The death of Bon Scott is the Da Vinci Code of rock
In death, AC/DC’s trailblazing frontman has become a rock icon, and the legend of the man known around the world simply as “Bon” grows with each passing year. But how much of it is myth?
At the heart of Bon: The Last Highway is a special — and unlikely — friendship between an Australian rock star and an alcoholic Texan troublemaker. Jesse Fink, author of the critically acclaimed international bestseller The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, reveals its importance for the first time.
Leaving no stone unturned in a three-year journey that begins in Austin and ends in London, Fink takes the reader back to a legendary era for music that saw the relentless AC/DC machine achieve its commercial breakthrough but also threaten to come apart. With unprecedented access to Bon’s lovers, newly unearthed documents, and a trove of never-before-seen photos, Fink divulges startling new information about Bon’s last hours to solve the mystery of how he died.
Music fans around the world have been waiting for the original, forensic, unflinching, and masterful biography Bon Scott so richly deserves — and now, finally, it’s here.
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Four days before AC/DC arrived in Texas, Barry Manilow had a #1 hit with the dreary ballad "Looks Like We Made It." How this must have irked Bon Scott, who'd only just touched down for the first time in the United States, a place he'd dreamt about since his early teens. Two years later, on Highway To Hell, his final album with AC/DC, he wryly referenced Manilow in the song "Get It Hot" as if it were some kind of blessed relief.
Nobody's playing Manilow.
There was no escaping disco, either. The hottest track in New York and Los Angeles was "I Found Love (Now That I Found You)" by Love And Kisses. Andy Gibb was about to supplant Manilow for three consecutive weeks with "I Just Want To Be Your Everything." In rock, "Barracuda" by Heart, Ram Jam's "Black Betty" and Steve Miller Band's cover of Paul Pena's "Jet Airliner" were fighting a losing battle against a relentless glitter-ball onslaught.
The challenge facing AC/DC (including their new English bass player, Cliff Williams) was not insignificant; it was the challenge facing any new rock 'n' roll band in North America. To make money, the name of the game was touring — and Kiss and Led Zeppelin were the unassailable market leaders. The latter had played to 80,000 people at the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan in April. Zeppelin's 24 July performance at the Day On The Green in Oakland, California, would be their last North American concert.
But Bon was no Robert Plant in front of tens of thousands of screaming girls in a stadium. He and his band were about to commence what would become a remarkable North American journey in front of 1500 stoned university students and cowboys at an armoury turned hothouse music barn called the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin.
They were there because a couple of San Antonio disc jockeys, Lou Roney and the late Joe "The Godfather" Anthony, hated Manilow as much as AC/DC did. Their station, KMAC/KISS, was one of the first album-oriented rock (AOR) radio stations in the United States. KMAC/KISS played everything from Ted Nugent, Rush and Bob Dylan to Southern rock, Taj Mahal and BB King. Anthony and Roney would tell local promoters which rock acts to bring to San Antonio and would eventually end up being promoters themselves. One of the acts they suggested to local promoter Jack Orbin was AC/DC.
The Australian band needed the help. Their first North American album, High Voltage, a compilation of tracks from their first two home releases, had tanked, getting significant airplay only on regional stations in Florida and California. In the press, AC/DC was getting panned everywhere from Rolling Stone in New York to Kansas newspaper Lawrence Journal-World, which chose High Voltage as its "Worst Album" of the year: "These ugly punk Aussies make Johnny Rotten look like Perry Como." In Texas, though, they didn't care what the rest of the country thought about AC/DC.
"In the beginning we never got much attention from the national record companies in the States," says Roney. "We were just a broken down old funky radio station, so we never got any music from 'em. We started doing imports. Joe or myself would go and buy imports from all over the world. He happened to pick up High Voltage and he brought it in, and we all looked at it and listened to it, and I said, 'Joe, this music is really a killer, man.' Of course, nobody had ever heard of AC/DC at that time. Joe did not want to play it too much. But I did. I put it on. And all of a sudden calls started coming in."
KMAC/KISS "started word of mouth," according to Malcolm Young: "When we came to the States in '77, they told us the timing was wrong for our style of music. It was the time of soul, disco, John Travolta, that type of stuff. There were, I think, five radio stations in the country that were playing rock at the time without the noise and smell about it. When we went down [to the Armadillo] for a soundcheck in the afternoon, there was a bunch of guys in there just sweeping up the building, they were all singing 'TNT,' and we thought, 'How do those guys know this song?'"
They knew it because Roney, enthusiastically, and Anthony, somewhat begrudgingly, were playing AC/DC's albums.
