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.
Much of the secret history of Bon Scott is to be found in, of all places, Florida. Miami band Critical Mass features prominently in Bon: The Last Highway because of their great friendship on the stage and off with Bon in the early months of 1979.
During the writing of the book I went to Miami to meet rhythm guitarist and lead singer Michael Fazzolare, who spent a weekend with me and a group of other characters you'll meet in the book driving around Miami pointing out places he'd hung out with Bon during the five weeks AC/DC spent in the city preparing Highway To Hell, an album that ultimately would be Bon's last.
These included bars, rehearsal studios, recording studios, private homes and even hotel rooms. AC/DC would end up skipping Eddie Kramer and Miami for Mutt Lange and London, but they would leave an indelible mark in Miami. The full story of Bon's time in Miami has never been told and it's been my immense privilege to write it.
But unlike AC/DC, Critical Mass never conquered the world. Not for lack of talent or musicianship; just bad luck.
In the 2008 documentary Rock And A Hard Place: Another Night At The Agora, Fazzolare described the band’s sound as ‘power rock with catchy melodies’ and he was bang on; Critical Mass was doing Green Day – and doing it better – decades before Green Day ever came on to the scene.
Having formed in North Dade in 1974 and described by Good Times as ‘non-sweetened, heavy-handed, English-styled power pop aimed right at the bellies of the young male who goes for the hard stuff – Nugent, AC-DC [sic], Cheap Trick and a bit of new wave’, Critical Mass recorded their first and only album for MCA with late Yes bass player Chris Squire in England in 1980.
Managed by Sid Bernstein, the promoter who brought The Beatles to Shea Stadium, Critical Mass got coverage in Billboard, sold out the first pressing of It’s What Inside That Counts and had the 13th most ‘added’ album on radio in the United States the week of 3 October 1980, but they had stiff competition leading into Christmas that year with Bruce Springsteen’s The River, Lennon’s Double Fantasy and Steely Dan’s Gaucho.
According to lead guitarist David Owen, the band ‘hit a brick wall’ because of radio-programming consultant Lee Abrams, who was also Yes’s manager and went on to co-found XM Satellite Radio, for which he was chief programmer before its merger with Sirius Satellite Radio in 2008. Among other achievements, Abrams is credited with having invented the AOR rock radio format. On his blog, Abrams recalled the band as being ‘kind of a US version of the Buzzcocks thing. Real engaging. The guys were like The Three Stooges on acid… playful but decent musicians, but the sessions were a disaster. Part of the problem was that US radio wouldn’t accept that sound.
‘Kinda funny ’cause I was viewed as the guy who was responsible for the US radio sound back then. If we could do it over, we’d record in Miami, their hometown, outlaw all substances from the premises, get a US engineer and bore into doing what the band was capable of – which was Green Day in 1979.’
‘I loved the first record, as badly produced as it was,’ says Neal Mirsky, who was program director at WDIZ Orlando and WSHE Miami and produced the nationally syndicated Howard Stern Show in New York.
‘Critical Mass was great. The songs were great. They were a cross between The Beatles, Cheap Trick and AC/DC. I think “1964” should have been a hit. They had a couple of great songs on the album. Unfortunately the album was co-produced by Lee Abrams. In every market in America, the stations that Lee consulted, management wouldn’t let them air the record because they were afraid it would look like collusion: their consultant produced, now we’re adding the record. So the stations Lee consulted wouldn’t add it because Lee was their consultant. The stations across the street, the competition, wouldn’t add it because Lee produced it.’
Worse, says Mirsky, MCA Records was ‘a horrible label… they were the mid-chart label; they just couldn’t break a band at that time’.
Critical Mass broke up in 1982. When Phil Rudd left AC/DC in 1983, there was a hot rumour going around Miami that Phil had recommended Mike Barone, who had jammed with AC/DC during rehearsals for Highway To Hell, as his replacement.
But Barone says that is not true: ‘Let me put it this way: if AC/DC did [want me to audition], I didn’t know about it. It never happened.’
‘Critical Mass were a cross between The Beatles, Cheap Trick and AC/DC.'
– Neal Mirsky
A reunion followed in 1989 and in 2008 Critical Mass performed a benefit show with good friend Johnny Depp, a contemporary from Miami band The Kids. Since then, they have gone their separate ways. Laplume lives in Miami, Barone in Colorado, Owen in Gainesville and engineer/sometime guitarist Frank Prinzel in Tampa Bay. Lead singer and songwriter Fazzolare now works in an appliance store in Orlando but is still actively writing and recording music.
If any band deserves a critical rediscovery, a record contract and a second shot at stardom, it's Critical Mass.
BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BON SCOTT AND AC/DC'S BACK IN BLACK is available now through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and hundreds of other retailers. Just click the title above (in red). You can like Critical Mass on Facebook.
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.