Brian Shanley*

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The Transverberation of Tracy Pew

Celebrating the 40th anniversary of The Birthday Party’s debut album 'Prayers on Fire'.

Tracy Pew died the day before my birthday. In my final year of high school, as the nogoodnik of Caulfield Grammar, a music teacher asked me to investigate the school’s most notorious alumni; The Birthday Party.

In the state library, I leafed through the photographs of a book titled Nick Cave: The Birthday Party and Other Epic Adventures. Images of gaunt vampires with firework hairstyles were interrupted by a portrait of a sinister cowboy, demanding respect, in a fishnet shirt.

On The Birthday Party’s debut album Prayers on Fire, I was confronted by the song “King Ink”; a looming cacophony that lures listeners to that place they’re hiding from.

For Nick Cave, it was the best song they worked on together. “Tracy’s bass line in 

‘King Ink’ – slow and evil – would become the template for many Birthday Party and Bad Seeds songs going forward,” explains Cave. “Tracy was the master and originator of the predatory bass line, pushed up super-loud. It should not be underestimated the extraordinary influence that idea had over modern music, Australian or otherwise.”

“Tracy’s bass line in ‘King Ink’ – slow and evil – would become the template for many Birthday Party and Bad Seeds songs going forward.”

Cave asserts: “He was The Birthday Party. The prowling and genuinely dangerous foundation upon which all the jagged guitars, deranged vocals and mental snare drums sat.”

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Prayers on Fire. The album sparked the embers beneath The Birthday Party’s subterranean triumph; lyrics akin to gallows humour and an anarchist energy – minus the yawnful politics – conjured rambunctious tours of Europe that culminated in honorifics such as; “The Most Violent Band In Britain.”

In 1982, a reporter from Melody Maker magazine illustrates the scene: “They’d drawn a mangy crowd of mutants so intent on upholding the image of outrage that one of their glue ga-ga-ed rabble had clambered onstage and pissed down Tracy’s leg. Strangely enough, his head wound up split open by the machine-heads on Tracy’s bass.”

“He was The Birthday Party. The prowling and genuinely dangerous foundation upon which all the jagged guitars, deranged vocals and mental snare drums sat.”

The same year, in History of Rock magazine, Tracy told a reporter: “The band’s just a little monster we’ve created that we don’t seem to have any control over any more… It’s like the nerve reaction when you pull off a spider’s leg and it keeps on kicking.”

When Nick Cave hears the name Tracy Pew, a memory comes to light. “Tracy is preparing to go on stage. Putting 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 – turning to me and saying: ‘Do I look all right?’”

Tracy’s image left a boot print in the audience’s imagination; he wore a ten-gallon Stetson hat, bandana scarf, leather pants, and a Pentridge Prison overcoat.

“Tracy’s image left a boot print in the audience’s imagination; he wore a ten-gallon Stetson hat, bandana scarf, leather pants, and Pentridge Prison overcoat.”

Onstage, Tracy’s caricature was an urban cowboy fetish; equal parts boozey, sleazy, and outlawed. Offstage, his spirit was akin to a shadowy detective from a Jim Thompson nightmare; still boozey, belligerent, and whip-smart. These antihero protagonists, from the mythical cowboy to the hardboiled detective, spin the moral compass to illustrate how social and historical circumstances justify violence in the West.

Tracy was a voracious reader of detective novels by Dashiell Hammett and Thompson. He admired The Spirit, a comic series about a resurrected detective who fights crime wearing a blue domino mask, business suit, fedora hat, and black gloves. And in his room, he would stack philosophical texts by Plato and Aristotle among a collection of Japanese stickbooks (softcore pornographic magazines).

“Tracy was a true original,” quips Cave. “He was a born troublemaker, the most politically incorrect person I have ever met, a chaos maker and irreverent humourist. He was highly intelligent, fiercely creative, sensitive, cruel, generous, hilarious, shocking, and charming as fuck – the best friend you could want.”

“He was a born troublemaker, the most politically incorrect person I have ever met, a chaos maker and irreverent humourist.”

Who Tracy was might be best imagined through the writing of Raymond Chandler, who in 1945 set out to define the hardboiled detective in his novels. Chandler describes: “A lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness…The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.”

