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.
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.
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.