Legendary punk power pop protest pub rockers Painters & Dockers return to WA for the first time in 20 years this week. Singer and mainstay of the band for some 35 years, Paulie Stewart, has plenty of stories to tell.
Just a few years ago, though, Stewart was on his deathbed, having all but given up hope of finding a replacement liver to replace his Hepatitis C-addled one. A priest actually came and read his last rites, before a Timorese nurse recognised him from his tireless charity work (Stewart’s older brother Tony was one of the Balibo Five journalists murdered by government forces in East Timor in 1975), and promptly made good on a promise to find him a suitable organ for transplant.
Stewart’s love for Painters & Dockers is readily evident as we reminisce hysterically about their late ‘80s and early ‘90s appearances at the Coffin Cheater outlaw motorcycle club-run Bindoon Rock festival and putting on some of the best gigs Aussie rock fans (this writer included) ever attended.
“I blame Perth for my liver transplant,” he jokes. “Definitely Perth, definitely Bindoon! They were the best gigs we’ve ever done, Painters & Dockers, in our lives. The most well-behaved and well run gigs, too – no-one messed up when The Coffin Cheaters were in charge!”
Visits to Perth always seemed to include a cast of scantily clad extras on stage at a Painters & Dockers gig. Many of us will recall the old Shents (The Shenton Park Hotel) crammed to double capacity, sweat dripping off the roof, Kym The Krazy Klown breathing fire over the heads of the crowd, close enough to almost singe your hair – all of which would be impossible to get away with nowadays.
“You wouldn’t be allowed to do it at all!” Stewart laughs at the memories. “I mean, I’ll never forget the night Kym The Krazy Klown, who always jumped up with us in Perth, walked out on stage nude and then opened an orange boating distress flare, and let it off in the venue – the whole place was filled with toxic orange smoke within about two minutes. There were people smashing the windows to jump out. We ended up have to pay the pub more than our fee, because of the damage done – but, fuck, what a night!”
Then there was the time they almost signed on as in-house band for the then-new Fremantle Dockers AFL club.
“They said, ‘we’re going to be the new club in the AFL, and you guys are a well-known band, we should have this relationship’,” recounts the singer. “They’re going, ‘here are the outfits – wear them on stage tonight’. We said, ‘oh mate, this’ll be great. We’ll be at the G, we’ll be hanging out with the players. This is going to be fantastic!’ Then after the show, they came back out to us, ‘give us the jumpers back – don’t ring the club. Don’t talk to the club. Don’t ever mention us. For us, you’re dead!’
“I’m going, ‘what, what’s the matter?’ He goes, ‘there were naked people on stage, singing about pulling off, and Kill Kill Kill!?! What are you guys thinking?’ We’re like, ‘oh, is that not suitable? Oh, okay…’”
The madness and mayhem that was Painters & Dockers wouldn’t have meant nearly as much had the band been just another self-indulgent bunch of rock’n’roll clichés, but they were always a paradox – cutting a swathe through the Aussie pub rock scene in their undies in a blur of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, whilst performing countless benefit gigs for the homeless and East Timorese amongst others, writing songs championing indigenous rights, racial tolerance, respect towards women and gender equality. It may seem ironic to outsiders, but it still makes perfect sense to Stewart.
“Well, it just sort went hand-in-hand, you know?” he reflects now. “They never seemed to be at odds to me… one thing I worked out was, in the very early days of the Painters & Dockers, is that doing benefits are great because while you might not be able to help some organisation financially, you can bring attention and the media to their cause. We never wanted to be in-your-face or preachy, because we knew that wouldn’t work. It was probably part of our punk ethos as well. Music was more than just about chart positions and t-shirts sold. It was changing the world. I still sort of believe that, crazily.”
By 1998 The Painters & Dockers had disbanded. Stewart formed The Dili All-Stars with a couple of his bandmates, and everyone went on to different things. Stewart’s partying escalated – and a foolish taste or two of heroin gave him Hepatitis C, destroying his liver.
“In hindsight now, it all makes a bit of sense,” he explains regretfully. “After my brother was killed in East Timor when I was 15, I had such a, ‘burn, baby, burn’ attitude. Like, I burned very brightly at both ends of the candle. I didn’t think there was ever going to be a future. I didn’t think you could rely on the future. I wanted to do it all in one night. That night, that we were wherever, that was it – that could be the last time, so we went for it. It was the Perth crowds, too – they would encourage us.
