“You wore the smell of success,
I wore the taste of sin.”
Everyone has their own idea as to what makes a brilliant songwriter. It can be the way they make you laugh with their words or the way they just “get” you with their words. It can be many reasons, it doesn’t just have to be one. The songwriter that makes you laugh can also be the one who makes you feel tough, weak and alright. All at once or eventually. They get you to where you are going with their words. You hear their words and it just makes you want to write something equally moving. Their words can instill a form of fear and passion inside of you, and you are not someone who is easily moved.
I always talk about Morrissey or Patti or Lou Reed when I mention really great songwriters. I mention them because their music has been around me since I was a baby. I grew up with their words and managed to shake my teen angst off to their tunes. There is one other person who I can firmly place next to them as being one of the greatest songwriters of all time; Rowland S Howard.
His soul shone through with his words. He got to your gut with his words; he made you feel things deeply and brought you into another world with his words. A dark, tormented world with hints of beauty piercing through. If you read the lyrics to Undone you will be thrown into a world of sheer heartbreak, the real pureness and torment of it with a chunk of disdain thrown in. It’s an ultimate “fuck you” with bouts of “how dare you.” If you’ve ever had your heart ripped out, just listen to this song and you’ll forget the one(s) who have wronged you. The secrecy you share with another (friend or lover) is no longer of any worth, and this song just portrays it perfectly. It is one of those songs you wish you had written. His dry and gnarly way with words made Rowland S Howard stand out from so many. The guy was a genius, and nobody else comes close.
Personally, I can’t get my head around songs that are full of positive energy. I like the songs that take me to some place where others daren’t go. I want the weird, I want the tormented, I want the dark lyrics. I want the songs that make me think and take me deep into some underworld that cannot be described. His way with words is addictive, to the point where you try to find someone else who has a similar take on words like Rowland did, but nobody else comes close at all. When I listen to his music or just read his words, I can’t help but wish more would delve into the world he created but at the same time glad nobody else has ever come close. Some may wish to compare Rowland to his buddy and ex-bandmate Nick Cave, but there was something different with Rowland. There was something in his innocent gaze and tormented lyrics that made you feel something unexplainable. Something you’ll spend days trying to figure out. His words at times wonderfully mocked whoever he was writing about in such a romantic way. A way that makes you instantly think of someone you’ve hurt with your words, you probably want their forgiveness but you’d rather fuck around for a bit before you launch an apology. As you taunt them, you taunt yourself. Some would say it is sadistic, but anyone with half a brain cell would know it is just human nature in all its ugly glory.
Aside from his way with words, Rowland was a ferocious guitar player who easily added the “dangerous” style to The Birthday Party. If it was anyone else playing the guitar in that band, they really would not have sounded the same, they would not have been as brutal as they were. He had this charm about him that just made you want to be into everything he did. I’ve watched the live clips of The Birthday Party, and the way he was on stage complimented Nick’s vocals (and occasional wails) perfectly. They had this bond on stage that is found now in the likes of The Kills to Crocodiles. If you’ve seen those bands live, you’ll know exactly what I mean. His look on stage was completed with a cigarette daringly yet casually hanging from his lips.
Rowland S Howard was rare. People like him don’t happen often, and that’s why he will always be missed. Although he only died 5 years ago, the gap is still there. There is nobody as daring and as rebellious as he was. He kept that streak upon him even when The Birthday Party was done. His solo work goes perfectly next to what he did with The Birthday Party, nobody could ever deny just how magnetic and sometimes delicate he was. On stage he moved like a madman, but you go into his lyrics and you’ll pick up on vulnerable aspects that surrounds us humans. He made it easy and alright to be a little weird and to just let go when you found something you loved.
He was brave; not just with his battle with cancer, but with the way he made music. He was someone who should still be around now scaring the life out of everyone with his words, his stage presence and his ability to play the guitar like no other. He should still be here to show us all how it is done, but as always, we have the music. We will always have the music.
The Birthday Party opened my ears up to a different world, I went into a different world with Rowland S Howard. A world to feel part of, a world to escape into. A world to no longer be afraid of. His music reminds us to be brave, be daring and to just do what feels right. He moved on stage like a beast possessed. Possessed with something bigger than the person containing it. The recognition of his genius came late in life, maybe too late. But those that knew, will always know just how amazing he truly was. Not many can leave you in awe like he did, not many ever will.
He unleashed a monster on stage; one that wasn’t feared, but one that was adored and treasured. It still is. His vulnerable gaze on the cover of Pop Crimes is always one of the first things that come to mind when I think about him, then the music plays and it all makes sense.