Stevie Wright legacy haunted by controversial biography

Jack Marx, who wrote a biography of Stevie Wright that was both lauded and reviled. Photo: Darren Pateman
Jack Marx, who wrote a biography of Stevie Wright that was both lauded and reviled. Photo: Darren Pateman

As news of Stevie Wright's death was confirmed on Monday, the glowing tributes for the rock legend were tinged with memories of his time as a desperate junkie

The Easybeats frontman, widely considered Australia's first international pop star, fell ill on Boxing Day and was taken to Moruya Hospital on the NSW south coast where he died on Sunday night. His cause of death is unknown.

Wright is widely celebrated as Australia's first international pop star and exceptional songwriter, co-writing hits including Sorry and I'll Make You Happy.

But a pervading portrait of Wright as a washed-up, isolated heroin addict is largely due to a controversial biography published by journalist Jack Marx in 1999. 

Marx lived with his childhood hero for three months in Narooma in 1994 to write Sorry: The Wretched Tale of Little Stevie Wright. 

The pair injected drugs together as they watched hours of Paradise Beach. Marx chronicled Wright's vomiting, passing out, petty crime and begging friends for money to fuel his heroin addiction.

"I was playing a weird game with myself when I was down there," Marx said in a 2008 interview.  "I had nothing else to do and nowhere to go.

"I wrote the story drunk," he said.

When the book was published in 1999 it was both lauded and reviled by literary and music critics.

Australian music Historian Clinton Walker said Sorry was "gonzo journalism at its best". A Bulletin review called it "one of the most harrowing rock books ever written". 

Others decried the book as exploitative trash. 

Critic Mark Mordue wrote Sorry was "one of the most morally clouded rock 'n' roll biographies you will read anywhere".

"The only thing that Marx has achieved is to depict himself as a very unlikeable, morally bankrupt leech," wrote reviewer Ken Grady.

"[O]n one hand he tries to get the reader to see Wright's excesses and indulgences in a negative light but yet he describes himself getting so heroically drunk that he can't remember whether or not he has raped a woman the night before," Grady wrote.

Wright publicly disowned the book as vindictive fiction, telling The Age in 2003: "He [Marx] wrote about all the interesting things in life – sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll – and what he could make up. The reality of my life is much more interesting."

On Monday, music critic and journalist Toby Creswell said the "brilliantly written book" was more about documenting Marx' own morally-vexed existence than its intended subject.

Reflecting on the book's legacy following the news of Wright's death, Creswell said: "I think the problem with these kinds of books is that people remember Wright as the junkie at the end of his tether, boosting TV sets, and that's unfortunate. 

"It's a shame if people don't really get a sense of how magnificent he was when he was writing … when he was a great musician," he said.

Marx was unavailable for comment.