“All jokes aside, the crowds in Perth were the best crowds we ever had, without any doubt. I don’t know why we resonated there more than anywhere else, but Jesus, we had some good times.”
Every time I’ve brought up the full scope of his philanthropic work – not only his job with the Jesuit Social Services, working with disabled and underprivileged kids, but also going to Timor and helping out poor villages over there, mentoring two former child soldiers from Sudan, and more – he deflects humbly, instead asking how my health is, and seeming genuinely happy that, physically at least, for the most part I’m pretty good at 50 – perhaps because I never smoked or indulged in anything stronger than too much booze.
“Good on you… I certainly drank more than I took hard drugs,” he confesses, “but stupidly – it’s really hard justifying this to yourself in hospital when you’re lying there – I did hard drugs because my mates, we were all pissed, and they were doing heroin, and I went, ‘oh, give us a go’. Twice, I did it, seriously, and that was enough to get Hep C. That was the downfall of me, but you mention working for the Jesuits and doing stuff for people in need… I really do feel an obligation to repay life.
“Basically, if it wasn’t for this unknown Australian – and I’m not allowed to know their name – if it wasn’t for somebody going, ‘well, fuck it, I’ll donate my organs’, you wouldn’t be talking to me now. It really hits home to me that it was some stranger’s generosity that’s kept me alive on the planet. So, if I can put a bit back in, then it seems like a fair turn of balance to me.”
Original bass player, Phil Nelson, tragically died of Crohn’s Disease 15 years ago, so that position is filled by Michael Badger – son of guitarist Colin, who has been with the band since the early ‘90s. Drummer since 1984 Colin Buckler remains too traumatised to tour after barely saving his family from devastating bushfires, when his house in the hills, “burnt to the ground around him, with him and his wife and little kid in it. They had to run to a creek bed with a wet blanket, and he said there were birds and koalas all coming up under the blanket.
“Then it was just, he said, the biggest sound he’d ever heard in his life for half-an-hour, and then when he got up it was like a Martian landscape. There was just nothing. So, he’s sort of coping with that.”
The Painters & Dockers line-up in 2017, Stewart explains, is, “Vlad Juric, the guitarist; me; Dave (Pace, trumpet); Mick (Morris, tenor sax); a guy called Richard on bass and Dale on drums. So I think there’s four of the original members.”
Juric was the first to leave, back in the late ‘80s, when, Stewart says, “he went off to have kids. He did that for a few years. He had four – but then, the allure’s too much, mate. It always gets you back in, the Painters & Dockers. It’s like a cult. You can deny it, but deep down they’ve got a hold of you for life.”
Not for everyone, it seems, with guitarist and singer of such tracks as Nude School, Chris O’Connor, deigning from returning to active duty with the band.
“He actually reckons he’s too old to do it,” says Stewart, not disguising the disappointment in his voice. “We’re like, ‘what do you mean?’ He’s just not into rock’n’roll anymore… I will never understand that, myself, because being in the Painters & Dockers is like a gift that you’re given. It’s the best thing that I’ve ever been involved in, in my life. The fact of the matter is, it makes people happy, and it makes people have a good time. How can you not do it? That’s what I want to know. I want to know how you can not do it. His line is, ‘that’s something I did when I was young’. I’m going, ‘mate, Chuck Berry put out an album at 90! What are you fucking talking about? Come on’.”
Twenty years on from Painters & Dockers last visit to Perth, with a new lease on life – hell, with a chapter that he honestly thought he wasn’t going to get – it sounds like Stewart is looking forward to it most of all.
“I can’t believe that it’s been 20 years, can you?” he says. “Mate, what gets me , we get these crowds and I go, ‘oh, this mob are going to hate us. They’re all so old – why are they here?’ Then we start playing, and I go, ‘hang on, these are our mob – this is them’.
“So I expect lots of 50-year-old, bald stage-divers, which is what we’ve been getting. The beauty of the Dockers gigs now is, seriously, they’re like a big school reunion. So I’m sure there’ll be people who rock up at the Perth gigs who remember seeing other people at Dockers gigs. That’s half the fun, is them all catching up together, and we’re just the soundtrack to it.”
Painters & Dockers perform at Gate One (Claremont Showgrounds) on Friday, May 5, Dunsborough Tavern on Saturday, May 6, and the Indi Bar on Sunday, May 7.