The Mysteries of... Rheinallt H. Rowlands: Bukowski (ankstmusic)by David Shirley
On the evening of May 17, 1980, a middle-aged Welsh stonecutter named Rheinallt H. Rowlands sat despondently at his wooden kitchen table, drinking ale and eating a bowl of broth. The quarry where he had worked for the previous thirteen years had recently closed, and with no prospects for the future, Rowlands was slowly sinking into despair. Turning on his radio to break the heavy silence, he was suddenly jolted from his mood by a deep, mournful voice that came blaring through the speakers. Instead of the familiar Home Service broadcast that he had expected to hear, he had inadvertently stumbled across the John Peel program, which was featuring that evening the music of Joy Division, whose lead singer Ian Curtis had committed suicide earlier in the day. The band’s dark, droning instrumentals and Curtis’s anguished vocals were an epiphany for the former quarry worker, who instantly realized his destiny as a popular singer.
At least that’s the story that began circulating throughout the English and Welsh alternative music scene in 1992, when Rheinallt H. Rowlands’ first single, “Gwawr Newydd Yn Cilio,” was released as part of the ankstmusik compilation Triskedekaphilia. A Welsh-language cover of Joy Division’s “New Dawn Fades,” the song is a miracle of understatement and restraint, the original band’s roaring ennui stripped down to a simple, keyboard-driven dirge. With the lyrics delivered in a mournful, measured folk cadence and Joy Division’s blaring guitar riffs layered together into a swelling keyboard fugue, the recording slowly builds to a sustained crescendo that retains—and arguably exceeds—the power and intensity of the original.
As Rowlands’s popularity increased, fueled by the release of a debut cassette, Hendaid Brân a Straeon Eraill, the romanticized identity of the talent behind the recordings began to unravel. Later that year, in response to an invitation to tour with fellow ankstmusik recording artists Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, the real Rheinallt H. Rowlands took the stage in the persons of vocalist/guitarist/harmonium player Owain “Oz” Wright and composer/keyboardist/arranger Dewi Evans. The two men, who grew up near each other in the legendary Anglesey village of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllantysiliogogogoch, had only recently begun performing together.
Their identities now exposed, Evans and Wright were freed to expand their style and repertoire beyond the brooding, folk-tinged ballads favored by the mythic RHR to accommodate grander and more eclectic musical ambitions. “At first,” Dewi Evans recently recalled in a telephone conversation from London, “we tried our best to maintain the original concept and the hidden identity. Oz would appear alone on stage, dressed in a big black cloak and clogs and a hat, accompanied only by a tape machine playing my pre-recorded backing tracks. But it was hard to sustain a whole set by himself. It almost seemed like a karaoke thing. Eventually, I joined him on stage and we became this odd sort of synth duo with a grand orchestral sound that no one in the audience was expecting.”
On record, the band’s musical evolution was captured by the extraordinary 1996 release Bukowski. His rich, muscular baritone towering above even the fullest, most densely orchestrated arrangements, Wright is equal parts Johnny Cash, Scott Walker, Serge Gainsbourg, and fellow Welshman Tom Jones. He emerges on the recording as a vocalist of broad range and sensitivity, able to persuasively perform the recording’s most dramatic, tragically over-the-top moments without a trace of irony. Evans probes and transcends his apparent musical influences (which include John Barry, Burt Bacharach, Herb Alpert, and Philip Glass) to display his own signature style of composition, with an emphasis on quietly pulsing keyboard rhythms and clear, simply stated melodic themes, slowly layered into counterpoint crescendos. The combined effect of Evans’s elegant arrangements and Wright’s powerful baritone is heartbreakingly (almost shamefully) beautiful at times, a perfect musical setting for the jilted lovers and lonely misfits who populate the album’s lyrics.
At the recording’s center, the title track is a sprawling, eleven-minute tribute to poet, fiction writer, and celebrated malcontent Charles Bukowski. Wright muscles out the lyrics in a clenched, measured, battle-hymn–worthy baritone over a frantic rhythm and jerky trumpet fanfare on loan from Tom Jones’s “It’s Not Unusual.” With the repeated shouts of the writer’s name in the chorus—the only decipherable lyric for a non-Welsh speaker—it’s not clear exactly what the whole thing is all about. But the song is so repetitive, irresistibly melodic, and stubbornly good-natured that I usually find myself singing awkwardly along with the chorus, wondering at the imaginative turns that Wright, the song’s lyricist, must have used to translate Bukowski’s seedy, back-of-the-bar sensibility into a bright, upbeat, Vegas-style dance number.