In 1977, Roy Leonard Allen Jr. was a thickset, long-haired, pot-smoking 21-year-old student at Austin Community College. He'd grown up in Rockdale, Milam County, northeast of Austin, where his father, World War II veteran Roy Leonard Allen Sr., worked as an attorney and a judge in the Justice of the Peace Court. His great-grandfather, Robert, was a soldier in the Texas Cavalry of the Confederate States in the Civil War. His background was respectably middle class but Roy's behaviour was not. He was always in trouble.
"In order to tell this story, I have to tell some of my story," he tells me in a thick Central Texas drawl. Roy has a friendly, open, lined face — not dissimilar to Tommy Lee Jones — and a courteous manner that belies his hellraising past. Today he lives in Leander, a suburb north of Austin, where he works as a real-estate broker. "I've forgotten more than I remember, but this is what I do remember."
It was 26 July 1977 and Roy was out of school for the summer, hanging out at a bar called The Back Room on East Riverside Drive. The Back Room was just two miles from the Armadillo World Headquarters, not far from the Colorado River that runs through the middle of Austin. It opened in 1973 and shut down in 2006. It was the rock bar in town.
"No windows. Pool tables, foosball, full bar, good jukebox. It always seemed to be dark in there and it had a really good air conditioner. I was alone, just a handful of people in the bar, when about the middle of the afternoon, these three guys walked in; I could tell they were not from anywhere in Texas from the way they talked. They were kind of joking around, laughing. Looked like some pretty cool guys; they really stuck out.
"When they ordered their drinks I hollered at the bartender to put their drinks on my tab — my dad's credit card for school — and they were like, 'Thanks man, we just got to town.' They said they were from Australia and had a rock 'n' roll band and were the opening show at Armadillo World Headquarters the next night. It was Malcolm and Angus Young and another guy, maybe the drummer, Phil. One thing led to another and we ended up going to their hotel room. I had a little weed and everybody got high back then."
Angus was drinking alcohol and smoking pot?
"Yes, I'm sure they all ordered a beer or a drink. I think I would have remembered if one of them didn't. Drinking was the norm. We all got high; really, it was no big deal. Angus was more of a pot smoker than drinker, if I remember right; he liked to get high before a show. Next thing I remember is sitting in the hotel room; it was Bon's room. That's when I first met him. He looked like a regular-type guy of the times except he had a lot of tattoos. I asked them how they came up with the name AC/DC. I told Malcolm, 'Around here we used that term to mean someone who swings both ways. I'm not sure how people might take it.' They all kind of laughed it off. They had to tell me what 'the jack' was.
"I was there for a decent amount of time. I was trying to get them to go with me to Pedernales River before the show the next night; it was not far out of town. I wanted to show off a little of Texas and hang out with these guys more; they were really different. Everybody was getting along very well and really having fun; there was a genuine friendship for each other that showed. Anyway, they couldn't go because they had something they had to do or didn't feel like going, but Bon told them he wanted to go with me. I promised I could have him back at whatever time they said."
Pedernales River was about an hour and a half out of town.
"So I picked up Bon the next day before noon. I knocked on his door and he let me in. He told me to call down and order us a couple of gin and tonics. I picked up the phone and ordered four double G&Ts. I looked back at him to see if he was okay and he had this giant smile. I believe it was at that moment we each knew we had found a new friend.
"Soon, I came to realise that Bon drank like me. I didn't know many people like that. It was like some kind of weird bond we shared and is probably one of the main reasons we became friends. We eventually rode out there and met some friends. We all had a fun day drinking beer and diving off the cliffs. We made it to the Armadillo with about 15 minutes to spare but Bon was not late."
A refuge for Texas's rock-loving hippies, the Armadillo World Headquarters had had its heyday in the early 1970s playing host to Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Freddie King, Van Morrison, The Grateful Dead, Sir Douglas Quintet, Roy Orbison, Augie Meyers and Doug Sahm, among hundreds of other acts. But it had hit hard times. Its financial difficulties were considerable; in fact there were bankruptcy fears, which was why it was making money in other ways than live music alone. The venue boasted, according to its advertising, a "Concert Hall, Game Room, Beer Garden, T-Shirt Store" and "The Armadillo Kitchen: Home of the World Famous Nachos, Giant Cookies and Armadillo Daily Bread."
Headlining over AC/DC was Canada's Moxy, a Joe Anthony favourite that had come up through the ranks opening for Nazareth, Styx, Santana, Ritchie Blackmore and Leslie West. They were also big in Texas: in 1976, Moxy was the most requested band on KMAC/KISS. According to American music magazine Circus, "When they played Texas they broke previous attendance records set by such heavies as Rush, Thin Lizzy and Foreigner."
