Before she died in December 2016, Bon Scott's great love Silver Smith sent me two pieces of writing which give tremendous insight into both Bon Scott's private world and the dynamic he had with other members of AC/DC. She never wrote anything else. This is the second part. The first part can be read here. Published with kind permission of her son, Sebastian.
I’d spent a decade around musicians and bands in all stages of development, in Australia, the United States and London, from raw beginnings and failures to the ultra successful. There was a common thread with all these people: their taste was usually wide and often very different from their own style; and there was always interest and excitement in new changes, new albums by their contemporaries, plus historic blues, bluegrass, country, R&B, etc. We’d sit around for hours on the floor drinking tea, smoking dope, occasionally snorting [heroin] and enjoying hearing something for the first time, discussing and dissecting. No wonder Bon came to [my flat at] Gloucester Road in London as often as he could. He must have been starving for music.
He and I both had very similar tastes and musical backgrounds. We loved distinctive singers of any style, beautiful harmonies, and of course songs from the radio in our youth and childhood. We had a lot of fun trying to outdo each other with remembering lyrics to Johnny Horton, Everly Brothers, Gene Pitney and Hank Williams.
According to Bon, in the band no one was allowed to play or listen to anything but AC/DC although Angus Young had some Chuck Berry tapes. I had never come across this before. There was an atmosphere of AC/DC versus the rest of the world, and they were suspicious of everyone including press, other bands, music business people, and seemingly anyone who wasn’t from the western suburbs of Sydney. Apart from Angus’s stage uniform, they had no interest in style or fashion, sticking to denim and snot, pretty much, and I was amazed to find out later the band had its origins in glam rock, as per David Bowie and Marc Bolan.
I had been away from Australia for three years at this point and had no idea how successful AC/DC were as well as no idea of who the new bands were in Australia. Because of this, I made a terrible faux pas the very first time I met them. Bon and I were picked up in a small van going somewhere on AC/DC business. They were obviously not expecting me to be with Bon, and the atmosphere was chilly. No one spoke. No introductions were made, and there was an odour of eau de B.O. in the back of the dark grotty van. Capital Radio (the only station in London that played rock at that time) was coming through the speakers and was broadcasting a new, never-played-before single.
I had a good ear for picking commercial hits even if they weren’t my style, recognising a good hook and singalong chorus, and this one had it all, as well as a strong link to the English obsession with cricket and really clean production. So attempting to break through the ice I said, “Wow! That’s clever. Straight to number one!” or something similar, and the temperature plunged another 20 degrees. It was AC/DC’s arch enemy Sherbet, who I had never heard of. I had no idea what crime I had committed. Bon just gave me a look to indicate, “I’ll tell you later.” I was bewildered as to why on earth Bon would think riding in the van was a good way for me to meet them. They didn’t seem to enjoy it any more than I did.
In their company I always felt really uncomfortable, as though I’d landed on another planet. They were all very young except for Bon, and had a very juvenile ‘use them and abuse them’ attitude to female fans. The only literature they read were comics and ‘stick books’. They were never overtly rude or unkind to me, and in fact on a few occasions when things got a bit out of hand (overly excited drunken fans and lack of security) Malcolm Young and Angus Young were both fiercely gallant and protective of me. I came to realise to my surprise that, despite their misgivings about me, I was considered part of their ‘gang’ – at least at that particular moment.
I never intruded on the band, made a point of staying out of the way, and after my Sherbet faux pas never ever voiced an opinion on anything. I’m guessing here, but the number of AC/DC gigs over the years I went to was less than a dozen. I was always inspired seeing them. The energy they generated and expended was ridiculous; the audience totally captivated. In their heyday AC/DC were at the top of the game when it came to live performance.
Offstage, the atmosphere around Malcolm and Angus was always tense, no one wanting to get on their wrong side. I never heard them laugh properly, although they had sneering down to a fine art. Mark Evans was clean and fresh, a nice boy, and Phil Rudd was okay when not directly in Malcolm’s or Angus’s presence. Their manager, Michael Browning, was an older version of the Youngs in manner. He seemed to take an instant dislike to me, which persisted even after it became obvious that his sister Coral and I were becoming good friends and got on like the proverbial house on fire.
On tour Malcolm and Angus usually stayed in their rooms, playing guitar, and had no interest in what was outside, no matter what city in the world they were in. Bon went to bookshops, markets and art galleries, buying the dozens of postcards he sent to people. He was the most prolific letter writer I’ve ever come across, even surpassing my mother, the family chronicler.
On one Australian tour the last gig was Perth, and we were leaving the following night to return to England. I went to the gig with Isa to take care of her and protect her from the young girl fans and from her own naivete. She loved every second of it. Bon didn’t come back to the hotel; not a surprise as he had a lot of catching up to do, and at breakfast the next morning there was only Phil around. He said he was going sailing on the Perth River and asked if I wanted to come. We hired a little idiot-proof catamaran. It was a real fun day and a contrast to the normal routine. Phil was always more laidback and easygoing than the Youngs.
Both being completely amateur sailors, we made mistakes, got drenched a few times, laughed a lot, got sunburnt, and went back to the hotel thinking we still had three hours before the flight to a cold, cold London. The band and Browning were in the lobby scowling when we arrived – there’d been a cock-up about the time. Bon had packed for me and kept out a change of clothes, but it was a horrible long-haul flight back. I didn’t have anything with me I would normally take on a 28-hour flight into winter and my skin and hair were caked in salt. Phil had to wear his sailing clothes. Bon was fine, but the Youngs were really angry with me and also with Phil.
Apparently, to their way of thinking, we had committed some terrible breach of their etiquette by spending the day together. This was all so weird. To rub more salt into the wound, when we got to the airport we had to sit around for three hours before the flight. No one spoke to Bon, Phil or me for the entire flight or on arrival in London. This was the power of the Youngs.
A year or so down the track when they were touring America relentlessly (one day off a fortnight if they were lucky) Bon still did all the press on his own, and Phil was still doing all the driving. Malcolm and Angus were too insular to do any of the publicity and Bon was a natural. Phil had reached exhaustion point. Bon, who normally kept his head down in the band and did what he was told, was upset and worried about Phil, and really angry that no one else seemed to care about it. But he didn’t speak up. They were definitely the most success-driven band that I’ve ever come across.
In the early days of their conquest of Britain and Europe, Michael Browning and his wife Julie rented a cottage in Mayfair, entertained [Australian TV personality] Molly Meldrum, and flew back and forth on Concorde to the States. The boys were on 50 pounds a week (which didn’t even cover Bon’s Scotch bill) and the rest of the band lived in dreary houses in Barnes and then Fulham. Michael’s sister Coral had been a music publicist and artist manager in London for quite a few years, and her opinion was well respected by the journos from Melody Maker, NME and Sounds, the weekly rock rags. She only represented artists and bands she liked and believed in, and had a lot of integrity. In the opinion of people who were around back then she was a huge influence on AC/DC’s early success, because of her hard work and reputation with the press. She was on a shitty wage, too, and had dropped her other artists to help her brother Michael. He had no contacts and a brusque, rude manner, and she had the respect of everyone in the business.
