Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard

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Rowland S Howard, the iconic Birthday Party guitarist and experimental songwriter, was a local icon who attracted curious stares from onlookers whenever he waltzed down Chapel Street. The androgynous rock star was a local folk legend — the whispers of excited fans muttering ‘that’s Rowland S Howard’ formed a permanent soundtrack every place he went. Even today, people who have had an encounter with the deceased musician still boast about it during happy hour.

Autoluminescent: Rowland S Howard is a documentary by Lynn-Maree Milburn (producer of We’re Livin on Dog Food) and Dogs in Space director Richard Lowenstein, paints an intimate portrait of this rock star’s life. The elusive lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll is put under a microscope and meticulously analysed.

We’re introduced to a man with many layers throughout this well-crafted biography. Howard’s a hopeless romantic with a tough facade (cigarette hanging out of his mouth at all times as the walls shake from the manic shriek of his wailing guitar).

Combining recent interviews with archival footage, Milburn and Lowenstein chart a detailed timeline of Howard’s career, starting with his teenage band The Young Charlatans. Soon after forming this band, Howard joined local group Boys Next Door, who then became The Birthday Party.

Through a series of interviews with Nick Cave and co, we get a small taste of the magic of this time; an era defined by Cave’s convulsing body staggering across the stage as he spat out blood-curdling howls while oceans of sweat poured out of Howard’s skeletal frame. Young fans crowded into venues like The Crystal Ballroom and The Prince to witness this chaotic spectacle, a crescendo of glorious noise.

The story moves from the peeling wallpaper of The Ballroom to the underground punk dens of Berlin where Howard moved in the early 80s with the rest of the band and soon after collaborated with queen of noise Lydia Lunch. Lunch, who recorded several records with Howard, discusses the impact he had on her as a musician, as does Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore.

Rowland’s later projects, including Crime and the City Solution and These Immortal Souls, along with his solo album ‘Teenage Snuff Film’, are fondly remembered by bandmates Genevieve McGuckin and Mick Harvey while musicians including Henry Rollins and Magic Dirt’s Adalita and Raul pay homage to the influential role Howard played in their own song writing.

The documentary is as much about Howard’s personal life as it is about the music he created. Through interviews with those who knew him best, we learn about his family life, personal relationships and his rollercoaster struggle with drug use. Sadly, Howard lost a battle with liver cancer in 2009. His funeral at Sacred Heart Mission was attended by hundreds of mourners.

Autoluminescent: Rowland S Howard is a captivating, and at times hilarious, homage to one of Melbourne’s music legends, which is a must-see for all those who have had the pleasure of seeing him perform in a live setting and for all those who wish they had been there.

Autoluminescent: Rowland S Howard starts at Cinema Nova from Thursday October 27th.
For session times and tickets visit www.cinemanova.com.au

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