Compiling a list of any “best ofs” is usually a fraught task when it comes to one’s favourite band, especially a group as mighty as Bon Scott–era AC/DC. Bon wrote some of the best rock songs ever recorded over his short career with AC/DC, a band he joined in 1974, yet the focus of my book, BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY, is specifically his time in America, 1977–79, and his death in London in 1980.
How to pick just a few when so many — dozens, in reality — would be worthy?
But when I was asked by my North American editors at ECW Press to come up with 5 songs had “particular significance to his story and his death”, it was a fairly straightforward exercise. These are the 5 songs that are a kind of aural roadmap to Bon’s life during the 1977–80 period and reflect key events or themes in the book.
1. “GONE SHOOTIN’” (1978)
Bon told the audience in Columbus in September 1978 that this standout track from Powerage was “a lady who took it upon herself to do whatever she wanted to do”. That lady was Silver Smith, Bon’s muse and tormentor, who earlier that year in Sydney had broken up with him to go “overland” through Asia with their mutual friend, Joe Fury. But the lyrics in the song are actually about her decision to leave Bon behind in Indianapolis, Indiana, in December 1977, where she bought a train ticket west. Her plan was to go out to California. Hence the first verse:
Feel the pressure rise
Hear the whistle blow
Bought a ticket of her own accord
To I don’t know
Silver was a heroin user, as were many people in Bon’s orbit, so he makes a sly reference to it in the lyrics and well as the title of the song.
I stirred my coffee with the same spoon
Knew her favourite tune
My baby’s gone shootin’
Silver, who died in December 2016, told me she never injected heroin. So why, then, did he insert make a reference to a spoon?
“Some poetic licence,” she said. “‘Gone Snortin’” doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it?”
2. “DOWN PAYMENT BLUES” (1978)
Arguably Bon’s finest moment as a songwriter. This song, which has its origins in a rough 1976 composition called “Rock ’N’ Roll Blues”, contains some of the best lines he ever put to paper:
No, I ain't doing much
Doing nothing means a lot to me
Living on a shoestring
A 50-cent millionaire
I got myself a Cadillac
But I can’t afford the gasoline
Can’t even feed my cat
On social security
Feeling like a paper cup
Floating down a storm drain
I got holes in my shoes
And I'm way overdue
The whole song is just a brilliant piece of writing.
Bon never had much money during his time with AC/DC. He was constantly borrowing money or getting other people to pay his bills. When he died in February 1980, thanks to the breakthrough of Highway To Hell, he had just over $30,000 from album royalties in his savings account. That was the sum of his entire estate.
Doug Thaler, AC/DC’s booking agent for their American tours during that period, told me he got a phone call from Bon just before he died.
“Highway To Hell was just about platinum by then and I congratulated him on that – I said something like, ‘You’ll finally have some real money for your pocket now.’ He said that with all the newfound success, nothing had trickled down to him yet so his life was still the same as it had been. It was only a couple of weeks later that I got the call from [AC/DC manager] David Krebs that he’d been found dead in a car in London.”
3. “GIRLS GOT RHYTHM” (1979)
Michael Fazzolare and his punk-rock band Critical Mass hung out with AC/DC during their Miami rehearsals for the Highway To Hell album. Bon had a gorgeous teenage lover in Key Biscayne called Holly X and was having a fine time, contrary to his well-known quip that the city was “God’s waiting room”. This song most likely was about Holly X or another of his Miami lovers, Pattee Bishop and Beth Quartiano.
AC/DC had just parted ways with Vanda & Young as their producers and were in Florida to work with Eddie Kramer at Criteria Recording Studios, which didn’t turn out well. In the end, they ended up recording the album at Roundhouse Studios in London with Mutt Lange, who gave the band a much more polished, commercial sound. You can really notice the difference in the backing vocals, especially.
