Words & Music

October Boy
Mick Harvey

Not long before a seriously ill Rowland S. Howard died of liver cancer in 2009, he made an unusual request of his former Birthday Party band mate and long time collaborator Mick Harvey. Having learned that Harvey was writing songs for a forthcoming album to be called Sketches From The Book Of The Dead, Howard suggested that Harvey write one for him. A year after Howard’s passing, Harvey fulfilled his friend’s wishes with October Boy; an elegy to the dark spirit of Howard’s music and arcing trajectory of his life.

October Boy – born a little pointed
October Boy – with a witty tongue
October Boy – soon to be anointed with a sonic gun

In a nod to songwriter Lee Hazelwood (a Howard favourite) and the Nancy Sinatra sung Friday’s Child, Harvey uses the title of the song as the foundation of the lyric. Repeating it at the start of each line, as he sketches out a portrait that both personalises and mythologises Howard’s otherworldly persona.

October Boy – sang his songs of sadness
October Boy – loved the Shangri-Las
October Boy – showed no signs of madness
Was close to the top… but no cigar

That Howard was born in October makes sense enough. The moniker of ‘October Boy’ was one given to him in the late 70s, when as part of Melbourne’s fledging new wave scene, he and Harvey cut their teeth with Nick Cave in The Boys Next Door. “For a while Rowland wore a badge with ‘October’ written on it,” recalls Harvey. “I remember from the time, something about him being referred to as October Boy and then on his funeral notification card there it was – written at the bottom – underneath those vital dates.”

October Boy is laden with references to Howard’s distinctive musical style, from the use of a minor key and understated waltz time rhythm to the shards of distorted, reverb drenched guitar that cut through the arrangement. “The idea,” says Harvey, “was to make it as if he were playing along with us which, in a way, he was.”

The guitar part came courtesy of JP Shilo, who had played with Howard and observed his technique first hand. “It’s all about the harmonics,” says Shilo, referring to the overtones produced by placing the fingers lightly upon the strings. “Rowland often remarked that when possible use open strings and let things ring out… left hand free… tremolo arm in the right.”

Where the song’s verses are concerned with the ‘telling of the ages’, as Harvey puts it, the chorus is a simple, poignant reiteration of Howard’s original request,. One made, Harvey adds, with a “typical Rowland smirk”.

If you’re writing songs for the book of the dead
Well write one for me… but not just yet

A “somewhat indulgent request”, Harvey notes, that despite its offhand delivery he found impossible to refuse.

The third verse of the song casts Howard as an ill-fated adventurer undone by his own hand.

October Boy – took rock n roll poison
October Boy – bought into that myth
October Boy – paid the price and then some of an experimentalist

Howard cultivated an image of an elegantly wasted, rock ‘n’ roll aristocrat, his music imbued with the dark narcotic glow of the heroin he used for much of his adult life. If from a distance this lifestyle held an allure for some, for Harvey the reality up close was very different.

“Living in the midst of that kind of drug use is almost the ultimate in destruction of style, creativity and cool,” he explains, “so that’s the myth to which I am referring. Rowland was trapped by it and his addiction for a long time and it was a great obstruction to his creative output and his life in general.”

The final verse deals with Howard’s death and funeral before closing with a series of questions Harvey directs at Howard himself. “If I write you a song in my book of the dead,” he sings, “should I make it carefree or make it sad? If I write you a song in that book of the dead will it matter at all what’s left unsaid?”

While not entirely carefree, October Boy’s lightness of touch ensures it is never overtly maudlin or sad. Harvey says this was in part out of respect for Howard, who “would have hated it to be mawkish or sentimental.”

As to the question of what is left unsaid, superficially it would appear to be an explicit expression from Harvey of his mourning and grief. Yet, perhaps it is because these feelings remain unspoken that they are all the more powerfully conveyed by the song.

Mick Harvey and JP Shilo will perform in Pop Crimes (The Songs of Rowland S. Howard) at the ATP Festival in Melbourne on Saturday October 26.


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