Stevie Wright: the story of a rock’n’roll legend

This story was first published in the Mercury’s Weekender on February 18, 2012.

Do yourself a favour and - before reading any further - log in to YouTube and type in "StevieWright 1987" (see below).

There, you will see the electrifying performance of the former Easybeats frontman belting out the band's biggest hit, Friday on My Mind.

By the time he sings this live version, he's already through his chronic heroin addiction, his spell at the notorious Chelmsford Private Hospital and 14 rounds of electric shock therapy.

But he's right in the middle of possibly his most damaging addiction, the one that was about to lay him low for four years and send him to a nursing home from where he returned little more than a vegetable.

If you look carefully, you might guess that he's already consumed his daily bottle of Southern Comfort by the time he stepped out on stage, dressed in stove-pipe black leather pants and white satin shirt.

He's backed by straight-laced horn players and backing singers whose job is to keep it together.

Watch his moves, how his clapping is just a little off, his recall of the lyrics tentative at times, but then listen to how he belts out the precursor to the chorus:

'Wednesday just don't go, Thursday goes too slow - I GOT FRIDAY ON MY MIND!'

It's the howl of a man spinning in the vortex of his own life, filled all at once with horror, helplessness but also a crazy joy, fuelled by a manic energy that is as mesmerising as a car smash about to happen.

Now take a look at the original version of the same song (type: 'Friday on my Mind 1967') and watch Wright at the height of his fame with The Easybeats, a fresh-faced 19-year-old and you can see - perhaps with the benefit of hindsight - that the madness is there even then.

He's a beautiful young man, and one who was making full use of his youth and beauty with his many female groupies, but there's something in his eyes - a devilish insanity that had not yet turned dark, but would by the time he was 26 and almost washed up.

Finally, go to the Mercury website and watch Wright as he is now, miraculously still alive, but a testament to the destruction wreaked by a lifetime of abuse.

He's 65 this year, and living a quiet life of day-time television and not much else in a rented weatherboard house at Dalmeny, just north of Narooma on the South Coast.

His legs are so bad he can barely walk and his memory and concentration comes and goes, often lapsing into a confused silence mid-sentence.

Yet there's still that spark of life despite it all, that ready laugh - now more of a cackle - and a sparkle in his eyes that refuses to be dimmed, though one of them leaks constant tears.

On the day when we visit, he's excellent company, on a high after returning from the world premiere of a show about his life, Stevie, written by Scott McRae, Wollongong-based actor, musician and WIN TV travel presenter.

McRae first came across Wright when he was a guest on the Susie Elelman WIN TV show and stored the idea for a rockumentary about his life using his songs.

Stevie Wright in 2012. Photo: Kirk Gilmour

Stevie Wright in 2012. Photo: Kirk Gilmour

"I had seen him perform live when I was 12 years old (at the famous Sydney Opera House concert in 1979), but I had never met him," McRae said.

"Nobody who has ever seen Stevie perform live would ever forget it. He had so much charisma and unbridled energy - he was just a live wire."

McRae has assembled a five-piece band and uses original footage to tell the story in word, song and images.

He is quick to point out that this is not a tribute show and there is no effort to impersonate Wright's inimitable style.

"It's about the survival of Stevie Wright and the absolute highs and lows that he has experienced," McRae said.

"I am hoping that some younger people come to the show and get a history lesson.

"We are calling it a rockumentary: we have a big screen, interviews and photos and even some stuff that no-one has ever seen before."

The show is coming to the IPAC in Wollongong next Saturday and there's a good chance that Wrighthimself will be in the audience, and will insist on belting out one of his hits for an encore.

With Scott McRae at the premiere of Stevie at Penrith Panthers earlier this month. Picture: PHILLIP MORRIS

With Scott McRae at the premiere of Stevie at Penrith Panthers earlier this month. Picture: PHILLIP MORRIS

This is what happened at the first show earlier this month, at Penrith Panthers, and by all accounts, the atmosphere was electric.

