"These young guys have made me fall in love with Australia again."
It's that time of year again, where a crowd nearing the numbers you'd expect at a Melbourne Demons home match descend on Elsternwick Park to eat a sausage, drink a can or two and watch a game of footy that's so bad, it's seriously amazing. It's a community event like no other. There'll be dogs, streakers, bands and a pile of money raised for Reclink so they can continue their good work of rebuilding lives through sports and arts initiatives. There'll also be a game of footy between the Rockdogs and Megahertz but, y'know, whatever...
Once again, the bands assembled on the bill are of the highest quality – Elmo & Friends for the kids, Fraser A Gorman, The Smith Street Band, Saskwatch and The Age's EG Hall Of Famers, Painters & Dockers – and more than make up for the general lack of skills on the field. For those in the know, it's the highlight of winter, and for those of you that haven't been, it's the ultimate community event and you need to experience it.
Painters & Dockers frontman Paulie Stewart understands the value of community more than most. As a recent liver transplantee, Stewart owes his life to the generosity of an unknown organ donor. Along with Killing Heidi guitarist Jesse Hooper, Stewart also works with disadvantaged youth at the Jesuit Social Services' Artful Dodgers Studios in Collingwood. He's been heavily involved in East Timor's independence movement (Stewart's brother Tony was one of five journalists murdered by the Indonesian military at Balibo in 1975) and in Melbourne's music community, Stewart's is a name synonymous with charity and fundraising events. He, and Painters & Dockers, exemplify what the Reclink Community Cup is all about – they're a natural fit for headliners on the day. And, when chatting with Stewart, he connects the dots through all of the above to create a mosaic view of what community means to him.
True to the complexity of Stewart's community involvement, his connections to the Reclink Community Cup are multifaceted. It was years ago that he made his Community Cup debut. In fact, it was the only game he ever played and it was before the event had really found its feet as the charity fundraising juggernaut it has since become. “I got knocked out,” he says, laughing, in an upstairs meeting room of the rabbit warren-like Artful Dodgers Studios. “I won the Toilet Seat Award [for most knocked-out player on the ground]. I was just at home and, I can't remember who it was... It was either [Cosmic Psychos'] Bill Walsh, or Fred Negro or Jason [Evans, Community Cup organiser], one of those three – god, what a three to choose from! They said, 'We're having a bit of a kick-to-kick, Paulie, across the road, you should come over.' And I said 'Ohh, okay.' I seriously thought there'd be two or three of us there, kicking a ball between each other, and there was, like, hundreds of people and the sides were rock bands versus bouncers. Never again should you let that happen, 'cause the bouncers go, 'Great, there's that dick that trashed the pub last night' – they were laying into me, it was a helluva day! I haven't played a game ever since.”
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Stewart is still a devotee of the Reclink Community Cup, and during four years spent in Sydney after his liver transplant he laments that one of the things he missed most about Melbourne was the wider community radio family. After moving back to Victoria, and through his work at Artful Dodgers Studios, Stewart would develop a Reclink Community Cup connection of a very different kind. But to get to that, first we need to take a step back.
The story of how Stewart came to work for the Jesuits (an irony not lost on the rocker) is intricately connected with all of this – the liver, the bands and Balibo – and ultimately leads us to his further relationship/s with the Reclink Community Cup. “This story,” he says, “you're gonna think I'm full of shit or on drugs.” And he begins by saying he thought getting a liver transplant might mean he'd need to push a gig at The Espy they had booked back by a couple of weeks. The reality was an almost two-year wait for a suitable organ and a large amount of that time spent in hospital.
“It was really bleak, things were looking really bad for me and a compatible liver wouldn't come in,” he says. “Then one night I woke up and sitting at the end of my bed was this nun. So I was talking to her for about ten minutes before I said, 'Sister, you're dark-skinned, where are you from?' and she said, 'This little country called East Timor.' So I said, 'This has gotta be some kind of a joke!'
“When she asked why, I told her my brother was one of the journos killed up at Balibo. And I said I also play in a band in Melbourne called The Dili Allstars. And she said, 'Oh! You guys got some food up to my village. What are you here for?' So I told her I need a new liver and she said, 'I'll get you one, no worries.'
Her plan was to call the nuns in East Timor and get them all to pray for Stewart's new liver. But there was a condition to her promise and that was, when Stewart was well, he'd have to head up to East Timor and help out the women and children. The day after this conversation took place, Stewart's liver, as he puts it, “fucken arrived”. True to his word, Stewart made the trip (and subsequently scored the Balibo film, released in 2009) to help out this group of nuns, which, in a roundabout way, spelt the beginning of his connections with the Jesuits. “It's all kind of tied up in a crazy kind of way,” he says.
Once back in Australia, this connection led to Stewart's present role as Project Officer at Jesuit Social Services, where he met a couple of Burundian rappers by the names of Fablice and G-Storm – collectively known as Flybz. “They were just a couple of young boys sitting in the corner and they wanted to do something,” says Stewart. “So I said, 'Well, what do you guys do?' and they told me they're rappers. So I told them I'd get them some gigs.” When asked about his base knowledge of rap music at the time, Stewart says: “Fuck all! The Beastie Boys, Fight For Your Right (To Party). I'm not into rap at all.”
But he did get them some gigs and one of these was as boundary umpires (possibly not the kind of gig they were after, but bear with us) at the Community Cup in 2012. The guys didn't know much about AFL but, following an inspired pep talk from umpire Brian Nankervis, they took to the field, held their own and were noticed in doing so.
One man who took note of their umpiring performances was then-Rockdogs coach Paul Kelly, who invited the rappers for a kick-to-kick the following week, along with Tim Rogers and a bunch of local rock'n'rollers. To cut an increasingly lengthy story short, the boys convinced Paul Kelly to record a song with them, with the resultant single Child Soldier (produced by multi-award winner Jesse Hooper, no less) being picked up by community broadcasters and the ABC Australia-wide.
“These young guys have made me fall in love with Australia again,” says Stewart. “They love it here so much... They've taken off; they've done about 50 gigs now, all around Australia. The ABC is about to screen a documentary on them in July. Fablice, the older of the two boys, has just been made President of the Australian Burundi Association – so he's the boss of all his mob in Australia.”
Many of Flybz's successes have stemmed from this on-the-surface humble appearance at the Reclink Community Cup. And in 2014, they (along with broadcaster Alicia Sometimes – Alicia, you heard it here first!) will be making an appearance on stage with Painters & Dockers at the Cup. It'll be Painters & Dockers' first show as a full band in four years and will feature a whole bunch of original members.
Given that this year's Reclink Community Cup theme pays homage to Lou Reed with the catchphrase 'Such A Perfect Day' referencing one of the late, great legend's songs, Stewart remains mum on which Lou Reed songs they'll be belting out, but makes it pretty clear it won't be any of Reed's “virtually impossible to listen to” Metal Machine Music material. And, despite his community radio connections, Stewart favours the Rockdogs (remember, there's a footy game). “Isn't it funny that the Cup's a draw almost every year?” he says. “I barrack for both teams enthusiastically... I don't think I could play anymore because I'd be too scared. Mate, they go in pretty willingly, don't they? Some of those lads... Banjo [O'Shannessy], fuck me! [world champion weightlifter and Cosmic Psycho] Ross Knight, god! Y'know, do you want Ross Knight to run into you? He's a brick shithouse. He's gonna throw you over his head.”