So the crowd was there to see Moxy, not AC/DC. Anthony had made the 80-mile drive from San Antonio, while a stoned 18-year-old Moxy fan called Wade Smith had come from Rockdale with friends Alan Juergens, Bill Martin and Bubba Greensage. Their ride home was Roy Allen, the younger brother of Waylon, Wade's best friend. But at the venue Wade couldn't find Roy. Instead, in the beer garden, he got talking with his hero, Moxy's lead singer, Buzz Shearman, who was milling about waiting for the Australian support act to start.
"There I was, starstruck, staring at the lead singer of Moxy," says Wade. "Out of my mouth came the absolute worst thing you could ever say to a frontman of a hard-rock band: 'So, who is your back-up band tonight?'"
Initially, the question was met with dead silence. Wade was expecting Buzz to walk off.
"They're called AC/DC. This is our first gig with them on this tour. I don't really know much about 'em."
"What do they play?"
"I don't really know. I heard they're good, but I also heard they are a little punk."
"Oh, no. Not punk."
Earl Johnson, Moxy's guitarist, had been at the soundcheck watching AC/DC.
"I swear to God it was about 98 degrees in that place that night. It was an oven. We were pitching full pails of water on people in the front row; it was that hot that you had salt burning in your eyes from the sweat — it was crazy, crazy hot."
Wade, Alan, Bill and Bubba, meanwhile, had planted their elbows on the right side of the stage to get the best possible viewing position.
"I'll never forget seeing AC/DC walk out when getting announced onstage," says Wade. "All anyone saw was this little, short, skinny guitar player, who not only had his guitar around his neck, but had a little satchel. He had a blue suede schoolboy uniform on, with white socks, a little silly-looking cap, and a thin striped tie. We had never seen anything like it; lead guitarists were always macho.
"The stagehand kept coming out onstage to pull up Angus's shorts. Whenever Angus would do a guitar solo his shorts would start falling down. But whatever we were hearing, this new sound worked. It sounded great. I turned to Alan, and yelled, 'I LIKE PUNK ROCK!'"
But it was Bon who impressed Wade the most.
"He exuded confidence and had control of the audience. His jeans were so tight, along with the navy-blue muscle shirt he was wearing; it looked as if he were poured into them. The more songs they played, the louder the crowd got, and the more everyone was into this new sound. I just remember thinking, 'How do they make the guitars sound so good?' I didn't want them to stop playing. I had come all the way to see Moxy, but I didn't want Moxy to come onstage yet. I couldn't get enough of this new band. Neither could the crowd."
Malcolm recalled feeling the positive energy, too.
"We played our first gig in front of a bunch of cowboys, but they really dug it. They saw Angus in his suit, and I think, after they saw him play like he does, it gave us an edge."
It was then that Wade spotted the missing Roy, who was sitting at the back of the stage on a five-gallon bucket.
"He was my ride home, and I hadn't seen him all night, and now he was backstage? I tried to get his attention, and finally did. We were pointing to him, motioning that we wanted to come backstage. He kept flipping us off, mouthing to us, 'Fuck no, you little bastards.'" When AC/DC finished their set, Roy came out the front to talk. Wade didn't hesitate.
"How can we get backstage?"
"I don't know if I can pull that off. You're going to have to find your own ride home tonight."
"But you're our ride. Why can't you take us?"
"I can't. Bon and I are going to an after-concert party at the hotel."
Roy had already begun walking to the backstage area when Wade yelled after him.
"Hey! Who's Bon?"
The mood backstage was triumphant. Even Joe Anthony was hanging out with the band, smoking a joint and swigging beers.
"AC/DC nailed it and the crowd was wild," says Roy. "Very few bands I'd seen play at the Armadillo produced such energy. Springsteen comes to mind or Skynyrd maybe; the same type of electricity in the air. Everybody was like, 'Who the hell were those guys?' I remember thinking along with everybody else that I sure would hate to be the band to have followed AC/DC. The band was on a natural high."
In the beer garden, by the main entrance, Bon was being mobbed.
"It was so cool, all these people coming up to Bon for an autograph. He would sign it and then some of them would give me the eye, like, 'Who is this guy? If he's with him, he's got to be somebody,' so I got to sign a few autographs too."
Eventually Bon and Roy left the Armadillo and walked out to Roy's car, a silver 1968 Oldsmobile Toronado.
"Bon insisted on driving. I was cool with that as I already had two DWIs and we were not that drunk but neither of us would have done well on a sobriety test."
Bon turned to Roy as they were pulling out from the parking lot.
"You got to give us one thing, Roy," he said, flashing him a big smile. "We know how to rock and roll."
Bon started driving to the Holiday Inn, where the band was staying, but his driving was making Roy anxious: "It took a few blocks for me to realise something was wrong; nobody could drive that bad."
