“I used to sell people their left leg. I used to say ‘See that left leg? That belongs to me and I’m going to take that left leg with me unless you pay up!'” Chopper lights up when explaining his most effective method of financial negotiation. He continues, “Then I’d pull out the meat clever and I’d slam ‘em across the side of the knee cap with the meat clever which fucken hurts because it cuts about an inch and a half into the fucken bone of the knee and they can’t walk much after that. And I’d tell ‘em ‘Pay up or I’ll fucking take your leg with me!’ I used to sell them their own left leg.” When he’s telling such tales, Chopper is animated and grinning and as the listener you tend to forget that these stories are the real deal.
[Editor’s note: Chopper’s colourful racial terminology has been left intact, but is not a reflection of ACCLAIM’s views.]
Photography by Jo Duck.
It’s weird having Chopper Read sitting in your living room. One of, if not the most notorious criminals in Australian history. Now in his early fifties, Chopper still strikes an intimidating pose. Standing well over six feet and sporting his famous handlebar moustache, the first thing you notice is how obvious his missing ears are. The makeup applied to Eric Bana in the film depiction of Chopper Read really didn’t do justice to the real Chopper’s self-inflicted wounds. Chopper’s face is permanently scowled and right away you can see how his powers of persuasion as a standover man were convincing to say the least. Later in the day we persuade a reluctant Chopper to remove his shirt for our photo shoot. Grumbling about getting too old and fat to be posing topless he eventually obliges, to reveal a solid frame completed by a large beer gut, his entire torso covered in jail tattoos and an assortment of battle scars.
After politely refusing a beer Chopper changes his mind five minutes into the interview, after enquiring whether the beer was cold. So here I am sitting face-to-face with a guy who used to routinely “pop” off people’s toes with bolt cutters when he was strapped for cash and I start to wonder whether there was anything I shouldn’t ask him about, anything that might piss him off. But Chopper assures me that I can ask him about anything I want. Chopper sips his beer and interrupts the interview for a cigarette break every now and then but for the most part of our 45-minute talk he chats enthusiastically about his past like a politically incorrect uncle speaking fondly of the good old days – but with a few more profanities thrown in for effect.
Our conversation kicks off at the beginning where a young Mark Brandon Read earned his stripes and his moniker on the street as a teenage roughneck. “I started off at the age of 15 running around Collingwood and Prahran with a gang. The Surrey Road Gang with Johnny Harris and Dace the Jew and Terry Tempest, people like that ya know. Just running amok and getting involved in shootings, iron barrings and stabbings and shit like that around the streets. Until one of ‘em died ya know. Johnny Harris died. He saved me life in a fight in Richmond and died from a broken whisky bottle to the throat. So we carried him off and put him in the boot of a stolen car and drove him to Mount Donna Buang and put him on a bed of pinewood and put pinewood all over the top of him then poured petrol over him and cremated him. We burnt him all night until he turned to ash, put the ash into an esky the next day and took him and put him in the Prahran Swimming Pool. What’s it called – the Harold Holt Swimming Pool in Prahran.”
Hearing about the early days of Chopper’s criminal career, and knowing about the notorious crimes in the ’70s that saw him locked up for more than half his life, prompts me to wonder out loud whether crime in my home town was more hardcore during his era than today.
“No, I think it’s same shit different bucket, ya know. People getting around today are just as rough as the people getting around in my day, the only difference is people are better dressed today. They’re better dressed and they’re more politically correct and they’re more in touch with their female side, and more in touch with their inner-self and more attuned to what goes on in the world and more attuned to music and arts, and how to operate a DVD player and how to operate a computer. We knew none of this when we were kids. We just grew up with a gun in our hands and went out and shot people and iron barred ‘em and stabbed ‘em and did shit like that. They’re still doing shit like that today but they’re doing it wearing three-hundred dollar runners and back to front baseball caps and listen to bloody hip-hop music in the fucking car and this sort of shit you know? Same sort of people but you take ‘em back to my day in the ’70s – instead of the haircuts they have today they had crew-cuts, and wore Conte jumpers, flag jeans and Acropolis shoes and were called sharpies and skinheads and rockers and things like that. The violence was more direct in my day. It was more personal. These days I think violence is scattered, it’s malicious – ya know? People hurting people for virtually no fucking reason at all. Over a drug deal gone wrong, over a gram of dope… or someone’s given someone a bad ecstasy pill and has to get stabbed over it. They’re killing each other for crap these days you know. In my day we used to kill each other for legitimate reasons.”
Chopper tells me that in his day the men running crime in Melbourne were a select few. “There was the Kane brothers, Brian Kane and Les Kane. They’re both dead now. Raymond ‘Chuck’ Bennett he was the head of the Great Booky Robbery, they were the most powerful groups in Victoria when I was coming up.”
And what about today? Is there a particular group that have Melbourne on lock? “There are at least two groups… yeah…” Chopper hesitates and reconsiders for a moment before elaborating. “… There’s the Carlton boys. They’ll always be there – you can’t get rid of them. And then there’s the Aussies. It’s interesting to note that in the criminal history of this country no dago gang has ever beaten an Australian gang in a gang war. The Aussies have always won every war we’ve gotten involved in. The Aussie criminals are the most powerful career criminals in Australia. Forget all your ethnic gangs – when they go to war with the Aussies the Aussies always win because it’s their fucking country. Your Aussies are basically Celts. They’re Irish, Scottish, English and Welsh you know, and they’re half fucking crazy. You get an Australian crim of Irish, English or Scottish extraction and they’re usually half fucking brain dead to start off with and they’ll shoot you for six pence. Whereas the wogs think about it more, ya know? The wogs love their mothers, they love their fucking mothers. The Australians couldn’t give a fuck about their mothers!”