Bon, Coral and I got on really well. She was sophisticated, smart, and more importantly, our age. Like others along the band’s road to success, she was dumped unceremoniously by AC/DC with no respect or recognition for the enormous part she had played in breaking the band in Britain and Europe.
BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BON SCOTT AND AC/DC'S BACK IN BLACK is available now through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Booktopia, FNAC and hundreds of other retailers around the world.
In early 1979, Bon Scott and AC/DC based themselves at the Newport Hotel in Miami for rehearsals of the Highway To Hell album. Part Three of BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY chronicles AC/DC's time in Miami and Bon's relationship with two women: Holly X and Pattee Bishop. ‘The downtime just bored them. AC/DC didn’t relax well,’ according to the Murray Engleheart biography. Hardly. AC/DC had the time of their lives. In 2015 I got a chance to drive around Miami and see where they were hanging out. What follows is an illustrated extract from the book.
In North Miami Beach I have lunch at New York’s Big Apple Deli on Biscayne Boulevard with Critical Mass lead singer and guitarist Michael Fazzolare, his friend Jackie Smith, Bon Scott's girlfriend Holly X and Neal Mirsky, a former program director of WSHE Miami, the biggest rock station in Florida in the 1970s, and later coordinating producer of MTV and Howard Stern. The placemats have a map of Florida on them with drawings of palm trees, gators, dolphins and Cape Canaveral. Don Henley’s Boys Of Summer is playing. On the map, Jacksonville, where it all started for AC/DC on radio, is just inside the state border, one dot down from Fernandina Beach.
‘To me Jacksonville is like South Georgia rather than North Florida,’ says Mirsky, who moved to Florida in the 1970s from New York. The group agree, telling me it’s still a place where some folk get around in pick-up trucks adorned with Confederate Battle Flags and ‘truck nuts’, or plastic testicles, hanging off rear bumpers. I ask them where the divide is in Florida. Where’s the DMZ line on the placemat between the rednecks and civilisation? The response is unanimous. ‘Anywhere north of Miami.’
Mirsky joined WSHE just before Bon died, but interviewed him in May 1979 for WDIZ Orlando. He says American radio since then has changed beyond all recognition.
‘I worked my way up from Sarasota to Orlando to Tampa and then Miami. For decades now listeners have been telling us what they didn’t like about our product: too many commercials, too much repetition, not enough variety. This is the feedback we would get from listeners. But our attitude, not mine personally, was “So? Where the fuck are they gonna go?” And now of course they have so many places to go, whether it’s YouTube, Pandora, SiriusXM. And as the laws change where one company can own hundreds of stations, what used to make us great for listeners was the competition. It was that competition that made us all better, trying to outdo each other, and the listeners benefited. But now your competition is down the hall: you’ve got a ClearChannel cluster with eight, nine radio stations, so it’s really just a matter of divvying up the pie; nobody’s competing. It’s really not about the listeners or the advertisers, it’s about the corporate owners’ stock price. Now it’s just kind of a joke.’
Today rock ’n’ roll is just holding on in formats such as Classic Rock and Album Rock/Active Rock (a heavier kind of classic rock with new artists thrown in). Classic Rock has the larger market share.
‘There’s your CHR [Contemporary Hit Radio], your top-40 kind of radio, the Katy Perry stations, but really it’s muzak; it’s their muzak. But it’s not about music discovery like it was for us [in the 1970s]. Radio represented music discovery. I grew up just outside of New York City in the ’60s where top-40 radio was at its best. WABC in New York is where I first heard the Stones and The Kinks, The Zombies. And then in the ’70s and ’80s WNEW in New York or WSHE in Miami is where you discovered Elvis Costello or Pink Floyd or whatever.’
WSHE was also the first major station in South Florida to play the Bon Scott–led AC/DC.
‘It sucks because I’m sorry, I don’t care, that was the best version of the band,’ interjects Fazz. ‘The songs were better, it rocked, it was in your face, it was full speed ahead. Don’t you think? Not that it needs to be a contest but it just friggin’ figures, man. The problem is that Bon should have been on friggin’ at least Back In Black, as far as I’m concerned. The discerning listener can tell the difference between who wrote the lyrics. The poor fucker never got to experience it. Bon’s were extremely clever, tongue in cheek, play on words, very clever. Brian Johnson’s just like some guy pandering to however many metaphors for his dick he can come up with. Let’s take a cliché and write a song about it: “I Put The Finger On You”. You know what I mean? “Sink The Pink”. Let’s find a cliché and we’ll build a song around a cliché. It got almost, like, embarrassing to me after a while. Whereas Bon was just like a . . . I don’t know; he was crazy and a genius. And I could never quite figure it out. Because he was like this sweet, personable guy.’
I turn to Holly. Why don’t you have photos of you with Bon?
‘I don’t have “personal” photos of Bon even though I was taking lots of band photos, although much less by the time I got to New York. I didn’t want him to think I was a “groupie” or in any way impressed by him.’
She didn’t take photos of her previous lover, a huge rock star from another massive 1970s rock band, for the same reason. I tell her people might question the veracity of claims she makes for that very reason, and she seems slightly affronted. But Fazz didn’t take pictures either.
‘I regret that we didn’t have camera phones then,’ he says. ‘Can you imagine?’
‘Oh my gosh,’ says Holly.
‘You had to have somebody with a Kodak Instamatic with a flash cube.’
After lunch we take a tour of Miami in Jackie’s Mercedes, stopping where the Tight Squeeze club used to be on Hollywood Beach, right by the Halifax River (‘The Intercoastal’) and the Atlantic Ocean. The neighbourhood is part of ‘Floribec’, nicknamed thus for its high concentration of Québécois tourists. On first impression it seems to be made up exclusively of low, brightly painted short- and long-term apartments and thick clusters of Tow-Away Zone parking signs. There are signs outside the motels that betray the clientele: COMPLETELY FURNISHED, FRENCH TV.
‘You could do whatever you want here,’ says Fazz. ‘Long term, seasonal. The Montreal crowd; French Canadians. Guys my size with ponytails walking around in thongs.’
If ever a man was missing out on his calling in life both as a famous rock musician and character actor in Hollywood, it’s Fazz. In the laidback Miami of 1979, he explains, the Tight Squeeze club was surrounded by shops selling nothing but ‘suntan lotion, sunglasses and thongs’. Nearby there was also a bar called Nick’s, which still operates.
‘Is this it?’ he says, pointing to a partly boarded-up building site with a couple of migrant labourers milling about with hammers. ‘This is it! That’s it. Right there. That was the Tight Squeeze.’
There’s nothing to see – the place has been stripped bare to nothing but a shell – but we walk inside anyway. Fazz is pointing in all directions.
‘From here, from that wall, this was Tight Squeeze. Where those boards are going horizontally that’s where the stage was. You walked in and the main entrance was right in the front there. The oval bar was here. Spent many moments with Cliff Williams there. And all the tables and everything were in here. The bathroom was back there. That’s where it all originally happened [laughs] with Henry taking a piss in the bathroom and he looks over and he goes, “I know you. You’re Bon Scott!”’
When we get back to the ‘Broadwalk’, as the boardwalk along the beach is called, the heat and humidity is unbearable. It’s a sauna.
