Paulie Stewart: paying it back with punk nuns

Paulie Stewart was 48 years old and had been on the waiting list for a liver transplant for more than 500 days when, at death’s door, he was visited in Melbourne’s Austin hospital by Sister Helena, a young nun from Timor-Leste sent to comfort him on his journey to the other side. A priest had already read him his last rites.

Stewart, singer of Melbourne punk band Painters and Dockers and Australian-East Timorese reggae ensemble the Dili Allstars, thought Helena’s appearance must have been an omen. His association with Timor-Leste spanned decades, sparked by the murder of his brother Tony in 1975 by Indonesian forces in Balibo.

Sister Helena, familiar with both the Allstars and the story of the Balibo Five, was just as gobsmacked to see Stewart on his deathbed. She vowed she would get him a new liver. In his new memoir All The Rage, Stewart writes that he thought Helena must have got into the altar wine a bit early that day.

The next morning, a nurse rushed into the ward. A compatible liver had arrived. Sister Helena and the nuns of East Timor had been praying all night.

A former altar boy, Stewart lost his faith in 1975 when a nun told his shattered family they should be happy that his brother was with Jesus. Sister Helena helped restore it, though he qualifies that “it depends what you mean by faith. They’ve really restored my faith in a higher power, or a power that’s not all about you.”

By his own admission, Stewart shouldn’t have lived to tell his story. After his transplant in 2007, he cheated death again in September 2021 when he pulled through a brutal episode of encephalopathy. “I don’t look at five years any more, or five months,” he says. “Five weeks or five days – now that I can look forward to!”

Losing his older brother at the age of 15 didn’t instil any sense of self-preservation in the young Paulie Stewart. “I thought, don’t rely on the next 40 years, because you can get snatched,” he says. In All The Rage, he writes: “I wouldn’t burn the candle at both ends. I would set the whole thing on fire with a blowtorch.”

As the fourth of five children, fighting for attention, the irrepressible Stewart found a role as the natural buffoon in the grief-stricken family. “It was just a way of filling all the awkward silences. Everyone was on the verge of breaking down, so I would do something ridiculously crazy just to get a cheap laugh, to lighten the mood.”

Singing with the Painters and Dockers allowed him to live out that role on stage. The band already had an accomplished singer and songwriter, Chris O’Connor. Stewart, though, was a born frontman. He belted out fan favourites with titles such as You’re Suss, Die Yuppie Die and The Boy Who Lost His Jocks On Flinders Street Station.

Like TISM, the irreverence of the Dockers won them a big following but little critical kudos on the gloomy post-punk Melbourne scene. “That era was very dark, everyone’s going woe is me, ‘I’ve been contemplating suicide … ’; and I was like, you guys have got no idea. I’m not contemplating suicide; I’m going to party all night! We just sent it all up.”

People who knew nothing about rock & roll didn’t get the Dockers, either: Stewart was once invited on A Current Affair to debate a preacher who thought their song Kill Kill Kill was corrupting the nation’s youth. Then-host Jana Wendt tried not to laugh when Stewart told him the song was a cover of a tune played by Kaos agents on Get Smart.

In the early 1990s, he formed the Dili Allstars with East Timorese musician Gil Santos, becoming involved in East Timor’s independence struggle. The group won an ARIA award in 2009 for their soundtrack to the film Balibo. In 2012, president José Ramos-Horta presented Stewart with a posthumous medal of merit for Tony.

It was only in the process of writing All The Rage that Stewart says he realised how much his life had been shaped by the loss of his brother. He even credits Tony for his long parallel career in journalism – he started at the Herald and Weekly Times in 1979; the company, which also controlled Tony’s former employer Channel Seven, owed the Stewarts.

That debt plagued Stewart with self-doubt for years. One editor would walk past his desk and taunt him daily: “You can’t write, can’t sing, can’t play a musical instrument. How do you survive?” But survive he did. “Being alive is pretty good! I’ll never forget after I got out of hospital, I went to someone’s garden and I was literally smelling the flowers,” he says.

Other Australian musicians have not been so lucky: Rowland S Howard and Spencer P Jones were peers who also succumbed to liver disease. Stewart is most grateful to his unknown donor: “That really hits you too – that you’re living because someone else has died,” he says. “I felt a responsibility to pay it back.”

In 2020, Stewart was awarded an OAM for services to the community and performing arts. Keeping a promise he made to Sister Helena, much of his work has been fundraising for the Alma nuns of Timor-Leste who run orphanages and care for children with disabilities. Stewart describes the nuns as the greatest punks he’s ever met.

“They’re basically cheeky village girls,” he says. “They’re like, ‘What do I want to do – have seven kids and a useless father and bring in all the money? Or will I hang out with the sisterhood, play guitar, drink a glass of wine every now and again and look after kids? Oh well, I guess I’m gonna join the nuns.’”

First published in the Guardian, 5 December 2022

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