Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Golden Age of Rowland S. Howard

Rowland S. Howard
Oxford Art Factory,
Sydney 22.10.09

What cost? When the former Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S. Howard walks into his song ‘Pop Crimes’, the title track to his new solo album, his first record in ten years, it’s as if he is barely there.

His band sound nonetheless grand, luxuriously shaded and spacious. They’re a serious night act distinguished by Mick Harvey’s (ex Bad Seeds/Birthday Party) loose-feeling, jazz-tinged drum approaches, which appear to verge on primitive collapse, then punch through with unmistakable drama. It’s a rhythm roped tight by Brian Hooper (ex Beasts of Bourbon/Kim Salmon and the Surrealists) on bass, who makes you feel every string being played, pulled, and more than anything lifted up, an erotically animal sound full of guts, guts. This is one hell of a rhythm section to have at your back.

On violin J.P. Shilo (ex Hungry Ghosts) has a distracting crop of rooster-headed hair that makes him a dead spit for the guy from Eraserhead. It’s a look that comes off as vaguely ridiculous, then vaguely intimidating. Shilo’s sound is your classic pulsating-and-falling-away, violin swim-and soar, alarmed and melodic at once. It makes me think of warnings that a submarine is sinking, of panicked birds and stars, of dead Russian composers (of course, of course, of course); sometimes it’s pretty too, in a brief and urgent way, small cuts of necessary light within the band’s smoldering attitude.

Great music is always like this, don’t you think, a kind of narrative for your dreaming mind? You can already tell these people know how to take you places.

But out front the song has passed and Rowland S. Howard appears unable to raise the bar and match his band’s energy – which makes for a depressing picture. The audience here is surprisingly young and hip, the room is packed, drawn maybe by an old story: that Howard was – and they’d both HATE this comparison – the Keith Richards to Nick Cave’s Mick Jagger in The Birthday Party. How somewhere back in time when that band were terrifyingly good, it was Howard’s unique guitar sound, his use of distortion and feedback, a smoking cigarette perpetually hanging from the lips, his bird-like looks, that were all the very definition of incendiary rock ‘n’ roll cool.

These days the coinage of his face is more wasted Roman Emperor, death’s door thin, hedonism’s cautionary message, shocked monkey. The bird of youth has flown, that’s for sure. A devastating article in The Age less than a year ago had shown Howard to be a broken man, wasted by years of addiction. Of recent years Howard admitted: “I’m a person who is totally governed by my emotions. I just don’t have the ability to hide what I’m feeling. I would just walk around the streets of St Kilda [Melbourne] sobbing. If someone asked me how I was, I would just break down, unable to speak. It was impossible for me to work.”

Inevitably something about this evening augurs in the phrase ‘come-back’, or more nervously, a hoped-for-yet-unlikely resurrection. Just when the night seems ready to slide towards such pathos from the start, Howard turns and delivers ‘Dead Radio’ and the band somehow comes together, finds another level. It might sound trite to say this, but there’s some kind of love going on here tonight. Some desire by his fellow musicians to raise Howard up to where he should be if he can make the climb. And contrary to initial expectations, Howard can.

So then, first song well played with the star barely flickering out front; second song genuinely stunning. The set moves this way and that, affected less by obvious talent and fine material than Howard’s physicality, his inability to seize the day as often as he might. The stage prowler of the past is certainly long gone. But Howard has his moments anyway: ‘The Golden Age of Violence’ is epic; ‘Life Is What You Make It’ is a knockout blow with its moral self-delivered; and in a typically half-there, half-not-able-to-make-it-way, ‘Ave Maria’ becomes special too, the final lines ringing out like Howard has just lost the love of his life and discovered it was his destiny from the beginning: “And you would later say / We didn’t dance upon our wedding day / Ave Maria”.

It makes me think about how hard it is to just be good, let alone great. And how this is both a good and great evening, for all the limitations that spring from Howard’s diminished vitality. It also delivers inevitable flashbacks to Birthday Party days when Howard lunged about the stage sending out shafts of white noise that the band erupted over like demons: “prayers on fire”, remember? Though he seems oddly embarrassed by it these days, Howard always had a counter-pointing knack for the poppy and the beautiful, as [the pre-Birthday Party] Boys Next Door’s ‘hit’ ‘Shivers’ – which he wrote – showed.

Filtered through some underground musical muslin, classic pop-rock textures continue to inform Howard’s songs today: the Roy Orbison yearning in that nasal, droll Lee Hazelwood nearly-singing voice of his; the early 50’s rock ‘n’ roll menace that still shines off his guitar sound; that Spector-like sense of drama and space in the arrangements; the heart-of-darkness, Velvet Underground spirit of hedonistic affection that runs across the songwriting; the spaghetti Western, fly-swatting tensions and sweaty textures that affirm the musician as an urban cowboy out on the Existential range.