‘I could just sit out here all fucking day,’ says Fazz, furiously perspiring in a black short-sleeved shirt. ‘Over the years it’s all changed. But if you turn your back on this and you look that way,’ he says, gesturing towards the beach and ocean, ‘you’re in 1966.’
I point out that Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Beach Resort is being built nearby.
‘Well, he’s the patron saint of alcoholic Key West residents.’
We go to the Newport Hotel, where Fazz hung out with Bon. For a lark, he knocks on door #617, Cliff Williams’s old room, and tries the handle but no one answers. Instead, to get a feel for the place as it might have been in 1979, we walk into an open room being cleaned down the hall.
‘This is different,’ he says. ‘This wasn’t here before. Totally renovated.’
Holly, who’s been quiet, pipes up: ‘This is a very bittersweet experience.’
Have these halls changed at all, Fazz?
‘Probably a coat of paint.’
So, how many times did you come out here to the Newport when AC/DC was in Miami?
‘Fuck. Shit. Every night [laughs]. A bunch. I’d say at least a dozen times.’
We take the elevator to the lobby and walk out to the beachside pool to see the spot where Bon told Holly she had chartreuse eyes. The Newport building as it was in 1979 is still largely intact but just like the rest of the Sunny Isles strip it’s in the shadow of a residential tower. All the old motel-style places bar The Sahara are being demolished and replaced with glass monstrosities. Donald Trump has seven branded developments between Sunny Isles and Hollywood, ten minutes’ drive north.
‘I love this part of town but I don’t recognise it,’ says Fazz, getting into the car. ‘None of this was here. If you want to recreate that Miami/Sunny Isles [of the ’70s], go to Daytona Beach Shores. Those same hotels are still there.’
It’s not all glitz and glamour. At traffic-light stops at major intersections, homeless people and drug addicts shuffle between vehicles, holding up cardboard signs asking for food, money or employment. Holly sees a lot of ‘undocumented’ people in her line of work as a doctor: Mexicans, South Americans, Central Americans, Jamaicans, Haitians, Cubans, Dominicans, Bahamians, even Russians.
There’s a massive illegal immigration problem in South Florida as well as a synthetic drugs crisis that authorities claim has been contained. We’re certainly seeing some real-time ‘Faces of Meth’ as they walk past the car’s windows. The era of the cocaine cowboys in Miami seems almost innocent in comparison to the devastation being wrought by prescription opioids and cheap but deadly street drugs on America’s towns and cities.
‘These poor fuckers,’ says Fazz. ‘There’s a lot of them on these corners here.’
‘Oh yeah. There but for the grace of God go I,’ replies Holly.
When we pull into Criteria, the studio where AC/DC did demos for Highway To Hell, there’s not much to see. It’s now called The Hit Factory Criteria Miami and a very high wire fence has been erected around it, keeping out intruders. The nearby Musicians Studio Rentals, the rehearsal space where Bon heard Teddy Rooney say ‘Shazbot Nanu Nanu’ (Bon's last words in ‘Night Prowler'), has become a mechanic’s workshop. The sign out front reads: VANTAGE MOTOR WORKS, FINE VINTAGE & CONTEMPORARY MOTOR CAR SERVICE.
Half an hour’s drive south in Key Biscayne, Holly’s parents’ house has also disappeared. When it was built in 1960, there were no other houses around it. The floor plans are still held at the University of Florida but the original house has been knocked down, replaced by a modern two-storey mansion. Bougainvillea enshrouds the garage and there’s a huge black wrought-iron gate out front.
‘Key Biscayne is all cocaine money now,’ she says. ‘You can’t even see the water any more from the street. Billionaires’ row.’
We knock on the door and it gets answered by a Russian called Evgeny. He’s very pale and wearing a Hawaiian shirt. I introduce myself and tell him I’m writing a book about AC/DC. Evgeny tells me he’s in real estate back in St Petersburg and this place is a holiday house. Not a bad holiday house. I ask if we can go around the back.
‘Yeah, okay, sure, no problem,’ he smiles and gestures for us to walk around the side to the pool by the water’s edge. His wife comes out of the house with a book about Key Biscayne. The view that greets us is incredible, like something out of Miami Vice. There’s a speedboat in the distance. Stone pavers around the pool have replaced what used to be a natural beach. A small wooden jetty juts out into a turquoise-blue bay. There’s an iguana on one of the steps of the pool. This is where Holly grew up and where Bon would spend some of the most important moments of the last year of his life. He ate at the local yacht club with Holly. He’d go boating with Angus Young, Malcolm Young and Holly, wearing Holly’s cutoff shorts. It’s also a long way from where he died, in a junkie’s car on a grey day in East Dulwich, London. How things might have turned out differently had he never gone to England.
BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BON SCOTT AND AC/DC'S BACK IN BLACK is available now through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Booktopia, FNAC and hundreds of other retailers around the world.
One weekend in May 2015 I decided to go to the Sunday service of the Bethel Gospel Assembly, a Pentecostal church on East 120th Street in East Harlem, to hear some music. Bon Scott himself did the same thing while touring in America.
Said his Miami girlfriend Pattee Bishop: ‘We went to church once, and he cried; Bon wanted to go in, and we got caught up in the service [laughs]. I haven’t been to church since, but he liked the music of the singers.’
Inside the church, Bishop Carlton T. Brown was talking about alcohol, specifically wine, and how the Bible teaches Christians to be thankful for everything. Yet, he explained, it’s hard to be thankful sometimes because life can be so cruel because of poverty or the emotional hardship that comes with separation, divorce or bereavement.
So we drink wine to forget our pain. What we should instead be doing, he told the enraptured congregation, is fill our souls with ‘the Holy Spirit’.
Now Bon Scott was hardly a religious man and would never wean himself off the bottle but I like to think he left behind not just a great body of work but a holy spirit of his own – and I'm not talking about the unexplained spectral force that visited Brian Johnson during the writing of ‘You Shook Me all Night Long.'
This spirit of Bon remains a very potent thing, enough that truckers paint their cabs with his likeness and tattoo parlours around the world stay in business inking his face on to arms, legs, bums, chests, backs – just about any available patch of skin.
February 19, 2018 marks the 38th anniversary of Bon's death and there has been the usual flurry of Bon–related happenings to mark the occasion. Each year the legend – and myth – of Bon only seems to get bigger to the point where the real man now bears little relation to the idea of Bon many fans have created in their heads, mostly from sanitised accounts of his life from people who knew him in Australia.
There have been a cast of people who knew Bon who have written books – Mark Evans (Dirty Deeds), Mary Renshaw (Live Wire), Irene Thornton (My Bon Scott), Michael Browning (Dog Eat Dog) – and told their Bon stories, or those individuals who have been interviewed for books by biographers from Clinton Walker to Murray Engleheart to Mick Wall.
In early 2016, more interestingly, a young West Australian writer called J.P. Quinton released a ‘historical fiction’ about Bon’s life called Bad Boy Boogie. It was based, in large part, on the reminiscences of Bon’s muse, the late Silver Smith (a woman I got to interview in Bon: The Last Highway before she died, thanks to Quinton) and Bon’s own letters that had been reproduced in Walker’s 1994 biography.
Silver was working on her own book about Bon but tragically it would go unfinished. She sent me two stories she had written before she died. I learned more about him from reading those than I did from some books recently published about him. If anyone really knew Bon best, it was Silver Smith. Anyone who questions this doesn't know anything about the life of Ronald Belford Scott.