As Fazzolare recalled about the writing of “Girls Got Rhythm”: “Malcolm Young asked the band if they were all aboard in going with this more refined, slightly more dynamic commercial style. They were writing ‘Girls Got Rhythm’, and Bon was singing some racy lyrics: The girl’s got rhythm, she’s got the freestyle rhythm. [Laughs] Malcolm stops playing and says, ‘Mate, those words are a bit too strong. We need to tone it down a little.’ Of course, the lyric became the back seat rhythm. To be honest, I didn’t see the difference. Then again I was 23 so my imagination was very active.”
4. “TOUCH TOO MUCH” (1979)
A very sexual song containing some great writing from Bon:
She had the face of an angel
Smiling with sin
A body of Venus with arms
It’s a song about Holly X, according to Michael Fazzolare: “I still say ‘Touch Too Much’ is about Holly.” According to Holly’s friend Liz Klein: “Bon was madly in love with Holly. She was always gorgeous, still is; just a beautiful woman, really beautiful inside and out. She had just like a perfect body.”
5. “HIGHWAY TO HELL” (1979)
Bon’s career apogee and the inspiration for the title of the book and its narrative arc from Route 79 outside Milano, Texas, to Overhill Road in East Dulwich, London. An all-time classic that remains as popular and powerful as the day it was released. Doesn’t get any better, really. Not much more I need to add, though anyone interested in World War II history might appreciate a clipping I found from 1943 that is probably the first mention of a Highway to Hell, bizarrely from Egypt. It was the name given to “a crude strip of rocks and brushwood flung into the marshy land of the wadi – the almost-dry river bed – by British engineers under artillery cover in their week-end attack against the Nazi strongpoint… the thin line of communication and supply across the wadi for the British… a bottleneck for tanks and guns."
BONUS TRACK: “NIGHT PROWLER” (1979)
This track’s mysterious sign-off — “Shazbot Nanu Nanu”, the last words ever spoken by Bon on an AC/DC album — has nothing really to do with Bon being a fan of Mork & Mindy. It’s a reference to a guy called Teddy Rooney, who was the son of Mickey Rooney and played bass in a Miami band called Tight Squeeze. Rooney jammed with AC/DC in rehearsals. He died in 2016.
Says Michael Fazzolare: “It was something we were all saying when we hung out, which was started by Teddy. He was the one who went around using the phrase. We would all chime in on occasion. I would guess it winding up on the album was either a nod from Bon to Teddy himself or a nod to the entire Miami gang.”
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.
Over the past few months I’ve been subjected to a small amount of abuse online from a few unhinged types, spurred on by a group of furious mother hens on Facebook with insignificant links to Bon Scott who think they have some pre-ordained right to speak on the man’s behalf, almost 38 years after his death. The anniversary of Bon’s tragic passing in 1980 is coming on February 19.
What had I done?
One, I’d not written the story in Bon: The Last Highway they wanted to hear. Two, I’d dared suggest in my book that Bon, a bloke nicknamed ‘Ronnie Roadtest’ for his willingness to have a crack at whatever illicit substances were at hand, had died of something other than alcohol poisoning.
But this is not a new idea. As I made very clear in the book, it has been around for decades. I’m not even the first writer to mention heroin: Mark Putterford, Malcolm Dome and Mick Wall have all spoken of heroin in connection to Bon. Mark Evans, former bass player of AC/DC, confirmed to me in my first book on the band, The Youngs, that Bon was nearly sacked for a heroin OD in 1975, while Michael Browning, former manager of AC/DC, has claimed Bon had a second OD in 1976.
Additionally, all the characters who are introduced in Bon: The Last Highway and were around Bon in London on the last night of his life were in some way connected to heroin or the heroin scene.
Further information has even come to light since the publication of the book that I might eventually publish in due course, which only adds weight to the argument made in Bon: The Last Highway that the great AC/DC frontman of the 1970s accidentally died of a heroin overdose.