When Tracy was three years old, tragedy struck the Pew home when his baby brother Gary suddenly passed. In Mark Mordue’s book Boy on Fire, Tracy’s mother Nancy recalls the moment that “might have made Tracy the person he was.” She says, “it was the loudest sound I had ever heard…Gary had never had a seizure that we know of…Tracy saw it happen. He said to me, ‘Gary just closed his eyes and fell, mum.’”

Tracy was raised in suburban Mount Waverley, Victoria. In his youth he played the clarinet until he met Chris Walsh, bass player for The Moodists, who lived around the corner from his house. Chris Walsh would teach Tracy the bass and introduce him to proto-punk bands; The Stooges, and The Velvet Underground.

In 1972, Tracy was placed in Caulfield Grammar School on a part-scholarship. Phil Calvert, original drummer for The Birthday Party, suggests, “I think Tracy’s arrival at private school was somehow linked to his parents separating.”

Mick Harvey, guitarist and drummer for The Birthday Party, recalls Tracy’s first day: “I was introduced to him at roll call. And of course the teacher got to Tracy Pew, and everybody childishly laughed about his name. By the next year, he was the life of the party.”

In high school Tracy wasn’t recognised as a musician. He was the class jester, a raconteur, and poet. Harvey says, “When he was 15, he wrote a review of Tod Browning for the school paper. He was writing about this film Freaks from the Thirties that featured carnival performers.”

Upon meeting Nick Cave, Phil Calvert, and Mick Harvey, the friendship group collectively became the Art House Gang. Calvert explains: “We all gravitated to the art department. We would hang out at the dilapidated art house at lunchtime and smoke on the other side of the oval. We were making art, being arty wankers, and playing arty music.”

Cave’s most fond memory of Tracy is from the Art House era. “Sitting with him as school kids in sociology class, while he drew little drawings on scraps of paper – delicate, sensitive, outrageous – and handing them to me for my entertainment. I still have them. Tracy always felt touched by a special sort of genius.”

Mick Harvey, Phil Calvert, and Nick Cave formed a high-school rock band with high school mates John Cocivera and Brett Purcell. When Brett Purcell left the city to study agriculture in regional Victoria, the band was looking for a bass player.

Like much of his life, Tracy’s bass playing was a mystery to the gang. “Our friends went to an end-of-year function at Mount Scopus, the local Jewish school, and found Tracy playing bass in some band. He was quickly enlisted,” laughs Harvey. “He kept a lot of things close to his chest. He just did stuff in his own way.”

“Tracy had a really average bass and a solid-state amp,” explains Calvert. “The bass, he bought. But the amp, he smashed and grabbed out of the music store. He managed to get it home at night across the handlebars of his bicycle.”

In 1976, after graduating from high school, Tracy moved into an apartment in Prahran with Phil Calvert. “We had a big fish tank and a TV set,” says Calvert. “We had African catfish and plecostomus. We knew all the Latin names. When Tracy moved back in with his mum, they had an old Clark’s above-ground swimming pool that Tracy converted into a giant goldfish pond.”

Tracy spent the bulk of his time watching films, devouring books, and swapping records. His records included; The Velvet Underground, Alice Cooper, The Stooges, Faust, CAN, Roxy Music, Kraftwerk, and The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. “He wasn’t big on Bowie,” adds Calvert. “He really liked this Billie Holiday compilation he had. And everyone knew he really loved the Blue Valentine record by Tom Waits.”

In an interview for Sounds magazine, a reporter asks Tracy about his thoughts on new records, whether he was listening to any spirited, and special music that bursts through everyday mundaneness, to which a belching Tracy replies, “I don’t like music like that anyway…But sometimes you hear something on the radio, like I remember hearing James Brown’s ‘It’s A Man’s Man’s World’ [sic] in the car once and I damn nearly ran it off the road!”

Tracy was working at Dendy cinemas as a paste up artist, distributing film posters, organising newspaper adverts and signage. He was seduced by film noir, heavily stylised crime dramas from the Forties. Calvert remembers that “he always had a strange fascination with the Bogart mystique. We watched The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca more than ten times.”

In 1978, Rowland S Howard would join the band; intoxicating their reckless sound with haunting fragility.

On Tuesday nights at the Tiger Lounge in Richmond, Keith Glass began booking young bands from the burgeoning New Wave. The Birthday Party – as The Boys Next Door – quickly became the vicars of the Melbourne underbelly.