The late Vince Lovegrove, Bon’s bandmate from The Valentines and a close friend, also left behind a wealth of anecdotal material about Bon and tried to get a film made about him. (Other feature projects about Bon have been mooted over the years, but nothing has ever come of them apart from articles on Blabbermouth.)
Mount Lofty Rangers keyboardist Peter Head, who I met at his flat in Marrickville, Sydney, before commencing work on Bon: The Last Highway, was co-producing his own documentary about Bon and has already released some re-recordings with Bon’s vocals taped in 1973 (‘Round And Round And Round’, ‘Carey Gully’).
‘I don't think Bon ever knew the real Bon. That was his trouble.'
– John Freeman, Fraternity drummer
Head still had the original Sony PR-150 quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape and Bon’s handwritten lyrics to two songs, ‘Clarissa’ and ‘Been Up In The Hills Too Long’. It was a powerful thing to hold a piece of paper in my hand on which Bon had written original lyrics.
In my book I wanted to reevaluate Bon as a musician, a rock star and a human being. I also wanted to try to understand why he made some of the decisions he made, including the fateful one that would take his life, without going to the usual gang of suspects who have made great hay publicly out of having called Bon a friend, blood relation or acquaintance. They offer little of value to a biographer. Those who knew him best of all have chosen to keep their privacy.
Said Fraternity’s drummer John Freeman perspicaciously in Walker’s Highway To Hell: ‘I don’t think anybody ever saw the real Bon. I don’t think Bon ever knew the real Bon. That was his trouble.’
There is some truth to that statement. Hopefully Bon: The Last Highway goes some way to clearing up who he really was and dispelling some of the nonsense about his life that is out there and shows no sign of abating.
What does find almost universal agreement is how important Bon was to AC/DC artistically yet he was never acknowledged at the time for the quality of his work. I certainly believe there was some underlying impatience, insecurity or dissatisfaction in Bon. Lovegrove hinted at this in a piece for Melbourne’s Sunday Age: ‘At his core was a burning ambition to be loved, to be famous, and to be a rock star.’ Angus Young confirmed this was true: ‘He told Malcolm once, “If ever I make it big and I’m going to be famous and they want me to do a solo album I’ll call it Bonfire.” His actual words were: “When I’m a fucking big shot.”’
But he was a complete contradiction.
Said Lovegrove: ‘I loved the paradox of his wild, wild spirit and his beautiful calm soul. On the one hand he was a time bomb waiting to blow up, on the other, a serene, gentle man whose greatest asset was the ability to give friendship and loyalty and, eventually, write words that rank among the best in rock.'
Yet, even though he has gone on to claim rock immortality, not everyone remembers Bon so warmly. Ted Nugent is one such individual: ‘Jimi Hendrix didn’t have discipline… Keith Moon and Bon Scott didn’t have any discipline. And I don’t know how that party’s going, but it doesn’t look very good from here.’
Nugent repeats pretty much the same thing in his book, God, Guns And Rock’N’Roll, name-checking Hendrix, Moon and Bon as casualties on ‘a stupefyingly long list of the hippest idiots that ever lived. And died.’
Bon was no idiot but he did make some very poor choices of his own free will. So to a degree Nugent is correct: had Bon exercised more discipline he might still be here. But he chose to live his life the way he did, with no apology. For that reason no one else but Bon can be blamed for his death. It's time people stopped looking for scapegoats and accepted the man's faults.
Every AC/DC fan remembers Bon in their own way and so they should. Our relationship to his music is ultimately individual and personal. But my sincere hope this February 19 is that those who make a very public ceremony of memorialising him take some time to finally, after 38 years, think about how other people's lives were adversely impacted by Bon's personal recklessness.
As Silver says in the book, ‘He wouldn’t care about the consequences and how it would affect other people.’
Alistair Kinnear, she says, was ‘really traumatised’ by Bon’s death, while she and her friend Joe Fury were virtually forced into hiding.
‘Joe and I never did an unkind thing to anyone, so how do you deal with the whole world being told you are some kind of evil creatures by people who don’t even know you, or worse, people who do? We have families, too.’
Silver, Alistair and Joe didn’t deserve to spend the next few decades effectively living on the run, hiding away from the press and vengeful AC/DC fans.
It's easy to forget Bon was only 33 when he died; he was a young man with one failed marriage under his belt. He’d yet to gain some of the wisdom that comes in our 40s.
But at the end of the day he was still an adult. Let's start thinking of him – and judging his actions – as one.
BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BON SCOTT AND AC/DC'S BACK IN BLACK is available now through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Booktopia, FNAC and hundreds of other retailers around the world.
In doing deep research for Bon: The Last Highway, poring through the archives of yellowed press clippings in various public libraries including the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, what became immediately apparent to me was that while the media in Australia, the UK and western Europe had fallen under the spell of the talented Australians reasonably early, the mainstream American music press never quite got AC/DC until the 2000s.
Certainly Bon Scott never received the critical kudos he deserved when he was alive. (Today, of course, it is very fashionable to call yourself a Bon fan.)
AC/DC was variously described, narrowly, as ‘a prototypical heavy-metal band’ with ‘songs that focus on sex, violence, and the occult packaged in live-action album covers’ or ‘blues-based, displaying few of the Baroque influences that strongly affected most heavy metal bands’ or ‘known for crude, rowdy, and sometimes juvenile lyrics that celebrate excess, trangression, and communal bonding, delivered through very hoarse, sometimes screaming, vocals’.
In 1992 Rolling Stone magazine, America’s most powerful music publication, even rated AC/DC’s 1978 masterpiece, Powerage, ★★½ out of a possible five. Mark Coleman was the unfortunate reviewer. Not something he is going to live down quickly.
But, even so, there were occasional (albeit rare) signals of appreciation of what Bon had contributed to the band and what was missing after his death, even as early as 1980. Billboard, reviewing an AC/DC/Def Leppard double bill in August that year at New York’s Palladium, said Johnson ‘couldn’t quite match Scott’s throttled wail which in the past gave this Australian quintet its menacing edge… without Bon Scott, lead guitarist Angus Young carried the burden of entertaining the crowd.’ Robert Palmer in the New York Times wrote, ‘Mr Scott has been adequately replaced by Brian Johnson’ but added that he ‘looks and sings something like a potential homicidal longshoreman’.
Richard Harrington in the Washington Post was similarly underwhelmed: ‘Johnson’s singing style left much to be desired.’
Milwaukee Sentinel’'s Terry Higgins, reviewing Flick of the Switch in 1983, was bang on the money: ‘Every album AC/DC makes with new singer Brian Johnson makes it clear that without the personality and energy of Scott, the band will never be the transcendent experience it once was.’
By the 1990s, the gloves were off for Johnson. Bon had never seemed better. Mike Floyd in the St Louis Post-Dispatch had clearly had enough: ‘How much longer can the world endure the gnarl of vocalist Brian Johnson, who’s never matched up to the late Bon Scott (the guy he replaced in 1980) and who for about 10 erosive years has sounded more and more like an angry squirrel with nut shells stuck in his throat?’
