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.
In New York, during the writing of Bon: The Last Highway, I visited BARRY BERGMAN, formerly of Edward B. Marks Music Corporation. Edward B. Marks was AC/DC’s American publisher for High Voltage (1976) through to Highway To Hell (1979). When AC/DC first arrived in America in July 1977, he travelled with the band to Texas and Florida. The camaraderie, he says, was there to see.
‘I think the chemistry between them was incredible. I don’t believe [AC/DC] spend a lot of time with each other when they’re not working; I know that to be a fact, they do their own thing… my relationship with them was, I thought, excellent. I got along with all of them, at the time. I didn’t have a problem with any one of them.
‘We [Edward B. Marks] got involved with [AC/DC] through J. Albert & Son in the mid ’70s. Michael Browning was the manager at the time. I was sort of like a surrogate manager because Michael wasn’t here [in the States] all the time and there were times when they were here and he wasn’t and I would help them out, deal with things for them.
‘We gave Michael an office at Edward B. Marks, and I spent a lot of time running around with them to those early shows with Ian Jeffery, who was the road manager. I went to shows with them in Texas, here and there and everywhere else… I knew the way [the US scene] worked. I knew the way radio worked. This one worked. That thing worked. I was doing it, you know. So I was able to guide them.’
Bergman especially helped with airplay for the band out on the West Coast and in Florida, where they first got played anywhere in the States by Bill Bartlett on WPDQ/WAIV Jacksonville.
Florida, he says, was the takeoff point for the Australians: ‘That’s where it all started.’
Did you feel like you were needed by the band? That Browning didn’t know enough about America to handle it himself?
‘I got along well with Michael. I always liked and respected Michael. It’s like everything else. You come here [to America], you’re overwhelmed. It’s a big country. Of course he didn’t know. There were things I didn’t know about my own country here. If someone had have told me it would have taken four years and a bunch of albums to break this band I would have never believed it, because they were that good.’
In 1977, Bergman was in the audience for the recording of AC/DC’s Live From The Atlantic Studios promo album along with late Atlantic Records heavy Tunc Erim, who was Atlantic’s national album promotion director. Because of his seniority, Erim’s name appeared before AC/DC record-company loyalists Michael Klenfner’s and Perry Cooper’s on mailouts that went to US radio stations.
Bergman says Erim had many stoushes with the formidable Klenfner, an ex-bouncer, but Klenfner, despite his stature and size, always came off second best.
Says Bergman: ‘Tunc got the job [at Atlantic] as a result of being at a party one night years earlier when he was a kid seeing a little old lady in a corner, going over to the old lady because she didn’t know what she was doing there or she looked alone, and he danced with her all night, hung out with her, and took her home. And it was Ahmet Ertegun’s mother.’
Ertegun, of course, was the big boss at Atlantic Records.
‘It was shortly thereafter that Ahmet called him up, wanted to meet him, hired him and there was no way anyone could ever touch Tunc as long as Ahmet Ertegun was at that company. So Michael, who tried to uproot him at one point, was not going to be successful. As Michael once said to me, “His name isn’t Tunc Erim. His name is Tunc Ertegun!”
So who outside of the band was responsible for AC/DC making it in America?
‘I would say [AC/DC’s booking agent] Doug Thaler, myself, Klenfner, and maybe one or two others were the reasons the band made it, especially Doug and myself. Because Doug was a real believer and a team player and he worked for ATI’s Jeff Franklin at the time. He put together a great tour for them and everything, and I think it was on a handshake.’
He also says Klenfner, who got sacked by Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg in 1979, told him about the idea of dropping Harry Vanda and George Young as AC/DC’s producers and getting Mutt Lange to produce AC/DC. (This clashes with Browning’s version that it was solely his idea to recruit the Zambian producer for Highway To Hell and supports the testimony of others who I have spoken to previously from Atlantic who said the idea originated elsewhere, most likely from Doug Thaler.)
‘If someone had have told me it would have taken four years and a bunch of albums to break this band I would have never believed it, because they were that good.'
– Barry Bergman
But didn’t Klenfner want Eddie Kramer to produce the band?
‘At one point, yes… Klenfner had mentioned to me Mutt Lange… it came to me through Michael Klenfner, that, “You know, Barry, we gotta make change with the production of this band, because we’re selling records – [AC/DC] went from 75,000 to 150,000 to 225,000 [sales] and then the fourth album was the one.”’