In a photograph taken backstage at the Tiger Lounge, Tracy faces the camera dressed as a film noir character. His eyes are inquisitive, dressed in high pinstripe trousers, white split-button braces, a short-sleeve navy shirt, and slick tie.

“The dude from Suicide records came down to one of our shows,” says Calvert. “He goes, ‘Hi Boys Next Door, have you ever seen that scene in the movie where a guy walks into the band room and says, ‘I’m gonna make you a star?’ And we go, ‘yeah.’ He goes, ‘I’m that guy.’ Then it was definitely a thing, it was the four of us against the world.”

Following the release of The Boys Next Door’s debut record Door, Door, record label Suicide promoted the young band with a press shot. Tracy is dressed like a pin-up cowboy, complete with an embroidered western shirt and polka dot scarf.

As The Boys Next Door, the band went on to record the Hee Haw EP and The Birthday Party. Tracy wrote the lyrics to a song titled “The Plague”, which was not considered strong enough for the album and was released on a compilation in 1985 on The Birthday Party’s A Collection… Best And Rarest.

By 1979, Tracy was describing songwriting to reporters at Inner City Sound magazine as a growth process: “The songs are becoming more and more band compositions. Nick’s offerings are getting less and less substantial. He doesn’t bother composing them, or arranging them. Sometimes it sounds really chaotic, like in ‘Death by Drowning’, which has a clarinet tooting away all the time, but fundamentally they’re simpler songs. Our songs seem to be getting simpler and simpler.”

Harvey speaks fondly of Tracy’s sound. He says, “Tracy was playing these strong repetitive riffs. It became part of the writing structure. Using a rotational bassline as a minimalist device. One chord or two chords in the whole song, and relying on this undertone of a strong bassline and rhythm.”

“Tracy was playing these strong repetitive riffs. It became part of the writing structure.”

On early recordings such as “The Hair Shirt”, the band discovered that Tracy’s instinctive playing nailed down the ebb and flow of the band’s threatening basslines.

“It became the foundation of what was strong about the group. We could build on that atmosphere and that undertone would be there,” explains Harvey. “It also gave him a chance to flip over on his back because he could keep playing the three notes even when he was quite drunk. The bass player is usually the heaviest drinker. He played brilliantly, usually. But he would also be disrespectful enough to get too drunk to play properly.”

“The bass player is usually the heaviest drinker. He played brilliantly, usually. But he would also be disrespectful enough to get too drunk to play properly.”

By the time The Birthday Party were preparing to return to Australia and record Prayers on Fire, they had garnered a turbulent reputation and staunch following. Calvert says, “We could play a room in London and have 300 people show up. It was really coming together.”

Calvert recalls: “In the era he was wearing leather pants, he got one of his knives and wrapped it in a pair of socks and stuffed it in his jocks. I remember being on stage in London, he used to do this hip grinding thing, and a girl was just pointing with her mouth wide open.” Calvert finds it just as hysterical today. “He always said he wanted to get a tube of K-Y Jelly and tape it to the back of his bass, and do this action like he’s stroking the bass until he squirts the K-Y Jelly over the audience.”

“He always said he wanted to get a tube of K-Y Jelly and tape it to the back of his bass, and do this action like he’s stroking the bass until he squirts the K-Y Jelly over the audience.”

On tour, The Birthday Party’s disinhibited sound began to unwind into a drug-riddled ethos. Heroin and amphetamines plagued the band with a narrative that can only end in tragedy – a tragedy that rock culture, spearheaded by the media, bathes in glory.

On The Red Hand Files, Cave dismantles the irony – that audiences enjoy seeing their heroes die before them – by unveiling the mirage and detailing the reality: “Bashed up in police stations, dehumanised in rehabs, near-death experiences, suicidal thoughts, routine overdoses, reduced motivation, broken bones, being ripped off, liking Charles Bukowski, social and physical anhedonia, herd mentality, dead friends, fucked-up relationships, abscesses, car accidents, psychosis, reading The Hobbit, malnutrition, creative impotence, epic time-wasting, singing flat (still working on that), talking shit (still working on that too), life-threatening diseases, and not ringing my mother on her birthday.”

