Friday, November 25, 2011

Rock on Film part 15: Living in the Material World vs Autoluminescent


George vs Rowland

Big themes so let's start with a couple of lists:

Toy copy of George's "Rocky" Strat

Fender Jaguar similar to Rowland's


Both came to initial fame in influential bands.

Both were guitarists to one side of an impressive front package.

Neither was considered a guitar hero in any traditional sense.

Both died before old age of natural causes


The ex-Birthday Party members continued to make music equal or superior to their work in the seminal outfit. The ex-Beatles' output continues to be dominated by grinding mediocrity.

The Beatles remain the biggest band in the known Universe. You have to find out about the Birthday Party.

George Harrison left drug experimentation behind for a committment to spirituality. Roland Howard's lifelong pessimism led to a kind of romanticism in which spirituality was never more than a handy notion.

Almost everyone who watches the Harrison documentary will do so across the great chasm of the subject's fame and their capacity to cope with the difference will determine their enjoyment of it. In the small cinema where I saw Autoluminescent I could almost guarantee that everyone in the half filled seating either knew or had met Roland Howard or any combination of the interviewees. That does change as soon as you place the screening outside of Melbourne but consider that the first proposition doesn't change wherever it's shown.


The Beatles' magnitude demands that any attempt to render them identifiable to the great unwashed needs more than a little push to be believable. Rowland Howard's life story can tolerate a great deal more praise from pit and peer due to his relative obscurity. In both cases that's what happens. If you want to see it not happen that way go and watch the 1989 hagiography Imagine John Lennon.


As a second or third generation Beatles fan (ie one who turned teen in the 70s) I easily picked out Harrison's contributions for their distinct darkness of tone. His first composition on a fabs disc was the brooding sneer of Don't Bother Me. It's all odd percussion, great guitar tone (a Gretsch through a Vox amp, using its yummy tremolo) and a big putdown vocal. Then there's the lashing Taxman, cheeky Piggies and the big late night spookiness of Long Long Long (how else do you follow Helter Skelter?)

The story goes that against Lennon and McCartney he had to struggle hardest of all to get one of his songs on an album so they really had to shine. Well, for the most part they do. This doesn't make him a great songwriter but it does show his determination and individuality. And it gives him a great reason for quitting to move out by himself and fly free. He did. And then, like all the others whose initial albums had the strength of   triumphant escapees, he settled down to a long determinedly alright graze thereafter.

Living in the Material World doesn't tell it like this. We follow an individual from plucky youth into a maturity of caring and sharing and then an untimely death. Veiled admissions from the likes of Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton provide a womanising side to the quiet one and there are a number of songwriting breaktroughs which are given the status of narrative sign posts by director Martin Scorsese. A clear sense of a teenager from a cheerful working family becoming a benign landed lord emerges but there is a significant amount of shade lost in the telling.

The pioneering Concert for Bangladesh was plunged into controversy as the proceeds were variously held up or mysteriously siphoned off (probably by everyone's favourite depspoiler of rock royalty, Allen Klein). The event is celebrated but its purpose was left ravaged by the greed it attempted to redress. While much is made of George's development as a songwriter and musician the music after the big early albums fades into silence in quiet admission of its decreasing quality. Handmade Films, the company Harrison established because he wanted to see Life of Brian, did some fine work but also would have altered Withnail and I into a goofy forgettable mainstream waste of time.

The reason I can go on about this is that Harrison's factsheet has been posted upon the wall of public memory so gigantically that any attempt to slip one by is doomed. It's why Imagine John Lennon is so winceable. We know Lennon wasn't just some nice bloke that all this happened to. Similarly, Harrison had to be as forcefully competitive to retain his position as any of his fellows. There is some hint of this in Scorsese's film but it's kept nice.

As far as the equalisation alluded to above goes in this film it arrives in the accounts of how Harrison behaved toward the women he loved. Pattie and Oliva Harrison both offer quiet and dignified testimony of a lover and husband. A gesture here and a word there depict someone you'd want to know regardless of how competitive he had to be otherwise. It is these moments (and his son's account of George as father) that have stayed with me. Apart from them, Living in the Material World is a very slight step above Imagine John Lennon.

Rowland Howard has a lot of music with his name on it but all of it is over shadowed by one song: Shivers. He wrote it when he was 16 in response to the emotional turmoil he saw around him as he and his friends paired off and then split asunder again and again. The lyric is a sneer at the resultant over-emotion, even beginning with the line "I've been contemplating suicide though it really doesn't suit my style." If you made it through your adolescence without having that thought then you probably behaved yourself and I hope the pool extension is all you hoped it would be. The chorus begins with one of my favourite lines out of any song: "My baby's so vain she is almost a mirror". Who, capable of coming up with that at 16 along with perfectly fitting music, could not be destined for greatness?

Well, Rowland Howard, actually. Autoluminescent, though it might try to pull the other way, is a story of mounting defeat, showing a vulnerable individual continually beaten by a life against which his talent offered no protection. His is the story of every bedroom rockstar there ever was with the exception that he acted on his daydreams and pushed himself into a career. And it worked ... kind of.

His lean, high cheek-boned pallor allowed him effortless access into Melbourne's alternative scene which was morphing from punk to its posty form that allowed a greater range of expression. A series of talking head testimonies tell of this but nothing does it more eloquently than footage of Howard, Ollie Olsen 'n' co. slinking catlike down Fitzroy St in the late 70s. They stand out from the crowd through clear visual and personal style, aliens among the mud men.

