In Memoriam: Bill Bonds

Dec 17, 2014 at 1:00 am

Detroit lost a living link to its unruly past with the death of TV anchorman Bill Bonds last week.

Bonds was tough. He knew the city he grew up in. He wandered into the 1943 race riot when he was 11 years old, climbed up a lamppost, and got a good long look at just how ugly things could get. He was about as unlike as you can get from many of the polished, water-carrying talking heads you see on TV today. He earned his credibility covering the 1967 riots in Detroit. He was the first local anchor to garner a million-dollar contract. He was said to be one of the newsmen who inspired the character Ron Burgundy in Anchorman. He was even in one of the Planet of the Apes movies. How many anchorpeople can say that?

Much has been made of Bonds being an “average guy.” More to the truth, his antics made our dads look normal. Our dads didn’t need to bark at the screen that they’d like to give some talking head a piece of their mind. Bonds would do the favor for them, whether it was challenging Mayor Coleman Young to fisticuffs on live TV or summoning a Washington insider to the big screen in the studio, raking him tactlessly over the coals, and then dumping him unceremoniously off the air. He was a surrogate to that argumentative, no-bullshit spirit of our city’s people. Anybody who felt those blue eyes drilling into them during one of his on-air interrogations knew his intensity.

I’ve heard many stories about Bonds over the years, especially about his famous drinking. There is no way to establish whether they were true, but the fact that they were repeated shows just what a character he could be in real life. Back in the 1980s, a buddy of mine was a waiter at a posh, Oakland County hotel. In the hotel saloon, he saw Bonds slumped over the bar, head in the crook of his arm, apparently insensible. But as he walked by with a tray, Bonds raised his head and declared, “Chia Pet, Chia Pet, Chia Pet,” before slumping back down. Another person says he saw Bonds in the gas station next to his car, getting fueled up. Bonds paid, started the car, jerked the rearview mirror his way, adjusted his toupee, shot himself a double thumbs-up, and popped the car into reverse, bashing his chariot into the car behind him. There are likely dozens of such stories over the years. We’ve heard more, but the point is made. Bonds was from a more reckless time, back when many of our dads had a road beer in the car, and police turned a blind eye to all but the most obstreperous inebriates. A bit of fame might even get a person out of a ticket. (Of course, that doesn’t happen anymore, right?)

One of the bars Bonds would visit was Tom’s Tavern, a former speakeasy on the west side of Detroit. The bar survives because of its loyal clientele, which is why you can meet people there today who actually drank with Bonds. One of them told me, “Bill Bonds was the nicest guy you ever wanted to meet ... until he had that third drink. Then he’d turn into the meanest motherfucker you ever saw.” No doubt alcohol played a role in his on-air eruptions.

But that factor is likely given too much importance. In the news business, people are always trying to snow you, and there was something in Bonds that refused to accept pat answers, some passionate attachment to the truth. Yes, Bonds was judgmental, opinionated, self-important, prone to outbursts, but, warts and all, he was a son of Detroit. More so than other cities, Detroit is a great demolition derby of ideas, and that was something he understood well. Even late in his life, in interviews, he always seemed ready to climb back into a battered jalopy and have another go.

As another patron of Tom’s Tavern once snarled years ago: “There’s two people in the world I completely disagree with: Coleman Young and Bill Bonds.” Then he added wistfully, “But there’s no two people in the world I’d rather have a drink with.”

In a city where disagreement is a given, and a drink the coin of the realm, those words are perhaps the warmest testament to why Bonds was one of us.