in search of bon scott
I went to Scotland first. Bon Scott's life began and ended in Britain, and I was already fairly familiar with London, where Bon died in February, 1980. So Scotland, where Bon was born in 1946, seemed a good place to start.
I was also, of course, quite familiar with the Bon Scott myth - this was one of the last true wild men of rock. But if Bon's death, by accumulated alcohol poisoning, was as tragic and senseless as it was classic and almost predictable, his image and his work have survived him. Bon was the larrikin incarnate who refused to ever back down, to submit to the forces of greyness, and it was this rebel streak that so many have since identified with so strongly. The seven albums he cut with AC/DC, to which he lent such tight focus, and his defiant spirit, sound almost better, and more relevant now than they did in the late Seventies. With his craggy, tattooed visage and screeching vocalese, Bon has himself become an icon.
Certainly, even if AC/DC went on to sell the bulk of the fabled 60 million records they've sold world-wide after Bon died, it was this early line-up of the band that set the pattern, and sparked the enormous influence that's now acknowledged by almost everybody in the business.
The other side of Bon Scott, his more private persona, which has subsequently also emerged, was yin to his public yang - he was soft and funny and warm, a gentleman to the last, and generous and loyal to a fault.
When Bon died, AC/DC were just about to start work on a follow-up to the Highway To Hell album. And though the album that eventually resulted, with Brian Johnson on vocals - Back In Black - still stands as one of the best-selling hard rock records of all time (sales to date totalling over ten million), there's no doubt the million-selling Highway To Hell signalled AC/DC had, finally, made it. Back In Black was just the icing on the cake.
Bon had, indeed, got to top. London can be cold and lonely at the best of times, but Bon had a lot to look forward to when he went out that fateful February night and passed out, after a few drinks too many, in a friend's car. He was dead on arrival the next day, February 19, at Kings College Hospital. A long way it indeed was...
The small Scottish town of Kirriemuir today bears no recognition of its famous son. The Scott family left these frosty slopes in 1952, when Bon was 6, to emigrate to a booming post-war Australia.
After a few years in Melbourne, the family moved to Perth, and so it was to Perth I went next, and met Bon's parents, and his first girlfriend. Bon grew-up in rough and tumble Fremantle, before its docklands were transformed for the 1986 America's Cup defense. Bon's home-life was happy, and he played drums beside his father in the Fremantle Pipe Band. But out on the streets, bodgies and rockers ran wild - Elvis and Little Richard had hit - and Bon soon found himself fighting for his life. He wound up in the Riverbank juvenile detention centre.
It was while he was inside that Bon decided to throw himself into music. The Beatles had hit, and when Bon got out, he joined, as a drummer, a local garage band called the Spektors. Not content to sit behind the kit, he went on to join the Valentines as co-vocalist with Vince Lovegrove, now personal manager of Jimmy Barnes. The Valentines would soon sit at the top of the tree in Perth. This not being a lofty height, in late 1967, the band moved to Melbourne.
Melbourne was Australia's pop capital at that time, and would remain so until the 1980's, and so the city was always important to Bon. I went there many times to talk to Bon's old friends, and his ex-wife. The Valentines struggled until they were given a song by the Easybeats' celebrated Vanda/Young team, called "My Old Man's A Groovy Old Man," and it became a hit in March, 1969. They rode the bubblegum wave, bedecked in matching frilly orange suits. But they were riding for a fall. Late in 1969, they became the first Australian band ever busted for possession of pot (Bon maintained a pot habit till the day he died). By that time too, the first Led Zeppelin album had been released, and Bon, for one, knew where his future lay. (Free, and later Alex Harvey, further turned Bon's head around.)
When the Valentines finally dissolved in June, 1970, Bon was immediately invited to join a band called Fraternity, then Australia's next big thing. Fraternity led the full hippy lifestyle on a farm up in the hills outside Adelaide. It was here Bon met his future wife, and where I went next. Fraternity, however, never realised their potential, and after an ill-fated trip to London in 1973, returned to Adelaide in disarray. Likewise, Bon's young marriage was in tatters. It was in a dissolute frame of mind, then, and blind drunk, that in February, 1974, Bon rode his motorcylcle into an oncoming car an almost killed himself. But again, this misfortune only opened another door. Bon decided he had to put the past behind him, and get into a new band.