But then something happened when Howard joined the Boys Next Door halfway through their only album. He brought a wild chaos to the sound that lifted it from good to original and he brought Shivers. The song he'd been performing with such cool sarcasm in his first band was taken by Nick Cave and turned into a straight emotionally wrought ballad. That's how I first heard it and it almost made me cry. I didn't have the Door Door album but I had the Shivers single with the creepy and compelling Dive Position on the B-side.

A lot of interviewees in the film have an opinion on the change in the song's mood. Cave himself who'd done the dirty deed concedes that Howard should have sung it which seems a pointless thing to say now. The fact is that Howard allowed the song to be so used and doing so allowed it in turn to enter history with its name on the door. A montage of alternative versions includes Marie Hoy's from the Dogs in Space movie which restores the sneer (actually more clearly than Howard's original).

The Birthday Party's career takes them from, to paraphrase Howard, massive fish in a tiny pond to frog spawn in a massive ocean. Penury, antipathy and heroin in London to localised celebrity in Berlin where their style and drug of choice changed the scene completely. Wim Wenders (a far better interviewee than a film maker, IMHO) offers some very useful witness here.

It was in Berlin that the Birthday Party ground to an end, with Howard being elbowed out over the widening chasm between his and their direction. Other groups formed from this, most durably Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It's at this point in the film where Howard's decline begins and continues on to his demise. It's also where the account gets both more guarded and more intense with Howards drug and health problems equalised low against the strength of his musical output.

And here we come to the crossroads of any biographical account: do you show everything? It leads to the question of what you're trying to say by telling someone's life. A friend of mine complained about Tim Burton's film Ed Wood, saying that it left out all the ugly seediness of his final years. Burton's purpose was to celebrate the act of filmmaking and chose an unusual but highly useful starting point: Wood might have produced laughably inept films but he'd had a genuine force of vision. That comes through easily. If the film had gone on to report it all it would have descended into the kind of earnest yawn that Oliver Stone so deteminedly gave us in the '80s and '90s.

So what's the big message of Autoluminescent that buries the bad bits under a few hints? Persistence. Howard kept going, kept finding collaborations and writing and recording and playing, regardless of how low his profile was to remain. His music was crucial to his life and while that could be said of other aspects of his days on earth his music remains. It stands the cool removal test (ie imagine if it had been created by someone you "shouldn't" like) and travels well beyond its makers' life.

Of the home/movie/slideshow/talking head rockumentary format, which is better? Autoluminescent is more of an a/v feast as there is a lot less mainstream reverence to get through before you see the subject in any kind of clarity. On the other hand Living in the Material World doesn't have Nick Cave reading a fairytale version of the story over brooding gothic imagery. George's son reads his fathers letters home which becomes emotionally very efficient.

Autoluminescent begins and ends with a fetishistic tracking shot of Rowland Howard's career-long choice of weapon, an Olympic White CBS era Fender Jaguar which he is seen playing almost exclusively throughout and it's there on the soundtrack, wall to wall. Not a word is said about it but it's there. George Harrison was the Beatle who did care about his guitars and amps and was always happy to discuss them. But the only time we see them is in vintage clips. Where are the close-ups of his beautiful old Gretsches, his iconic fireglo Rickenbacker 12 string, the cherry Les Paul or the rosewood Telecaster? Neither word nor sight up close. But there's the difference right there.

Material World is about a famous person whose music became apparently less and less important to who he was as wealth, fame and comfort took over. If you didn't know how he was and hunted his later music down as a result of this film (and it's lack of representation of it) you would probably experience it once, incompletely and put it quietly back where you found it. Rowland Howard slung his Fender Jag where he went and kept plugging it in right up to his final (and pretty damn good) album.

I am more a Beatle fan than one of the Birthday Party and its descendants. The fact of the Beatles is so impenetrably armored by their fame that I feel no lack in enjoying their music without caring even slightly about who they were as people. I was never likely to have met George Harrison and remain unbothered about it. While I cannot claim to have known him, I did meet Rowland Howard on a few occasions, and outside the musical context (ie not at gigs) and I'm glad I did. I found him witty, intelligent and personable.

Neither film alters those impressions but the one I'm grateful to have seen at a cinema is clear to me. Odd for me to write this but in this case at least, between Richard  Lowenstein and Martin Scorsese, Scorsese loses.


  1. Great post. re 'suicide' - when The Boys Next Door were struggling to get any mainstream promo, the very influential COUNTDOWN appearance was denied them solely because they wanted to do Shivers and ABCTV management deemed the s-word too volatile for broadcast at 6pm on a Sunday.
    Nick will be on the cover of The Women's Weekly pretty soon, I'm sure.
    re Rowland's white Jaguar: I have been trying to cope with reading the recent Dolores SanMiguel book on the scene and notice that she describes his guitar as red. sigh.

  2. Didn't know that about Shivers on Countdown. I remember seeing them do Boots but they were promoting Lethal Weapons (somewhat ironically on the Suicide label). I tend to find Nick C's career unimpressive but have to admit he works hard to keep it going.

    I'd be frustrated, too, to read someone had got the colour wrong on such an iconic instrument. I mean it was a career-long association. Bet they wouldn't call Angus Young's axe a Les Paul.

    Thanks for your response. Gotta read that book. I'd recommend, having come from it, the book about the Brisbane scene: Pig City