Bergman relates his account of Klenfner flying down to Australia to have an audience with the band and Vanda & Young.
‘I remember him saying, “I’m sitting in the room”, the big guy that he is, “on the floor and these little guys there and Vanda & Young.” And he told them, “If you really want to see your brothers make it, you’ve gotta let go of the production. You’ve gotta bring somebody else in here.”’
Bergman’s voice is made for FM radio. In fact, he could turn his home into a radio station. Thousands of records have been lovingly catalogued along one wall that runs the entire length of the apartment. He gets up off his office chair and pulls out an original Live From The Atlantic Studios album, a birthday card signed to him by the band, and photo albums of unseen AC/DC pics. They are very personal. Sightseeing together at the Alamo. Various stage shots. A picture of his cousin, former North Miami mayor Mike Colodny, with Bon and the band, of which Bergman owns and is inordinately proud. Colodny had given them the keys to the city on 7 August 1977.
‘Nobody knew that at the time,’ says Bergman of his role in calling up Colodny and arranging a photo-op with AC/DC. ‘That stayed a secret for 27 years until the Miami Herald published it and found out. For years they called my cousin the “rock ’n’ roll mayor” after we did what we did.’ I called my cousin up one day and I said, “Michael, I got this band and we’ve gotta do something. I gotta do some sort of promotion or something to bring attention to this band.’ And he’s very powerful in Florida. He says, “Barry, I’ll get them the key to the city and we’ll throw them a lunch at City Hall and I’ll have all the press there, because everybody will be wondering, ‘What the hell is all this about?’ and then we’re going to play at the Sportatorium that night in Miami.” This worked very well. That picture went around the world. This was beautiful.’
It’s been an impressive show-and-tell. But he’s most chuffed about his cameo on Live From The Atlantic Studios. Bergman says there was 300 to 400 people in the audience.
‘I’m on this record. I make my singing debut with Bon. It ended up in the Bonfire box set. I will play it for you.’
Bergman walks over to his turntable and carefully removes the vinyl from the mint packaging. It’s an original Atlantic Records promo-only copy. The needle finds ‘The Jack’ and Bergman turns up the volume. The sound fills the room, like we’re actually there.
Bon looked out for him specifically, he says, while Bergman was sitting up in the bleachers, ‘and he’s pushing people out of the way and he’s coming towards me, and he comes to me, and grabs my shoulder and puts the mike in my mouth and says, “Sing it Barry!” And I’m singing with him. No sooner the track was recorded the Young brothers, Angus and especially Malcolm, both said, “That’s the track we want to use.” And Angus said, “Yeah, we’re going to make Barry famous.” That’s a true story.’
He finds another memento. ‘Here, this is a picture you’ll never see in a magazine,’ he says, laughing, and shows me a photo of members of the band holding up the blouse of a woman, a real looker, revealing her breasts. He then shows me on his mobile phone a picture of a very silver-haired Cliff Williams, photographed recently stopping by Bergman’s apartment. In the photo Williams is standing against the same crammed shelves of box sets, LPs, CDs and books, most of the LPs and CDs in their original shrink wrapping. Bonfire, AC/DC’s box-set tribute to Bon, had been taken off the shelf by Williams for the photo.
AC/DC’s recently retired bass player had called Bergman out of the blue, after years of no contact, to say he was the luckiest man in the world, that the band had given him so much, he’d had 30 years with his wife Georganne and borne two great kids. Williams then flew in to New York to spend the day with Bergman.
‘I said to Cliff when I saw him, “What are you doing with yourself?” He says, “You know, Barry, I’ve been to every country in the entire world, now I’m travelling with my wife to see them because I never saw any of these countries. I was in every one but I never saw anything.’
As for Bon, whose heavy and increasingly problematic drinking he saw up close, Bergman remembers him as being ‘kind' to the end.
‘Decent, caring, loving, he was really very nice to me.’
So even when he was drunk he was kind?
‘He was a good guy, yeah. You know, he could function.’
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. Barry Bergman is giving a seminar about the music industry in August in New York City. For details, click here.
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.
