The Confederate Battle Flag belt buckle Bon Scott wore everywhere in 1979 is the source of numerous tales and is clearly visible in many photographs taken of Bon that year. In fact, you won't find many photos of Bon in 1979 without him wearing that buckle. What’s little known outside the worldwide AC/DC fan community is that on the buckle, in place of stars, it actually spells out LYNYRD SKYNYRD.
So the big question is: Did Bon get the buckle from late Lynyrd Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant?
Former Florida-based concert promoter Sidney Drashin has claimed that Van Zant possibly came to see AC/DC when they first played Jacksonville in August 1977, while guitarist Gary Rossington, who still plays in the current incarnation of Lynyrd Skynyrd, went public a few years ago with a story that the band jammed with AC/DC the following day, the veracity of which I examine briefly in Bon: The Last Highway.
However, the Van Zant–Scott story is almost certainly a rock myth: from what I have seen from the available photographic archives, Bon only really started wearing it long after Van Zant, Skynyrd guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines and three other people were killed in the band's plane crash in October 1977. It seems a reasonable assumption to me that he’d have worn it much earlier if he were paying his respects to the dead Skynyrd frontman and his fallen bandmates.
After the release of Bon, former Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle expressed on Twitter his hunch that Leon Wilkeson, Skynyrd's bass player, who like Pyle had survived the crash, had given one to Bon: ‘My guess: buckles were gifts to Skynyrd from [Day On The Green promoter] Bill Graham. Leon gave his to Bon when Bon stayed with him.’
In 2015 when Dylann Roof, a homicidal white supremacist, killed nine African-American parishioners in a Methodist church in South Carolina, the Confederate Battle Flag came under unprecedented assault for being a pernicious symbol of racism. The killer had earlier photographed himself with a firearm and the same flag. Images of the flag were being removed everywhere. Reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard were taken off American cable TV.
Then in 2017, the flag and other symbols of the Confederacy came under renewed attack again after the terrible events at Charlottesville, Virginia. The world's greatest Civil War historian, the late Shelby Foote, argued that the Confederate Battle Flag was not a racist flag (listen to him in the clip below) but to millions of Americans it is just that and will always be thus: a symbol of white nationalism and those Confederate soldiers who fought to maintain chattel slavery in the South. Those arguments are valid and to be respected. Flag supporters argue the opposite: it is about ‘heritage not hate’. The debate rages on.
So what does it have to do with AC/DC? Firstly, Bon was no bigot (there is no suggestion of him ever having a racist bone in his body). Nor were the other members of AC/DC, who’d hung a Confederate Battle Flag inside their tour bus in 1979. Call it ignorance or innocence or both, but they were celebrating the Southern ‘spirit’ like so many rock bands or performers of that era: Skynyrd, Black Oak Arkansas, Ted Nugent, Outlaws, 38 Special, Molly Hatchet and so many more. Tom Petty and Kid Rock both adopted Confederate Battle Flags at various times, though the late Petty came to reject it completely. Charlie Daniels, a defender of the flag, has written a piece here. An opponent of it, Richard Fowler, has written a piece here. What's abundantly clear to me is that the American South, Southern rock and and its rebel spirit had indisputably struck a chord with Bon. That fascination is most evident on AC/DC's best album, Powerage (1978).
‘For most of my life, that flag just represented geographical pride, no more no less,’ explains Charlie Starr, lead singer and guitarist of Atlanta band Blackberry Smoke, the finest exponent of Southern rock playing anywhere in the world today – including Skynyrd.
‘I have a Grateful Dead Southern Tour shirt from 1988 that has a Confederate flag proudly displayed on the front of it. Unfortunately, it’s been hijacked by hate groups and come to represent something evil to a lot of people. There are two sides, ya know. Skynyrd would fly it, The Allman Brothers wouldn’t.’
‘For most of my life, that flag just represented geographical pride, no more, no less.'
– Charlie Starr, Blackberry Smoke
In recent times, though, the members of the band that performs as Skynyrd have decided to no longer use it as a backdrop on stage; that said, they haven't quite disavowed it either.
38 Special’s ‘Caught Up in You’ (1982) is one of my all-time favourite songs and videos. The first time I heard it, the first time I saw the clip, I thought it was the perfect good-time American rock-pop song and I don't feel any differently about it today – it’s still a track that instantly gets you moving and makes you feel great.
Growing up in Australia we didn’t really hear much of 38 Special – if any of the band's music – on the radio. So the joys of the band came to me in my mid-30s while listening to car radio in the States. Interestingly for me, AC/DC and 38 Special had played together on a bill at the Masonic Auditorium, Detroit, 27 August 1977, with Johnny Winter headlining.
JEFF CARLISI was 38 Special’s lead guitarist that night and played with the Jacksonville (FL) band from 1974–1996: the classic line-up. He spoke to me about playing on the same stage with a young and hungry AC/DC on its first tour of the States. 38 Special's debut self-titled album (below) had just been released that May on A&M Records.
What do you remember of the Masonic Auditorium gig in Detroit?
I remember sitting with Angus and Bon back at the hotel bar. They seemed a bit bummed out because they were not well received by the audience. I thought they were great even though they probably shouldn't have been on that bill. I don't remember much of our conversation (all of us being well pissed, not to mention Bon's heavy accent). I do remember us having a good laugh about all of us being 'newbies' and if this is what we should always expect.
‘Bon was quite pissed but I assumed it was due to being depressed from the poor response from the audience.'
– Jeff Carlisi
Did you get the sense they were trying to blow you off the stage?
I never felt that AC/DC was trying to blow us off the stage, even though that's what we [musicians] all try to do. It's part of our DNA. They seemed more to be doing their job.
Did anything about Bon's drinking strike you as out of the ordinary?
Drinking? Hmmmm... I suppose we all drank a good bit back in those days. Bon was quite pissed but I assumed it was due to being depressed from the poor response from the audience. I felt bad for him and Angus as well. However, they were super nice guys and very personable as well. I was shocked to hear of Bon's passing as we all are when we lose one of our brothers. At that time I had no idea that his alcohol consumption was a problem. Again, very nice people. I think they appreciated a shoulder to cry on.
What do you think of AC/DC today without Bon?
I still love the band as much as ever. As a matter of fact my friend Brendan O'Brien works with them as their producer and I've spent some time with Brian Johnson at a few racetracks talking about cars. I was introduced to Brian by our mutual friend Brian Howe.
Lastly, I’m a huge admirer of 38 Special and especially your outfit in the video for ‘Caught Up in You’. What happened to those threads? They should be on exhibition in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Thanks for being a fan – especially of my wardrobe! Ha! My wife had a bed quilt made for me years back. It was made up of all my favourite shirts from all the years of touring. That shirt lives!
BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BON SCOTT AND AC/DC'S BACK IN BLACK is available to preorder now through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and hundreds of other retailers.
Jesse Fink is the author of Bon: The Last Highway: The Untold Story of Bon Scott and AC/DC's Back In Black and The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC. For more information about Bon, click HERE or click the book covers below to be directed to editions in your preferred territory and language.