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Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard

The name of Nick Cave looms so large over the ongoing history of post-punk music that it’s inevitable that the Birthday Party is widely thought of simply as Cave’s first band, pre the Bad Seeds. But what Blixa Bargeld and Warren Ellis brought to later stages of Cave’s work fits a template that was set in the Birthday Party by Rowland S. Howard, a guitarist whose name should be much better known than it is.

Howard died in 2009, but not before participating in this essential documentary co-directed by Lynn-Maree Milburn and Richard Lowenstein.

Skinny and birdlike, Howard had a distinctive style making heavy use of vibrato and feedback that never went all the way to noise: no matter how chaotic it sounded, it was always clearly under his control. It was a mesmerizing combination. One contemporary recalls him as “some weird science fiction character playing guitar,” while Henry Rollins simply says, “He looked like that guitar sounded.”

Younger than his bandmates, Howard was a confirmed romantic who knew what he wanted to play. Cave (who is interviewed at length in the film, along with many of their contemporaries) recalls that “Rowland emerged onto the scene with everything intact. He knew exactly the way he wanted things to sound, and what he despised. He was locked into a concrete point of view about things, which was hugely inspiring.”

Howard became best known for “Shivers,” a song he wrote when he was 16 that, to his regret, was seldom recognized as the piss-take it was. (You might think that no one could take the lyrics “I’ve been contemplating suicide/But it really doesn’t suit my style/So I think I’ll just act bored instead” seriously, but if you do you weren’t around in the 1980s.)

After the Birthday Party broke up, Howard explored his singular muse in collaborations with Lydia Lunch (with whom he famously recorded “Some Velvet Morning” by his idol Lee Hazelwood) and as a member of Crime & the City Solution and These Immortal Souls. Personal problems and drug use took their tolls, though he overcame them and produced two worthwhile solo albums before succumbing to liver cancer.

Autoluminescent will be screened at Squeaky Wheel (presented by Little Red Booking) Tuesday at 7 pm. Don’t count on getting another chance to see it: It hasn’t been distributed either theatrically or on DVD in the US.

Watch the trailer for Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard

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