Significantly, I found two witnesses, both former heroin users, who were at The Music Machine in Camden who saw Bon with their own eyes and thought he’d taken smack.
One of them, astonishingly, admitted being with Bon and heroin user/pusher Alistair Kinnear back at Alistair’s apartment building in East Dulwich on the morning of 19 February 1980. So there was a third person with Bon and Alistair when Bon died.
In the book I also go through each of the accounts available from known individuals who were involved in Bon’s last night/morning on earth and come up with two workable theories for how he died, both of them centred around the one substance some people just can’t bring themselves to admit Bon ever used: heroin.
Does it matter how he died? Well, does it matter how Marilyn Monroe died? Or Jim Morrison? Or John Belushi? I'd say yes. Especially when so many drug deaths to this day are needless and preventable. There are still important lessons that can be drawn from Bon Scott's experience and the fatal mistake he made. I don't see why Bon Scott, as an enduring global icon, should be treated differently to anyone else.
For this there have been charges made against me of “cashing in” and “walking over a dead man’s body”; bans on mentioning the book on some Bon Scott Facebook groups; even threats of physical violence. Yes, seriously.
So do I regret writing the book? Not in a million years. I’ve loved every minute of the three years it took to write, and the four to bring it to press. Bon Scott is a Scottish-Australian hero we should all know about, celebrate and go on celebrating. But for me, his legend is only enhanced by revealing his faults and weaknesses. They don’t tarnish his reputation. They make him more human and relatable, less of a caricature.
I’d rather know the real man, not a statue.
Margaret ‘Silver’ Smith was one of the great loves of Bon Scott, the inspiration for many of his best songs, including ‘Gimme A Bullet’ and ‘Gone Shootin’’ off AC/DC’s 1978 masterpiece, Powerage.
They lived together in Australia and England. They travelled together on the road in the United States. She died in a hospice in Jamestown, South Australia, on 12 December 2016.
Bon, separated from his wife Irene Thornton in 1974, had fallen hard for Silver, reputedly spraying her name in silver paint at the headquarters of AC/DC’s Australian record company, Albert Productions, and mentioning her in one letter from the road in 1977: ‘I haven’t seen my lady for four months… love will prevail.’
But it didn’t. A mutually agreed 12-month break in their relationship in early 1978 became permanent, on Silver’s wishes.
She saw Bon alone only once or twice in the last year of his life, though importantly he phoned her to invite her out on the evening prior to his mysterious death in London on 19 February 1980. She claims Bon had finished writing the lyrics to Back In Black and wanted to celebrate.
According to her, she declined his invitation. By then she’d made it very clear there was no future for them as a couple.
Before Silver’s death, she spoke to me for Bon: The Last Highway: The Untold Story of Bon Scott and AC/DC’s Back In Black. These were her last recorded audio interviews, among only a few she ever gave during her life, giving AC/DC fans a rare insight into her passionate but tumultuous relationship with Australia’s greatest rock legend. If anyone was Bon's true muse it was Silver Smith. An abridged version of this interview was published in the December 2017 edition of Classic Rock.
On her beginnings:
I don’t know who my biological father was and knew nothing about my biological mother until about 15 years ago. I have had four names, all of them legal, one I didn’t know about until relatively recently. I have been legally ‘Silver Smith’ for four and a half decades. I think of my family as the people who raised me.
I’ve been alone for 30 years. The Bon adventure was one too far for me. I got scared. I buried myself in work.
On Bon’s appetite for drugs:
Before [he joined] AC/DC in Adelaide in 1974, Bon was known to take anything. He was a drug pig. He and ‘Uncle’ [Fraternity harmonica player John Ayers] were notorious back in the day when there was a [drug] drought on for wheedling and badgering everyone; I can vouch for that. They both experimented with crazy things like datura while broke in London. Of course I didn’t see that, but my sources for that are ones I would rely on. I loved Uncle; he was a madman but an irresistible character.