“The song, ‘Bukowski,’” Evans explains, “is actually two separate songs joined together. The first song, with the ambient intro and the Tom Jones bit, was written before Bukowski died and included on our first album, with Oz saying how much he’d like to live his life like Bukowski. After Bukowski died, Oz decided that it would be nice to do a tribute song for him as well. When we were recording the album, we decided to combine the two songs into one long track and use that as the centerpiece.”
Most of the songs on Bukowski present a starker and bleaker sense of reality than the title track, portrayed in quieter, subtler musical settings. The song “Loved,” for example, is the sad, anguished tale of a lonely, self-pitying coffee shop employee, who vainly courts the affection of the women he serves, tormented by the beauty and happiness he sees all around him each day:
All women wanted was civility
They never saw the man behind the role
They never noticed my fragility
They wanted coffee, not my tortured soul
I wasn’t loved
On the final verse, as Evans’s accordion-voiced keyboard winds its way in and out of the stately piano chords and swirling string arrangements, Wright’s protagonist finds consolation while walking through a cemetery, where he discovers one of his beautiful customers grieving at a graveside. Suddenly realizing that he’s not the only one hiding loneliness and tears behind a stoic mask, he finally escapes his sense of isolation and despair. As Wright bursts into the final chorus of “I was loved,” it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry, the song having created a character that is both comically melodramatic and painfully familiar in his self-pity and romanticism.
Not all RHR’s lonely misfits find release from their loneliness. The title character in “Isabella” is an abject, middle-aged woman who sits alone by the telephone, waiting for a call that never comes. Over a shuffling, staccato, piano-driven rhythm, a lush choir of Beach Boys–styled harmonies tries futilely to comfort her with promises of a coming spring and newly discovered love, but she remains closed up in her house of mirrors, counting her wrinkles and huddling against the cold. Rather than bringing relief, the sweet, gentle pop accompaniment seems to mock her self-enclosure and despair:
She walks through winter frost
And mourns the life she lost
The hands nobody loves
Are wearing woolen gloves
And have no hands to hold
To guard against the cold—
In the years that followed, RHR continued with the grander, more complex musical ambitions introduced in the title track to Bukowski, scoring and performing elaborate soundtracks for a number of theatrical productions in England and Wales. Their final release, Rheinallt III, featured, along with the Joy Division cover described above, seven songs composed for the Welsh theater company Brith Gof, for whom RHR occasionally provided live accompaniment. In 2001, Evans and Wright decided to drop the RHR name and concept, hoping to take their future musical collaborations in a sparser, more stripped-down direction. Their plans were delayed when Wright, who was having problems with his voice, decided to take some time off from performing. In 2005, the two men finally began performing together again, with new material and a full band that featured former Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci drummer Peter Richardson. Two days before Christmas, however, their plans were suddenly and irrevocably interrupted when Owain Wright was struck by a car and killed while walking home from a concert.
Since that time, Evans has remained active as a composer and musician, accepting a variety of commissions from the Welsh Arts Council and other dance, theater, and film projects (including a string of collaborations with dancer Eddie Ladd), and forming the experimental band Parking Non-Stop with his childhood friend Alan Holmes (the mastermind behind the original RHR concept) and the poet Zoë Skoulding. The band’s lovely, minimalist music is performed over rhythmic tracks patched together from field recordings that Evans and Holmes have been capturing at various European locations over the past decade, from the Buda Labyrinth in Budapest to prehistoric burial chambers on the Welsh island of Anglesey.
Reminiscent of his days with RHR, Evans seems to relish the band’s diversity and eclecticism. “Alan is coming from a more left field, punk kind of background, and I’m coming from a more melodic pop and electro-pop kind of thing. And then we have Zoë’s poetry and the ethereal vocals on top. It’s all a bit of a hodgepodge, but it works quite well.”
Parking Non-Stop’s hauntingly beautiful debut album, Species Corridor, has recently been released on Faust’s German label, Klangbad. All three RHR releases are available from the ankstmusic website (www.ankst.com). Evans also maintains an excellent archival site about the band, with links to videos, obscure recordings, and other curiosities, at www.rheinallt.com.
David Shirley and his trusty pickup truck, Old Blue, currently divide their time between Brooklyn, New York, and Oxford, Mississippi.