Monday, January 4, 2010

Rowland S. Howard / The Birthday Party

With the passing of Rowland S. Howard (1959 - 2009), I felt compelled to try and remember this specific part of my life...

I first heard The Boys Next Door in London, fall of '79 – the "Hee Haw" EP (it wasn't released there until CD era, so I wonder how an indie Aussie EP made it to the Record & Tape Exchange in Notting Hill Gate?). I came back to LA, ordered it via a wholesaler (as I had contact with such folks) and began my odyssey. In 1980, I saw a single line in a Melody Maker (or NME) saying "In town Australian band Boys Next Door now wish to be known as The Birthday Party" – I immediately called the UK importer. "Get me anything by The Birthday Party!" – it took a few months, but...I guess they had signed with nascent 4AD but "Mr. Clarinet" b/w "Happy Birthday" arrived eventually. There was an address on the sleeve, and I wrote to them, in London.

I was first answered by Mick Harvey, the bassist. "How did you hear of us in LA?" and he offered to "get the lyrics" from Nicholas Edward Cave (as that was what I wrote to them about). A few weeks later, a large envelope arrived with handwritten lyrics by Nick Cave for both the "Hee Haw" EP and "Happy Birthday" 45. They were my friends!

Mr. Harvey wrote to me about 4 times a year for most of 1980/1/2/3. They went back to Australia to record "Prayers On Fire" (1981) for 4AD / Missing Link. I was going to NZ often then, so I used directory assistance to find Nick's mom ("Dawn Cave") in Melbourne, but...Nick was somewhere else in Melbourne. Er, Nick became 'uncommunicative', only Harvey would write to me. "Come to the Roundhouse on the 19th!" "The shows are going over well" "New album at Xmas" (which would be "Junkyard").

I went to work for a new importer / distributor ("Important Records"), and when the release notice for The Birthday Party "Junkyard" (1982) walked down the pike, I asked my boss if I could order 4 boxes (i.e. 100 copies) – as I was "the buyer". They hemmed and hawed and let me order 4 cartons. The salesmen didn't know what it was, but it flew out the door – "Can we get another 100 copies?" "Who are these guys?" Me: "Uh, they're my friends from Australia, who live in London". Barry Adamson (from Magazine) was a guest bassist on “Junkyard”.

Somehow, it got back to Nick and Mick that some crazy guy in L.A. was ordering tons of their new album. The 4AD guy was very pleased: "I knew you guys could do it!". The band and management started talking US tour...and the drummer left. Off the record: I think Nick was starting to get hassled by the cops in the UK over his violent shows (people were lining up, paying and then complaining when old Nick would flail away on the front he was not fond of the police showing up and asking questions.)

The band moved en masse to Berlin. "Mutiny In Heaven" (1983) occurred. Uh, it had a swastika on the cover. Some were pleased, other mortified. Mick Harvey went from being the bassist / keyboardist to being the drummer. They couldn't concentrate enough to do whole albums, so there were several EP's from this period.

If I remember correctly, the swastika (which only meant / represented "Germany" to the band) was a stumbling block for Ivo Watts-Russell (Mr. 4AD), so The Birthday Party signed with Daniel Miller's Mute Records (at the end of '82? Mid-’83?) – and US shows were announced.

They played 2 nights at The Roxy (Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood), and I was a guest of the band. I took some great photos of them on stage. They were staying in a hotel / motel that's not there anymore, just east of 8801 Sunset Blvd (the former Tower Records, West Hollywood location). I met 'em all and they were really nice to me, signed my records (some wag in the band even signed the name drummer Phil Calvert, who had quit!) – they played nice, loud, sloppy shows – punks and goths alike were delighted. I stood to the side, so as to not get kicked in the face by flailing punks / Nick Cave.

On their night off, we all went out for Mexican food (except for Rowland S. Howard, who, unless I am mistaken, was ‘not feeling well’.). Bassist Tracey Pew was wearing a giant cowboy hat, which attracted a lot of attention. I remember them in a tiny Mexican restaurant on Santa Monica Blvd., laughing it up. It was arranged for me to take them to a party / event in Silverlake the following night (at the then-home of Devo guy Mark Mothersbaugh, exactly at the time of “Visiting Kids”? Is that right?).

I remember doing that (the party), and ending the evening with the honor of being drunk and getting to take Nick Cave back to the West Hollywood hotel by myself. Quite a reasonable Melbourne boy. "Were there really recording studios in Mexico City?" The band broke up.

Well, I kept up with the Melbourne boys for a while, Nick went solo – and at least the first few solo records weren't so good (for me). Tracey Pew died of an epileptic seizure in '86. I ran into Nick Cave at LAX airport in '89 or so, and he remembered me. I buy Mick Harvey's solo CD's (on Mute) whenever I see them. I still have all my autographed records and letters, and I have most everything from The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party on CD. I believe the CD's have all now been re-mastered now, but...the originals were all "Mastered By Nimbus" and the re-masters do not really interest me. And, of course, Nick Cave became famous – as he should've.

Rowland S. Howard made some records with Lydia Lunch (a NYC female artist who does not generally interest me): "Some Velvet Morning" (on 4AD, 1982) and later "Shotgun Wedding" LP (Triple XXX, 1991). I guess they ‘roped each other in’, as "Shotgun" is a great fractured "pop" album. I later found out that Mr. Howard was in a band called These Immortal Souls (the one I ended up with is "I'm Never Gonna Die Again" (on Mute, 1992), really a rather good album. This makes me want to hear his later (90's and beyond) work. Pretty sure I missed some of his other solo works.

For me, Howard was 40% of the equation, Cave really about 60% with Pew and Harvey (and probably even drummer Phil Calvert). Having met him, I felt really bad when Tracey Pew died. I didn't hang out much with Mr. Howard, but I understand / understood his "guitar genius".

Related music: Crime & The City Solution, The Dirty Three, Anita Lane

- Ron Kane

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