In 1999, Rowland S Howard wrote “on the extremes of rock as performance” for World Art magazine. He says: “I remember Tracy Pew falling flat on his face, his bass exploding in a sub-sonic boom as he hit the floor with all the weight of the near unconscious. It takes a good minute – a long time in a song – for Tracy to find his drunken feet and locate the song.

“We begin the next number, the introduction lasts a lifetime: Nick Cave is too involved battling some maniac in the crowd to be bothered singing. The song does start, but it’s like we’re all in different rooms, not for the first time Mick Harvey and I, extreme left and right, just stop playing and look at each other in disbelief.

“Nick is trying to scale the PA stack, but keeps falling down. Everything is falling down. I’m finding this hard to believe, we are onstage, nominally playing a song and Nick is beating a maniac over the head with the mike stand. The song dies – the hall is filled with the sound of the microphone, in all its reverberated glory, repeatedly smashing someone’s skull.”

Prayers on Fire

For Nick Cave, the southern gothic iconography that Tracy embodied should not function as a distraction. “Tracy should be remembered for more than just his outrageousness – he was a highly inventive musician that was partly responsible for shaping whatever the St Kilda sound was – a huge inspiration to many musicians.”

On Prayers on Fire, The Birthday Party goes for broke. The punk grunt on “Figure of Fun” sounds the way a circus smells while “Dull Day” harnesses the energy of dancing alone in a prison cell. The album is a carnival disguised as a wreckage.

“On Prayers on Fire, the bass really is a feature,” explains Calvert. “Tracy uses stainless steel picks. And that really helps with the attack on the instrument. The parts that he’s playing are left so prominent in the mix because of that tone of his – the gravel. It cuts through.”

Tracy’s bass playing inspiration came from his friend Chris Walsh of The Moodists, JJ Burnel from The Stranglers, and Dennis Dunaway from the Alice Cooper band. When the band started turning over a profit, Tracy upgraded his arsenal. After abandoning the thrashy punk Fender Coronado and the hollow body Rickenbacker bass, the Tracy Pew sound arrived with his Fender Jazz Bass.

“Tracy’s bass playing inspiration came from his friend Chris Walsh of The Moodists, JJ Burnel from The Stranglers, and Dennis Dunaway from the Alice Cooper band.” 

Calvert points out: “The Tracy Pew sound is lots of bottoms, lots of tops, and all the mids sucked out. The real growly, gravelly thing really came about on Prayers on Fire when he put his Jazz Bass through a thing called a Vox Supreme, which is actually a 200 watt guitar amp. He eventually blew up the speaker cabinet on that.”

On the funereal track “Yard”, Tracy’s double-bass bassline functions like a slow shudder – slinking and throbbing. As Rowland throws notes around like petals in a ceremony, Nick cries out: “Sitting on father’s hole / Sitting on his chest / Crushing rocks of dirt / The earth is soft in our / Yard yard.”

In “Nick the Stripper” Tracy’s bassline bursts with the swagger of a cocky gunslinger. Calvert points out: “‘Nick the Stripper’ is in 5/4 time and there’s a section where Nick goes, “That little insect” where I actually play 4/4 against the 5/4. Doesn’t matter that much to Nick and Rowland, they were just noodling around making their sounds. But Tracy, he had to keep that bassline going while everything else was going against him.”

The success from Prayers on Fire marked the beginning of The Birthday Party’s evolution from full-tilt nihilism to havoc-wreaking theatre.

“We were pretty surprised at how successful we became, to be honest,” explains Harvey. “I’m not sure Tracy would have felt that way. He believed people should respond to something of that quality regardless of whether it was commercial or whatever. He probably felt like we deserved it all.”

For Mick Harvey, Prayers on Fire is a record he is proud of. “Rowland has talked about it being not as good as it should have been, and I’ve never really thought about it that way,” he says. “I thought we’d achieved something. It was the first time we got somewhere where what we were releasing represented where we were. I thought that it was really the strongest statement we’d made.”

Phil Calvert remains fond of the early memories. “We got back to touring and we were a thing.” He emphasises: “When we got to America for the first time, Tracy was stoked. He loved being in America. I remember sitting with him in a bar just off Times Square in New York. We were sitting there ordering Bloody Marys or whiskey and beer chasers. And now we were those characters in those movies we used to watch.”

