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.
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.
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.
38 Special’s ‘Caught Up in You’ (1982) is one of my all-time favourite songs and videos. The first time I heard it, the first time I saw the clip, I thought it was the perfect good-time American rock-pop song and I don't feel any differently about it today – it’s still a track that instantly gets you moving and makes you feel great.
Growing up in Australia we didn’t really hear much of 38 Special – if any of the band's music – on the radio. So the joys of the band came to me in my mid-30s while listening to car radio in the States. Interestingly for me, AC/DC and 38 Special had played together on a bill at the Masonic Auditorium, Detroit, 27 August 1977, with Johnny Winter headlining.
JEFF CARLISI was 38 Special’s lead guitarist that night and played with the Jacksonville (FL) band from 1974–1996: the classic line-up. He spoke to me about playing on the same stage with a young and hungry AC/DC on its first tour of the States. 38 Special's debut self-titled album (below) had just been released that May on A&M Records.
What do you remember of the Masonic Auditorium gig in Detroit?
I remember sitting with Angus and Bon back at the hotel bar. They seemed a bit bummed out because they were not well received by the audience. I thought they were great even though they probably shouldn't have been on that bill. I don't remember much of our conversation (all of us being well pissed, not to mention Bon's heavy accent). I do remember us having a good laugh about all of us being 'newbies' and if this is what we should always expect.
‘Bon was quite pissed but I assumed it was due to being depressed from the poor response from the audience.'
– Jeff Carlisi
Did you get the sense they were trying to blow you off the stage?
I never felt that AC/DC was trying to blow us off the stage, even though that's what we [musicians] all try to do. It's part of our DNA. They seemed more to be doing their job.
Did anything about Bon's drinking strike you as out of the ordinary?
Drinking? Hmmmm... I suppose we all drank a good bit back in those days. Bon was quite pissed but I assumed it was due to being depressed from the poor response from the audience. I felt bad for him and Angus as well. However, they were super nice guys and very personable as well. I was shocked to hear of Bon's passing as we all are when we lose one of our brothers. At that time I had no idea that his alcohol consumption was a problem. Again, very nice people. I think they appreciated a shoulder to cry on.
What do you think of AC/DC today without Bon?
I still love the band as much as ever. As a matter of fact my friend Brendan O'Brien works with them as their producer and I've spent some time with Brian Johnson at a few racetracks talking about cars. I was introduced to Brian by our mutual friend Brian Howe.
Lastly, I’m a huge admirer of 38 Special and especially your outfit in the video for ‘Caught Up in You’. What happened to those threads? They should be on exhibition in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Thanks for being a fan – especially of my wardrobe! Ha! My wife had a bed quilt made for me years back. It was made up of all my favourite shirts from all the years of touring. That shirt lives!
BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BON SCOTT AND AC/DC'S BACK IN BLACK is available to preorder now through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and hundreds of other retailers.
Jesse Fink is the author of Bon: The Last Highway: The Untold Story of Bon Scott and AC/DC's Back In Black, which is available now. For more information about the book, click HERE or click the book covers below to be directed to editions in your preferred territory and language.