A few days ago I bumped into an old friend in the city. He manages a well-known local band here in Brisbane, and he asked me if I’d be prepared to participate in the making of a documentary about the group. He wanted to do something a bit edgier than the standard rock doco, though. “Every documentary I’ve seen lately it’s just a bunch of people saying how great [band/performer X] was,” he said. “It’s really boring.”
He had a point, and I was reminded of it last night when I saw Autoluminescent, Lee-Maree Milburn and Richard Lowenstein’s documentary about former Birthday Party/These Immortal Souls guitarist Rowland S. Howard. The first half of this two-hour film is weighed down with luminaries (not only peers and former bandmates like Nick Cave, Mick Harvey and Phil Calvert but also Henry Rollins, Thurston Moore, Bobby Gillespie, etc, etc) generally crapping on about how great Rowland was.
And that’s validating, sure, but if you’re seeing this film in the first place you probably have some idea of who Rowland S. Howard is and why he mattered. Most likely you already think he’s fabulous. The film survives this slightly creaky beginning mainly due to the late guitarist’s outrageous charisma (with his high cheekbones and extraordinarily brilliant blue eyes, rarely has a dying man looked so beautiful) and the sumptuous direction. If Autoluminescent is sometimes in danger of getting bogged down in its own self-importance, at least it looks great.
The live footage of Howard in action, from all stages of his career, is a particular treat. Wim Wenders, who remembers their appearance in Berlin in 1984 as akin to the arrival of a flock of Siberian Crows, identifies the importance of his stage mannerisms: his peculiar stagger; like someone being constantly knocked off balance, yet remaining in control; wringing the neck of his guitar as he violently jerks it up and down, coaxing from it a blizzard of distortion through a constant, billowing haze of cigarette smoke. Howard was an incredibly distinctive player; as Cave observes, within two notes you always knew who was making that unearthly racket. (More than one of the aforementioned blowhard luminaries wonder if Howard had, in fact, landed from outer space.)
In fact Howard was just a dandy from Melbourne, and the second half of this film is so much more interesting and more moving than the first, as we dig deeper into his family history, his relationships with women and, of course, his declining health. It was never likely that Howard – who died of liver failure at the end of 2009 – would live to see this documentary finished. There are heartbreaking scenes of Howard in hospital towards the end, cradled by his last love, Bianca.
The clear respect Howard had for women (despite an on-off affair with Lydia Lunch while still with his long-time soulmate, Genevieve McGuckin) was repaid with enduring warmth and affection from his former partners. McGuckin, who provides some of the best insights and reminiscences, tears up when she recalls listening to Howard’s final album for the first time, Pop Crimes, only to have him suddenly call into her house and wrap her in his arms. “It was so important to him that I liked it,” she says.
After his long relationship with McGuckin ended in the mid-’90s, due mainly to Howard’s heroin habit – McGuckin was using too, but was ready to clean up before Howard, and resented the “shitty jobs” she had to do in order to get them enough money to score – the ailing guitarist met and married editor Jane Usher. It lasted a couple of years, Usher saying she tried everything to help her partner stay clean, only to find herself “getting into trouble” by the end, forcing her to divorce a man she clearly loved for the sake of her son, who had a close relationship with his stepfather.
Towards the end of the film, a ravaged Howard, who was battling Hep C, reflects on his struggle with addiction. “If you’d asked me five years ago I wouldn’t have said I regretted anything about drugs,” he says, but now all he can see is waste. He confides to McGuckin that he feels “A three-time loser.” By then, interest in his work was skyrocketing. It’s just so sad that he’s not around to see it.