The Final Act

In 1981 Tracy told a reporter from The Virgin Press: “Nobody is prepared to gamble or anything, all those sort of bands become significant in the public eye in the first place through payola, and record companies putting money into them and paying disc jockeys to play their records and to say here’s a great little group from Dooragong or whatever, called Cold Chisel.”

The article concludes that “Tracy doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life going to parties, hanging around bars or suffering through interviews.”

In a word, Nick Cave remembers the musician Tracy Pew as “pornographic”. Cave explains: “Tracy and I escorted each other to the very edge of things, but he was the leader due to his ferocious intelligence, his courage, and his superior wit. He hated pretentiousness and artiness – which I had in abundance – but he was himself flamboyant and grandiose.”

“Tracy and I escorted each other to the very edge of things, but he was the leader due to his ferocious intelligence, his courage, and his superior wit.”

“Tracy was a no shit kind of guy,” adds Calvert. “If Rowland was whinging he’d say, ‘shut up Rowland, get me a beer.’ He was the funniest motherfucker going around. People don’t think about The Birthday Party as being a funny band. But we laughed an awful lot.”

“If Rowland was whinging he’d say, ‘shut up Rowland, get me a beer.’ He was the funniest motherfucker going around. People don’t think about The Birthday Party as being a funny band. But we laughed an awful lot.”

Harvey agrees. “He was brilliant at barbed comments that made you feel silly for what you were doing. Nick was pushing the boat out. Tracy was constantly bringing him back to Earth.”

When Nick Cave moved on from The Birthday Party, he was sonically distilling a singular vision. Harvey explains: “Nick was necessarily going to be going through a lot of experiments and trying out a lot of different things. And if Tracy had been there, sitting there, ridiculing him occasionally, it would have been very hard.”

In 1982 the band finished recording Junkyard, and were preparing to return to Europe. “And then we heard Tracy was in jail,” adds Calvert. “His dad didn’t even turn up to the trial.”

Tracy was arrested for a raft of charges which included driving while under the influence, telling police officers his name was Peter James Sutcliffe – a serial killer known as The Yorkshire Ripper – and stealing a sewing machine, clothes, and frankfurts from a supermarket. Tracy was sentenced to serve four months in Pentridge Prison where he performed menial labor and completed a leather craft course.

Although Tracy continued to tour with Nick Cave, The Saints, and record on Lydia Lunch’s concept album Honeymoon in Red – he was plotting a new adventure.

“He really seemed to be on this whole other path. I think he was over it, man. He saw [music] as a dead end,” explains Phil Calvert. “Tracy was back at uni. He was studying philosophy and English literature. He was writing again.”

After The Birthday Party broke up, Tracy’s mother Nancy remembers seeing him crying while watching The World According to Garp. In Mark Mordue’s book Boy on Fire, she says, “I always thought he was connecting to [his brother] Gary in some way.”

In late 1986 before leaving for work, Tracy’s girlfriend told him not to forget to take his prescription medicine. By now, Tracy was prone to epileptic fits that were exacerbated by his heavy drinking. She returned to find him motionless in the bathtub. He suffered injuries resulting in a brain haemorrhage. And just like his brother, Tracy died of a seizure.

At his funeral, The Birthday Party’s “Deep in The Woods”, and Tracy’s favourite record – Tom Waits’ “Somewhere” – played loud on the speakers of a quiet reception. On the funeral card, beside a smiling portrait of Tracy, was a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin that read: “O stillness of the shadow world, / even if down I go without my music; I shall be satisfied; once like the gods I shall have lived, more I need not.”

Days before Tracy’s death, Nick Cave released Your Funeral…My Trial. Over the next year, he would write And the Ass Saw the Angel, a southern gothic novel loaded with mystery, sorrow and madness.

Nick Cave offers: “He was a troubled man, extraordinarily complex and God alone knows what was actually going on beneath all of Tracy’s excesses. I loved him very much. I miss him very much – miss the chaos and the outrage!”

“He was a troubled man, extraordinarily complex and God alone knows what was actually going on beneath all of Tracy’s excesses. I loved him very much.”

In Tracy’s favourite comic, The Spirit fights crime from a base beneath his grave. Tracy’s music is tuned to a different harmony, his gravelly vibration fills the bullet hole of urban cowboys, or outsiders, so they can continue to live, as he signed off his letters, excelsior – ever upwards.