Stab Magazine | All This Mayhem: Tas Pappas
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All This Mayhem: Tas Pappas

Story by Fred Pawle Reckon religion is a delusion? Me too. Not for us to kneel before paedophiles; follow rules written by superstitious fools under candlelight centuries before the discovery of electricity, let alone Instagram; or worship an imaginary friend in the hope He will bestow on us the fortunes we couldn’t be bothered to […]

style // Mar 8, 2016
Words by stab
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Story by Fred Pawle

Reckon religion is a delusion? Me too. Not for us to kneel before paedophiles; follow rules written by superstitious fools under candlelight centuries before the discovery of electricity, let alone Instagram; or worship an imaginary friend in the hope He will bestow on us the fortunes we couldn’t be bothered to earn on our own.

Better still, being unburdened by the religious dogma of gullible sheep frees us to pursue whatever happiness feels right, right? What more misery do people need before they realise that happiness is its own reward, its own end?

Heh. Not quite. Emotions, you’ve probably noticed, are Newtonian. No amount of youthful vigour can deny that highs can’t exist without lows. It’s stitched into our psyches, and our fates, as deeply as localism and the urge to preen in the presence of attractive women. If fun was everything, Andy would still be alive and Kelly wouldn’t be embarking on a post-Quiksilver hippie trip to save the planet. And Tas Pappas wouldn’t be “praying his arse off every day” to resist slipping back into his former mind-blowing life, the one he enjoyed before his younger brother Ben got caught up in a smack-soaked murder-suicide.

Again, I think religion is ridiculous, but it would take a harsher man than me to deride Tas Pappas the emotional balm he’s found in it after all he’s been through.

You might have heard of the Pappas brothers, the two Greek-Australian skateboarders from bogan St Albans, Melbourne, who smashed Tony Hawk back when skating was for outlaws, before the X Games turned it mainstream. Even if you haven’t heard of them, you’ll find their background eerily familiar: broken family, domestic violence, ratbag childhood, success, money, women, drugs, travel … you know the story. It’s been played out on most urban beaches, and on the fringes of the pro tour, since surfing and its bastard offshoot skating began. You also know, therefore, that the story probably ends badly. Just how badly in this case, though, might surprise you.

It’s only now that surfers and skaters are starting to tell this story with candour and, need I say, regret. Tom Carroll was first on the board last year, with an autobiography that described in painful detail the humiliation and loss of becoming a meth head after he dropped off the tour. His partying on tour, however, was only vaguely recalled, which politely let his former colleagues from the industry off the hook.

Anthony_Ruffo_Learn_to

Anthony Ruffo in Learning To Breathe.

The Anthony Ruffo documentary, Learning to Breathe, which has just been released on iTunes, sheds more light on the topic, recounting the ease with which Ruffo fell from fringe pro surfer to meth dealer in his home town of Santa Cruz, shifting almost a kilo of the gear daily and becoming entangled with the type of business partners who show up in the middle of the night armed to the teeth and looking to renegotiate previous agreements.

Skindog, Flea, Peter Mel, Christian Fletcher and others recall the destruction that was wrought on their own lives and those around them. It is frightening, yet refreshing, to hear them be so frank about it.

But the doco is soft on Ruffo himself. Like Carroll’s book ignoring the enablement of the surf business in the 1980s and 90s, Learning to Breathe mostly overlooks the heartbreaking carnage Ruffo must have wreaked by shifting so much meth as a dealer in the mid 2000s.

Ruffo spends a large chunk of the film trying to convince a judge that he wants to make amends for his past crimes by establishing a rehabilitation service in Santa Cruz. It’s obvious that he is doing it as much to avoid a jail sentence as he is to help others. You can’t help but wish him well, but Ruffo’s focus on himself rather than the bigger forces at work remind me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s aphorism, “There are no second acts in American lives.”

For a more complete story of the highs and lows endured by so many people in extreme sports, you need to see All This Mayhem, the documentary about the Pappas brothers, which opens in cinemas on July 10.

Tas lights up above the coping in 1995.

Tas lights up above the coping in 1995.

Tas Pappas went to the US in the mid 90s with the explicit ambition of beating Tony Hawk in competition. His younger brother Ben joined him soon after, and the pair made an immediate impact with their Australian style of aggressive nonchalance. Tas achieved his dream of beating Hawk in a tense two-man final showdown at the 1996 Hard Rock Café World Championships in Las Vegas.

The unlikelihood of it was compounded by their off-ramp indulgences, which included pot, speed, cocaine, mushrooms and acid. Tas’s part on the Let the Horns Blow video (1996), which featured mostly street skating, was one of the hits of the era, earning him accolades and helping revive vert skating at a time when it was floundering; in All This Mayhem, Tas reveals that he did the whole bit on acid.