Howard tells all these song stories as if there should be a coffee and half-spent cigarette in front of him: as part confession, part fucked up love letter and excuse, and even a type of lie too, a delusion matched at other times by the rawest of admissions. It would be easy to say then what we were watching here is the ghost of the man, someone who used to really be something romanticizing himself. But that’s surprisingly not true. Physically depleted and older, lacking confidence in his own revealingly sweet way: yeah, it’s all there for us to witness. But Howard also displays flashes of the old plumage and dark grace, and something deeper, even poetic, a sort of greater vulnerable truth about himself now. The wounds of time, I guess, that make his best songs stronger than they’ve ever been. Like he sings it, “Life’s what you make it. Yesterday’s hero – don’t you hate it? Life’s what’s you make it. Don’t backdate it. Celebrate it.” Here’s to his health on that valedictory note. And if it holds out, the golden age of Rowland S. Howard after all.

- Mark Mordue

* Wrote this on spec, impulse, whatever. Doubt I can get it published anywhere as it's not a 500-words-or-less judgement call. Figured a few of you might be interested in it anyway. Hope so.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


I once asked Tom Waits if he felt fatherhood had affected his songwriting in any way. "Well," he said, pausing to consider the full weight of the question, "it's harder to find the ashtrays."

It's as good an observation as any on the mysterious rites of fatherhood. For though I'm a non-smoker, I can sympathise with Waits's predicament. My baby boy is now a full year grown, and, as he graduates from crawling to walking and into a whole new world of reaching, I am finding our entire house is also on the move.

When I look for anything these days, it is either chaotically below the ankles (this is his world: plastic, battery-operated, relentlessly tuneful, jigsaw-scattered, surprisingly bookish and marked by delicate thuggery) or safely above the waist (our world: full of glass and poisons, precarious, haphazard piles and a toilet into which I really wish he would stop throwing things.

My partner is meanwhile trying to find some time to look into the mirror again. After losing so much of her hair (a common experience) because of the physical trauma of birth, she finally feels as if it is growing back towards its natural state. It was always one of the most beautiful and distinct things about her (it's true, men can fall in love with a woman because of her hair), and I understood why it grieved and upset her to see it fall out by the handful while she battled our baby boy's sleeping and feeding problems and this new and not always perfect ideal of herself as a mother.

I, too, examine myself in battle-weary terms: the midlife gut, the back problems from lifting my son, the less than stylish, food-flecked, sleep-deprived way I appear. Vanity may not be killed off with parenthood, but it is certainly given a battering. The same goes for that sense of whom one is or was, and the self worth that this "originality" previously involved. As a parent, you now live for another, but you fear, sometimes, that you may have lost yourself in the bargain.

How all this love and pain and struggle and rage measure out into some modern concept of fatherhood is not easy to pin down. I know the magic of my son's kiss on my neck as he nuzzles into me (and mostly fails to bite me with his four teeth), and the way he can glow like a saint when he sees me walking in the door. I know the crushing weight of sitting alone in a park, sobbing, thinking I am not going to make it, hoping no one sees me and finds out how hollowed out and broken I really am. That, if I don't recover, my family will be lost and, along with them, everything my life might be worth.

It seems to me modern fatherhood is this half-hidden thing, subsumed in glib and not especially flattering television images, our own strangely male inclinations to deep silence, and those private relationships with our fathers and mothers that shadow whatever we might like to be (or not to be) as a parent.

Certainly, the story of fatherhood is the story of the father as a son, and also as the father of a son or a daughter. I guess each of us has a story like this that we are trying to carry on and yet change in some way.

When the National Fatherhood Initiative in the US reviewed prime-time television on the five major networks a few years ago, it found that fathers were rarely portrayed. When they were, it "was usually either as a competent man yet uninvolved father, or as an involved father yet incompetent man".

The fact is that motherhood, understandably necessarily, even is the main focus of parenting and any idea of what is sacred or crucial adds to this diminished view of fatherhood. I don't think it's too much to say we are standing in the shadows.

As much as I love Homer Simpson, perhaps something decent and intelligent and confessional from the horse's mouth is needed to update our image of ourselves, to clear the decks. Slowly but surely, I'm beginning to believe this "something" is emerging.

Ian Sansom's The Truth About Babies: from A-Z (Granta Books), while owing some debts to Nick Hornby's writing, is one small attempt to fill in the gaps combining a diary, a philosophical reference guide, a compendium of wise words, witticisms and interesting facts, and a literary attempt to grapple with all aspects of modern fatherhood, from the banal to the sublime.

