(Note – this interview was conducted a few days prior to the death of Malcolm Young. Loud sends our condolences to his family and friends)
“The thing with Bon is, without Bon there would be no AC/DC. He was the true rebel in the band, he was the one who was living the songs… Even in death he just gets bigger and bigger, because he represents to people something very important, which is living life on your own terms.”
There’s already a multitude of published works dissecting the history of one of rock’s most successful – but also most elusive – acts, AC/DC. However, fans of the band and their late front-man Bon Scott should clear some space on their bookshelves for Jesse Fink’s intriguing new biography, Bon: The Last Highway.
The Sydney-based scribe previously penned the acclaimed The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC. The exhaustive The Last Highway took Fink three years to write, and incorporates unprecedented access to Scott’s lovers, newly unearthed documents and plenty of never-before-seen photos. It also addresses topics such as the circumstances surrounding Scott’s death, the belief that Scott wanted to quit AC/DC shortly before he died, sources who claim that the singer wrote ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ and other songs on the band’s blockbuster 1980 album Back In Black and more. Loud got the lowdown from Fink about his new tome.
Q: There is so much written material available on AC/DC, to the point of saturation. However, that also indicates there’s still a viable market for people wanting to buy books about the band. There’s something about the AC/DC story that continues to fascinate rock fans.
A: Yeah, there’s a lot of AC/DC books. I’ve got to say (though), there’s not a lot of great AC/DC books. There’s a lot of volume and not a lot of quality. With The Youngs, I was kinda trying to, I wouldn’t say do a more intellectual sort of book, but do more of a considered, good piece of writing about a band that I love. And I think a band that is kind of looked down upon by I guess the critical establishment here in Australia, just because of its core audience, which is working-class Australians.
And I think that’s a very big reason why a lot of the mainstream press just doesn’t get it. They’ve just got their heads up their arses. It’s kind of like politics, the political parties are out of touch with how Australians think, and I think it’s the same with a lot of the press too. They don’t know what Australians are into, and I can tell you Australians are into AC/DC. And they’re into AC/DC just about everywhere else in the world. I’ve spent a bit of time in South America and my God, AC/DC’s massive in Brazil.
But why don’t we recognise it and celebrate it more? I have no doubt whatsoever that AC/DC is our most significant cultural export.
Q: Is there an overall objective when you approach researching and writing a book like this? Particularly when the subject matter is Bon Scott, about whom so much has been written?
A: I started with two goals in mind really. One was, I felt like the story of Bon and America was kind of like a real blank part of his story. And I never felt like having read all the other stuff that it really covered off on that period of his life, which was really the most significant before his death, ’cause that’s where AC/DC was touring. That was where they were putting all their resources and concentrating on breaking into that market. I never felt like what happened in London was just like a freak accident. There had to have been a build-up to that, and I guess that’s really what the title is about. It’s about this road that Bon took to his own oblivion. I really believe that started in America when the band was touring there. And as I document in the book, kind of progressively Bon’s drinking and drugging just got worse and worse, so that by the end of ’79 he was really questioning the direction he was going in, and what his own role was in the band.
That was one objective, and the other was also that I think that a lot of the other books that were published about Bon all pretty much followed the same sort of script, the same narrative. (That being) the tragic death of Bon Scott and the triumph of AC/DC’s Back in Black, blah, blah, blah. Which is just a hackneyed, bullshit narrative that I reckon just really wasn’t the truth of the matter. The truth of the matter was there’s a human story beneath all that, and that’s what I think I got to in the book, was that human side of Bon, the vulnerable side of Bon, and the dark side of Bon. I was very privileged to be able to talk to people… Some of them were known to the world, people like ‘Silver’ Smith and Joe Fury. But also a whole bunch of people in the States who no one even knew about until this book, who showed a very different side to the man.
Q: Some bands have these established narratives surrounding them that are basically widely accepted as gospel. An example is Metallica continuing on after Cliff Burton’s death, “because that’s what Cliff would have wanted”. It’s a similar prospect with AC/DC – the story is Bon dies, and the band snatches victory from the jaws of defeat with Back in Black. Some of the best books for mine seek to further investigate these well-worn narratives though, because there has to be more to the story.
A: Absolutely, and they’ve completely written that narrative for decades, and it’s suited them very well. But the truth of the matter is very different, and I don’t actually believe Bon was as crucial to their plans as probably they made out after his death.
Q: Well, it’s been documented that AC/DC’s label was pressuring them to potentially find a replacement singer with a voice more palatable for radio airplay in the US.