Or this from Michael A. Capozzoli, Jr. in Pennsylvania’s Observer-Reporter in 1996: ‘AC/DC is a prime example of what’s wrong with rock music today. Their work was at one time vital and interesting; they pioneered the hard rock/heavy metal invasion of the mid-’70s. However, when lead singer Bon Scott passed away more than 16 years ago, AC/DC lost their originality.’
In my view, he was right.
‘I like Brian because he always tips his hat to Bon in interviews, and rightfully so, but for singing, Bon had the feel,’ Dennis Dunaway, the original bassist for Alice Cooper, told me during the writing of the book.
Bon had more than the feel. For me, the greatest incarnation of AC/DC died with him on 19 February 1980.
BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BON SCOTT AND AC/DC'S BACK IN BLACK is available now.
Over the past few months I’ve been subjected to a small amount of abuse online from a few unhinged types, spurred on by a group of furious mother hens on Facebook with insignificant links to Bon Scott who think they have some pre-ordained right to speak on the man’s behalf, almost 38 years after his death. The anniversary of Bon’s tragic passing in 1980 is coming on February 19.
What had I done?
One, I’d not written the story in Bon: The Last Highway they wanted to hear. Two, I’d dared suggest in my book that Bon, a bloke nicknamed ‘Ronnie Roadtest’ for his willingness to have a crack at whatever illicit substances were at hand, had died of something other than alcohol poisoning.
But this is not a new idea. As I made very clear in the book, it has been around for decades. I’m not even the first writer to mention heroin: Mark Putterford, Malcolm Dome and Mick Wall have all spoken of heroin in connection to Bon. Mark Evans, former bass player of AC/DC, confirmed to me in my first book on the band, The Youngs, that Bon was nearly sacked for a heroin OD in 1975, while Michael Browning, former manager of AC/DC, has claimed Bon had a second OD in 1976.
Additionally, all the characters who are introduced in Bon: The Last Highway and were around Bon in London on the last night of his life were in some way connected to heroin or the heroin scene.
Further information has even come to light since the publication of the book that I might eventually publish in due course, which only adds weight to the argument made in Bon: The Last Highway that the great AC/DC frontman of the 1970s accidentally died of a heroin overdose.
Significantly, I found two witnesses, both former heroin users, who were at The Music Machine in Camden who saw Bon with their own eyes and thought he’d taken smack.
One of them, astonishingly, admitted being with Bon and heroin user/pusher Alistair Kinnear back at Alistair’s apartment building in East Dulwich on the morning of 19 February 1980. So there was a third person with Bon and Alistair when Bon died.
In the book I also go through each of the accounts available from known individuals who were involved in Bon’s last night/morning on earth and come up with two workable theories for how he died, both of them centred around the one substance some people just can’t bring themselves to admit Bon ever used: heroin.
Does it matter how he died? Well, does it matter how Marilyn Monroe died? Or Jim Morrison? Or John Belushi? I'd say yes. Especially when so many drug deaths to this day are needless and preventable. There are still important lessons that can be drawn from Bon Scott's experience and the fatal mistake he made. I don't see why Bon Scott, as an enduring global icon, should be treated differently to anyone else.
For this there have been charges made against me of “cashing in” and “walking over a dead man’s body”; bans on mentioning the book on some Bon Scott Facebook groups; even threats of physical violence. Yes, seriously.
So do I regret writing the book? Not in a million years. I’ve loved every minute of the three years it took to write, and the four to bring it to press. Bon Scott is a Scottish-Australian hero we should all know about, celebrate and go on celebrating. But for me, his legend is only enhanced by revealing his faults and weaknesses. They don’t tarnish his reputation. They make him more human and relatable, less of a caricature.
I’d rather know the real man, not a statue.
Margaret ‘Silver’ Smith was one of the great loves of Bon Scott, the inspiration for many of his best songs, including ‘Gimme A Bullet’ and ‘Gone Shootin’’ off AC/DC’s 1978 masterpiece, Powerage.
They lived together in Australia and England. They travelled together on the road in the United States. She died in a hospice in Jamestown, South Australia, on 12 December 2016.
Bon, separated from his wife Irene Thornton in 1974, had fallen hard for Silver, reputedly spraying her name in silver paint at the headquarters of AC/DC’s Australian record company, Albert Productions, and mentioning her in one letter from the road in 1977: ‘I haven’t seen my lady for four months… love will prevail.’
But it didn’t. A mutually agreed 12-month break in their relationship in early 1978 became permanent, on Silver’s wishes.
She saw Bon alone only once or twice in the last year of his life, though importantly he phoned her to invite her out on the evening prior to his mysterious death in London on 19 February 1980. She claims Bon had finished writing the lyrics to Back In Black and wanted to celebrate.
According to her, she declined his invitation. By then she’d made it very clear there was no future for them as a couple.
Before Silver’s death, she spoke to me for Bon: The Last Highway: The Untold Story of Bon Scott and AC/DC’s Back In Black. These were her last recorded audio interviews, among only a few she ever gave during her life, giving AC/DC fans a rare insight into her passionate but tumultuous relationship with Australia’s greatest rock legend. If anyone was Bon's true muse it was Silver Smith. An abridged version of this interview was published in the December 2017 edition of Classic Rock.
On her beginnings:
I don’t know who my biological father was and knew nothing about my biological mother until about 15 years ago. I have had four names, all of them legal, one I didn’t know about until relatively recently. I have been legally ‘Silver Smith’ for four and a half decades. I think of my family as the people who raised me.
I’ve been alone for 30 years. The Bon adventure was one too far for me. I got scared. I buried myself in work.
On Bon’s appetite for drugs:
Before [he joined] AC/DC in Adelaide in 1974, Bon was known to take anything. He was a drug pig. He and ‘Uncle’ [Fraternity harmonica player John Ayers] were notorious back in the day when there was a [drug] drought on for wheedling and badgering everyone; I can vouch for that. They both experimented with crazy things like datura while broke in London. Of course I didn’t see that, but my sources for that are ones I would rely on. I loved Uncle; he was a madman but an irresistible character.
On claims made in book publicity that Live Wire author Mary Renshaw was Bon’s ‘soulmate’:
As far as I know I never met Mary Renshaw. I met [Bon’s ex-wife] Irene Thornton once briefly as she was my friend Shane Marshall’s beautiful cousin and Irene had just arrived back from England. She wore gorgeous clothes. The ‘soulmate’ label was a surprise. Mary was an old friend [of Bon’s] and he had quite a few friends like that. I thought of her in the same category. Bon wrote to lots of people regularly, so I’m familiar with his friendship with Darce and Gabby [Renshaw’s co-writers John and Gabby D’Arcy] of whom he was very fond, but not Mary. Just Maria Short from Perth. He also wrote to Judy King.
On her late husband Graeme Smith:
A good Scotsman to the end, he died of liver failure. He was okay, one of the good guys, but didn’t put himself out all that much.
On Irene Thornton:
We girls were all in awe of her looks, style, and fabulous Carnaby Street/Kings Road clothes. It was months after my one-time dalliance with Bon [in Adelaide] and before she met him. The sex was great, but the rest of the adventure was a disaster, so it only happened once. Then, later, I heard Bon and Irene married during the flurry of marriages in Fraternity, because Hamish Henry, their manager, was only paying for wives to go to England, not girlfriends. I figured he was a lucky guy.
