These Brothers Were Better Than Tony Hawk. But Then Heroin, Murder and Suicide Took Their Toll...
In the 90s, Tas Pappas and his brother were better than Tony Hawk. In a searing interview he reveals how it all went wrong...
Interview with Tas Pappas
by Tristan Kennedy
“My dad died a year after my brother died. He just couldn’t handle it any more. He died of a heart attack, but I killed him. I drove the final nail in the coffin for sure. I feel like a piece a shit."
Tas Pappas has a lot on his mind. The former pro-skater has had a life-changing year. All This Mayhem, the documentary that details his and his brother Ben’s rise to the pinnacle of the sport - and then their subsequent drug-fuelled fall into addiction, murder and suicide, has become a worldwide sensation.
Released on DVD this week, it’s already packed out cinemas and filled column inches across the globe, earning glowing reviews from the likes of The Guardian, Daily Telegraph and the Australian Herald Sun. But you don’t come through a lifetime like Tas’ without some significant scars.
And chatting to him down the phone from Melbourne it’s clear that there are still things he still finds difficult to talk about. “It’s hard bro," he says several times throughout our interview. “Fuck it’s rough."
He’s not wrong. If anything, given everything he’s been through, it’s incredible Tas Pappas is alive and talking at all.
The story All This Mayhem tells is a harrowing one. Born to a poor white family in Melbourne (“we were basically boguns," says Tas - Australian slang for white trash) the odds were stacked against the boys from the start.
“Mum was a young mother you know, she made some mistakes.
Dad would come home and realize she’d just left us there alone and then boom, there’d be fireworks."
The pair fought regularly. “She’d attack him and then he’d hit her back. She’d smash him with an ashtray, it was bonkers."
Mum would attack dad and he’d hit her back. She’d smash him with an ashtray, it was bonkers.
Without much parental control or consistency, Tas and Ben Pappas would take off and get into mischief. “It was just the neighbourhood.
"A crew would steal a car and we’d see it just sitting in a paddock. So one of us would chuck a rock at it and then we’d break a window and then it’d get lit on fire…"
But before they went too far down the tearaway route, a trip to the Prahran skatepark, with its monster metal halfpipe, gave the boys a more constructive outlet for their energy.
“Skateboarding was always something special," says Tas.
“Was it an escape from what was going on at home," I ask?
“Yeah but it was just fun too. We always were the way we were you know. A couple of boguns who were attracted to skateboarding."
Not only were they attracted to skating, it soon became clear they were talented too. Tas’ balls-out, give-a-shit attitude and lack of fear meant he learned quickly.
Ben Pappas was quieter and more considered, but his steely determination, combined with their natural sibling rivalry, meant he pushed his brother all the way.
The pair used to refer to themselves as Barnes and Elias, after the rival Sergeants in Platoon, Tas says in the documentary. Different in attitude and approach perhaps, but equally deadly.
It wasn’t long before their talent earned them sponsorship and the pair were taken on a demo tour. It was there that they encountered the hard drugs that would be their downfall for the first time.
Coke, Speed, Acid. All Of It.
“We were the groms on the first Alba Skateboards tour. We were in the team van when these guys were talking about all the coke they were doing and smoking bongs and drinking, but we didn’t chop the drugs. Ben would’ve been 12 or less and I would’ve been 13, 14."
“But then a year or two later on the first Big Day Out tour we were just chopping the drugs hard on that tour. That was a massive bender. Coke, speed acid, all of it." In the pre X Games era, professional vert skating’s image was not as clean-cut as it is today.
The hard-partying lifestyle came with the territory and both Pappas’ brothers, with their love of pushing themselves to the limits, embraced it wholeheartedly.
This trend continued when first Tas and then Ben flew over to the US, hoping to make it on the global scene. “I wasn’t doing it every day, but I would just go on major benders."
At the time vert riding, which had dominated skateboarding in the 80s, was in danger of being overshadowed by its younger more exciting, street-based cousin.
Ben and Tas’ youth, hard-partying attitude and street-inspired tricks gave it much-needed shot in the arm.