On claims made in book publicity that Live Wire author Mary Renshaw was Bon’s ‘soulmate’:
As far as I know I never met Mary Renshaw. I met [Bon’s ex-wife] Irene Thornton once briefly as she was my friend Shane Marshall’s beautiful cousin and Irene had just arrived back from England. She wore gorgeous clothes. The ‘soulmate’ label was a surprise. Mary was an old friend [of Bon’s] and he had quite a few friends like that. I thought of her in the same category. Bon wrote to lots of people regularly, so I’m familiar with his friendship with Darce and Gabby [Renshaw’s co-writers John and Gabby D’Arcy] of whom he was very fond, but not Mary. Just Maria Short from Perth. He also wrote to Judy King.
On her late husband Graeme Smith:
A good Scotsman to the end, he died of liver failure. He was okay, one of the good guys, but didn’t put himself out all that much.
On Irene Thornton:
We girls were all in awe of her looks, style, and fabulous Carnaby Street/Kings Road clothes. It was months after my one-time dalliance with Bon [in Adelaide] and before she met him. The sex was great, but the rest of the adventure was a disaster, so it only happened once. Then, later, I heard Bon and Irene married during the flurry of marriages in Fraternity, because Hamish Henry, their manager, was only paying for wives to go to England, not girlfriends. I figured he was a lucky guy.
I don’t remember Bon and Irene visiting Graeme and I at the Mount Lofty cottage as she described in her book [My Bon Scott], but it may have happened. We got drop-in visitors up there all the time, but I don’t remember now who most of them were unless there was a particular reason for remembering. She may well have visited us.
City hippies often dropped in on hills hippies on the weekends in good weather, as evidenced by the scene at Fraternity’s Aldgate house, and Graeme and I had our share. No telephones. [Valentines lead singer] Vince Lovegrove had swapped houses with us, and his friend, the artist Vytas Serelis, who probably knew Bon well, had a cottage on the next driveway. We would have offered Bon and Irene tea and a smoke if we had some and probably played a new album.
On Irene’s claim she met Silver at a rock festival:
Overactive imagination, definitely. It was a regret of mine that I missed all the outdoor hippie rock festivals in Adelaide, as I was usually called into the kitchen at the Travelodge – the best hotel in Adelaide at the time – on those weekends. My savings plan for my great adventure [overseas] was to nearly always have part-time work on top of full-time clerical work. No equal pay back then.
On Bon’s relationship with Irene:
Bon was big on telling people how much he owed Irene for taking him in after his motorcycle accident [in 1974] although they weren’t together any more, and how he couldn’t wait to be able to help her out. She was pregnant and struggling. But he didn’t, did he? Instead of showing off by showing up in a limo with expensive booze to visit people who were doing it hard, he could have given her the money. I would have been pissed off [with him] if I were her.
On Bon’s 1975 heroin overdose in Melbourne:
He told me very early on how close he had gone to fucking up over the [Judy] King incident, and that he had made a promise to the Youngs [not to do drugs]. If anything, I was stricter [with him] than the Youngs, because he was a total embarrassment even when he overdid the ‘smoko’ with alcohol at inappropriate times, and I was the one who would have to get him home and up five flights of stairs. Not to mention that this behaviour was considered really tacky in London. To the best of my knowledge, Bon kept faith with his promise to the Youngs.
‘It was the what-the-fuck impulse things that did the real damage [to our relationship]... the babysitting stuff was becoming intolerable.'
– Silver on Bon
On hooking up with Bon after AC/DC’s first London gig at the Red Cow in Hammersmith, 1976:
I used to go past [the Red Cow] on the bus to my work agency in Hammersmith. It was such a lonely, homely building; just a stone cube. Stuck out like a sore thumb because there were no other buildings on that side of the road.
How different my life would have been if I had not been home, not answered the phone, not gone to the Red Cow that night. At that time, I was truly happy, contented for the first time in my life, had lovely friends, was learning some wonderful things, and it had been that way for a couple of years. I felt like I was finally home. And then it all went to shit.
