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.
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.
Bon Scott died in London in 1980 aged 33 in circumstances that have never really been adequately explained and for three years I spent writing a book about him, Bon: The Last Highway, released this November.
One of the striking qualities of almost every story to do with Bon is how unreliable they are, even more so when they came from his own mouth. Getting to the truth of the matter – the duty of any biographer – is a tough proposition.
Ever the larrikin and a prodigious drinker, Bon loved to spin a yarn and one of the most enduring of his tall tales was the time in Phoenix, Arizona, he reputedly missed a flight to Texas after encountering a Mexican woman at the airport bar. Over the years in various books the incident has been put as happening in either 1977 or 1979.
As Bon recalled in an anecdote quoted in Clinton Walker’s 1994 biography Highway To Hell and Martin Huxley’s 2005 biography AC/DC: The World’s Heaviest Rock, ‘We’d been drinking in the airport bar for about ten minutes when I says [sic], “Don’t you think it’s time we caught our plane?” And she says, “What do you mean, our plane? I’m staying here.” I runs back and the fuckin’ flight’s gone. Anyway she takes me to this black bar and she’s Mexican – and I starts drinkin’ and playin’ pool. I had a good night, beatin’ every bastard.
‘After about two hours playin’ this big-titted black chick, and beatin’ her too, I happen to look and the bar is goin’, “Grrr.” I think, “Uh oh, Bon”, I gives [sic] her another game and lose nine to one. “Anyone else want to beat me?” I says. So I escapes with me life, only barely – and I made it to the gig in Austin.’
The group’s lead guitarist, Angus Young, elaborated: ‘We were going from California to Austin, Texas, and we stopped off at Phoenix for fuel. We were just taking off again when someone says, “Where’s Bon?” He’d followed this bird off the plane and we reckoned he’d drunk so much he wouldn’t even know which country he was headed for.’
But in March 1980, with Angus recounting the story again to Britain’s Sounds magazine just weeks after Bon’s death, Phoenix suddenly became Detroit and Bon had ended up in a ‘black ghetto’.
‘I remember he missed a plane just once in Detroit when he just followed a girl that he’d met off the plane and ended up in some black ghetto, but that was typical of him, that was something we could laugh at. And he still got there the next day in time for the show.’
‘He missed a plane just once in Detroit.'
– Angus Young
The late Mark Putterford had another take in his 1992 biography AC/DC: Shock To The System: ‘Bon followed an alluring dark-skinned damsel… [and] ended up in some black bar beating all the locals at pool, only escaping with his life when he deliberately turned into the worst pool-shooter in the West.’
By 1995, Angus had changed his story yet again, Detroit becoming Los Angeles.
‘We were supposed to play in Phoenix the night before,’ he told Texan journalist Michael Corcoran, ‘but Bon followed a girl off the plane in LA and he missed the flight.’
What’s it going to be? Which airport exactly? Did it even happen at all?
It’s a very good example of how, when it comes to stories regarding our folk heroes, dead or otherwise, there are plenty of myths or recycled stories that are barely half-truths if not possible fabrications, all seemingly designed to buttress a legend.
The Phoenix incident may or may not have happened. But when it comes to stories about Bon Scott, especially, truth can be an elastic concept.
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.
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.