They produced a string of impressive contest results and by 1995 both brothers has been hooked up by Danny Way’s XYZ Plantinum skateboards, alongside the likes of Chet Thomas.
They were binging hard (Tas’ legendary part from the 1996 Mad Circle video Let the Horns Blow was apparently filmed almost entirely on acid) but that was part of their appeal. They were making waves and making good money.
They’re attitude also meant they were also making enemies however, and one powerful enemy in particular.
Hated by Tony Hawk
“Hawk and me were friends when we started out. He used to let me ride his ramp." But the friendship between the clean-cut, all-American elder statesman of vert riding and the punk-rock upstarts from Australia was never going to last.
“Danny Way told me at the first X Games [in 1995] that Hawk used to crank call his mum. I’d become friends with Danny Way’s mum and I saw him and I’m like: ‘Hey Hawk, what’s this shit you used to fucking crank call Danny Way’s mum? You’re a fucking dick mate.’"
“’Come outside you prick, don’t be a fucking pussy let’s have a crack. Fucking crank calling people’s mums…’ and he was like ‘uhhhh’ and shits a brick. That was the first incident that made me and Hawk not be mates." The following year though, things heated up further as both Tas and Ben started beating Tony on a regular basis. At one stage they were number one and two in the world. “When it comes to skating and trying to stay number one, Hawk always has to be the winner. Watch the Bones Brigade doco, he talks about competitions, how cut he gets when he doesn’t win."
Things came to a head at the 1996 World Championships. After the final round, the judges had Tas and Tony tied, so it went for skate off. Despite nursing a broken rib, Tas won, and Hawk was not happy.
“He came up whinging to me and my brother. All year we’d been competing against him and [the judges] had been giving it to him and we hadn’t said shit."
“So when he came up having a go at me, Ben was just like ‘fuck this!’" It wasn’t quite a full-on fist fight on the podium, but it wasn’t far off. And Tas is still obviously annoyed by Tony’s attitude. “Look, the reason we went after him was there were that many comps where he just did varials and no new tricks and they gave it to him."
"We didn’t run up to him saying [adopts whiny voice] ‘we think we should’ve won Tony’. We’re like ‘mate go whinge to the judges, don’t whinge to us. We didn’t judge the comp, we were in it with you. You know, like fellow competitors?!’"
“That was our beef, we were like ‘fuck off already’. But it was everything leading into it as well. Like he stole tricks off Danny Way and put the video out first. It was just like anything for him to ‘stay on top’ and ‘be the best’."
Having just beaten the best though, Ben and Tas were riding high and probably felt justified in telling him to do one. They had knocked the Birdman off his perch. They were untouchable. But trouble was brewing, and their hard-partying lifestyle was about to catch up with them.
A Long Way to Fall
“I don’t know what he was thinking," Tas says. “We just partied a lot and it was just… a stupid choice." In 1999, just three years after their triumph, Ben was arrested for smuggling cocaine back to Australia.
“He wasn’t trying to sell it. It was only 100 grams, which is nothing. But basically our lifestyle had snowballed, and we went from one bum choice to the next."
On the surface, the punishment sounded relatively light – a 12 month suspended jail sentence. But the three-year travel ban that came with it was nothing short of devastating for Ben.
Unable to travel back to the States to compete, he found himself dropped by sponsors and slumped into a deep depression. “He kept getting told his career was over," says Tas. “And he just gave up sort of. He didn’t think he could make it back to the States and then he got into smack."
Tas’ habit was catching up with him too. “I’d always been like ‘drugs are just like a cup of tea’. They weren’t anything. Like if I woke up in the morning and someone said there was a crack rock there I’d be like: ‘sweet, let’s smoke it’. I didn’t give a shit."
Sexual Abuse & Childhood Trauma
It wasn’t just a desire to party that drove it though. “There’s stuff that didn’t make the film about how traumatic my childhood really was."
"I was sexually abused by my Auntie’s friend when I was like five or six years old. My Auntie Vicky lived with us and there was some prick who came round and ended up sexually abusing me. Fucking paedo."