On the difficulty of having a relationship with Bon:
It was the what-the-fuck impulse things that did the real damage. On the second trip [home] to Australia [from England in 1978], while we were staying in Coogee, Sydney, two things happened like that, and I knew I could no longer be with this man, couldn’t live like this any more, and the babysitting stuff was becoming intolerable and dangerous. I wanted to break up then, but settled for a 12-month separation, where I could go back to London and think seriously about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and then make a decision.
On drugs being involved in Bon’s death:
Bon knew AC/DC was his last shot at making it, and he was really conscientious after his OD with the King girl in Melbourne. He told me straight away about it; he did smoke hash when he had downtime, and drank horribly, but I don’t know of any pills. I was personally really tough on him with smoko even, as he had really embarrassed me by eating a huge piece of hash at a ridiculously inappropriate time very early on in London.
‘Bon doing smack would be anyone's worst nightmare... but with Bon I guess anything's possible.'
– Silver on Bon
On Bon using heroin:
I would be really surprised if you find anyone credible who will swear they saw Bon take heroin during his London-based years with AC/DC. But with Bon I guess anything’s possible. He had a really bad reputation for taking anything and to extreme excess back in Adelaide with Fraternity. But he did take the heroin embargo from the Youngs after Judy King really seriously, and did not want to get fired.
Given what it was like to have to look after him when he was comatose on Scotch, I was very glad there was an embargo. Bon doing smack would be anyone’s worst nightmare and I personally wouldn’t have had anything to do with him [if he had used it].
On Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards visiting her at her flat:
We had a grizzle together about the parlous state of the legal system at the time, and the nasty attitude of the plainclothes police in Britain and they way they try to humiliate you.
On rock biographer Mick Wall who claimed he’d been to Silver’s apartment in London and seen Bon snort either cocaine or heroin:
Mick Wall has never been to my place. I wasn’t living with Bon in 1979.
On former AC/DC bass player Mark Evans:
He was very young, but was definitely the smartest in the band, a lot more aware of what was going on in the rest of the world.
On former AC/DC drummer Phil Rudd:
Probably the last time he was home [in Australia from touring in America], Bon told me Phil was really freaking; exhausted from all the driving. I’ve read Phil was on coke, but I don’t think so. Bon would have mentioned it. Bon was really pissed off that nothing was being done to help Phil; that [the Youngs] just kept getting the whip out. But Bon didn’t speak up. I was so sad when Phil had that recent [legal] trouble; it seemed so unfair. I had the urge to write him a letter, but what could I have said or done after nearly four decades?
It was a couple of months after that American tour that Phil and I had a day out on a catamaran that we got in trouble for [with the Youngs]. It was a lovely silly happy day and we laughed like drains, and that’s how I choose to remember him. Not looking so lost and hunted on the telly.
On Michael Browning’s book Dog Eat Dog and Browning’s portrayal of Silver:
I think [Browning] is still sucking up to the Youngs, after all this time. Maybe he thinks they might pat him on the head and say, ‘Thanks, Michael, for all those grinding tours you organised.’ He never had a conversation with me, never visited my house. [His sister] Coral was very comfortable there – they are chalk and cheese. He never met a single friend of mine, and I only travelled with [the Brownings] twice: once from Perth to London, and once from San Francisco to Sydney. He and his wife [Julie] travelled first class; the rest of us were back in economy. I would never have looked ‘drug fucked’ in public, and rarely in the privacy of my own place.
On Browning’s allegation that Bon had an overdose in Silver’s company in London, 1976:
Bon didn’t OD on heroin in 1976 in London in my company. He told me he had ODed with the very young and troubled Judy King in Melbourne and had nearly died, not long before they came to London; that the band was very angry about it and had banned him from taking all drugs except alcohol, which they were fine with. He smoked a lot of hash, but only when he was away from the band. Because the band was so busy he didn’t know anyone in 1976 in London except a couple of friends of mine and Coral, none of whom were heroin users, so I think it extremely unlikely that he ODed with anyone in London.