In his introduction, Sansom admits to an early desire to write a big book on this subject because "when you think about babies you don't think small. You think big. When you think about beginnings you soon get to thinking about immortality." What came about instead was this shoebox reality. Notes scrawled after his child had gone to sleep. Things stitched together on the run.

Sansom begins with a chapter called "Advice". "Are we doing it right?" he asks of first-time parents, answering, as all first-time parents do, with: "We're just doing it."

He then passes through a series of alphabetically arranged chapters that have a mock-reference authority to them. The headings include "Baby Monitor", "Clothes", "Comparisons", "Depression", "Driving", "Fear", "Friends", "Hate", "Motherese", "Shit", "Sincerity", "Sleep", "Touch", "Truth", "Violence" and, finally, "Zero" (which consists of this brief note: "A cup of tea and a slice of cake, spotted with wax, and the year's gone. Like snow in the hand. You're one").

In the chapter "Strangers", he writes: "I go to a party. I am introduced by the host to someone who has also recently had a baby. Apart from that fact we have nothing in common. We have nothing to talk about. We struggle for a few moments exchanging and comparing basic baby information: age, sex, sleeping patterns. Then we give up and go our separate ways, find other people to talk to, people with whom we have something in common."

Sansom relishes these droll opportunities and the humour they allow. At various times, he describes his son as looking "like a Las Vegas Elvis" in his white sleepsuit, then, by turns, Charlie Brown, Picasso, a gangsta rapper and even the late Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery.

I empathise with his astute eye for the mutability of his child, a phenomenon of growth in the first year that is breathtaking. People are always looking for whether our boy has his mother's or father's face, each of our families seeking out, with vigour, the primacy of their own stock. The most striking observation, though, came from a woman friend who told my partner: "When he smiles he's like you and when he's serious he's like Mark." I can't tell you how often I have thought about that comment, what it means, what it says about us and who we really are.

Every now and then, Sansom hits you with something harder, like his chapter on "Violence", where he describes trying to calm his child at night and its refusal to be calmed. Very quickly the scene escalates to him shaking the baby till it cries. "I stop shaking. I lay you down in your cot and walk out of the room. I am ashamed. I don't tell anyone." Given its diary nature, the book is inevitably Sansom's dialogue with himself as he grapples with fatherhood and what it means. It is also a prolonged love letter and time capsule for his child. In this way, it is about the deep, mucky, contradictory material of real love, the highs and the lows of fatherhood that are never entirely resolved.

This desire to write a letter or diary for one's son seems to be something of a male attribute, as Peter Carey's A Letter to our Son (1994) might also indicate.

But once I say men are the ones obsessed with this kind of message-in-a-bottle, and possibly monumental, outlook on parenting, I am forced to acknowledge the obvious, as Allison Pearson put it in an English review of Sansom's book: "Remarkably little of any power or depth has been written about this adventure, one of the greatest life has to offer, because in the past babies were the sole preserve of mothers. And it is in the nature of mothers not to have time to write stuff down. Worse, they are considered to have no experiences worth recording."

One sees, then, that writing itself can be act of selfishness. I read with cautionary distress Sansom's contrasting use of Bertrand Russell's pleased notes on fatherhood, in his Autobiography (1967-69), with his daughter, Katherine Tait's, observations later, in My Father Bertrand Russell (1975): "He played at being a father and he acted the part to perfection, but his heart was elsewhere and his combination of inner detachment and outer affection caused me much muddled suffering."

When I talked about this with Warren Ellis, the violinist from the rock band Dirty Three, he described how a journalist had asked him "if it was true, as Cyril Connolly had put it [in Enemies of Promise], that `there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall'?" With just a hint of anger, Ellis told me: "How could I answer that in any other way, without showing disrespect to my son, than to say `no'?"

Ellis admits, though, that coming to terms with fatherhood took a while. Indeed, it was not until the birth of his second son that he felt he could embrace it fully. "Seeing all four of us in a room together for the first time was a moving experience," he says. "I didn't get that so much from the first birth because I was so terrified. I wanted all this incredible outpouring of emotion when Jacky was born, but I just panicked. We had all these feeding problems with him at the start, too. You think the most instinctive things should come naturally, but it doesn't come naturally at all. I felt like I wasn't part of the human race. I still find it confusing some times. But nothing can describe the feelings that it involves. I just think as a father you have to wait longer for those things to become clear."