"People recognised me before the show and the buzz went around the place quick sharp," Wrightsaid.

"I could feel they wouldn't settle, 'He's here!'.

"It made me feel good, I didn't expect that hardly anybody would probably remember.

"After all the things, it does surprise me that I am loved."

Stevie Wright with partner of 21 years Fay Walker near their home in Dalmeny on the South Coast. Picture: Kirk Gilmour

Stevie Wright with partner of 21 years Fay Walker near their home in Dalmeny on the South Coast. Picture: Kirk Gilmour

McRae spoke and sang part of the show directly to Wright, and saw him weeping throughout the show as he witnessed his life on stage.

It was the first time ever that Wright had sat in the audience and heard his music played.

"We were doing the last part of the show and the piece at the end is a bit of a wrap-up and he's up and out of his chair," McRae recalled. "He struggles to walk but when he thinks he's going to perform, he gets a third wind."

So the pair sing Wright's final hit - Evie (Part 1) - together and the synergy is extraordinary, the unrehearsed moves performed as if they were twins.

"He's sitting on the stage and I want him to do it as much as he can on his own," McRae said.

"I can see he's about to hit the line and I'll cover with him and back him up.

"You just had to keep your eye on it ... you just have to bend and shape with him.

"The audience were up for the whole song.

"I was pumped and had a bit of a breakdown backstage in my room."

When Wright and his partner, Fay, approached at the end of the show, he knew he had hit the mark and that a relationship that always had the potential to turn sour had repaid the trust shown by both sides.

"Stevie just looks at you and gives you a wink, which is his way of saying 'You're alright mate, good job'," McRae said.

"The man himself saying that was like God - if I believed in him - saying, 'Well done son, you can come inside now'. It was a bit like that.

"I would have been shattered if he had turned around and hated it."

Heading overseas with the band in July 1966, top row, left.

Heading overseas with the band in July 1966, top row, left.

The Easybeats were more than the best Australian band of the 1960s, though they were that beyond dispute.

They were also the first Australian band to go international after Wright met a recent Scottish migrant, George Young, at the Villawood Migrant Hostel.

Young had two younger brothers, Angus and Malcolm, who would later form the nucleus of (arguably) the greatest ever Aussie band, AC/DC.

Soon after Wright and Young became mates, they started jamming with Dutch migrant Harry Vanda (another hostel resident) and his Dutch bassist friend, Dick Diamonde.

Together with a later addition, Mersey drummer Gordon "Snowy" Fleet, they formed The Easybeats in late 1964 and were an almost instant hit in Sydney clubs.

They signed a contract with the legendary Albert Productions in Kings Cross and relocated to London in 1966.

By 1969, the band was finished and Wright continued with a part in Jesus Christ Superstar, followed by his 1974 hit, Evie, before disappearing in a mire of addiction.

There have been sporadic attempts at a comeback over the years, the most recent major attempt was the 2002 Long Way to the Top tour where he performed the later gigs perched on a stool.

As Wright puts it now: "I'm self-destructive if left to my own devices."

"I've learned now, you put your hands on an electric plate long enough it'll burn," he said.

"I regret all the people that used to love me and follow me and I hurt by the things that I did. I don't think they would believe the truth. The truth is, I went in with my eyes open.

"I made a lot of mistakes, went down a lot of wrong roads and it was all to get through to the other side."

His health is better than he has a right to expect - a check-up last year found all his organs intact. He doesn't drive and barely walks but, today at least, he's not complaining. "I'm doing OK as far as I am concerned," he said.

"I am known as a legend of rock. It's a good place to be. My son is proud of me.

"I had to go through this thing that I had to go through and get to the other side and prove that it could be done. Here I am to prove it. I am at the other side."

Thirroul guitarist Josh Smith toured with Wright for three years in the late 1980s and early 1990s and is now one of the five-piece band in the Stevie show.

He remembers Wright as a man who was close to impossible to deal with off-stage, but who came alive in front of an audience.

Stevie Wright at the microphone in the band’s heyday.

Stevie Wright at the microphone in the band’s heyday.

"He was incredible," he said. "He was so athletic until he damaged his foot. He sort of seemed like this dangerous wild guy on stage."

Off stage, however, the band had to employ a driver whose job was to nanny Wright and make sure he turned up to play.

Smith used to live in the flat below Wright in Balmain and would occasionally hear thumps on his ceiling as Wright collapsed from drink or drugs.

Wright would usually have a woman around who mothered him, even to the extent that Smith would answer a knock on his door to find she had cooked him dinner too. "Don't worry about bringing the plate back up," Wright would say. "She'll come and collect it."

Smith played sporadically with Wright after the tour, but when agents called him to ask if he wanted to repeat the experience, he refused.

"The reality is that it was pretty unpleasant," Smith said. "It was pretty full on, and we were travelling in a bus from gig to gig pretty much full of drug addicts, alcoholics or both."

The Easybeats - Harry Vanda, Gordon ‘‘Snowy’’ Fleet, Stevie Wright, George
Young and Dick Diamonde in the swinging ’60s.

The Easybeats - Harry Vanda, Gordon ‘‘Snowy’’ Fleet, Stevie Wright, George Young and Dick Diamonde in the swinging ’60s.

It's an ugly truth that is now on stage for all to see, but it is never denied by Wright, who says he has now gone 20 years without a drink.

Stevie Wright (top) whamming his tambourine during an Easybeats performance in 1967.

Stevie Wright (top) whamming his tambourine during an Easybeats performance in 1967.

"Every time I got the good stuff, I dropped. I dropped so many times," he said, in his trademark gravelly drawl. "I have been nearly thrown out of prostitutes' windows and everything.

"Luckily they dragged me down the stairs by the pants. It's gone, thank God, and drink's gone."

The real hero of this story - as Wright readily admits - is Fay Walker, the woman who has stuck by him with extraordinary tenacity for 21 years.

The pair first knew each other at Sefton High School, but met 27 years later in the late 1980s after a gig at Merimbula RSL.

She nursed him through four years of his life (which he can't remember) when he was bedridden with Korsakoff's psychosis, brain damage that destroys the memory after chronic alcoholism. The disease has various stages, including one where the sufferer reverts back to childhood and sawWright stuck in front of television watching Humphrey B Bear and carrying around a plastic bag filled with sticks. He had to be spoon fed, dressed, bathed, even taken to the toilet. The humiliation was complete.

Due to a combination of good medical treatment, Wright's extraordinary constitution and tireless love from Fay, his condition began to improve after forced rehabilitation in Kenmore Mental Hospital in Goulburn.

Every so often, fans turn up at the couple's Dalmeny house to pay homage or have a poster signed, but Wright has no friends nearby and very little mobility.

Fay talks of moving north to Byron Bay, where they have some muso friends, but that would mean leaving her sick daughter in Narooma and the two grandchildren who live with them.

"The love for him has kept me going," she said. "I was determined that I wouldn't let this man sink if I could possibly help it.

"There were times when it was very, very hard.

"There was a time when the anger was there and it was very hard for me.

"I thought maybe I should put him in a nursing home but I couldn't. When he went, it wasn't because of me.

"He's just a really great guy - I respect that he's a legend, but it's the man with his wit and charm that I fell in love with.

"To see him get better each day is really well worth it and I have seen that.

"He's at a low point because he really wants to get back out there but he can't because of his legs.

"So the show was really good for him and it's made him more determined to get stronger and he will get up on stage again."

McRae has chosen not to include any interviews with today's Wright in the show, because it's not what he wants audiences to take away from his show.

"There is a lot of pretty tough stuff," he said.

"If I didn't tell the story in the right way, it would just be a Stevie bashing and that would be the last thing I'd ever want to do to him.

"I have too much respect for the guy, regardless of what he's done.

"I wanted to do it because it's one of those classic rock 'n' roll stories but it doesn't have the guy dying at 34.

"The guy is still around, and he's still continuing this hard road.

"He's a survivor."