On Coral Browning:
Bon was really dependent on Coral. He loved Coral. Until I came along, basically there was just a band. He and Coral got on like a house on fire. And she was very fond of him and she went through all the mail; he used to get ridiculous mail and stuff. Her and I hit it off really well. We spent a lot of time together. We did things together when the band was away. Coral was the only one, apart from Bon, that I really had a relationship with… because of the friendship that I had with her at that time, I can’t see how I wouldn’t have known if something like that [alleged heroin OD] had happened… it doesn’t make sense to me that I wouldn’t have known about it.
‘He would be fine for ages, and then do something really destructive at the worst possible time.'
– Silver on Bon
On her London social circles:
Bon asked me how I knew so many wealthy people. Travelling was still very expensive in the 1970s; luxurious giant planes were often only a third full. So on long-haul flights passengers socialised, swapped stories and passed on addresses of friends to look up, and partied in the bar. Australians were an unknown novelty and were welcome in the world of the ‘beautiful people’ of the ‘70s if they were smart, amusing and attractive, dressed well and had good manners. Sophisticated Europeans didn’t sit around divvying up the bill after a meal; you never saw the bill. Americans and South Americans fought for the right to be able to pay it, proving they were the richest person at the table.
On Bon’s self-destructiveness:
He would be fine for ages, and then do something really destructive at the worst possible time, with no explanation, and really make things difficult for other people, without giving them a single thought. Consideration of others was not a strong point.
On why she didn’t keep any of Bon’s letters or photos:
Everything I owned disappeared; I’ve had to start again twice… I’ve never been able to find out where it [all] went. The first big loss was in London: three huge trunks. Two modern aluminium trunks. One old wooden, steel-banded trunk, painted midnight blue, with silver stars. Plus a giant wooden fridge crate. These contained all my documentation, books, records, photos, diaries, collections of letters, bibelots and precious things from my family days, my mother’s world-class embroidery, everything I owned up to the age of 29, except for what I had with me. The past completely wiped out. It is still devastating to me. Over the last few decades some photos have been given to me by friends and family. I had some great professional shots that were lost.
I know [Bon Scott biographer] Clinton Walker showed me two photographs he got from [Bon’s mother] Isa Scott, the one that was printed in his book, and there is one with me, Isa and Bon at Perth airport saying goodbye. It was the afternoon of the great salty long-haul flight, and Bon picked my clothes; not me. I looked like crap but I was smiling, which is at least something. I’m wearing a lime green shirt and white jeans.
On where she was when she found out from King’s College Hospital that Bon had died:
I was at home. [Bon’s and my friend] Joe Fury was either there, or arrived just after the call… they didn’t say [Bon] was dead. They asked me to come to the hospital because it was serious. They never give death messages over the phone. They look after you, put you in a nice room with a cup of tea. Joe had worked in hospitals, so he had figured it out, and told me his fears before the doctor came in. I can’t talk about what I thought and felt.
On Bon having or not having a will:
I never heard of there being any wills at any time. Bon wasn’t big on being organised. He knew he owed Irene a big favour, and he talked about helping her with a deposit for a house all the time because she had taken him in after the bike accident [in 1974], but he didn’t do it, did he? I thought he should have done it, not went around to visit her with expensive booze and just talked about it.
On Bon’s parents Chick and Isa after his death in 1980:
I felt protective of Isa. His parents were really happy in their own new unit. They didn’t want a big house, or money. They were happy and proud of what they’d achieved for their family. I could relate to that. Isa just wished that Bon had seen his own success. They were good but naive people, Bon’s parents.
BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BON SCOTT AND AC/DC'S BACK IN BLACK is available now.
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.