The Confederate Battle Flag belt buckle Bon Scott wore everywhere in 1979 is the source of numerous tales and is clearly visible in many photographs taken of Bon that year. In fact, you won't find many photos of Bon in 1979 without him wearing that buckle. What’s little known outside the worldwide AC/DC fan community is that on the buckle, in place of stars, it actually spells out LYNYRD SKYNYRD.
So the big question is: Did Bon get the buckle from late Lynyrd Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant?
Former Florida-based concert promoter Sidney Drashin has claimed that Van Zant possibly came to see AC/DC when they first played Jacksonville in August 1977, while guitarist Gary Rossington, who still plays in the current incarnation of Lynyrd Skynyrd, went public a few years ago with a story that the band jammed with AC/DC the following day, the veracity of which I examine briefly in Bon: The Last Highway.
However, the Van Zant–Scott story is almost certainly a rock myth: from what I have seen from the available photographic archives, Bon only really started wearing it long after Van Zant, Skynyrd guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines and three other people were killed in the band's plane crash in October 1977. It seems a reasonable assumption to me that he’d have worn it much earlier if he were paying his respects to the dead Skynyrd frontman and his fallen bandmates.
After the release of Bon, former Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle expressed on Twitter his hunch that Leon Wilkeson, Skynyrd's bass player, who like Pyle had survived the crash, had given one to Bon: ‘My guess: buckles were gifts to Skynyrd from [Day On The Green promoter] Bill Graham. Leon gave his to Bon when Bon stayed with him.’
In 2015 when Dylann Roof, a homicidal white supremacist, killed nine African-American parishioners in a Methodist church in South Carolina, the Confederate Battle Flag came under unprecedented assault for being a pernicious symbol of racism. The killer had earlier photographed himself with a firearm and the same flag. Images of the flag were being removed everywhere. Reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard were taken off American cable TV.
Then in 2017, the flag and other symbols of the Confederacy came under renewed attack again after the terrible events at Charlottesville, Virginia. The world's greatest Civil War historian, the late Shelby Foote, argued that the Confederate Battle Flag was not a racist flag (listen to him in the clip below) but to millions of Americans it is just that and will always be thus: a symbol of white nationalism and those Confederate soldiers who fought to maintain chattel slavery in the South. Those arguments are valid and to be respected. Flag supporters argue the opposite: it is about ‘heritage not hate’. The debate rages on.
So what does it have to do with AC/DC? Firstly, Bon was no bigot (there is no suggestion of him ever having a racist bone in his body). Nor were the other members of AC/DC, who’d hung a Confederate Battle Flag inside their tour bus in 1979. Call it ignorance or innocence or both, but they were celebrating the Southern ‘spirit’ like so many rock bands or performers of that era: Skynyrd, Black Oak Arkansas, Ted Nugent, Outlaws, 38 Special, Molly Hatchet and so many more. Tom Petty and Kid Rock both adopted Confederate Battle Flags at various times, though the late Petty came to reject it completely. Charlie Daniels, a defender of the flag, has written a piece here. An opponent of it, Richard Fowler, has written a piece here. What's abundantly clear to me is that the American South, Southern rock and and its rebel spirit had indisputably struck a chord with Bon. That fascination is most evident on AC/DC's best album, Powerage (1978).
‘For most of my life, that flag just represented geographical pride, no more no less,’ explains Charlie Starr, lead singer and guitarist of Atlanta band Blackberry Smoke, the finest exponent of Southern rock playing anywhere in the world today – including Skynyrd.
‘I have a Grateful Dead Southern Tour shirt from 1988 that has a Confederate flag proudly displayed on the front of it. Unfortunately, it’s been hijacked by hate groups and come to represent something evil to a lot of people. There are two sides, ya know. Skynyrd would fly it, The Allman Brothers wouldn’t.’
‘For most of my life, that flag just represented geographical pride, no more, no less.'
– Charlie Starr, Blackberry Smoke
In recent times, though, the members of the band that performs as Skynyrd have decided to no longer use it as a backdrop on stage; that said, they haven't quite disavowed it either.
One of rock ’n’ roll’s most colourful figures in the 1970s was Sidney Drashin, whose company Jet Set Enterprises was a colossus of rock promotion in the southern United States.
Over his career Drashin promoted over 5000 shows, including Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra and, most famously of all, Lynyrd Skynyrd. His kingdom was Jacksonville, Orlando, Miami and Tampa but Jet Set put on shows in about 30 cities around the Southeast and Southwest, including cities outside Florida.
Drashin got arrested in 1979 on a cocaine possession rap, stemming out of a 1977 drug bust that resulted in the arrest of Exorcist actress Linda Blair, who was dating Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington. At the time of the arrest she was attending the funeral of Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant. Says Drashin, who knew Blair: ‘She’d come down and get in trouble.’
Former AC/DC manager Michael Browning calls Drashin a ‘Jacksonville scoundrel’ in his autobiography, Dog Eat Dog, which greatly amuses the man himself. A more accurate description was made by Bob Greene in a piece for Audience magazine in 1972. Drashin was ‘a loud, frantic young man… who did not seem able to talk to another person without clutching that person’s arm’.