“At the same time I was wetting the bed, and the parents were fighting and I had this babysitter who would rip me out of the bed by the hair and bash me around because I’d wet the bed and shit."
"I had a lot of pretty shitty things happen to me and I never told anyone"
“When I’d get on the drugs and I was deliberately trying to block stuff out. I’d be trying to knock myself out, seeing how far I could take it. I just didn’t give a shit, I just wanted to go bonkers."
“There was a lot of hurt that I’d just never addressed. I’ve got a borderline personality disorder and I never even knew I had mental illness."
As Tas drug intake rocketed, his skateboarding career tanked. Danny Way’s XYZ Platinum team had fallen apart, and Tas’ abrasive attitude led to several of the key players, including Danny himself, turning their backs on him. “Danny used to use me to do his dirty work. He didn’t really have my back," he says.
As he lost friends in the industry, he lost opportunities. Which was a shame because his talent still burned as bright as ever.
In the lead-up to the 1999 X Games, Tas was very close to landing the 900. But as the star with the biggest mainstream appeal Tony Hawk was the face of the newly-televised contest. And he wasn’t Pappas’ biggest fan.
The Battle for the 900
“I actually apologized to him the day of the best trick contest. I said: ‘You know what I’ve just realized that Danny used to use me to do his dirty work, and I just wanted to apologise to you for that day. Danny shoulda had a crack at you because of what you did to his mum, that was none of my business.’ And Hawk was going: ‘Yeah whatever bro, I don’t care, it’s all good."
“Then I realised what that smile was about. An hour later I found out I’m all stitched up - I’m not even allowed to enter the best trick contest."
In the movie, Tas admits that there’s every chance he wouldn’t have landed the 900 before Tony. But he’d liked to have been allowed to have a go.
Instead he was forced to watch from the sidelines, a position that was all the harder to swallow because one of Tony’s photographer friends had apparently been shooting Tas’ practise attempts at the 900 just a few weeks before.
“He’s been studying my sequences and gone and done the trick on me, the prick." The 900 – and the subsequent release of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater – turned the Birdman into the mega-star he is today.
It’s something Tas has no time for. “He’s actually blinded by his own bullshit. He’s just another skater but that’s not what he thinks, he buys into his own bullshit. Cock."
But having lost the backing of key players like Hawk and Way, Tas found himself blacklisted from comps. Tas’ father, who’d followed his sons to the States, was trying to offer support. But by the mid-2000s Tas, who now had a wife and two young kids to feed, was struggling. Back in Australia though, things were going even worse for Ben.
Murder, Suicide and Heroin
Having got into heroin with his new girlfriend, a quiet blonde called Lynette Phillips, Ben Pappas began using regularly.
“I hate this part of the story to be honest," Tas confides. “He just couldn’t beat heroin. He was on methadone and the doctor put him on Xanex, and then he was on four or five different anti-depressants which shouldn’t be mixed."
“Then one day he called me up and said: ‘Tas, I’m so ashamed’. I was just kind of making light of the situation, I said ‘what, you got caught rooting a man?’ and he said ‘worse’."
“So I said ‘you got caught getting rooted by a man?’" Tas chuckles at the memory even now. “But he said ‘I wish it was that.’" After a year together, Ben had just discovered Lynette’s dark secret. She’d been fuelling her heroin habit by working as a prostitute.
“He was going out with her for a year, fully in love, and then he finds out she’s a prostitute. He was shattered man, absolutely gutted. Everywhere they went from that time on, every bloke she talked to he was like: ‘you suck his dick today?’"
It was around this time that Ben apparently told doctors that he was having homicidal and suicidal thoughts. “He even called the bloody nut team on himself a few times," says Tas. “They said ‘nah you’re alright, you’re alright’, and then bang, it all happened."
Lynette’s body was found wrapped in a blue quilt cover, dumped in Melbourne’s Yarra river. The coroner’s report found she’d been battered to death with a blunt instrument. Ben’s dumbells had been used to weigh her down.
“He’d tried to get himself committed," says Tas. “He’d called me up saying, ‘look I think I’m going to do something nutty.’ And I said “yeah everyone does, but you don’t do it. Everyone has had thoughts about hurting people if they piss you off. But a thought’s a thought. I didn’t realize how hard the drugs and everything were getting him."