KEN SCHAFFER, inventor of the Schaffer-Vega Diversity System (SVDS), an ingenious wireless transmitter first used by Angus Young in concert at The Palladium in New York on 24 August 1977, got to hang out with Bon Scott on four or five occasions in three cities. Bon even used a microphone version of Schaffer's wireless technology. Friend and confidant of the famous, best friend of Sting, one of the few people to have a song by REM written about him, he's one of the unsung heroes of classic rock.
‘I looooove Ken Schaffer!’ booms David Krebs, former manager of Aerosmith and AC/DC, over the phone from Malibu. ‘He’s a genius kind of guy.’
Such a genius that Schaffer once hooked up Krebs’s star client, Steven Tyler, to some electrodes to get him off heroin. He was paid $5000 for his trouble.
‘I thought was a great idea,’ sighs Krebs, ‘but it didn’t work.’
Schaffer remembers slightly differently when I meet him in the mid-Manhattan penthouse he’s owned since the 1970s.
‘I got Steven off of dope with an invention of mine that cures junkies. He used to sit here for two weeks for an hour a day with electrodes dangling off his ears. They thanked me on the Best Of Aerosmith album, but they spelled my last name wrong, the fucking assholes,’ he laughs.
In the same apartment, Schaffer entertained Angus Young.
‘Angus, on his first tour, with [then AC/DC manager] Michael Browning, they used to hang out here. Angus spent a fair amount of time here.’
So much so that Browning tried to get an apartment on the same floor. There’s a framed photograph of Angus with Schaffer in a glass cabinet where he keeps his most precious items.
Schaffer’s relationship with Angus was ‘like an older brother kind of thing, something like that… it was nice’.
Angus used Schaffer’s most famous invention, a wireless transmitter called the Schaffer-Vega Diversity System, in concert up until 1985 when he switched to another inferior digital unit. It would coincide with AC/DC’s darkest days creatively.
Says Schaffer: ‘From what I understand from the AC/DC “fan fans” he never sounded the same’.
The two lost contact.
Schaffer is a friend and confidant of some very famous people. He custom-built the Sardonyx guitar John Lennon used on Double Fantasy. Sting wrote the song ‘Russians’ for The Dream of the Blue Turtles album while watching Russian TV with Schaffer at Columbia University. (The restless and curious Schaffer, an inveterate Russophile, had invented a satellite tracking system to intercept Russian signals.)
But Schaffer ‘got barricaded everywhere’ trying to reconnect with AC/DC.
In 2014, however, he got his wish in Vancouver when Angus picked up a bunch of Schaffer’s wireless guitar units — now rebooted as the Schaffer Replica by his Italian-American friend Filippo Olivieri of SoloDallas.com — for AC/DC’s Rock Or Bust world tour.
He was told in a letter beforehand by ‘someone in management’ to ‘wash your hands, shake hands, 10 minutes, hand him the gift and get out’ but ‘in the end, everybody walked out feeling higher and better for it. [Angus’s wife] Ellen made dinner for us. The ten minutes turned out to be three and a half hours.'
In the mid-1970s, Schaffer had been busy on the New York social hustings since ‘paralleling’ out of handling publicity for clients such as Jimi Hendrix and Steven Tyler to becoming a full-time electronics inventor. It had been a hobby of his since the age of nine.
In the words of New York’s Village Voice, Schaffer was ‘hustling his latest invention, a cordless instrument system’ in hot Manhattan clubs such as Trax, frequented by John Belushi, James Taylor, Led Zeppelin, Ted Nugent, Mick Jagger, Al Pacino, Peter Frampton and Stephen Stills.
The Schaffer-Vega Diversity System promised musicians – vocalists and guitarists alike -- it would ‘eliminate the gruesome possibility of on-stage electrocution’.
Schaffer brought his first wireless microphone, which he’d invented in 1975, to Trax and ‘I handed it to [John] Belushi, who was there with Dan Aykroyd, they were The Blues Brothers, and they would stand on top of the bar and do a set with the wireless. Nobody had ever seen, you know, running around like that kind of shit. They went up the stairs to the street, ’cause Trax was downstairs in the basement, still singing and doing shit. We had a lot of bands doing stuff like that.’
He says he personally delivered ‘seven, ten units’ to Atlantic Studios over on 60th Street between Broadway and Central Park West. The Rolling Stones got their hands on them.