I don’t remember Bon and Irene visiting Graeme and I at the Mount Lofty cottage as she described in her book [My Bon Scott], but it may have happened. We got drop-in visitors up there all the time, but I don’t remember now who most of them were unless there was a particular reason for remembering. She may well have visited us.
City hippies often dropped in on hills hippies on the weekends in good weather, as evidenced by the scene at Fraternity’s Aldgate house, and Graeme and I had our share. No telephones. [Valentines lead singer] Vince Lovegrove had swapped houses with us, and his friend, the artist Vytas Serelis, who probably knew Bon well, had a cottage on the next driveway. We would have offered Bon and Irene tea and a smoke if we had some and probably played a new album.
On Irene’s claim she met Silver at a rock festival:
Overactive imagination, definitely. It was a regret of mine that I missed all the outdoor hippie rock festivals in Adelaide, as I was usually called into the kitchen at the Travelodge – the best hotel in Adelaide at the time – on those weekends. My savings plan for my great adventure [overseas] was to nearly always have part-time work on top of full-time clerical work. No equal pay back then.
On Bon’s relationship with Irene:
Bon was big on telling people how much he owed Irene for taking him in after his motorcycle accident [in 1974] although they weren’t together any more, and how he couldn’t wait to be able to help her out. She was pregnant and struggling. But he didn’t, did he? Instead of showing off by showing up in a limo with expensive booze to visit people who were doing it hard, he could have given her the money. I would have been pissed off [with him] if I were her.
On Bon’s 1975 heroin overdose in Melbourne:
He told me very early on how close he had gone to fucking up over the [Judy] King incident, and that he had made a promise to the Youngs [not to do drugs]. If anything, I was stricter [with him] than the Youngs, because he was a total embarrassment even when he overdid the ‘smoko’ with alcohol at inappropriate times, and I was the one who would have to get him home and up five flights of stairs. Not to mention that this behaviour was considered really tacky in London. To the best of my knowledge, Bon kept faith with his promise to the Youngs.
‘It was the what-the-fuck impulse things that did the real damage [to our relationship]... the babysitting stuff was becoming intolerable.'
– Silver on Bon
On hooking up with Bon after AC/DC’s first London gig at the Red Cow in Hammersmith, 1976:
I used to go past [the Red Cow] on the bus to my work agency in Hammersmith. It was such a lonely, homely building; just a stone cube. Stuck out like a sore thumb because there were no other buildings on that side of the road.
How different my life would have been if I had not been home, not answered the phone, not gone to the Red Cow that night. At that time, I was truly happy, contented for the first time in my life, had lovely friends, was learning some wonderful things, and it had been that way for a couple of years. I felt like I was finally home. And then it all went to shit.
On the difficulty of having a relationship with Bon:
It was the what-the-fuck impulse things that did the real damage. On the second trip [home] to Australia [from England in 1978], while we were staying in Coogee, Sydney, two things happened like that, and I knew I could no longer be with this man, couldn’t live like this any more, and the babysitting stuff was becoming intolerable and dangerous. I wanted to break up then, but settled for a 12-month separation, where I could go back to London and think seriously about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and then make a decision.
On drugs being involved in Bon’s death:
Bon knew AC/DC was his last shot at making it, and he was really conscientious after his OD with the King girl in Melbourne. He told me straight away about it; he did smoke hash when he had downtime, and drank horribly, but I don’t know of any pills. I was personally really tough on him with smoko even, as he had really embarrassed me by eating a huge piece of hash at a ridiculously inappropriate time very early on in London.
‘Bon doing smack would be anyone's worst nightmare... but with Bon I guess anything's possible.'
– Silver on Bon
On Bon using heroin:
I would be really surprised if you find anyone credible who will swear they saw Bon take heroin during his London-based years with AC/DC. But with Bon I guess anything’s possible. He had a really bad reputation for taking anything and to extreme excess back in Adelaide with Fraternity. But he did take the heroin embargo from the Youngs after Judy King really seriously, and did not want to get fired.
Given what it was like to have to look after him when he was comatose on Scotch, I was very glad there was an embargo. Bon doing smack would be anyone’s worst nightmare and I personally wouldn’t have had anything to do with him [if he had used it].
On Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards visiting her at her flat:
We had a grizzle together about the parlous state of the legal system at the time, and the nasty attitude of the plainclothes police in Britain and they way they try to humiliate you.
On rock biographer Mick Wall who claimed he’d been to Silver’s apartment in London and seen Bon snort either cocaine or heroin:
Mick Wall has never been to my place. I wasn’t living with Bon in 1979.
On former AC/DC bass player Mark Evans:
He was very young, but was definitely the smartest in the band, a lot more aware of what was going on in the rest of the world.
On former AC/DC drummer Phil Rudd:
Probably the last time he was home [in Australia from touring in America], Bon told me Phil was really freaking; exhausted from all the driving. I’ve read Phil was on coke, but I don’t think so. Bon would have mentioned it. Bon was really pissed off that nothing was being done to help Phil; that [the Youngs] just kept getting the whip out. But Bon didn’t speak up. I was so sad when Phil had that recent [legal] trouble; it seemed so unfair. I had the urge to write him a letter, but what could I have said or done after nearly four decades?
It was a couple of months after that American tour that Phil and I had a day out on a catamaran that we got in trouble for [with the Youngs]. It was a lovely silly happy day and we laughed like drains, and that’s how I choose to remember him. Not looking so lost and hunted on the telly.
On Michael Browning’s book Dog Eat Dog and Browning’s portrayal of Silver:
I think [Browning] is still sucking up to the Youngs, after all this time. Maybe he thinks they might pat him on the head and say, ‘Thanks, Michael, for all those grinding tours you organised.’ He never had a conversation with me, never visited my house. [His sister] Coral was very comfortable there – they are chalk and cheese. He never met a single friend of mine, and I only travelled with [the Brownings] twice: once from Perth to London, and once from San Francisco to Sydney. He and his wife [Julie] travelled first class; the rest of us were back in economy. I would never have looked ‘drug fucked’ in public, and rarely in the privacy of my own place.
On Browning’s allegation that Bon had an overdose in Silver’s company in London, 1976:
Bon didn’t OD on heroin in 1976 in London in my company. He told me he had ODed with the very young and troubled Judy King in Melbourne and had nearly died, not long before they came to London; that the band was very angry about it and had banned him from taking all drugs except alcohol, which they were fine with. He smoked a lot of hash, but only when he was away from the band. Because the band was so busy he didn’t know anyone in 1976 in London except a couple of friends of mine and Coral, none of whom were heroin users, so I think it extremely unlikely that he ODed with anyone in London.
On Coral Browning:
Bon was really dependent on Coral. He loved Coral. Until I came along, basically there was just a band. He and Coral got on like a house on fire. And she was very fond of him and she went through all the mail; he used to get ridiculous mail and stuff. Her and I hit it off really well. We spent a lot of time together. We did things together when the band was away. Coral was the only one, apart from Bon, that I really had a relationship with… because of the friendship that I had with her at that time, I can’t see how I wouldn’t have known if something like that [alleged heroin OD] had happened… it doesn’t make sense to me that I wouldn’t have known about it.