On the topic of mothers it had always amused me to know that Chopper’s own mum was a strict Seventh Day Adventist. Around the time that fifteen year old Chopper’s criminal career was sprouting, his mother left him and his father. Chopper doesn’t talk much about his mum but reveals that in recent times he has seen her after being completely estranged for most of his life. “I’ve seen her a couple of times in the past couple of years. She’s eighty years old now. We get on okay but we don’t discuss the past”.
“They [Greek criminals] threatened to kill my mum and dad years ago and I sent them me mother’s address and said “Go ahead and kill me mother – go knock the old bag! I’ll go and kill your fucken mother!” Then I went around and shot up a Greek’s mother’s place and they fucken hated it! They hate it when you pull a gun out towards their mother. Oh the wogs don’t like it when you touch their fucken mothers. They can’t stand that ‘cos all wogs love their fucken mothers whereas Australians couldn’t give a shit really.”
For years Chopper made his living through intimidation and brutality. In addition to his meat clever Chopper’s work tools included his favourite Four Ten ‘Baby’ Shotgun, three types of magnum – a Ruger new model Black Hawk single action .44, a .38 Webley & Scott, a 25 calibre, plus a 22 calibre, a 32 calibre Pietro Berretta and a stick of gelignite. These tools weren’t rotated depending on his mood or particular client – he carried all of his tools at all times. Of course it didn’t take long for the tools of his trade to lead Chopper into the big house.
His longest sentence was served within the walls of Melbourne’s famous Pentridge maximum security prison. “Prisoners who live today in Barwon or Port Phillip can’t understand how prisoners used to live in Pentridge. The cells are very small in Pentridge. Shit buckets in the cells and, you know, terrible conditions.” Despite his length of stay in Melbourne, Chopper describes his worst sentence in Tasmania for the alleged shooting of Sid Collins, the former leader of the Black Uhlans Outlaw motorcycle gang. “Well the worst place I was ever locked up was in Risdon Prison in Tasmania. The Pink Palace, which was a Mexican designed jail built in Hobart Tasmania where it fucken snows in the winter. The cells and the windows are open to the fucken elements and they lock the cells and the snow falls down and lands on your windowsill. It was the coldest, most miserable fucking shithole on earth. And the prisoners in there were all fucking retards and two-headed fucken country boys and bloody hillbillies and people who’ve stolen bails of wool and people who’ve fucked sheep, people who’ve fucked their daughters and sisters and fucken uncles and aunties, mad wood-cutters and huge bloody six-foot, four-inch, 20-stone lumber jacks and all this sort of crap running around the bloody place like crazy people. It was a cold pest hole, everybody had the flu and a cold or some kind of viral bloody pneumonia. The food was shit. It was a terrible bloody place. I didn’t get into any trouble, there was no violence, they weren’t mean or physically violent people – they were just fucken great fucken retards. They’d eat whole legs of lamb like “Raargh!” Just pigs, and retards. I hated that bloody place ya know”.
The current day Chopper Read keeps the nose clean. He has to. He remarried a couple of years ago and has a baby son to think about. Chopper silences the suggestion that his son could follow his father’s criminal footsteps “He won’t be doing that because I won’t let him.” Whenever a high profile mob hit takes place in the streets of Melbourne (a frequent occurrence during the recent Melbourne underworld wars), Chopper is the first person the media turn to for the real deal. But apart from his criminal knowledge, Chopper’s attachment to the streets these days lies in the past. I do have to wonder whether with a history as notorious as his can the past ever be left behind? Can Chopper ever walk the streets without looking over his shoulder?
“Thanks to Carl Williams every living enemy I had left has been slaughtered. He doesn’t even know it but he’s fucken killed them all for me. When he went to war with the Lygon Street Crew he killed every enemy I had in the world. There’s still a few out there but they’re not worth worrying about.”
The movie Chopper has become a cult classic around the world and made millions of people aware of just a small part of the Chopper Read story. I expected that the success of the movie would have seen the real Chopper reaping some of the financial rewards but he is quick to correct this misconception.
“No. I made no money out of the movie at all. Before they made it I signed it all over to the Royal Children’s Hospital via the Bluey Day Foundation via the Gudinski organisation. I decided to give it all to charity because Senator Alston threatened to pass special legislation against me to take all money from me under the profits of crime legislation. I made no money out of that movie.”
So how does Uncle Chop Chop feel about the film depiction of his life? “Ah, it’s 80 percent true and 20 percent bullshit you know? I didn’t shoot drugs up in a hotel room with anyone called Tanya; I wasn’t an informant for the police like I said in the movie; I never bashed Tanya’s mother; I didn’t bash Tanya in a bathroom. That was all bullshit – that was all invented. The director of the movie Andrew Dominic – he had a heroin habit for ten years so he just put me in the movie shooting drugs up me bloody arm because he thought everyone did it and he thought everyone bashed their girlfriends so he had me bashing my girlfriend and headbutting her mother. And I didn’t do that at all, you know. I took offence to that.”
More than half of Chopper Read’s life has been spent behind bars. His path into crime was set from a young age and Chopper maintains that it couldn’t have gone any other way. My last question to chopper was a cliched one but something I had to ask. Any regrets?
“Nah, I asked me old man about regrets. He said “That’s like saying if you had your time over again would you change anything?” I said ‘Well I don’t know”. He said “If you had your time over again you’d still run into the same arseholes. If you had your time over again, the bloke who back doored you and your girlfriend in 1984, instead of shaking his hand when you first met him in 1983 you’d shoot him in 1983 because you’d know what he was going to do. You’d still bump into the same arseholes, so the trouble you got into in your last life, you’d get into double trouble in this life because you’d know what people were up to.” There’s no use having any regrets ‘cos what happens happens, ya know. If you break your leg, you break your leg – no use regretting it.”