Before the police could catch-up with him however, Ben’s own body was found floating in the Yarra. The coroner returned a verdict of suicide. “He gave himself the death penalty," says Tas. And for the first time in our hour-long conversation, he says he’s too upset to talk about something.
More Drugs, More Death and More Destruction
When we start talking again, about the aftermath, he tells me he still doesn’t think of his younger brother as a murderer. “Murderers don’t kill themselves," he reasons. “They can kill and not give a shit. Ben gave a shit."
“Lynette’s sister is trying to paint a picture that Ben’s just an animal and he bashed her all the time. Like he was abusive the entire relationship. I don’t agree with violence against women, I think it’s shit. I’ve made that mistake myself and I’m ashamed of myself. But the facts are they were two junkies who were in love. It was a Sid and Nancy situation." “She was a working girl, she’d lied to Ben about it and it did his head in. And he was completely wired up on drugs and stuff. And when you’re on drugs, anything is possible."
If the news of Ben’s suicide was devastating to Tas, it was even worse for his father. “The whole time my dad was torn. Ben had my whole family over there [in Australia], aunties and uncles, the Greek family which was solid. I had no one in the States and I was trying to raise my kids but I was stuffing up on drugs."
“I’d got locked up a few times and my dad was thinking ‘what do I do?’ Go back to Australia or stay? He was torn."
At the time, Tas felt like he desperately needed his Dad’s support. “I was a drug addict too you know, I couldn’t do it on my own. I’m locked up every other month, my wife’s threatening to leave me, what am I going to do, how am I going to raise these kids? Who’s going to bail me out of jail?"
In the end it didn’t make much difference. The US Justice department lost patience with Tas, and after yet another jail term, deported him.
His wife got custody of his kids and cut off all contact. He hasn’t seen them to this day.
Shortly afterwards, his dad had a heart attack and followed Ben to the grave. “I stressed him to death. I feel like a piece a shit," Tas says.
“This is my biggest regret. I blackmailed my dad not to leave me ‘cos I had no-one and I just feel like ‘fuck…’"
"If I had just gone home with Dad and got straight then I would’ve been able to go back to the States, instead of leaving it in the mess it was. And then my brother would’ve been alive…"
“Yeah, I fucked up."
What do you say to a man who’s blaming himself for the breakdown of his marriage, the loss of his kids, his father’s death and his brother’s suicide?
I search desperately for words to fill the long pause down the line. But everything I can think of sounds hopelessly inadequate in the face of such tragedy.
Looking Forward to the Future
Eventually Tas starts talking again. In recent years, things have improved. A spell in Australian prison, where he converted to Christianity, helped him get clean. He met a new wife in Oz, the love of his life, and has started a new family.
“I thank God that he was merciful after all the shit I did. I told God where to go, I was trying to make deals with the devil, but he still got me home through all the chaos."
All This Mayhem, which he hopes will shed light on his brother’s story has been a big part of the healing process. “I didn’t want people thinking he was just an animal", he says.
He hopes it will serve as a cautionary tale to young skaters, and that its success may even lead to a reconciliation with his estranged wife and kids in America. “Hopefully it blows up big enough to the point where my kids see it and want to come and find me."
I didn’t want people thinking my brother was just an animal
More recently Tas has started skateboarding again, picking up a few sponsors and earning a guest board on Cliché. A few weeks after the film hit cinemas for the first time, he landed his first 900.
“I’m loving skating at the moment," he says. Whether or not I’ll be welcome at X Games ever again…" he laughs. “Well that’s another story, but I’ll be skating my arse off no matter what."
It’s one of the simple pleasures that Tas is able to appreciate these days, having lived through such turmoil.
He’s learned to live with the past and has been unflinchingly honest about confronting it. As he signs off, I’m left with the impression that Tas Pappas is a man on the mend. But after a life as eventful as his there’s no doubt he’ll take some mending.
“Yeah it’s hard bro," he says, with typical understatement. Hard doesn’t even come close.
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