‘He would be fine for ages, and then do something really destructive at the worst possible time.'
– Silver on Bon
On her London social circles:
Bon asked me how I knew so many wealthy people. Travelling was still very expensive in the 1970s; luxurious giant planes were often only a third full. So on long-haul flights passengers socialised, swapped stories and passed on addresses of friends to look up, and partied in the bar. Australians were an unknown novelty and were welcome in the world of the ‘beautiful people’ of the ‘70s if they were smart, amusing and attractive, dressed well and had good manners. Sophisticated Europeans didn’t sit around divvying up the bill after a meal; you never saw the bill. Americans and South Americans fought for the right to be able to pay it, proving they were the richest person at the table.
On Bon’s self-destructiveness:
He would be fine for ages, and then do something really destructive at the worst possible time, with no explanation, and really make things difficult for other people, without giving them a single thought. Consideration of others was not a strong point.
On why she didn’t keep any of Bon’s letters or photos:
Everything I owned disappeared; I’ve had to start again twice… I’ve never been able to find out where it [all] went. The first big loss was in London: three huge trunks. Two modern aluminium trunks. One old wooden, steel-banded trunk, painted midnight blue, with silver stars. Plus a giant wooden fridge crate. These contained all my documentation, books, records, photos, diaries, collections of letters, bibelots and precious things from my family days, my mother’s world-class embroidery, everything I owned up to the age of 29, except for what I had with me. The past completely wiped out. It is still devastating to me. Over the last few decades some photos have been given to me by friends and family. I had some great professional shots that were lost.
I know [Bon Scott biographer] Clinton Walker showed me two photographs he got from [Bon’s mother] Isa Scott, the one that was printed in his book, and there is one with me, Isa and Bon at Perth airport saying goodbye. It was the afternoon of the great salty long-haul flight, and Bon picked my clothes; not me. I looked like crap but I was smiling, which is at least something. I’m wearing a lime green shirt and white jeans.
On where she was when she found out from King’s College Hospital that Bon had died:
I was at home. [Bon’s and my friend] Joe Fury was either there, or arrived just after the call… they didn’t say [Bon] was dead. They asked me to come to the hospital because it was serious. They never give death messages over the phone. They look after you, put you in a nice room with a cup of tea. Joe had worked in hospitals, so he had figured it out, and told me his fears before the doctor came in. I can’t talk about what I thought and felt.
On Bon having or not having a will:
I never heard of there being any wills at any time. Bon wasn’t big on being organised. He knew he owed Irene a big favour, and he talked about helping her with a deposit for a house all the time because she had taken him in after the bike accident [in 1974], but he didn’t do it, did he? I thought he should have done it, not went around to visit her with expensive booze and just talked about it.
On Bon’s parents Chick and Isa after his death in 1980:
I felt protective of Isa. His parents were really happy in their own new unit. They didn’t want a big house, or money. They were happy and proud of what they’d achieved for their family. I could relate to that. Isa just wished that Bon had seen his own success. They were good but naive people, Bon’s parents.
BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BON SCOTT AND AC/DC'S BACK IN BLACK is available now.
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.
Van Halen broke out of California, made a big splash on Midwest radio and then exploded onto the US national scene with their self-titled debut in 1978, which turns 40 on 10 February 2018. Jesse Fink, author of the new biography of Bon Scott, Bon: The Last Highway: The Untold Story of Bon Scott and AC/DC’s Back In Black, spoke with the band’s former bass player, Michael Anthony, about the late ’70s, Van Halen, AC/DC, David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar. Michael is also interviewed in the book about his love of Powerage and the Bon Scott era.
On the Van Halen brothers:
The brothers have this closeness; there’s this certain type of bubble that you cannot penetrate, no matter how close you get to them. Eddie and Alex, my experience with them anyway, was in their monitors Eddie wanted to hear Alex, Alex wanted to hear Eddie. They’d throw me in just to kinda fill the whole thing out but they were just so locked in together. They had this musical force between them that was amazing.
On Van Halen’s touring philosophy:
Just kinda pound the pavement. We started our first tour opening up for Journey and Ronnie Montrose. Whenever there was a stage that wasn’t big enough to hold all three bands we just kinda peeled off and we would look for a club in that same city and do that. We just tried to get on everything we could get on to play.
On Van Halen’s critics:
For some reason critics didn’t really like us in Los Angeles. There’s this one critic I remember, he wrote for the Los Angeles Times, Robert Hilburn. No matter how well we did, how well the concert went – they were always great, sold out or whatever once we were really hitting our stride – he never gave us a good review. Never. Not once. He was probably one of the main reasons why we were just pretty much disregarding anything that any of these critics would write. It was all like, “Hey, the fans are our biggest critic” and when you’re playing the live shows, that’s what it is out there and that was happening so we didn’t care what those guys were saying. I guess we were too immature for some of these critics.
On David Lee Roth:
Dave was the loudmouth. We allowed him to be the loudmouth because he then took care of the press part. There even came a time later on before Dave had left the band that we for a while let him do all the interviews and everything. We said, “Hey, we’ll do the music, you do the interviews. We’re just fine with that.” But that’s a lead singer for you.
On the issue of whether Van Halen created a “monster” with DLR:
With everything that happened that led him to leaving the band, we probably did kind of create a monster. But then he just pretty much did it himself, too, because he always considered himself a big star; where the three of us we were probably more like how AC/DC was. They just considered themselves musicians playing rock music. I don’t think any of them, from knowing them, considered themselves as being a big rock star. They didn’t have that kind of ego.
‘We probably did kind of create a monster.'
– Michael Anthony on David Lee Roth
On Sammy Hagar:
The reason [Van Halen] actually tried Sammy Hagar out – I liked him as an entertainer – was Eddie and Sammy both have the same car mechanic. It was actually his car mechanic that suggested, “Why don’t you try Sammy out?” His name is Claudio Zampolli. And Ed was getting his car serviced and he said, “Why don’t you give Sammy a call? I know he’s not on the road right now.” And he did [laughs]. It wasn’t like we were monitoring him and going, “Yeah, that’s the guy we need to replace David Lee Roth.” We all knew he was a good musician. I guess it was just by this recommendation that Eddie gave him a call.
A manager that we had, Ray Daniels, who managed us for a while [in the 1990s] before Sammy exited the band, tried to change us in that respect. He actually was the guy who drove the wedge in between especially Eddie Van Halen and Sammy because he kind of tried to brainwash everybody into thinking, “Well, this band has to mature. You guys are much more mature than those kind of antics now.” Everything kind of fell apart at that point [laughs] because for some reason he did brainwash Eddie Van Halen and Sammy left the band and subsequently the band kind of just started crumbling.
On Brian Johnson joining AC/DC after Bon Scott’s death:
I was really surprised that Brian Johnson fit in as well as he did. Obviously it was a kind of different direction because when you lose someone like Bon Scott, it’s like, “Who’s going to replace that?” You have to really change the dynamic of the band a bit because that guy had such a unique sounding voice. I think AC/DC found a singer [in Johnson] that really fit in with the kind of music that they were doing. I don’t know if it would have been that much different if Bon was alive for the next album, the Back In Black album. [Johnson] just fit in great with the kind of music the guys were writing.
