This documentary traces the life of Rowland S Howard, who appeared on the early Melbourne punk scene. A beautifully gaunt and gothic aristocrat, the unique distinctive fury of his guitar style shot him directly into the imagination of a generation.
Rock & roll is about the creation of performance cults, these tiny concentric circles of adoration and mystery. Nowadays, with music as a passive, ever-present entity, they grow quickly and generally become unwieldy, but in an earlier time they stayed small and passionate. Rowland S. Howard, a wondrous guitarist and a fine songwriter, was a figure revered by a few and unknown to most. Like many who came of age in the punk movement he remained a mixture of music and myth, even as the years passed and took their toll. Howard’s sharp, strange beauty was gone by the time he died of liver cancer at the age of 50 in 2009, but his life is ripe for reassessment.
Directed by the long-time team of Richard Lowenstein (Dogs in Space) and Lynn-Maree Milburn, Autoluminescent should prove of great interest both to Howard devotees and the merely curious; albeit for different reasons. Making use of archival footage as well as a final few days of interviews (Howard knew his time was limited and co-operated with the filmmakers), the documentary opens up a closed-off life. Here is what happened to the arrogant teenager – 'fully intact" as an artist and persona at the age of 16, according to former bandmate Nick Cave – who once scrawled 'the future belongs to me" on a photo of himself he presumptuously autographed.
Howard joined Cave and Mick Harvey in Melbourne’s The Boys Next Door in 1978, and when the band relocated to London they became The Birthday Party. Howard’s signature song, 'Shivers", was sung by Cave, and one of the reasons for his hermetic appeal is that he was a catalyst for change and a wonderful instrumentalist (discordant, unpredictable, immediately identifiable), but never the public focus. He was a private man, emotionally vulnerable, and when The Birthday Party fell apart in West Berlin in 1983, with Cave ready to move on, no-one understood how hurt Howard was.
Like much of his life, those stories are primarily told by friends and family, particularly his long-time companion and subsequent bandmate, Genevieve McGuckin. 'A spectral man suffering malaria," notes one of his many famous admirers, Henry Rollins, as the accolades flow. You get a sense of Howard’s talent, but not how he applied it, a situation that matches his underground appeal through groups such as These Immortal Souls and an eventual return to Melbourne and two final solo albums, a decade apart in 1999 and 2009. Explanation doesn’t suit him.
Without being sensationalist his decades-long heroin addiction is established (his own brother Harry, a bandmate, describes it as being 'chaotic" during the early nineties), hinting at the idea that it added to Howard’ romanticised underground legend even as it curtailed his actual creativity. Other facts of his life, such as a remote father, are somewhat more expected, but in a film where so much of the past is seen in atmospheric black and white (Wim Wenders was insistent Howard had to perform in Wings of Desire) or flickering home footage, the man behind the cigarette smoke shrouded figure on stage does come into shape.
Howard isn’t directly challenged, and he watches the documentation of his own life from a careful distance, but in establishing his cultural cachet there are signs of the darker side that accompanied him. A marriage from the mid-nineties, when Howard was something of a stay-at-home parent helping raising a young stepson, is delightfully recounted, but his wife of the time also admits that she had to leave him when his addiction threatened to become hers. That trade-off is integral to understanding Rowland S. Howard, and as well as establishing his artistic worth, Autoluminescent has an unspoken sense that he was an uncertain proposition for those close to him. Whether that is compelling or cautionary may depend on if you’re one of the true believers.