The Pappas brothers’ success began to unravel almost immediately. By the following year, “there was more partying going on than skating,” Tas says. Business deals soured, friendships ended, career-hobbling injuries were sustained, drug deals were busted, Tas himself did a stretch in prison, and, tragically, in 2007 Ben committed suicide. That is the brief version. The recollection of it all in the movie is harrowing, if also predictable. There are scenes that look like the epitome of freedom and fun at the time, but in hindsight you can see fate stalking in the background, sizing up its victims as they live entirely in the moment, blissfully unaware of the hammer about to fall.

As Tas tells me on the phone, his voice weakened by the pain of memory: “If you want to play, you pay.” The subplot of the movie is that, like surfing in 2012, skating had arrived at a fork in the road in the mid 1990s. The Pappas brothers and their crew wanted the sport to continue on its individualistic, reckless, subcultural path; Tony Hawk and the organisers of the X Games, backed by ESPN, had other ideas. Naturally, the big money and Hawk’s clean-living image won, shutting Tas and his crew out of the rivers of wealth that soon flowed.

But Tas had one last ace in his hand. He started practising the 900, which nobody, not even Hawk, had landed. If he could land it first, the bad luck of the late 90s might just be reversed. He was doing it as much for Ben, who had just been busted for trying to import cocaine back to Australia, as himself. His practice sessions were held at a ramp in Melbourne, and one day a photographer from Transworld turned up and shot some sequences.

Tas was still regarded as one of the best ramp skaters in the world, but when he arrived at X Games V in 1999, ready to attempt a 900 in competition, he found he wasn’t even on the invite list. Hawk landed the trick after ten attempts, and the rest is history.

The movie leaves the viewer to join the dots. Transworld never published the sequences; rather, they were shown to Hawk, who studied them for his own benefit. Worse, the X Games shut Tas out so Hawk could claim the trick for himself at a time when the Pappas brothers desperately needed a change of luck.

But what’s Hawk’s version of events? He was asked to be interviewed for the movie, but declined. I emailed his press agent, asking (a) if it was true that he studied the sequences before attempting the trick himself, and (b) what role, if any, he played in excluding Tas from X Games V. No reply.

Brothers doing what brothers do best (Ben and Tas Pappas).

Brothers doing what brothers do. Tas, left, and Ben, right).

“It’s self-explanatory,” Tas says on the phone. “He (Hawk) didn’t want me to do it.”

But Tas’s own account is still vague. “On that day, on that specific one,” he says, as if he is about to explain exactly what happened. But then he digresses into the story about the photographer and the mysterious sequence shots, before again vaguely returning to the topic. “…Then we get to the X Games, and I’m thinking I might do it at the X Games, thinking it might lead me back to money to get my brother back in the country after his drug bust, and then…” He stops talking, and I wonder if the mention of his brother has upset him. After a long silence, he says defiantly, “So yeah.”

In truth, Tas doesn’t want the film to be about righting other people’s alleged wrongs. He has bigger things to worry about. “This documentary isn’t about skating, really,” he says. “It’s about the life story of two brothers set in skateboarding.

“I couldn’t give a shit about that any more. Once my brother died … I mean, fuck skating. What’s happened to my family because of drugs and shit? But then God looked after me, even though I’m still a fuck-up.”

Which brings me back to religion. Tas doesn’t like the word. “It’s not religion,” he says. “It’s God. It’s a personal relationship. Most people are more comfortable with ‘karma’. Karma is intelligent. It knows your good deeds and bad deeds, and pays you accordingly. It knows your heart. Even in your heart you stuff up but you’re trying to be good. You pray to him. He sorts you out. He helps you. He sorts you out even harder because you’ve taken time to read his word.”

Tas is slightly ashamed of the admiration he’s received as a result of All This Mayhem.

“I do a lot of hate-able things (in the movie),” he says. “But people are understanding. It just feels undeserved, to be honest. I’m not happy with a lot of the stuff I’ve done.”

Everything Tas says oozes with the toxic waste of his past. He can’t escape it – indeed, he feels he could slip back into it at any moment – and it is this that is making him a better man, regardless of what you think about his religious inspiration.

It takes a great man to admit his mistakes, I tell him, and an even greater man to try to rectify them. For the first time in our 20-minute conversation, his voice softens. “Ah,” he says slowly. “Thanks, man.”

 

All This Mayhem is in cinemas July 10 – exclusive to Cinema Nova, Melbourne and Dendy Newtown, Sydney. Out on DVD and Digital HD September.

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