When the pair got to the I-35, they had to cross the interstate bridge and turn left.
"Bon, you've got to stay right till you turn left."
"I got it, Roy. Not to worry. I always wanted to drive like this."
They burst out laughing. The West Australian and Texan would go on to become the unlikeliest of friends.
"Lenn and Bon had a long-lasting friendship," says Wade, who calls Roy by his middle name. "Whenever AC/DC would come anywhere close to Texas, Bon would always call Lenn and invite him to come join them wherever they were. Lenn actually ended up making a lasting close friendship with Bon, as whenever Bon got down, he would always find time to call Lenn and talk. Lenn took it very hard when Bon died."
Roy spoke to Bon on the phone just before his death and was told something extraordinary. The Armadillo World Headquarters, meanwhile, would shut down on New Year's Eve, 1980, and never reopen.
Having lost their ride because of Bon, Wade and his pals got back to Rockdale by hitching a lift. So impressed by what he'd seen at the Armadillo, Wade returned to Austin the next day to search for AC/DC albums, finding only one: an import of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.
"My first AC/DC album," he says. "I bought every album they made with Bon as singer. Honestly I haven't bought a single AC/DC album after Bon died. I like the music better in the Bon days. I like the guitar sound of the band better in the old days. All my favourite AC/DC songs are from this era. And I think Malcolm is actually the sound of the band. Such a unique guitar sound."
Two days later, he was playing golf with Waylon Allen. Wade noticed Waylon was wearing something he'd found in his brother's Toronado: a navy blue T-shirt.
"Hey, that's the shirt the lead singer of AC/DC was wearing a few nights ago."
Waylon looked at him for a moment, like he had no idea who or what he was talking about, then teed off.
Excerpted from "Bon: The Last Highway"
Copyright © 2017 Jesse Fink.
Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
OPENER: SHOT DOWN IN FLAMES,
Chapter 1: GO DOWN,
Chapter 2: BAD BOY BOOGIE,
Chapter 3: WHOLE LOTTA ROSIE,
Chapter 4: PROBLEM CHILD,
Chapter 5: DOG EAT DOG,
Chapter 6: OVERDOSE,
Chapter 7: HELL AIN'T A BAD PLACE TO BE,
Chapter 8: WHAT'S NEXT TO THE MOON,
Chapter 9: KICKED IN THE TEETH,
Chapter 10: ROCK 'N' ROLL DAMNATION,
Chapter 11: GIMME A BULLET,
Chapter 12: UP TO MY NECK IN YOU,
Chapter 13: RIFF RAFF,
Chapter 14: DOWN PAYMENT BLUES,
Chapter 15: SIN CITY,
Chapter 16: COLD HEARTED MAN,
Chapter 17: WALK ALL OVER YOU,
Chapter 18: NIGHT PROWLER,
Chapter 19: TOUCH TOO MUCH,
Chapter 20: LOVE HUNGRY MAN,
Chapter 21: IF YOU WANT BLOOD (YOU'VE GOT IT),
Chapter 22: GIRLS GOT RHYTHM,
Chapter 23: HIGHWAY TO HELL,
Chapter 24: SHOOT TO THRILL,
Chapter 25: HELLS BELLS,
Chapter 26: SHAKE A LEG,
Chapter 27: LET ME PUT MY LOVE INTO YOU,
Chapter 28: GIVEN THE DOG A BONE,
Chapter 29: HAVE A DRINK ON ME,
Chapter 30: BACK IN BLACK,
Chapter 31: WHAT DO YOU DO FOR MONEY HONEY,
Chapter 32: ROCK AND ROLL AIN'T NOISE POLLUTION,
Chapter 33: ROCKER,
Chapter 34: AIN'T NO FUN (WAITING 'ROUND TO BE A MILLIONAIRE),
Chapter 35: HIGH VOLTAGE,
Chapter 36: IT'S A LONG WAY TO THE TOP (IF YOU WANNA ROCK 'N' ROLL),
Chapter 37: DIRTY DEEDS DONE DIRT CHEAP,
Chapter 38: ROCK 'N' ROLL SINGER,
Chapter 39: YOU SHOOK ME ALL NIGHT LONG,
Chapter 40: LIVE WIRE,
Chapter 41: LET THERE BE ROCK,
Closer | RIDE ON,
Epilogue | CARRY ME HOME,
Dramatix Personae | DIRTY EYES,
Acknowledgements | CRABSODY IN BLUE,
Bibliography | BEATING AROUND THE BUSH,
Appendix | GONE SHOOTIN',
Endnotes | BACK SEAT CONFIDENTIAL,
Index | GET IT HOT,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,