“Well, you’re talking to a bloke with fucking liver cancer, mate, and I think you’re talking to him for the last time."
When Mark 'Chopper' Read picks up the phone in his Collingwood home, his family can be heard in the background; the TV's on and wife Margaret and eight-year-old son Roy are bustling their way through a morning. It's a warm, homely atmosphere – a far cry from the mournful soundtrack that must have accompanied the some-time outlaw and standover man during the 23 years of his 57 that he spent in prison.
But Chopper's spent the last decade and more trying to distance himself from that life. He'll give any artistic pursuit a pop, now. He's authored 16 books, done some rapping, a little acting, been a magazine columnist, penned a children's book titled Hooky The Cripple, acted as consultant on Andrew Dominik's 2000 film Chopper with Eric Bana (“I got ripped off on that, never paid a penny,” he says bitterly) and even turned his hand to art, with a couple of successful hangings in June in galleries in Redcliffe and Fortitude Valley. Seriously? An artist?
“My stuff's been described as 'post-modernist, neo-surrealist rubbish',” says Chopper, pulling on his shoes and stepping outside to get away from the din. “But it looks good hanging on the walls, it's multi-coloured, and it fits nicely in the back of a BMW.” All Front Row managed to dig up on Chopper's art is that it copiously featured images of legendary bushranger Ned Kelly. Is Kelly something of a muse for the former Pentridge inmate? “Tell you the truth, I don't really like Ned Kelly,” says Chopper, conspiratorially. “I never ran around the centre of Victoria with a bucket on my head; and I can't ride a horse.”
Chopper's about to head north from Collingwood to Queensland for a short speaking tour he's called The Final Chapters, accompanied by his bodyguard Mike 'The Hammer' Dixon, whom he met about 12 years ago.
“He saved my life when a bloke attacked me with a claw hammer,” Chopper says. “Then he saved my life when a bloke pulled a gun out on me when I was coming down a staircase; [Hammer] stepped in front of me, disarmed him, and I thought he was a pretty good bodyguard. So I hired him.”
Chopper says the pair will be spinning yarns about their experiences in the gangland underworld, but concentrating on the funny stuff rather than the wild and the gruesome. He says most people want to hear about the dark episodes in his life – “Like when me and a bloke called Mad Charlie killed a vile bloke in Pentridge who'd attacked and killed a three-year-old girl,” he says. But it's not really those tales he's keen to share. As a sample, he pulls out a yarn about himself, Hammer, some Japanese businessmen and a skinny pole dancer who turns into a poo sprinkler after an unexpected bout of “red-hot” diarrhea. “We ended the night in the back room wiping shit off ourselves with towels,” Chopper says. “I've seen some disgusting sights in my life, but believe me, that was the worst.” Front Row is glad Chopper stepped out of his kid's earshot.
As the interview winds up, talk turns sombrely to the elephant in the room: the reason the tour is called The Final Chapters. In April, doctors diagnosed Read with liver cancer; some gave him six weeks to live, some said six months, some said longer if he looks after himself – but Chopper remains a realist.
“Well, you're talking to a bloke with fucking liver cancer, mate, and I think you're talking to him for the last time,” he says. “I can only do three or four shows, and I'll be battling to do that. I get very tired. So I'll say, come along to the shows, because I don't think there will be many after this. But I have to keep fighting: I've got to earn some money, I've got to get a few bob together for my little boy.”
Chopper & Hammer: The Final Chapters runs from Friday 20 July until Saturday 28 July at various venues.