Rowland S. Howard wrote the song Shivers as a teenager. It’s an indelible ode to youthful misery and unrequited love paired with a willful, yearning guitar. When he died thirty years later, in December 2009, he was fifty. Liver cancer. Impressive character to the end, Howard played a gig just a month and change before his death. In an interview with New Zealand writer Simon Sweetman, Howard sounded down right relieved to have kicked Shivers off his set-list at last. “When I did use to do it in shows, I was doing a cover of some song that had been around forever. I guess that is a strange way to feel about a song you wrote. But that’s how it felt.”
In another interview Howard refers to the song as his albatross. Howard then goes on to play a stoned out but entrancing version of the song, it comes alive despite his careless attitude, a mournful dirge, a collaborative effort between the then middle aged Howard and the youth who wrote the song.
“I’ve been contemplating suicide, but it really doesn’t suit my style. So I think I’ll just act bored instead, and contain the blood I would have shed.”
The song itself is simple, and maybe a touch delicate. You immediately hear swatches of a tougher Sweet Jane, a slower Now I Wanna Be Your Dog. Like its proto punk forbearers, Shivers relies on guitar power to lift off into the organic whirl of harmonic convergence. That is, the solo, the trill of the reverberated guitar, as it echoes and squeals, lumbering in parts, cloudlike in others, is the notion of bliss, if bliss could be set down on tape and replayed through an endless loop.
As a song, Shivers is quirky, not so much melancholic as devilish, a slow burn on the spit. Underneath its youthful veneer is the melodic primacy, disturbingly likeable guitar, and a devil may care attitude. Pure majesty, and cheek. In the hands of Howard’s teenaged band, the Young Charlatans, there is no studio gimmickry, no boss overdrive, no relentlessly pulsing synthesized beat, no brain-dead auto-tuned vocalizations. Instead, it’s nothing but the sheer dynamics of the arrangement and the performance. “Our love could hold off cigarettes,” Howard sneers, “there’s no room for cheap regret.”
It’s almost as if Steve Coogan is singing.
Despite exceptionally autocratic radio programmers in the United States, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds had clamored for some airplay, mostly college stations by 1985. As his fame spread, his other bands received press, and that’s how I came across The Boys Next Door version in spite of the rampant all night “get the Led out”all Zeppelin all the time radio shows that populated the radio dial over the course ofmost of the nineteen eighties. When one of the aforementioned college radio stations in my hometown played Shivers, I paid attention. I missed the name of the band, but wrote down the title of the album- the sound track to the film Dogs in Space– and charged off in search of. I headed to three or four record shops before I found it stowed in that crinkly cellophane sleeve imported records used to come in, too big for their product, too delicate to protect it. When I got home, I played the song over and over, until my mother switched off the stereo and had me set the table for dinner. From that point forward, Shivers was locked in my head. To this day, I’ll stop what I’m doing and sit back and appreciate it when it comes on.
I was hungry for this new-to-me sound of Australia. That strange continent down under had a musical universe that spanned a spectrum far wider than Men at Work and AC/DC. Bands like Radio Birdman, The Saints, The Scientists, The Beasts of Bourbon, The Cosmic Psychos, Lubricated Goat– a treasure trove, a holy grail filled with the blessed sounds of that foreign continent’s fury and redemption. I found twang in places I’d never have looked, torchy ballads carved out of the most macho of places.
Since Nick Cave’s music was easier to locate than Howard’s, it was years before I realized someone else was responsible for Shivers. As soon as I made the correction, every moment, every spare cent was spent corralling all of Howard’s music- the Crime and City Solution sides he played on, his band, These Immortal Souls, the Lydia Lunch collaborations. Everything and anything. One day strumming my own guitar, it occurred to me that somehow I knew exactly how to play the song without ever having looked up the chords. Record Mitosis. Sonic bliss.
