Musical influence

Dave Rowbotham was influential on the Manchester post-punk music scene before his violent death. Now filmmaker Colin O’Toole has made a semi-fictional account of Rowbotham’s life 

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Colin O’Toole’s one and only meeting with Dave Rowbotham lasted just a few minutes, but it was an encounter that would go on to have a profound impact on his career as a filmmaker.

Growing up in Burnage, a working-class suburb of Manchester later made famous by the Gallagher brothers, O’Toole was 12 when he set out to earn some extra pocket money by going door to door on his estate and asking to wash people’s cars.

“Knowing the kind of poor job I would do everybody told me to get lost. I was ready to give up but I knocked on one last door and this bohemian-looking guy answered. I instantly knew he was a little bit different as there weren’t that many bohemians around at that time in Burnage,” he recollects with a chuckle.

“I asked him if I could wash his car and to my surprise he said yes. I remember him giving me a bucket full of hot water and some Fairy Liquid to do a very basic job. He paid me. We had a short conversation and I went home.”

“He paid me to wash his car when no one else did. He gave me a bit of time and love.”

One week later, O’Toole was watching the local news when a picture of the man whose car he’d washed appeared on screen, accompanied by the news that he’d been bludgeoned to death in his home. It later transpired the man’s name was David Rowbotham, also known as Cowboy Dave, a former guitarist with Manchester post-punk bands The Durutti Column and The Mothmen, who’d sunk into alcohol and heroin addiction before his life was cut brutally short.

“It really freaked me out. I was young at the time and I kind of buried the memory until it popped back into my head a few years ago when I was thinking about my daughter and all the characters she might meet on her journey,” explains O’Toole. Inspired by the incident’s dramatic potential, he immediately began writing Cowboy Dave, a semi-fictional retelling of his childhood encounter that won Best British Short Film at this year’s Bafta Awards.

The success of the 25-minture film, which stars Sam Spruell in the title role and Dylan Naden as a loose representation of O’Toole aged 12, has rekindled interest in the life and tragic demise of Rowbotham, whose murder in 1991 still remains unsolved.

“Dave was like a footnote [in history] really and whenever you read articles about him, they would just say he was a junkie who got murdered in Burnage,” explains the writer-director. “I thought: give this guy a bit of respect, because he showed me that. He paid me to wash his car when no one else did. He gave me a bit of time and a bit of love and hopefully I’ve sort of paid him back, although he maybe might not appreciate it if he was around to see it.”

“It was very sad what happened to him,” recalls drummer Chris Joyce, who knew Rowbotham since they were teenagers and played with him in a variety of bands. He remembers a “really nice and funny guy” who could “spin out jokes for an hour until you’d want to hit him to get to the punch line, but you’d have a good journey getting there”.

Above: Colin O’Toole. Main image: still from Cowboy Dave

The pair first played together in the band Flashback, performing Little Richard and Chuck Berry covers in working men’s clubs around the north of England.

They then went on to form post-punk group Fast Breeder, which attracted interest from Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus prior to them starting Factory Records. When Rowbotham and Joyce were asked to leave Fast Breeder, Wilson recruited them to join The Durutti Column. Their time in the band was to be brief, however, and neither musician is credited for their work on Factory’s first release, A Factory Sample, which featured two Durutti Column tracks.

Rowbotham and Joyce’s next group was The Mothmen, a post-punk four-piece, whose wilfully obtuse genre-spanning sound was directly influenced by the guitarist’s eclectic influences. “He was very intelligent musically and he was probably more mature and adventurous in his musical tastes than the rest of the band at that time. He introduced us to things like Arthur Lee and Love, and The Doors,” says Joyce. The band went on to record two albums, although Rowbotham abruptly quit just as they finished work on their recently reissued 1981 debut Pay Attention!

“We were in London and Dave left the studio and just announced that he wasn’t coming back. It was a really strange ending to the process,” recalls Joyce, who went on to find fame as the drummer with Simply Red and now runs a drum school in Yorkshire. Like many of Rowbotham’s friends and bandmates, he lost contact with the guitarist soon after he exited the group.

“Our paths were going in different directions. I very rarely saw Dave and when I did he was in quite a bad way. I would hear stories of him selling CDs to get cash and when people opened them the case would be empty,” says Joyce.

Following Rowbotham’s murder, detectives spoke with the drummer and other people from the Manchester music scene, including staff at Factory Records, to try to find information on the guitarist’s associates, but they couldn’t help. “He used to play with them but as they moved on [Rowbotham] didn’t move on with them,” Superintendent Bernard Rees told the Manchester Metro News at the time.

When Joyce first saw the film Cowboy Dave, which features a brief cameo by Durutti Column drummer Bruce Mitchell, he was shocked by the brutal manner of his friend’s murder, which O’Toole powerfully depicts taking place off camera. “It was very upsetting. It’s not the sort of thing you want to think too deeply about at the time, but just seeing that knocked me sideways.”

He praises the director and actor Spruell for capturing the spirit and essence of the late musician, also immortalised in the Happy Mondays
song Cowboy Dave. “They did a great job. It’s not Dave and it never could be, but you could see things in the character I could relate to. For somebody whose life ended up so sad with a terrible ending it’s kind of nice that there’s now this legacy there – true or not.”

O’Toole, who consulted with Joyce and a number of Rowbotham’s other friends prior to writing the short, says: “It’s an invention on my behalf as I never really knew the guy, but I think there’s some truth there and hopefully you see a pretty interesting, funny guy.”

The director is now hard at work prepping his debut feature film “about a kid in an adult’s world” set in Northern Ireland in the same early 1990s period that Cowboy Dave takes place. He notes that making movies is a very different beast to making short films, where you have fewer people to answer to, but is excited about taking the next steps in a filmmaking career that began with him making music videos for the likes of Aim, Ian Brown, Tricky and Deadmau5.

Filming for the movie, provisionally called Duffy, is scheduled to begin next summer. In the meantime, Cowboy Dave continues to win new fans at film festivals around the world, shining a light on a long-forgotten figure from Manchester’s musical past in the process.

“It’s always hard to pinpoint why a film resonates with people,” reflects its director. “I’ve made short films before and they just disappear into the ether, so to make one that has a shelf life, has merit as a piece of cinema and gets toured around is such a buzz. Hopefully I’ve given Dave the respect he was due.”

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