Immortal Soul: Rowland S. Howard’s Defiant Last Battle
Rowland Stuart Howard was a founding member of The Birthday Party, Crime and the City Solution and These Immortal Souls. In December last year he died from liver cancer after contracting hepatitis C many years earlier. Longtime lover, collaborator and friend Genevieve McGuckin pays tribute to this unique and gifted Australian musician.
Rowland S. Howard was one of those rare and extraordinary souls who are just utterly themselves to the nth degree. He didn’t try to be unique, he just was.
I don’t think I’ll ever get used to him not being here and I’ll always curse his rotten fate, but I know I’ll never regret one single moment I spent in his company. He was too young, too talented, and far too good all round to lose to a liver disease.
Thirty-two years ago he blew into my life like some sweet hurricane, and nothing was ever the same again. He was my lover for 16 years, my best friend for most of my adult life, and by the end we’d become each other’s chosen family, as comfortably entangled as the roots of some weird old fairy-tale tree.
We met when Rowland was just 17. At an age when most of us are flailing around trying to find ourselves, Rowland was already astonishingly singular. His taste, his dress sense, his razor-sharp wit were all there. He’d already written “Shivers” and was burning up the stage in The Young Charlatans.
That incendiary talent would go on to transfix us and transform every band he’d ever play in, from The Birthday Party, to Crime and the City Solution, These Immortal Souls, to his solo career. Rowland played music with the sort of honesty and integrity that can break hearts. He wasn’t afraid to lay his soul out on the floor. Love it. Hate it. Rowland didn’t care… as long as we really felt something. I’d never heard noises like that from a guitar before - it was the sound of pure emotion, as if he plugged that Fender Jaguar right into the dead centre of his being.
Wherever he went heads would turn. He looked like no one else in this world. He was immaculately elegant, a tall streak of a boy, androgynous, beautiful, otherworldly. His dark wolfish hair grew in strange manga-esque swirls on his crown that couldn’t help but stick up. His body and clothes somehow made great shapes together. His hooded blue eyes sparkled with wit and warmth, and in the early days, a bit of eyeliner. I was struck by how courageous he must have been to catch the last train home alone, to Nunawading, looking the way he did. In the ‘70s that meant braving the inevitable taunts and the very real threat of physical harm from the gangs of skinheads that haunted late night carriages. He obviously survived, but that splendid nose of his would always bear the scars.
Hanging out with Rowland was fun. He had a way of making the world seem bigger, brighter and more exciting. He had something to say about absolutely everything. He mined the real world and the world of his imagination with equal delight. He read like a fiend, two or three books a week, loved music of course, but also film, art, pop culture, comics, magazines. He wanted to know things. Find things that moved and inspired him. He was a veritable fount of information, drawn to the odd, the unusual and the downright absurd and would have everyone in stitches with an endless source of hilarious anecdotes. Nothing got lost in that head. He was charming, sensitive, intelligent and uncompromising. He loved to confound expectations and always surprised me. I really can’t remember being bored in his presence.
We had a million adventures together, lived in London, Berlin, played music, went on tour, lived through heaven and hell. And like a lot of other people we knew, we used drugs. It was very much a love/hate affair. Heroin and heartbreak would always cause Rowland the most angst.
Rowland thought he got hepatitis C very early on, before it even had a proper name. It seemed unimaginable to us then that this virus would quietly nibble away at his liver, his energy, and eventually his life.
Rowland really should have been treated years’ earlier. He’d been tired for ages, but his GP always steered him away from Interferon, saying he wouldn’t cope with the depression. By the time he got to the Alfred Liver Clinic he had advanced cirrhosis, his liver like that of an old metho drinker. He was horrified and angry with himself for taking his doctor’s advice. He’d stopped using at the end of 2003 and hadn’t drunk since his early 30s.
After convincing a psychiatrist that although he was no stranger to depression, it held no fears for him and he’d never felt suicidal. Late in 2005 he started Interferon. The odds were bad, 10-25 per cent, and the poor boy came down with nearly every side effect in the book.
It was eight months before he even began to feel human, and when he did the relief was enormous. He had energy and looked great. His musical career had first begun with a bang and now it was exploding all over again. His audiences grew and grew, and to his delight, were as young and as fanatically adoring as those he’d played to 30 years earlier. He’d been discovered by Generation Y and they thought he was cool! There were record and publishing deals. “A Girl called Johnny”, the first song he’d written for his new album Pop Crimes, met with unanimous praise. It was all happening. He had bookings for gigs and festivals here and overseas, was even being paid decently.
He’d fallen in love again, with a beautiful 23-year-old, and couldn’t wipe the smile from his face. It was a joy to see. After years in the wilderness, his future seemed bright with hope and promise.
In January 2009 Rowland was diagnosed with liver cancer. It was too cruel. I remember him holding me, saying over and over, “Gen… I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” I couldn’t believe he was apologising. I swore I’d do everything I could to help. Inside I felt sick. I knew the odds weren’t great.
