"Me and my brother didn’t stand a chance" - Aussie skate legend Tas Pappas talks All This Mayhem
New documentary All This Mayhem tells the tale of two skateboarding brothers who became the world’s best at the sport – and took a path from winning and partying hard to injuries, drug smuggling, murder and suicide
Tas Pappas: ‘Me and my brother didn’t stand a chance. I had mental health issues. I am diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder. I can trip out really easy’
Modern celebrity works in a peculiar fashion. You probably haven’t heard of Tasou Micah Pappas, but, within a certain constituency, the charismatic, troubled Australian remains a bona fide legend.
In the mid-1990s, Tas and his younger brother Ben – tough kids from corners of Melbourne unexplored by Neighbours – travelled to the US and, with their skilled, unorthodox moves, restored some punk credibility to the increasingly commercialised world of skateboarding.
In 1996, Tas hammered the unavoidable Tony Hawk (about whom we will hear more) in a number of competitions. Eventually, Tas and Ben ended up being ranked, respectively, number one and number two in the world. Sponsorship deals loomed. Media lurked. Then it all began to fall apart in gruesome fashion.
The boys’ merchandising company went bust. Ben died of a drug overdose in 2007. Tas ended up in prison after a pathetic attempt to smuggle cocaine into Australia. It is little wonder that Eddie Martin, director of a superb documentary on the Pappas brothers, chose All This Mayhem as his title. Noting that Tas has agreed to talk to me about the picture, I take it that he has no beef with the stories it tells.
“No, not really,” he says in his agitated Melbourne squawk. “There was one thing. There was that stuff about my mum and dad fighting. My mum was a bonkers party girl and she’d come at my dad. He was defending himself. He wasn’t the sort of guy who hit chicks.”
Tas found God in prison and takes every opportunity to acknowledge the importance of faith to his recovery. But he still sounds very much like the edgy, irrepressible (no other word will do, alas) larrikin that we encounter in All This Mayhem. It doesn’t take much to set him off on a rave or a rant.
‘I regret stuff’
Mind you, he’s got plenty to be upset about. It must be hugely difficult to watch the film without wondering what he might have done differently.
“Of course, I regret stuff,” he says. “There are things I wish I had addressed. I was sexually abused growing up. I am glad that didn’t get in the film because I didn’t want it to look like I was making excuses.”
He sighs heavily as if preparing himself for a dive into unfriendly psychological depths.
“Me and my brother didn’t stand a chance,” he says. “I had mental health issues. I am diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder. I can trip out really easy. Now I am on a low dose of anti-psychotic and anti-depressants. I didn’t know what was going on and that led me to mask it all with drugs. I wished we’d addressed that.”
Tas and Ben developed their skateboarding style on the streets of Melbourne during the early 1990s. When I ask him to explain what set their approach aside from the skate orthodoxies that then prevailed, he launches into a stream of jargon more baffling than anything you’d encounter in a PhD thesis on string theory. There is, if I’m hearing this right, some stuff about “burials”. There is also mention of a “crooked grind” and a “varial kick-flip.” At any rate, the general gist is clear. The Pappas boys brought street moves to the large half-pipe ramps or “verts” within which competitive skating then took place.
“That’s right. We added street to the vert and knew when to do it,” he says. “You see, the old-school guys had trouble doing a 540 because they would scrape their tail into the vert. But a street ollie . . .”
You get the idea. When the boys arrived in America they found themselves struggling on two fronts. Drugs and booze took ever greater tolls on their psyche. Meanwhile, they discovered that the new skateboard establishment had little time for their unorthodox approach. The US has an extraordinary ability to create thrilling underground movements and then turn those cults into deadened commercial enterprises.
“ESPN and the nerdy types wanted everything to come from the same cookie cutter,” he bellows. “People like Hawk were playing it up to the good-boy mould. We were like: ‘Oh shit. Are we supposed to act this way now?’ We couldn’t make the transition. We wanted to rock and roll.”
Ah, Tony Hawk. The only skateboarder whose name is recognised outside the community does not come out well from All This Mayhem. The film cautiously notes that, however well Tas performed, Hawk always seemed to score higher. The phrase “no love lost” hardly covers it. Tas may have found God, but he expresses little love for the Californian birdman.
“I don’t make anything of him,” he says before launching into one of several stories that, without contacting Hawk’s lawyers, we don’t feel happy relating here. Suffice to say, Tas felt consistently slighted by Hawk. He claims that, even when he had left prison, the official face of skateboarding still showed him the cold shoulder.
“He’s worth $120 million and I’m fresh out of jail. My brother’s dead. And he’s treating me like that,” he says. “He knows the story. He makes out that he doesn’t.”
So from where does this difference in attitude come? It’s hard to avoid the assumption that this is an Aussie thing. Sportsmen from that country have rarely shown much appreciation for authority.
“At first, I thought that too,” he says. “But I eventually worked out that it was something else. What the fuck is up with those guys? My mate Lance said: ‘They are rich kids; we are poor kids. They came from money; we came from nothing.’ The guys we skate with in Florida came from nothing. Hawk comes from money. It’s not like they ever had it that hard.”
He’s onto his Great White Whale again.
“He’s so unforgiving, man,” Tas says. “I was like: ‘get over it’. My brother and I would punch each other in the face and then be friends immediately. These guys just can’t handle being teased.”
All This Mayhem offers an impressive balance between tragedy and anarchic good humour. But the story gets progressively darker as it moves towards its various awful conclusions. The chaps go broke. Tas seriously damages his back. Eventually, Ben is arrested trying to smuggle cocaine into Australia within a sneaker (a hopeless caper Tas would repeat with equally pathetic results some years later). The younger Pappas, now unable to leave Australia, slipped into a heroin dependency that eventually did for him.
Eight days later, days after his girlfriend Lynette Phillips, also a heroin user, was found murdered, Ben was plucked lifeless from the waters of Melbourne Docklands. A state coroner found that Ben had killed Phillips. Understandably, relations between the Pappas family and Phillips’s surviving relatives have been strained.
“I understand how shit it is,” he says. “But people have to realise they were in love. No court in Australia would have given him the death penalty. He gave himself the death penalty. He wasn’t a true killer. A true killer would just keep killing.”
So how come Tas survived? The brothers’ stories are so similar. Yet Tas has now managed to piece together his life with a second wife and a new child. He even manages to be cautiously optimistic about the future.
“The difference is that I turned to God,” he says. “The first thing that began to open my eyes was the Book of Proverbs. That ancient wisdom is amazing. ‘If you sleep with another man’s wife, no amount of money will stem his jealousy when he takes revenge.’ I thought the Bible was this goody-goody stuff.”
We can’t know what goes on within Tas’s head. But he really does seem to have happened upon a mighty dose of inner strength. Mind you, there were a lot of issues to be addressed. The film suggests the Pappas brothers and their crew were on permanent party mood for close to a decade. It’s a small miracle any of them survived.
“Look, I was the last person who wanted to believe,” he says. “I loved shooting up speed and staying up for three days watching porn. You know what I mean? If you want me to believe in God, you’re going to have to make me want to not do that any more. Slowly but surely, changes happened. And that happened in prison.”
Asked what he does now, Tas talks about working, taking care of his family and, of course, skating. Pappas is closing in on 40, but it seems that nothing can get him away from the board.
“Oh, no way. That’s one addiction I just can’t quit.”