Not much has changed nearly 50 years later. Even retired, everything the man does is a million miles a minute. He types his name with a $ symbol for the ‘s’ in Drashin and lives in a condo at Ponte Vedra Beach outside Jacksonville.
‘Marketing is 90 per cent of anything,' he says. ‘The Rolling Stones are dog shit but they were well promoted.’
After making their state debut at the West Palm Beach Civic Auditorium (now the West Palm Beach Christian Convention Center), AC/DC made their second Florida appearance supporting REO Speedwagon at Jacksonville’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum on 6 August 1977.
REO Speedwagon was called the ‘world’s most boring band’ in Browning’s book, an ungenerous assessment for a band featuring an incredible lead guitarist (the late Gary Richrath) that would go on to record the outstanding single ‘Roll With The Changes’ a year later, one of the mainstays of American classic rock.
In August 1977, they were promoting the hit live album You Get What You Play For.
‘R.E.O. Speedwagon Is Gold And Exploding! CURRENTLY STORMING THE COUNTRY ON TOUR!’ screamed an Epic Records ad in Radio & Records of 5 August. Wrote Circus magazine: ‘For a band with no hype, little promotion and a big share of problems, REO has managed to maintain their pace through constant touring and perseverance doing the thing they love best – rock ’n’ roll.’
From Champaign, Illinois, they’d originally hit the road after buying a used limousine they had bought for $50. They played up to three towns a night. AC/DC had far more in common with REO Speedwagon than they liked to think.
Drashin is not sure, but thinks Lynyrd Skynyrd (with whom he ‘probably did a coupla hundred shows’) turned up to see the support act.
‘‘Skynyrd was our local band. I think Ronnie Van Zant came to the show and wanted to see AC/DC. The band showed up and I made ’em security guards, I think, I can’t remember that totally, I know I did it for the Stones one year, I made [Skynyrd] security. But I also think I did it with AC/DC.
‘They were kids. They liked to go to shows; they were pretty well known so I had to stick ’em behind security guards in the place between the risers.’
Members of Skynyrd have claimed to have jammed with AC/DC the following day, something I explore further in Bon: The Last Highway, as well as looking into Bon’s reputed friendship with late Skynyrd bass player Leon Wilkeson, the man Mark Evans once said Bon had in mind for his rumoured solo album.
Did Bon get his Confederate Battle Flag belt buckle from Van Zant? It's a tale that's been going around for years and I'll be examining that in another blog. Were members of AC/DC offered a ride on the plane that crashed in Mississippi? The short answer to that one is they wouldn't be needing to get from South Carolina to Louisiana if they were in the middle of playing shows in England. A lot of myths abound when it comes to AC/DC and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
‘Skynyrd were maybe the craziest band of all time,’ says Drashin. ‘No one came close. Let me give you a couple of stories on them and you’ll get the drift. Ronnie was the leader, the writer and the singer. He was short, maybe five feet, he wasn’t much higher than that, but he was knockin’ on the door when [the rest of the band] wouldn’t come down to go to the shows and when they’d come to the door, he’d bust them right in the mouth.
‘Skynyrd were maybe the craziest band of all time.'
– Sidney Drashin
‘I said, “Ronnie, you gotta stop it. It’s a terrible habit to have a beat-up band playin’ with blood drippin’ outta their nose.” He said, “The monkeys, if they don’t listen to me, I’m gonna beat the shit out of em.” That’s how crazy he was. Just because they were late to come down and get in like, not a limo even, a SUV or a van, in Memphis one time.
‘They would also knock on my window at two in the morning and beg me to give ’em some champagne and I’d go down to the kitchen, I wouldn’t let ’em in the house, and hand it to ’em out the window and off they went. They were great kids, though. They were a lot of fun; they were brilliant at what they did.
‘AC/DC took over Jacksonville almost as big as Skynyrd. It was really close. The Beatles were one thing, the Stones were something else, but AC/DC was from Australia. They weren’t part of the English invasion. They came from… it was almost like the moon. It was so far away, Australia, it added a cachet to it, an extra round of dynamite.
‘AC/DC came from... it was almost like the moon.'
– Sidney Drashin
‘AC/DC’s stage show was something no one had ever seen at a time that was perfect. [Booking agency American Talent International’s] Jeff Franklin was brilliant at recognising talent and when I called him and started telling him about ’em, he knew he had the right handbill. The [Jacksonville] kids hadn’t seen anything of that stature. I loved the band. The money was fine. I mean, let’s be realistic. Money’ll change the time of day in downtown New York. But it wasn’t the money. It was the thrill of it all.’
As for Wilkeson, who died in a Ponte Vedra Beach hotel room in 2001, Drashin says he was ‘easily’ as crazy as Van Zant but ‘he had a little old lady’s heart’ and was a ‘great guy’.
It could just as easily have been a description of Bon.
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. Sidney Drashin's book RINGLEADER OF ROCK SHOWS is available through Amazon.
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.