This week saw the passing of arguably the most colourful and loved underworld identity in Australian history.
Unlike most gangsters, Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read officially “got square” and retired from the underworld many years ago and died after a long battle with liver cancer at age 58.
In Melbourne, where Chopper worked, lived and died, it is tradition for known criminals to pay respect to fallen identities by leaving death notices in the city’s daily newspaper, the Herald Sun. Ordinary people are usually lucky to receive a dozen or so from friends and family. High profile criminals have been known to receive high double figures. Some police joke that you’re not a real gangster unless you get over 50 death notices. So far Chopper has received more than 150 and counting.
And this is why.
In the 1970′s and 80′s, Chopper earned a reputation as a standover man, robbing drug dealers and other criminals with no visible means of income but who never seemed short of a dollar. While ordinary people slugged it out in the office, building sites, restaurants, universities and schools, on the farm or rigging yard, paying anywhere between 30 and 50% salary tax, enduring a crippling recession and battling mortgage interest rates of up to 19%, the men Chopper went after lived lavish lifestyles, drove the finest cars and sent their kids to the best schools, yet never filed a single tax return.
To the underworld, Chopper Read was the tax man, earning the nickname due to his preferred cash extraction device, a pair of bolt cutters he used to “chop” his targets toes and fingers off as part of the tax process. Because of this, and his code of never hurting the average citizen, the man became an icon, feared by the underworld and loved by the media and the ordinary tax payer.
In his own words, “why rob a straight guy of $20 when you can rob a drug dealer of $10,000 and he can’t go running to the police? For the drug-dealers, that’s different. Their money comes easy, so why should they put up a fight. Although some of them did choose to chew on razor blades before they handed over the cash…”
In a touch of irony, Chopper married an employee of the Australian Tax Office whilst in prison, where he readily admitted having spent the prime of his life and on many occasions, defending it. For almost a decade, whilst held in the notorious but now closed Pentridge Prison, Chopper was in charge. You were either with him or against him. If you were with him, you paid your taxes and he had your back.
But, as with the general population, there will always be those who decide to cheat or find ways of avoiding the tax man. In Pentridge Prison, one of those ways was to kill the tax man. After learning that a number of disgruntled prisoners were upset about paying such taxes, Chopper decided it was time to move. But that can be difficult when you’re in maximum security prison.
And therein lays the immortal code of Chopper Read: Never Plead Guilty. In other words, Never Give Up.
In a now legendary (and perhaps crazy) manoeuvre, Chopper had a cell mate cut his own ears off with a razor blade to force prison authorities to move him to a hospital facility. Thereafter he had a nickname with double a meaning, and a reputation to boot.
And so it began that whilst in jail in the early 1990′s Chopper began writing letters to crime reporter John Sylvester, demanding that he publish Chopper’s memoirs. At first Sly, as he is known, politely declined but Chopper never gave up, even send Sly Christmas cards wishing him well and looking forward to catching up with him. One read, “Dear Sly, you’ve been writing about me for years. I think you’d do a man a favour and help me write about me for once…”
“The average man in the street isn’t worried about me. The average man in the street applauds what I do. Even the coppers applaud what I do. I mean, we’re not talking about angels and saints here…” Chopper: 1954-2013
Against his gut instincts, Sly and his crime writing / business partner, Andrew Rule, who had recently set up a small publishing company known as Sly Ink, decided to publish Chopper’s book, entitled “From the Inside”. They began with a conservative print run of 3,000 copies but within a month another 100,000 copies sold and the book remained in the top ten for almost a year, making it one of the most successful crime books of all time.
The opening scene is still discussed and referred to at writer’s festivals across the country, a scene where Chopper is kidnapped and forced to dig his own grave at gun point. Whilst digging, Chopper began making jokes with the gunman, eventually making the guy laugh hard enough to distract him. It was a fatal mistake that ended with Chopper knee capping the gunman with the shovel and then burying him in the same hole that he had just dug.
Seven books later Chopper was out of prison, owned a brewery with his own beer label, released a rap album, held regular appearances on television, documentaries and current affairs, had his own website, became a stand up comedian and morphed from an underworld tax man to a lovable larrikin-cum-ex-criminal subject matter expert. Other comedian’s took him off on prime time television with entire satires receiving millions of YouTube hits. He even attracted the attention of Hollywood producers when movie star Eric Bana spent time living with Chopper, learning his mannerisms and dialogue before playing the lead role in the noir film depiction, “Chopper”.
During the Melbourne gangland wars, Chopper was often called upon to explain why certain people were killed and why others spared, why some were acquitted and others sent to prison. It was at this time, during a simple vox-pop interview, that he coined the phrase “The Living Man Owns the Crime Scene”, a phrase I’ve used in Pink Tide to describe why it often doesn’t matter about DNA or forensic evidence when there are only two people involved in a murder and one ends up dead. As long as your story is plausible enough and your barrister cunning enough in how the story is told to a jury, it is often enough to create reasonable doubt and therefore an acquittal.
Despite all this, Mark Brandon Read was like the rest of us, human and mortal. Unlike others before him, he wasn’t gunned down or taken down as part of some violent factional rivalry. He was tough and smart enough to survive and intelligent enough to “get square” before someone got even. In the end, when offered the chance of a liver transplant, he didn’t accept, saying someone else deserves it more than me.
Like most Australians, especially those in the writing scene, I will miss Chopper and his larrikin spirit, mostly for what he represented. He may not have been a saint, but he played by the rules of the old school and in doing so, earned an ever lasting respect from both sides of the law. For that we thank you and bid you farewell, Chopper.
Your passing marks the end of an era where there were rules and consequences for those who broke them. As you have pointed out on many occasions, the same can not be said for the present day and who only knows what the future holds in this respect.
Perhaps that’s why this is your time.
May you now Rest in Peace Chopper and know that you lived by your words, and never pled guilty.