And while Howard himself felt the song outshone his other output, it was his song, and his particular ways that won over bandmates and fans alike. The very same ethos that created Shivers was a part of his charm. Writing about Howard after his death, former Young Charlatan band-mate Jeffrey Weggener remembered first meeting the guitarist. “Rowland had a dark suit on, with a badge with a photo of himself on it.” Howard was the prince of smirk. And Shivers, for better or worse, was Howard at his best.
In an email interview, Ian “Ollie” Olsen, Howard’s Young Charlatans co-creator, preferred not to dig too deeply into any of the Shivers mythology. He immediately cut to the chase, “I apologize for any disappointment, “ Olsen wrote, “ but I really have little to offer by way of enlightening you on that song’s creation.” Olsen makes a strong point. “The past is the past, and I am kinda tired about talking about it, just makes me sad really.” His tone warm and polite, but firm. The song does come from the deeper regions of his past, when Olsen and Howard werestill developing their identities. Olsen did add, “one thing to note is that the song was Rowland’s blessing and curse, as popular songs can often be.”
Cave kept performing the song with The Bad Seeds. Howard continued to perform it well into his last decade. All of this lent a bit of confusion to the song’s provenance- online lyric reproductions are as likely to attribute Shivers to Cave, as to Howard.
In the Sweetman interview Howard addressed his relation to Cave. “I’ve had people come up to me on the street and say ‘we think you are better than Nick Cave, we really do!’ and while I get that they’re just trying to be nice – that that’s a way to try to pay a compliment – I really don’t understand it. Nick is good at doing what he does and I do what I do. I have to say that I’ve chosen to not work anywhere near as hard as Nick. But I’ve done a lot of diverse things, from other bands and solo records to art and acting.”
In The Boys Next Door video for the song, Cave has the spotlight, not the songwriter. Howard mythically drifts in and out of the frame a few times, guitar in hand, then is gone again.
Who could be the anti-heroine of young Mr. Howard’s heart? As with any gem of creation, opinions about the genesis of the song differ. Olsen attributes its inspiration to a “girl named Gina.” Olsen’s ex-girlfriend, Meg Bannister, a painter in Melbourne, tells a different story. “Rowland was in love with a girl, who’s been dead twenty years now. Lisa Crasswell. I was about 18 or 19 at the time, living with Ollie. Ollie and I were a couple years older than Rowland, I wasn’t particularly aware of his age. It was just like he was one of us.” Bannister reminds me this is decades in the past, and the details might be slightly smudged. “ Look, “ she says, “I’m most eloquent when I’m painting.”
Bannister describes a much bleaker Australia in those days, at least musically speaking. Many of the musicians and artists who were part of the burgeoning scene would be lionized in the movie Dogs In Space. The Dogs soundtrack was produced in part by Olsen, illuminating just how small the scene was. Bannister elaborates, “Australia in those days, the sort of people that listened to that music was such a small group of people in terms of the whole country. I was really surprised it (Howard’s death) made the mainstream press. He was never on the top 40 or anything. It’s very distracting the music that’s played on the top 40. But Shivers is much better known in Australia right now.”
Shivers is his crown of thorns. Other songs should have been equally or better known. These Immortal Souls were criminally obscure. Their songs, Black Milk, King of Kalifornia, MarryMe (Lie!, Lie!), all collided past efforts into a fixed cycle of song every bit as prescient and essential a year and a half after Howard’s death as they were when he first recorded them. And while Howard finally did get to quit Shivers, the song never quit him, despite the attribution mess.
Banister recounts the story behind the song, as she remembers it. “ Rowland had gone to see Lisa, and she was seeing someone. When he got there, this other guy was there. And he got really upset, and walked back to the house. But he punched a wall along the way. Rowland was absolutely devastated. He had cut up his knuckles. Where we lived was about three miles away. And he walked home. There was this veranda on the roof. Rowland had his guitar. We were all sitting on the roof. I think, from memory, he got it pretty much at that time. Because I wouldn’t have remembered it if he’d only gotten an eighth of the song. You know sometimes you do something and it just works. Sometimes it’s positively inspired. And I remember thinking what a great pop song, because, more than anything, it was a great pop song.”