Punk rocker Paulie Stewart has lived a wild life. But he says it’s his friends, Timorese nuns who dedicate their lives to caring for disabled children, who are the real rule breakers.
When the clock ticks over to 4pm, my home internet gives out. I swear under my breath and try to get the Zoom on my laptop working. When I give up and switch over to my phone, Paulie is there, smiling. I apologise as I fumble with the uncooperative technology. ‘No worries’, he says to me, ‘I’ve got time.’
Paulie Stewart has very much lived. Born and raised in St Kilda, ‘a little suburban bubble where no one ever died’, his world completely changed with his brother’s death. His brother was Tony Stewart, one of the Balibo Five killed in Timor Leste by Indonesian soldiers.
‘Pretty obvious my brother’s death got me on this path that I would never have gone down’, Paulie says. ‘I was very angry about it. So when I first come across punk rock, it was like oh. Then I was like, “They [will] pay me to do this?”’
Paulie’s love of music has clearly stayed with him. He’s worked as a music journalist and is part of several music groups, including the punk rock band Painters and Dockers. Starting in the ’80s and reuniting in 2014, Painters and Dockers are known for pushing boundaries in their live performances and a strong theme of social conscience in their music. If in occasionally tongue in cheek ways.
When someone asked Paulie, ‘What do you think Jesus would think about a song like “Die Yuppie Die?”’. He replied, ‘That was what he was humming when he went to the temple with the stock whip. We pinched it off him.’
The Dili Allstars, another band Paulie was part of, began with a chance meeting with Timorese musician Gil Santos. Santos came up to Paulie at a demonstration and asked if they could do music together. ‘Instead of guns we should use guitars’, Santos said. The band produced four albums and toured across Europe, South America and Timor Leste, advocating for Timorese freedom. Paulie says that Santos taught him everything he knew about Timor.
And to talk with Paulie is to know his deep admiration for the Alma nuns in Timor Leste.
He first met the Alma nuns with Santos while making the soundtrack to the film Balibo, about the Balibo Five. When he and Gil realised that there were only five nuns looking after 45 children with one motor-scooter, Paulie and Gil raised money in Australia through the Jesuits to buy them a van. Paulie went back and said to the Mother Superior, ‘Sister, great news. We’ve raised you eighty!’
To which she replied, ‘Oh Paulie, eighty dollars. We can get water, rice, a couple of blankets, a chook…’
‘Nah nah nah’, Paulie said, ‘eighty thousand.’
Paulie chuckles to me over the Zoom call. ‘She looked at me like I was some kind of nutter. She almost collapsed.’
Paulie continues to work with the nuns, bringing them to Australia to speak about the issues facing them and raising money for the nuns’ ongoing care for disabled children. This work has faced significant challenges in the wake of COVID-19.
On the surface, it seems an incongruous pairing. A musician who is famous for playing provocative punk and a bunch of nuns. But the more Paulie speaks to me, the more it makes sense. ‘People go to me, “Oh Paulie, they’re pretty straight. Aren’t you a wild boy to be hanging out with these nuns?” And I say listen, “They’re up at 4.30 every morning, I could never do that. They work 12 hours a day. They don’t take orders from men… They get the job done.”’
CATALYSTS FOR CHANGE
He elaborates, ‘I like people who change things. What I loved about punk is that it didn’t accept the normal order of things. It wasn’t about accumulating wealth, there were more important things in life than just capitalism, you know. And for the nuns it’s the same thing, it’s about helping other people and changing the world. These nuns, I’ve seen them, they walk 15kms to massage a disabled girl’s legs. They give her a bit of relief. And then the people in the village think, “Oh if the nuns are giving her respect we should all do that.” They’re the rule breakers.’
Paulie is a mentor at Jesuit Social Services’ Artful Dodgers Studios, which provides free space to young people in difficult circumstances to create art and record music. ‘It’s like Motown records was’, Paulie grins. ‘You get these people who walk in and say, “Oh yeah, I’ve got a bit of a voice.” And I say go into the studios to sing a song and they go sing. Then they come out and I say, “I hate you, I’ve been in bands for 30 years and I’m not a patch on you. You are just unbelievable.”’ Paulie proudly rattles off examples of talented participants, and in particular, the hiphop group Paulie manages, The Flybz.
Another big ‘turning point’ in Paulie’s life was receiving a liver transplant. It signalled a change in perspective for Paulie. He says to me, ‘I can’t believe I’m saying this now, but the liver transplant was probably the best thing to ever happen to me. It woke me up and made me appreciate how good life is.’
A man who seems to be endlessly doing; this experience resulted in the band The Transplants, where all members have been recipients of donated organs. The Transplants have played concerts to raise awareness around organ donation. Paulie says, ‘I feel a sense of obligation, because an unknown Australian gave me their liver and I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that reason. And I feel like, wow, I’ve got to do something to warrant that. That’s a big inspiration for me. Honouring the person who gave me their liver.’
THINK ABOUT HELPING OUT
At the school visits he does with the Just Voices program and the nuns, Paulie ends his talks with similar sentiments. ‘I go into these schools and say, “Look you’re about to leave Year 12. Sure, go out and buy big houses and travel the world if that rocks your boat. But look into helping out other people.” And I’m completely selfish, I get back ten times from the nuns what I give to them. Having almost died, you know, that’s a message I really feel now. What’s you mark going to be?’
Throughout the interview, almost every question is met with a story. Paulie spins them with ease, gestures broad and inviting, like he can bring me in to his very memories, if given the chance. He redirects most of my questions to talk about others, and I hear about the people who most have the most influence in his life: his daughter Aretha Stewart-Brown, his co-workers at Jesuit Social Services, his past and present bandmates, and story after story about the nuns.
Paulie laughs as he tells me another anecdote. ‘It’s funny because this guy came back from Timor recently and he said, “I think I ran into those nuns you work with.” And I said, “Why’s that?” And he said, “Because when I said goodbye to them, they did a ‘devil horns’ salute and said, ‘Rock on!’ as I walked away. I’m blaming you Paulie.”’
There are even plans, travel permitting, for Sister Anastasia to get up front with the Dockers. ‘All bets are off’, Paulie says.
> The nuns rely on donations from supporters to continue their work. You can donate to the Alma Nuns c/o Jesuit Mission, PO Box 193, North Sydney 2059.