Monday, March 14, 2011

Rowland with a W

By Victoria Jaschob

Paris can be unbearably hot and sticky in the summertime, and 1982 was
no exception. I was nineteen and living in a big apartment on the Left Bank,supposedly studying film at the Sorbonne. During the day I worked in my flatmate’s reggae music store, and at night I ran the lights for my other flatmate’s tiny theater. In between, I smoked Silk Cut cigarettes, drank “33” beer, and listened to music: reggae, punk, and Edith Piaf. The thing I wasn’t doing, my actual reason for being in Paris, was going to film school. But I didn’t care. In those days, all I really cared about was music, drinking, and boys.

One drawback to living in Paris, especially in the summer, is that you get a lot of people you don’t know showing up unannounced, wanting you to take them to tourist spots like the Eiffel Tower and Shakespeare and Co., the American booksellers. My flatmates and I hung out with reggae musicians and pirate radio DJs, male prostitutes and British actors. Cool people. The last place I wanted to go was somewhere like Shakespeare and Co., with all the bloody tourists. So my heart sank when I answered the phone one hot night in July, to hear a male voice with an Australian accent telling me he was a friend of so-and-so’s from London and she’d given him my number and he was coming to Paris in a few days and could we meet up?

Merde, I thought, Shakespeare and Co.

I could barely place the connection – a girl I’d stayed with for one night on the Isle of Dogs the winter before. I’d completely forgotten her, but apparently I’d given her my phone number, and she’d passed it on to this dorky-sounding Australian. No way was I hanging out with this guy - his name was Bingo, for a start.

“So, Bingo, what brings you to Paris? On holiday?” I asked without

“I’m touring with a band, actually. I’m sort of like their…roadie.”

I pictured a pudgy little guy, carrying the snare drum for some passe act
from my parents’ generation, like the Inkspots or someone. I asked who the
band was, and when he told me their name I was instantly all attention. It wasn’t the Inkspots. In fact, I’d just seen them on the cover of the NME, the British music journal that was my personal bible. They had an unusual look, to put it mildly: the bass player dressed like a cowboy by way of the Village People; the singer was a Neanderthal with a jet-black porcupine of hair; the drummer looked like the head boy of an English boarding school; and the guitar player, well, he looked like nothing on earth. I thought he was the most exotic thing I’d ever seen: a fragile woodland creature who’d just crawled out from under a fern. The article described their sound as chaotic, visceral, dark – even dangerous. Without having heard a note of their music, I knew they were going to be my new favorite band.

“They’re called The Birthday Party,” said Bingo. “I’ll put you on the guest
list, ok?”

Come the day of the show, however, I was in a foul mood. The weather
was particularly sultry, and I was convinced I’d make the trip all the way across town only to find I wasn’t on the list after all. I was in no mood to be humiliated by the club’s notoriously rude doormen, and accordingly I’d made up my mind not to go. But about six o’clock the phone rang. My flatmate answered.

“It’s for you, Tricky. Some Australian.” (Tricky was her nickname for me.)
I reluctantly picked up the receiver.

“It’s Bingo!” said the slightly breathless voice on the other end. “I put you on the guest list. You’re still coming, aren’t you?”

I gave in. “Hi Bingo. Sure, I’ll be there.”

“So, how will I recognize you?” he asked.

“Um, I’m short, with spiky blonde hair…how about you?”

“I’m 6’ 5”, and I’ll be wearing all black leather,” he replied.

Well, you shouldn’t be too hard to spot, I thought. The evening was
looking up.

I got to Bains-Douches, the snooty club built inside an old bathhouse, and
not only was I on the guest list, there was a backstage pass waiting for me as well. It just didn’t get any better than this. I breezed past the glaring doormen, bought an over-priced beer, and stood in front of the stage. The club wasn’t even full – I had a clear view of whatever was about to transpire on the low platform. The Birthday Party didn’t actually start their set - no tune-up, no count off – they just sort of exploded: “Hands up – who wants to die?” Tracy, the bass player, bent his spine back into a perfect arch, cowboy hat firmly in place; Mick bashed out complex, gut-churning rhythms on the drums; Lydia Lunch sang a couple of numbers; and I think there was a saxophone at one point. It was
everything the NME had described, and then some.

