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Irregular writings

March 2013

  • Dave Graney

Rowland S Howard: Prince of St. Kilda.

I got a call about a new venue in St Kilda. I wished the person luck as I had my doubts it is a place for any kind of music performance crowd or interest any more. There’s a crowd there by the bay but they’re just shuffling around, looking for free stuff and enjoying the illusion that it’s the Gold Coast or Byron Bay. There’s a sea breeze and an occasional glimpse of a palm tree. The trams are cute and go straight across to the other side of town, where all the music is. It used to be a music place and, occasionally, there is a little flare-up of activity from those old 80s campfires. Nothing new was happening.

They got back to me with an idea for a tribute to Rowland S Howard, the late guitar hero/pop icon/daemon Melbourne suburban rock’n’roll dark star. I demurred on this too. Not for want of respect for RSH but it seemed to be playing to that 80s crowd again. What about something else? Then I got a call from Harry, Rowland’s brother, who I am glad to call a friend and comrade and it’s different when a friend asks you to do something. So I was going to MC a night of performances of Rowland’s songs – in chronological order – done by a gang of players and singers, some of who were match fit and others who hadn’t been near a stage for two decades or more. It was gonna be interesting.

The show took off like a firestorm and sold out with mentions on social media only. No postering or pimping on radio- people just took the idea and nodded and took out their credit cards. Rowland still has pull.

The full house soaked up all the sound and the room was fantastic. MEMO in St Kilda – a heritage listed building behind the Army and Navy Club that hadn’t been used for three decades or more. Holding about 400-500 people comfortably over two levels. St Kilda used to be full of these beautiful rooms; it seemed to breed them. You never got to the end of it. People lived in decaying old mansions and former embassies. Poor people ascending grand, dilapidated staircases to their one-room abodes. From the first notes of the first band it was just right. So apt that a tribute to Rowland would be in a venue that was like some strange old school hall where a lot of punk rock shows would have been put on. It was odd, and music is great in those situations. Not so formal an occasion.

I was to try and keep some sort of flow happening as the different players came on and off. Not so difficult really. The music flowed from the Young Charlatans to the Birthday Party to These Immortal Souls to Rowland’s solo works. I warned the audience that the performers were a mixture of hardened pros with exteriors so tough that they no longer could get in touch with their “real” or “inner” selves at all – damaged and perverted beyond all human recognition – and delicate, faun-like amateurs who had no such distinctions between inner and outer or even performance and real life. I asked the people to be equally as cruel to all the performers. I advised the musicians to be as equally cruel to all the people in the room.

The sound and the aristocratic ambience set the tone off perfectly. The show lurched forward and back. I took the rudder every now and again and did my best to go closer to some dangerous rocks to add a little frisson of imminent chaos and destruction when a moment seemed to present itself. I used a fan for a prop on the first night and a pear for the second.

Performers included Penny Ikinger, Jonnine and Conrad Standish, Ron Rude, Tex Perkins, Mick Harvey, Genevieve McGuckin, Bronwyn Bonney, Brian Hooper, Gareth Liddiard and JP Shilo. There was another Tex there, Tex Napalm from Germany. He was travelling with Dimi Dero from Paris. I struck up a chat with the latter, telling him about the “So Frenchy So Chic” discs that are issued in Australia every year. He hadn’t heard of the series and was unimpressed by the names I said were to be found on them.

Too pop, I guess. “What do you like? I asked in the way of casual conversation. “Australian rock!” he pretty much sneered in my direction. A true believer. I was intrigued and asked what kind. “Radio Birdman and the Saints,” he said, as if delivering news of arcane figures from the fringes. “That’s OK – a bit old though,” was my only response. We didn’t have that much in common after that. As is my want, I didn’t wear any signifying rock’n’roll patches or shapes. Looked a bit square I guess. An old smoothie in lime green pastel slacks and a white T.

There was an added element in the air for this tremulous community in that Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds were in town that very weekend. Would Nick appear? There was a seat and table reserved for him upstairs in the mezzanine area. Part of the narrative, for some people, around Rowland was that Nick got too much attention and his former comrade was robbed. Not really true but people need these kinds of dramatic tropes in their minds.

Many old friends and ghosts were in the room. Trembling in the dark. Many young people as well. Rowland’s image and dark, glamorous narrative have the power to live on for a long time. I’d been to the launch of his “Teenage Snuff Film” album in 1999 and half the room had been Japanese girls. People thought they owned him, and still do.

The show was on for two nights and went exceedingly well. The venue people are very hopeful of the room being a continuing success. It should be. It really is a sweet spot and I hope the locals get to treasure it. The Port Phillip council should do everything to help. Let’s hope they do.

Now, St Kilda needs a couple more clubs of smaller size and it’ll be back on the entertainment map again.


Photos by: Campbell Manderson




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