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.
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.
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.