Yet by the next day, he developed an amazing calm that would stay with him right until the end. He had countless hospital visits for scans, blood tests, procedures to burn out the tumours. He was told he needed a transplant to survive but because of his history, he was unlikely
Rowland took it all in his stride with grace, dignity and his usual irreverent humour. He was so fearless it was catching. He gave up smoking without complaint, never asked for pain killers, thinking he might be judged. We had an unspoken pact to keep life as normal as possible, no fuss or drama. He wanted to feel his life was still his own, to play and record, keep doing all the things he loved.
Who knows what criteria they use to decide who gets on a transplant list. It’s a long, involved process. We knew it helped to be a child, or a mother or father of dependant kids. We knew that smoking, drinking or taking illicit drugs gets you nixed immediately. Their rules are clear, but there’s so much they don’t tell you and it can be hard to decipher.
Unfortunately Rowland was introduced to the Austin Hospital Transplant Team on the worst morning of his life. He’d just come round from one of the most painful procedures possible. It was early, he’d already answered lots of questions, but he’d been given no pain relief.
The operation had worked, they told him, and they were going to start testing to see if he was transplant material. Of course he was incredibly relieved and grateful, but he was also in agony. They asked again what medications he was on, and he said, ”I’ve been asked three times already. Can’t you get it from my file?” Bang! The words “obstreperous” and “unhelpful” were written on the very first line of his transplant file, and there they’d stay.
The tests took two weeks, from 8am until 4.30pm every day. Every part of Rowland’s body was searched for the smallest sign of weakness. He saw pastors, social workers, psychiatrists and nutritionists. He sat through hours of information about everything that could go wrong during a transplant – the scary statistics, the copious drugs he’d need to take afterwards, their side effects. Colour photos of actual operations. Did he mind if it was a woman’s liver? “No!” How would he feel about the donor? “Very grateful…”
Rowland passed the most important tests and it was decided that his mind and body could handle the 14-hour operation. The pastor, social worker and his doctor all seemed to love him, and we assumed he was now “on the list”. We were blissfully unaware that at least one person on the team had deemed Rowland “non-compliant”. He wasn’t actually on the list at all but that wasn’t explained until two months later. It was the same day his cover photo for Pop Crimes was taken, the pain and sadness written all over his face.
Apparently the co-ordinator was troubled that Rowland was playing gigs and recording and thought it meant he wasn’t serious about a transplant. It was as though being a musician wasn’t a proper job, or was somehow destructive. She just couldn’t understand that being a musician was who Rowland was. He had to finish Pop Crimes. He also needed the income to get him through his post-transplant recovery period. He was spoken to as if he were a recalcitrant child.
We protested and Rowland had a nice long chat with his doctor. Finally in late September 2009 he was officially put on the list. Hope at last! He was getting worse by the week and knew it was his only chance.
Rowland grew ever frailer but was still the same gentle, funny man, completely free of complaint and self-pity. His body now needed to sleep 18 hours a day but he kept playing, and did countless interviews and photo shoots. Pop Crimes was coming out and the media interest was staggering. His career was flourishing. When he was up, we’d shop, wander in the sunset, talk, cook his favourite Moroccan food and watch DVDs. I think he watched The Wire three times - he was absolutely in love with Omar.
Five days after his 50th birthday he played his last gig at the Prince of Wales hotel. It was sold out, and he was so fantastic. The whole night bled with beauty and love and I cried like a baby.
The days passed. In November the doctor said Rowland was now in a “vicious downhill spiral” but others on the list were sicker. By now he was now scarily thin, very nauseous and weak. Despite still insisting that he wasn’t sick enough to be in hospital, the day came when he could no longer resist. He ended up in emergency with a clot in his liver, peritonitis, and a chest infection. (Not sick enough?)
Strangely, that clot zoomed him to the top of the waiting list, and they transferred him to the Austin to prepare for the transplant. It was Christmas. Maybe there’d be more organs donated? I prayed to every God I could think of. But the pre-transplant tests showed something new, another clot, this time in the very artery they would use to attach the new liver. His liver function was virtually zero, his life dangling precariously by one tiny thread.
His doctor asked the surgeon to try anyway. At one last emergency meeting the surgeon and the team decided it was just too dangerous to operate. Rowland wouldn’t survive and the liver would be wasted. Rowland was out of options. The window of opportunity between being “not sick enough” for a transplant and becoming “too sick for a transplant” was just a few days.
Rowland had always told me he didn’t want to think about dying. He said he didn’t even know what death was, so how on earth could he prepare for it? “I guess I’ll just do it when I get there”, he said, and he did. And he did it beautifully.
The morning he died we were pleading with the nurses to give him morphine. They wanted to wait another 30 minutes. When I asked why, they replied, “Because it’s not good for his liver…”
Ten minutes later, Rowland smiled the most amazingly joyful smile I’ve ever seen, cried two golden tears, and slipped off into the ether.
And there’s a huge Rowland-shaped hole in the world.
Illustration by Ursula Dyson
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