Role Models: Rowland S. Howard Taught Tropical Fuck Storm the Art of Tearing It Up

Gareth Liddiard on The Birthday Party’s complicated guitarist.

It’s hard to gauge how much kudos Rowland S. Howard ever got — too much or too little. I mean, he’s kind of well known, but kind of not. I think sometimes he was even credited with shit that wasn’t him. Like in the Birthday Party, lots of that mad guitar playing was actually his long time friend and bandmate Mick Harvey. (Poor old Mick was a master cat herder and has shouldered being in Rowland’s guitar’s shadow rather well in his funny grumpy way.) 

But anyway, Rowland was a demon on guitar. His sound and style was beyond original like Hendrix or Greg Ginn or the Sonic Youth guys. I wouldn’t say that about Mick. Mick is a great arranger where Rowland is a great guitar player. Kind of surf or spy guitar, but so tense or violent or schmaltzy it was something else. Shockingly violent, like Taxi Driver or Dirty Harry; martini-schmaltzy like morphine. He could write a great song and he looked like a freak. Good misanthropic songs about love and Stalin. He was really tall — he looked like Nosferatu if Raymond Chandler had invented him for a novel about Soviet-era Warsaw. He’d usually wear suits, but I spotted him in a park scoring smack in a red jacket that looked like Michael Jackson’s in the Thriller era. He had the greatest voice too, as singular as his guitar playing.  His is the only human voice I can imitate. I can’t do accents or impersonations of any kind, but I can sing Dire Straits’ “Walk Of Life” exactly like Rowland would have if he’d had no taste. 

He nearly did the Walk Of Death in front of my van once — I was arriving in Melbourne for the first time in my life, and the first thing that happens is he steps off the curb and I hit the skids and avoid killing him. He was with his dad, which was weird. Later we’d see him riding his bike or texting. Sights like that were kind of shocking, because his persona was so intensely otherworldly it was really alien seeing him being so human. Like seeing Elvis checking out what’s in the fridge or ducking out for a piss. He’d had a proper education and was very well-spoken, well-read. He had a dignity that rose high above his drug addiction and his insanely evil guitar playing. He was a romantic and funny fuck too. He had that Humphrey Bogart thing, an effortless romantic aura if an aura could swallow light. His songs had a heroic despair.  

“I’m standing in a suit
As ragged as my nerves.”

And they had venom too, no one seems to have that anymore. It’s not allowed. It’s all nicey-nice recycled hippy bullshit now, even though everyone hates each other.  

“This is a journey
To the edge of the night
I’ve got no companions
Only Celine’s on my side.”

He was down with Louis Ferdinand Celine’s books. Not the pamphlets, the books. With his novels, Celine almost single-handedly invented the post-war counter culture that started with Jazz and the Beat Poets and William S. Burroughs, and went right through punk and beyond.  The art of tearing it up. Rowland was like Celine with a Fender Jaguar. That might sound all serious and heavy, but it also means he made music that was action packed. Never dull. It had knife fights and heart breaks and cars getting chased and blown up.  

He hated rehearsals which meant his gigs were always careening out of control. They could be a disaster. But when he and any of his bands were on fire, the shows were great cliff hangers. Exhausting and exhilarating and always dim-lit Rat Pack cool. He was lazy when it came to the music biz too. He ignored it, so it ignored him back. He was frustrated with it because it never gave him a chance. But he gave it fuck all in return.  

But that’s not really true. He gave it Rowland S. Howard. But Rowland S. Howard was too real and pretentious. Too straight up and complicated. Too heavy and too playful. It didn’t know what to do with him.

Anyway, I remember him in my hands as a guitar player. I sound a lot like him because I loved his style. It just happens, I’ve given up trying to stop it. And in my mind, I remember him as a really cool and funny and friendly guy who was nice to us when we were young and trying hard to figure everything out.

(Photo Credit: left, Jamie Wdziekonski; right, Keiko Yoshida) 

Tropical Fuck Storm is Gareth Liddiard, Fiona Kitschin, Erica Dunn, and Lauren Hammel. Their third album Deep States is out now via Joyful Noise Recordings.

(Photo Credit: Jamie Wdziekonski)