Nick, the singer, launched himself into the crowd at every opportunity,
limbs flailing, and it quickly became clear that Bingo’s job was simply to haul him out when it looked like he’d had enough abuse from the audience. But I couldn’t take my eyes off Rowland, the guitar player, who paced around the stage like a caged animal, while his Fender made noises like all the demons of hell. The sound of it did something to my insides, and the way he looked added to it: he was a starved urchin with porcelain skin and cheekbones that could cut glass. He and Nick danced around each other like a deranged Astaire & Rogers, the perfect couple.

When it was over, far too soon, I felt like something in my DNA had been
permanently re-arranged. I was standing on the dance floor in a sort of daze, when Bingo saw me and motioned me over. He was unmistakable - freakishly tall, dressed in black leather from head to foot, with a bushy mop of curly brown hair. He took me backstage, got me a beer from the band’s stash, and we chatted. He was effusive, despite his somewhat alarming appearance. I didn’t say much; I was still full of the music and busy absorbing the backstage scene.

A whiny French journalist kept trying to approach Nick – first he wanted a
beer, then he wanted an interview – but it soon became clear that whatever he wanted, he wasn’t getting anything. Finally Nick stood up, grabbed him by the hair, dragged him across the floor, and threw him out the dressing room door. At that point, I started to feel guilty about the warm Heineken I was drinking and tried to make myself as unobtrusive as possible. Unbelievably, after a few minutes the journalist came back and cowered just outside the dressing room door. Bingo excused himself, loomed up in front of him, and said, quietly but firmly, “Don’t. Upset. Nick.” The journalist slunk away, for good this time.

Then Bingo came back, sat down next to me and cheerily asked if I would
join him and the band upstairs for dinner. When I hesitated, he assured me it was no problem, they wouldn’t mind at all. He was persistent, but I was more than a little intimidated, not to mention star-struck. As much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t bring myself do it. I didn’t want to be like the French journalist: just another sycophantic, parasitic creep sucking up their oxygen. Also, I was a little nervous about Bingo’s expectations.

“Thanks anyway,” I said. “I think I’ll just go home.” I walked all the way
back to my flat through the warm night, reliving every minute. I knew that nothing I’d experienced musically up to this point had prepared me for the onslaught of The Birthday Party, and nothing that came after would quite measure up.

At the end of the summer, I went back to the States, moved to the Mission District, and dropped out of film school. I bought all the Birthday Party records I could find, and spent hours lying around my hot, cockroachy apartment on Shotwell Street, listening to their music and staring at the guitar player’s photo. He was my dream-man: androgynous, mysterious, tragic. Even the way he spelled his name was perverse: Rowland with a W.

The Birthday Party finally came to San Francisco a year later, shortly
before they split up for good. The night of the show, I dressed carefully in the height of Goth Girl fashion: black thrift-store dress, backcombed hair, rosaries and crucifixes draped around my neck. Walking down Haight Street, I came upon a smashed vase on the sidewalk, apparently fallen from the apartment above. The flowers were fine, though, and without a thought I scooped them up and carried them into the club. I knew exactly what I needed to do. I stood at the front of the stage, directly in front of my guitar hero. The band was still great, maybe not quite as mind-blowing as the first time (what is?), but Rowland’s guitar still howled and squealed in that way that got to me deep inside, and once more, I was transfixed.

As soon as the show ended, still clutching my flowers, I went around to the
backstage entrance only to be confronted by a black man the size of a small
mountain guarding the door. Obviously the club had hired extra security, given the band’s reputation for mayhem. I just stood there. The guard looked me up and down, took in the hair, the rosaries, the now-wilted flowers – then, miraculously, unhooked the rope and ushered me through. Just like that, I was in the sanctum sanctorum. Rowland was slumped in a chair with his head resting on the table in front of him. He looked like a broken-winged angel who’d tumbled down from heaven and landed right in the middle of the I-Beam’s dressing room. I gently laid the flowers on the table where he could see them.

“Thank you,” he said in a small voice, without raising his head. It was all I needed to hear.

I spotted Mick, the drummer, and went over to say hello. I asked if Bingo
was touring with them this time.

He looked startled. “How do you know Bingo?” he asked.

I explained to him how we’d met at the show in Paris the year before, and told him about hanging out backstage afterward, drinking beer with the band. He nodded, and thought for a minute.

“You should have come to dinner,” he said.

March 2011