Eventually, I ring a close friend, Michael Sherman, a far more experienced father than I am, for advice about what being a good father means. He says: "I wonder if we ever fully get there. I often slip into being a person and not a father." His eldest son, Max, has Down syndrome. "It gets exaggerated with a disabled child. But every day I have to get him up and get him dressed for school. I'm 44, he's 11. Sometimes I get so frustrated and say to myself: `Can't you just get up and dressed for school yourself!' He will never learn to do that. I'll be dead and he will still need that help. In that kind of situation it's really hard to let go of `me' as a person and what I expect of other people. But, from the moment they come out, a child is another person and you have to recognise it. It's really hard to give them that grace.

"I can't think of the medical word for it, but among his problems Max has something that basically means his head is not fused to the top of his spine. So, for five years, he could not go on a swing at all. And he loves the swing. Every time he goes on one on his own now, in the one moment I am so proud I feel like crying and on the other I'm saying: `Hold on tight!' I'm so frightened, and he's saying: `I will, Dad', like: `Leave me alone!"' Michael laughs about it and I feel like laughing and crying along with him. As he says: "Being a parent, you get so mushy. That's the deepest thing: the emotional part of your life becomes so much bigger and you can't control it. The total love, the violence, the pride, the madness."

I likewise find myself moved by the most saccharine films close to tears in I Am Sam or filled with fantasies of revenge and panic and an aching empathy for the parents whenever I hear of children injured or killed. Let alone the nightmare of pedophilia, a crime that also angers me for what it means to be an older male in this society, soiled by the prevalence of this sickness as if it were some form of original sin blemishing all men.

No matter how turbulent all this has been for me as a man, a writer and a working dad, I thank my lucky stars I have always worked from home. No man not at home with his partner can understand how difficult raising a child is, especially if the baby is not "easy" (parental code for a good sleeper). The funny thing is I have learnt how to be a father, am still learning, by following my partner's lead. She shows me what to do, helps me make it there. I'd hate to underestimate that.

Like many working fathers, my own father was often not around while I was growing up. As a boy, I recall, I'd keep my mother company as we drove Dad to work on the midnight shift. I'd watch him walk into the giant steel mills of Newcastle, his smallness panging me with loneliness for him.

Sometimes I worry about this tendency myself, about the pressures I feel to be a provider, a wage earner, and where it might take me in the world. At the same time, I reflect on any hint of selfishness masked within that drive, that in some way I might be putting my career before my family and excusing it with a false feeling of sacrifice. The best I can do is be aware of that duplicity, to try to find some democracy of action in the home, as well as contribute some love that adds up to dishes done, garbage out, nappies changed, and a closeness that never ends up withering into what Paul Kelly once sang: "I've lost my tenderness. I've taken bad care of this." (Careless).

I well remember my father's burning words to me on his hard labours and my blossoming education as a young man: how he didn't want me to "end up" like him. As a working-class man, he saw education as a way of lifting me up and out of the struggles he felt condemned to. When I reflect on his efforts, and my mother's, I feel a profound debt to my privileges, my luck, and an obligation to somehow convert all that into something of worth for my own son, to help propel him while avoiding laying any burden of expectation on his shoulders.

Amid those conflicting hopes and fears, I find that becoming a father is sending me back to my own family to my parents, my sisters and my brother to heal some distances I've allowed to grow in following my own life path, to make my renewed belief in the bonds of family stronger so that my son does not journey, un-tethered from his sources, to then get lost in some way in the wider world. It is very much my understanding that my son truly does belong to "us", as much I want him to know he is as free as a bird.

Even with such natural distances between us, my father's words of advice have lingered and given me direction when I least expected. One: "Never vote for the Liberal Party." No great surprise there from a working man who has done his fair share of union work, but at least with enough latitude to let my vote go anywhere but conservative. And two: "Son, never worry about getting the sack. It was always the best thing that ever happened to me." Not that this has been a common factor in my father's life. Dad was just trying to say don't be afraid of change, especially when it seems unpleasant or is forced upon you. Better things are always ahead.

Dad was right, of course. Every time fatherhood gets hard or even impossible, moments and then whole days of joy arrive. It's usually the simple things, like when my little boy and I are having a bath together or I am chasing him up the stairs, step by step, laughing. Or when we are watching early morning TV on the weekend and a clip for Eminem or Holly Valance(his favourites) appears on Rage and we turn up the volume and dance to the lullabies of the moment him, his beautiful mother and me, raging along, punching our arms in the air, shouting "hey".

It feels to me, right then, that the family who dances together stays together, and that's about as wise and happy I can be as a father for today.

- Mark Mordue

* This story first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrumn 'Essay' section under the title 'About a Dad' on March 29, 2003. It was later republished by Culture Now in New York on 17th July 2009.

= Black and white family photo with my father and my son taken on the back streets of Glebe in 2003 by the very eminent Australian photographer Michael Wee (he's a good cook too).