When Vince Lovegrove, then working as a booker in Adelaide, bought a new band by the name of AC/DC to town, Bon saw his opportunity. AC/DC, driven by sibling guitarists Malcolm and Angus Young, was looking for a new singer, and Bon parlayed his way into the gig. Malcolm and Angus, of course, were the little brothers of ex-Easybeat George Young. George and partner Harry Vanda had by then begun working as house producers for the newly-established Alberts label, and George acted as mentor to Malcolm and Angus. The Youngs were a tightly-knit Scots clan, and Bon was taken in as one of the family. The band, in turn, was a new lease on life for Bon.
Signing on late in 1974 with Melbourne-based manager Micheal Browning, who shared with George the ambition to break an Australian band overseas, AC/DC immediately took off. The mid-Seventies was not a good time for rock'n'roll - Countdown was dominated by Sherbet, Skyhooks and other Vanda/Young papsters on Alberts like William Shakespeare and John Paul Young - and so the raw AC/DC cut a swathe entirely their own.
Before 1975 was out, the band had hit with their debut album High Voltage , and the three singles, "Baby, Please Don't Go," "High Voltage" and "Long Way To The Top."
Revelling in its new-found pulling-power, AC/DC quickly acquired a reputation for debauchery off stage as well as on. Bon, the elder, of course, set a fine example. But it was the music, above everything, that inspired and satisfied him. As fellow short-arse Iggy Pop put it in his autobiography I Need More :
... the process is far more important than the result. It is the proximity of the electric hum in the background and just the tremendous feeling of buoyancy and power, you know. When you start being in the presence of this power, you also become its witness. When guitars are played properly, hitting the same sound at the same time, a joyful thing happens; that's good backing. You are dangerously abandoned.
At last, Bon had found a match for his own talents. His writing rose to the occasion. With a hit second album, TNT , under its belt, and the classic "Jailbreak" single due out, the band relocated to London in April, 1975.
England at that time was on the brink of punk. AC/DC too arrived on the scene as a breath of fresh air, but just as they've always resisted the metal tag, they were also disdainful of punk. They found an audience overseas in the same way they had in Australia - by playing, non-stop - and by the time they returned home to tour at the end of '75, coinciding with the release of third album Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap , they were a hot item in Britain and Europe alike.
The next, and final frontier was America. AC/DC hit the road there for the first time in 1976. Albums like 1977's monolithic classic Let There Be Rock , and '78's Powerage , and summary live set If You Want Blood..., registered steadily increasing sales. But the constant touring was taking its toll on Bon. He'd been on the road since 1966, after all, and he was simply getting tired of it. He drank more and more to allay the loneliness and boredom. He hankered to have somewhere he could call home, or at least to sustain a relationship. He struggled to stay in touch with old friends. The money he was finally starting to earn meant little.
Ultimately, it was only the music sustained him. The music, and the booze.
AC/DC stepped outside the protective family net for the first time in 1979, when they set to work on a new album in London with producer 'Mutt' Lange. The result, the uncompromising classic, Highway To Hell , achieved what George and Harry had been unable to - airplay in America. The toughest nut was thus cracked.
Highway To Hell would go Platinum. AC/DC had made it, and Bon knew it. The next album would simply confirm the fact.
It was in a bittersweet state of mind, then, that Bon's life ended. Bon found the fame he so strove for, though even if it wasn't empty, it was certainly lonely. Trust that the cliches have a basis in truth. As Lou Reed once wrote in an essay called "Fallen Knights, Fallen Ladies":
I remember people who do encore after encore and after being pressed into a role they may have wanted, either consciously or unconsciously emulate a pattern, gradually becoming the personna and, then alone, have to live up to it because the wretched THEY want it and what if they are right? Perhaps I should die, after all, they all (the great blues singers) did die, didn't they? But life is getting better now, I don't want to die. Do I?
It wasn't that night of drinking that killed Bon, it was a lifetime of it. He had pushed himself too hard for too long, and his body simply gave way.
Bon had wanted to be buried in Kirriemuir, but his body was returned to Australia for a quiet family funeral.
I went to Fremantle Cemetary to pay my respects, but couldn't find his grave, as fans had robbed it of its headstone, as they occasionally do.
For Bon, it was a long way home.