On the difference between Van Halen and AC/DC:
One of the reasons I really liked AC/DC is they just seemed more like the kind of band I came from before joining Van Halen, where you know, you wore jeans and a T-shirt or whatever and you just played rock music. When I joined Van Halen we had that aspect of it but then we had David Lee Roth, who was like, “Okay, but you gotta wear this and you gotta wear the spandex and you gotta glitter out”, ’cause that’s what he was all into, so that kind of rolled into part of what Van Halen was. The thing I liked about AC/DC is it was just jeans and a T-shirt out there playing music and I guess not really worrying about the show, even though later on everybody brings that element into it. It was almost like they didn’t care about having to be real showy; they let the music do the talking.
BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BON SCOTT AND AC/DC'S BACK IN BLACK is available now.
Legendary British band UFO toured with AC/DC in America during the Bon Scott era and got to see the Australian band's personal dynamics up close. In fact, UFO shared more bills in the States with AC/DC than any other band during the late 1970s period: Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Iowa, New York, Illinois and more. When they first met in Kansas City, UFO had just released their classic fourth album, Lights Out, described in a press ad by their record company Chrysalis as ‘a bit of a shitkicker’.
Guitarist Paul Chapman, who replaced Michael Schenker that year, remembers the group being difficult to socialise with.
‘They were very much a touring bubble,’ he says. ‘They’re impenetrable. You walk past them on a plane and you feel it. There’s nine of them [band and crew] sat in a square or eight of them or something like that: the impenetrable bubble. It was kind of weird.'
His bandmate guitarist/keyboardist Paul Raymond concurs: ‘It was only really Bon that partied with us... I don’t think UFO had any influence on Bon, he liked a drink, so did we – we didn’t lead him astray.’
Meanwhile, bassist Pete Way recalls Bon ‘moaning about having to travel by plane’ but there always being a positive rapport between the two groups: ‘AC/DC and UFO were a good team, you know. We had our own tour coaches but going back to the early tours, we did them in planes. Obviously if we were going to the same venue we would use the same flight, same hotel. We’d generally end up in one another’s rooms.’
He well remembers the rivalry between AC/DC and fellow Atlantic Records act Foreigner.
‘On AC/DC’s first American tour, which was UFO’s second American tour, we did a few shows together. Foreigner was headlining, we were special guest and AC/DC opened and of course they didn’t get any of the trimmings that people would expect. It was made more difficult for them.
‘AC/DC played with Blue Öyster Cult and the same thing: no monitors and that; and they held grudges those boys at the time, particularly Angus [Young] and Malcolm [Young]. When the tables turned they made sure that they did exactly what they got [sic] coming to them.’
Did you dislike Foreigner? They were quite successful in America from the very beginning.
‘To be honest with you, I would have that conversation with Angus. I think “Hot Blooded” was the song they had out at the time, we were on tour with them, I used to go and eat something or hang out with Angus a lot after the shows and I mentioned that and he went, “Mehhhhh. Fucking cabaret band” [laughs]’
‘I don't think UFO had any influence on Bon, he liked a drink, so did we – we didn't lead him astray.'
– Paul Raymond
Angus might have been cocky but ultimately the cockiness was well placed. Way only has praise for what they achieved.
‘AC/DC put 100 per cent – no – they put 200 per cent into what they were doing. They believed in themselves. And I tell you what: nobody could tell them what to do. This is what we are. We’re AC/DC. This is the way we play. This is what you get. And if you don’t like it, don’t come to the show, don’t buy the album.’
‘There was definitely a competitive edge between [UFO and AC/DC] and eventually they became impossible to follow, which is when they became a headline act in their own right. Pete and Angus were the showmen of each band and both bands had the attitude that they were the best. I think both bands had a lot to say and were at the right age – it was youthful cockiness.’
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. Just click the title above (in red) to preorder and save on the retail price.
San Francisco band Yesterday & Today (later Y&T) joined AC/DC for a string of shows in the midst of a blisteringly hot Texas summer in July 1978. They were booked by local promoter Jack Orbin, who organised AC/DC’s first Texas shows in 1977.
‘Jack took us under his wing and booked us many times throughout Texas,’ says lead singer and guitarist Dave Meniketti. ‘We had become quite popular, much to our shock, because of a DJ on KMAC/KISS FM, Joe Anthony, who played us religiously. He basically "broke" us in that part of Texas. Jack saw the popularity of the band because of the radio play and started to book us around Texas for quite a few years.’
‘That tour in Texas with AC/DC was a very special,’ adds their late rhythm guitarist Joey Alves, who passed away in early 2017. ‘I had been a fan of the band from the beginning so naturally I was excited to be a part of it. I was instantly impressed by their strong performance each night.
‘Summertime in Texas is very hot but the heat never slowed down AC/DC’s intense show. Towards the end of each show Angus Young would go out into the audience on top Bon's shoulders playing his heart out on his guitar. Needless to say the crowds loved it.
‘AC/DC was a big influence on Yesterday & Today, especially with their live sound that they got each night. It was bigger than all the others and we had played with most. I would go so far as to study Malcolm's and Angus's amp settings. Dave and I would stand in the back of the arenas during their sound checks just to see what we could learn. And we learned a lot.’
‘Bon's death was a total shock to us. While we knew he was a hard partying kind of guy that lived life full with gusto, I don't think we ever gave it a thought as to how it could lead to his demise.'
– Dave Meniketti
What did Yesterday & Today observe of the dynamic between AC/DC’s rhythm guitarist and strongman leader, Malcolm Young and its hard-living lead singer, Bon?
‘We were so young and impressionable at the time that I don’t think any of us observed interactions between the members as it pertained to Bon and Malcolm,’ says Meniketti. ‘If we did, I don’t remember anything going down. Just the partying part and the band performances, outside of a few other things that we observed about the road manager trying to gather all the DC guys after the shows. You know, typical stuff that happens on the road.
‘But years later when we toured for two months with AC/DC on the For Those About To Rock tour in the UK and Europe, there was no question we saw the presence of Malcolm in his band environment. It was put to us by our manager that Malcolm was the guy you didn’t want to piss off or we would be off the tour immediately. When the guys would invite us into their room after their performances, sitting down to talk and eat their after show meals (on that two-month tour), we could really get a sense of the band dynamic. It was sort of obvious to us that Malcolm seemed to rule the day.'
As for Bon, he left an impression even if the memories are fading.
‘I just wish I had the presence of mind to really pay attention and remember more things about him as he was hanging with us,’ says Meniketti. ‘Time has eroded much of the details, as we were so young and it all happened so fast in a three-day span that it sort of became a bit of a blur to me. Our heads were in the clouds as we started our career and this just seemed to happen in a flash.
‘His death was a total shock to all of us. While we knew he was a hard partying kind of guy that lived life with full gusto, I don't think we ever gave it a thought as to how it could lead to his demise. We were somewhat used to guys around us that partied like there was no tomorrow, so he was not completely unusual to us. When you're young and crazy you feel invincible. But I can say without hesitation that his awesome gritty voice, unusual swagger on stage, and fun partying kind of personality off stage, made him an instant legend amongst our band members and crew.’
BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BON SCOTT AND AC/DC'S BACK IN BLACK is available now through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and hundreds of other retailers. Just click the title above (in red).
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.