Autoluminescent. Thanks to Rowland S Howard for that one.

Autoluminescent. It’s a good word. What does it mean? According to one online dictionary: “Capable of emitting luminous rays spontaneously and without excitation from other bodies: said of the so-called radioactive substances.” It’s also the title of a new biopic that screened at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, about Aussie musician, Rowland S Howard, who passed away at the end of 2009. Autoluminescent is a song from Teenage Snuff Film, a solo album Howard released in 1999.

Richard Lowenstein’s documentary, Autoluminescent, reveals that the guitarist/singer/songwriter had a liking for words. In footage from old interviews, used in the film, Howard, looking all of about 19 years old, says he loves the english language, and using words like “ectoplasmic”. He says it with a wry grin, possibly aware that some might see his taste for such words as pretentious. It’s clear, however, that he is not pretentious, but intelligent and well-read.

 Autoluminescent really was a stunning documentary, perhaps largely because it didn’t falsely romanticise the cliched image of a troubled genius, yet it revealed that Howard was both troubled, and a genius. There was extensive use of one or two key interviews with him that, as mentioned, looked as though they had been recorded in a kitchen of a very untidy shared household when he was about 19. To me those interviews held the entire film together, giving me a portrait of a vulnerable, highly intelligent young man – barely more than a boy –  just at the beginning of his musical career. He looked elfin-like (a physical quality he retained throughout his life) at that age, and, at times, androgynous, and at times, strangely beautiful. He was clearly  intelligent, sensitive, romantic, and reserved, and said that he found it difficult to bare his emotions in songs written for others to sing (eg Nick Cave). Apparently he was hopelessly romantic – one of the comments made by a female friend was that he was “always in love with someone who didn’t love him back”.  He also displayed a wry sense of humour (perhaps as a defence against his own sensitivity) that made him seem very likeable.

Much detail was gone into about Howard’s most famous song, Shivers, which became a vehicle for Nick Cave in the Boys Next Door, and the difference in their interpretations of the song: apparently Rowland meant it to be ironic, a parody of teenagers moping about love, while Cave’s interpretation of it imparts all the anguish of someone feeling suicidal over unrequited love.

(I’ve heard this before – it’s discussed in great detail in We’re Living On Dog Food, Lowenstein’s film about the Melbourne post-punk music scene – but now it occurs to me, in light of the description of Rowland as a hopeless romantic, to wonder if this is entirely true? If he was so romantic, it seems likely that the lyrics were sincere, and that he later claimed they were ironic as a defence against the emotional vulnerability revealed in the song. Perhaps his later accusation that Cave had misinterpreted the song was made because he was resentful that Cave had achieved fame by performing it with the emotion that, for Howard, was too close to the bone. Who will ever know? He was apparently only 16 when he wrote the song, so I think we can forgive him if he was ambivalent about revealing too much about it back then!)

A  moving counterpoint to those early interviews was more recent footage, shown towards the end of the film, of Howard, looking unwell and worn down from years of drug use and ill health, expressing regret that he hadn’t achieved more, and saying that he’d wasted a lot of his life, meaning, through drug use and related illnesses. It was sad to see him feeling so despondent about his life, but also very moving to see that he retained that tendency to expose his own vulnerability, as shown by his willingness to express his regret on film.

As someone who knew little more of Rowland S Howard than (and I’m sure this was what he most resented) that he was Nick Cave’s offsider during the Boys Next Door/Birthday Party days, and was then in Crime and the City Solution, this documentary has made me want to hear more of this man’s “gut-wrenchingly beautiful guitar playing,”  so revered by musos all over the world. I’ve always liked what I knew of Crime and The City Solution, which was very little, but now I think I will investigate more of their music, as well as These Immortal Souls, (who I’ve never heard), and  Howard’s last solo album, Pop Crimes, which was supposedly his best.

So thanks to Lowenstein for the doco. I’ll look forward to learning more about Rowland S Howard and his music.

(the clip above of Crime and The City Solution is from the Wim Wenders film, The Wings Of Desire. Rowland, mostly in the background, features at 2:58)

%d bloggers like this: