Saturday, April 13

Famous People I Mostly Haven’t Met

When Jimi Hendrix was brought to St Mary Abbot’s Hospital in London around midday on 18 September 1970, the medic on duty was Australian Dr. Bob Brown. It was actually another doctor who officially declared Hendrix dead shortly afterward. But it wouldn’t be surprising if Bob Brown thought back then that being on the spot at the demise of a celebrity might turn out to be his own major claim to fame.

Not so. Brown actually left medicine in the early 1970s to devote himself to the environmentalist cause in Australia, before that kind of choice became fashionable; he also ‘came out’ as gay, when such a move was risky. Despite many setbacks in an often-toxic political world, Brown has stayed the course, through to the age of 78. The first ‘Green’ in parliament, he is widely admired in Australia, especially for his efforts to protect wilderness areas in Tasmania, and has set up a Foundation to continue his work. There’s just been a documentary about him as well:  called ‘Giants’, the title references the colossal Huon pines Brown has fought to protect, but obviously the man himself as well.

Another Australian household name of mature years (born 1957) is Nick Cave. An immensely creative figure in a range of art forms, he’s known mainly for his work with the band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. But I only really thought about this guy’s age when he fetched up as a guest at Charles and Camilla’s coronation. And that was because I recalled as well the ‘Hendrix’ figure in Cave’s life, Tracy Pew. A school friend of Cave’s in Melbourne in the 1970s, Tracy became the bassist in Nick’s earlier band, The Birthday Party, which brilliantly wreaked havoc in Melbourne and London through the early 1980s. Of the band’s album ‘Prayers on Fire’, Cave recalls that ‘Tracy’s bass line in “King Ink” – slow and evil – would become the template for many Birthday Party and Bad Seeds songs’. Pew also went on stage with a cucumber down the front of his leather trousers, sticking on a plastic Hitler moustache, with a copy of Plato’s Republic shoved in his back pocket’.

That copy of Plato’s Republic wasn’t just meant to attract attention – it was a sign of another of Tracy Pew’s passions. As The Birthday Party descended into a welter of drugs and alcohol, Pew distanced himself somewhat from the music scene. He enrolled in a BA in Philosophy and English at Monash University in Melbourne, where I was teaching at the time. Tracy Pew was not in my classes, but the people who did encounter him were very struck by his fierce intelligence and predicted great academic results for him. He had a tendency for epileptic fits, however, aggravated by the booze. One day in November 1986, Pew collapsed in the shower, hit his head badly, and lost his life at the age of 28.

Tracy Pew has certainly had a cultural afterlife: my quotations from Nick Cave come from a Rolling Stone Australia tribute from 2021. But I have sometimes wondered how Fiona Pew fared. She was Tracy’s younger sister, and was a student I did teach, in tutorials on Romantic literature. I can still remember her, for some reason, in a session on Wordsworth. Of course, no-one ever broached her famous brother with her in class. When a celebrity dies, we often hear of their partners and children, but not so much of the siblings who, after all, were usually close to them for longer.

By the time Tracy Pew was gone, I had accepted a new job in New Zealand. As someone not especially original or adventurous, I was soon teaching Romantic literature again at the University of Auckland, and indeed, this involved taking tutorials on Wordsworth. But it also meant encountering someone with a history in the music world. At the uni in the 1990s, Richard von Sturmer had a profile as a poet, and he has become a well-published writer.  I only learned later that he had figured in a series of bands of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and most famously, wrote the lyrics to Blam Blam Blam’s satirical hit, ‘There is no Depression in New Zealand’. As far as Wordsworth was concerned, von Sturmer and a couple of other smart students brought out my inner doubts about the man. Was the poet such a champion of what he called ‘low and rustic life’? Or did his poetry sometimes lack humanity, showcasing figures from the lower classes for his own sentimental, moral, or rhetorical purposes? Students like that do you a lot of good as a teacher.

Wordsworth himself had a very long life, becoming increasingly less daring and more conservative, and lasting till the age of 80. A ‘Hendrix’ figure for him might be the next-generation poet John Keats. Keats admired the older man but registered that Wordsworth could be full of himself, writing in fact that Wordsworth typified the ‘egotistical sublime’. Keats, needless to say, produced remarkable poetry. But he was dead at 25. Substance abuse wasn’t a factor there, for in back in 1821 he succumbed to the period’s most common cause of death, tuberculosis.

Bob Brown pursues his environmental campaigns, and Richard von Sturmer is still with us. He has just launched a book of poetry, prose, and photography called  ‘Walking with Rocks, Dreaming with Rivers: My Year in the Waikato’. (Has Wordsworth stayed in his consciousness after all?). Nick Cave is hobnobbing with royalty, but not just doing that. As for Jimi Hendrix, Tracy Pew, and John Keats, their music and the poetry live on, and in ways that are now enhanced by twenty-first-century technology. Even if there is still too much depression and premature death, and not just in New Zealand.