly one way of describing a performance as hilariously unhinged and threatening as this, of “Junkyard”, on German TV in 1982:
No surprise that “Some Velvet Morning” was on Howard's NME consumer list above. The very same year there was this belligerent cover version, sung by Howard and Lydia Lunch, released on 4AD:
After the Birthday Party came apart in 1983, not long after their only New Zealand tour, one of Howard's new bands was Crime and the City Solution, Berlin-based with Australian Simon Bonney fronting. You want to talk about being overshadowed by the ubiquitous Nick Cave? How many remember that Crime and the City Solution also appear in Wings of Desire, performing before the same crowd as the Bad Seeds?
The clip above is also from Studio 22, with Mick Harvey (ex-Bad Seeds/Birthday Party) on drums. Below, from the last solo album, Pop Crimes, released in 2009, the year he died: a cover of Talk Talk's “Life's What You Make It”. As far as the film goes, it's this review, from a fan, that makes me want to see it. It suggests that it does what good rock documentaries should do: capture something of your own past as a listener and consumer, your own emotional investment.