‘There’s Woody and Keith, Wyman and Jagger. They were so freaked out over having this wireless on their guitars and shit that they had the humpers [roadies] put the amps in the windows facing the street and they all went downstairs into the street and The Rolling Stones were walking up 60th Street.
‘It’s a short block. They were walking up and down that short block to Central Park to Broadway to Central Park to Broadway, playing, and the sound would come out of the second-floor windows. Nobody noticed. Not one car slowed down. I mean, only in New York. Man, the fucking Rolling Stones walking down the street [laughs].’
Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic would do a similar thing on 60th Street.
The first actual delivery of the wireless transmitter (some free prototype units) was to Jeff Lynne of ELO at a ‘blimp hangar’ in London, where the English band was doing rehearsals, because ‘they were such fans of what my vision was’.
But the first commercial order came from Kiss in 1976. Gene Simmons came over to Schaffer’s apartment and Schaffer did his pitch, talking up the staging possibilities of his new invention.
‘Gene’s looking at me like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” He was not interested. The staging possibilities did not trigger his imagination at all.’
‘The Schaffer Vega Diversity System promised musicians – vocalists and guitarists alike -- it would “eliminate the gruesome possibility of on-stage electrocution.”'
One night three weeks later, close to midnight, Simmons called from Lakeland, Florida.
‘You still doing the radio guitar thing, Kenny?’
‘You still doing that? We gotta get some.’
‘Well, gee, what happened, Gene?’
What had happened is that guitarist Ace Frehley, on top of a multi-level stage made out of metal pipes at the Civic Center on 12 December 1976, had held on to a pipe and been severely electrocuted. He’d fallen and had to be revived with oxygen.
‘Guitarists get shocks all the time,’ says Schaffer. ‘Poor Ace got knocked out. So Gene ordered a bunch of ’em… but it was for safety, not for staging whatsoever.’
Wireless technology has gone on to transform the rock business but Schaffer has not wildly profited from it.
‘I didn’t patent the wireless guitar. My greatest asset and my greatest liability is I make the best fucking thing money can buy. And I don’t look at the taxi meter on the price.’
Schaffer produced only small quantities of his product, which sold for US$4400 a pop -- a lot of money in the 1970s.
‘I just did things that supported my own, like, fascination and shit.’
But he discovered it complemented the tone of Angus’s famous cherry-red Gibson SG; a pleasant accident.
‘It just does some amazing shit to the sound of a guitar -- and to a bass, holy crap.’
Any kinks in Angus’s transmitter, of course, would be ironed out. There would be no more on-stage electrocutions for Angus when AC/DC performed..
‘I work up so much sweat I’ve had dozens of shocks when I’ve stood on amps or tried to pick up a can of Coke off one and found the amp, the can and me all stuck together and shaking,’ AC/DC’s enigmatic lead guitarist told UK music newspaper Sounds in 1977. ‘In Detroit just before I got [Schaffer’s] radio [transmitter] I was booted all over the stage by shocks whenever I touched Bon [Scott] or got near a cable. But with this thing there’s no chance of getting hurt.’
The rest is history. Today, an AC/DC concert without Angus and his wireless guitar is unthinkable.
‘I've heard conjecture that [Bon's cause of death] was drinking or that it was something else.'
– Ken Schaffer
‘When [Schaffer] finally got it fixed right he ran round the club jumping on tables, then ran out into the street shaking people’s hands and yelling, “It works, it works.” He’s an absolute nutcase.’
As for Bon, he was a prodigious drinker, obviously?
‘Ee-er, yeah,' he told me. ‘Well, I mean, I’ve heard conjecture that [Bon’s cause of death] was drinking or that it was something else.’
Can you elaborate?
‘You know, blah blah blah. I have no first-hand knowledge of it.’
But he did personally deliver an SVDS unit to Angus in Glasgow in 1978 and ‘I went to a bar with Bon and Malcolm… somehow I remember Angus being there too. I’m not a big drinker but I can do a single malt. One shot of whiskey and I woke up in my bed at the hotel. I had no idea how I got there. Apparently the guys carried me, whatever the fuck [laughs]. That’s the last I remember of that trip… as far as I know, Bon and Malcolm got me back to the hotel.’
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.
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.