A: Yeah, and also his drinking was becoming a problem. You only have to, if you’ve studied the videography of AC/DC, what’s available online, it’s all pretty much all there on YouTube. You watch the progression of Bon physically… I mean, he changes very dramatically between, particularly ’78 when he was super fit and sounded fantastic. Then the end of ’79 when he’d put on a bit of weight and sounded pretty bad. It’s there; you can hear it, and you can see it. To deny it is just bloody stupid. It’s obvious.
Q: You mentioned talking to some sources that are well-known to AC/DC fans, but how did you locate people who hadn’t previously spoken on the record? Quite simply, how did you track them down when other biographers and journalists hadn’t?
A: There were two parts of that. One is the American side. So, as I said before, I set out with this idea of Bon in America and I’d actually found it extremely difficult once I’d started, because if you’re setting out to write a Bon Scott book that isn’t sort of relying on any other published sources, you’re making life very fucking difficult for yourself. And I did make life difficult for myself.
So out of desperation I had a map of America, and I started sort of plotting the cities where AC/DC played gigs between ’77 and ’79. I’d go through old Billboard magazines and I’d find the FM stations that serviced those cities. Then I would go through radio journals and websites, and I’d find the names of the DJs who played at stations. I’d contact them on LinkedIn or Facebook, and say, ‘hey, I’m writing a book about Bon Scott, did Bon Scott ever come through your station? Did you ever do any promotion for AC/DC?’ and blah, blah, blah. And 95 out of 100 people didn’t really have a story. I got a few useful responses, and one of them was from a guy called Neal Mirsky, who was a DJ at WDIZ Orlando. He had a tape of Bon that he’d never played, and he said, ‘oh, you can have it’. I was like, ‘wow, that’s a fucking miracle’. Total gold – an audio tape of Bon that’s never been heard by anyone.
He said, ‘I’ll put you in touch with this band called Critical Mass that was hanging out with AC/DC in Miami in 1979 when they were rehearsing for Highway to Hell‘. They hung out together, they were really good mates. I was like, ‘yeah, go for it’ (laughs). He put me in touch with these guys, and they were fantastic. They mentioned a girlfriend that Bon had, a serious girlfriend in Miami. Of course, that suddenly opened up a completely new vista in the narrative.
So I was in New York, I’d been spending some time there and then I went out to Miami to meet Holly. She was extremely friendly to me, and she allowed me to stay with her and we spent a lot of time together. Then I went driving around Miami with Holly, one of the guys from Critical Mass, Neal Mirsky and a friend of theirs. We just did a tour. We went to Criteria (Recording Studios), we went to the bar on Hollywood Beach where AC/DC was hanging out. We went to their hotel room, we went out to the house that Holly had where Bon was spending a lot of his time. It was like, ‘fuck, this is amazing. This is a total mind-fuck really’.
Q: An untapped source of information?
A: You’re there in Miami, and you’re looking out at this incredible blue sea, thinking ‘shit, this is a very different kind of picture to what I imagined’ (laughs). And certainly where Bon ended up dying, which is this grey, horrible London. What if his life had taken a different course and he had ended up in Miami? It was mind-blowing just standing there.
But I guess the other side of it too was the Australian side. Even though the focus was very much on America, I spent about two years just trying to find ‘Silver’ Smith and Joe Fury. They were very difficult to find. I was fortunate, there was a young West Australian writer called James Quinton, who was friends with ‘Silver’. He introduced me and we kind of, it took me a while to convince her to do it. Because she was extremely wary after the first time that she’d been interviewed. But over a period of months we did a dozen interviews or something like that, and she just gave me a lot of stuff. She didn’t even know where Joe was at all, and then she just gave me a couple of clues about where he might be. I’d already been doing my own investigations and stuff, and I ended up finding him eventually. And again, he was really cool. Very forthright, but helpful, and we talked a lot. For me, in terms of what I could access in regards (to) some of the players of Bon’s final 24 hours, those two were crucial.
Of course Alistair Kinnear is dead, but his son was really great. Then Pete Way, Paul Chapman. I pretty much covered every base of Bon’s last 24 hours, as much as possible. I felt like that was this enduring mystery that had never really been solved. I was never convinced of the whole alcohol poisoning narrative of Bon’s death. I think I’ve provided enough information to sort of debunk that anyway.
Q: Mick Wall’s AC/DC biography several years ago did suggest that Bon’s death may have been linked to heroin. Why has that theory only become more prominent in recent years?
A: Mark Putterford is a late British journalist, he had talked about heroin quite a while ago. Then Mick Wall mentioned it in his book. But with Mick there wasn’t really like any evidence, it was more like, what else could it be? It was more of a hunch.
But I think with this book I’ve actually come up with some eyewitness testimony. I’ve found two people who were there, who were both heroin users who both saw Bon with their own eyes, were at the club and told me in no uncertain terms that they believed that Bon had taken heroin. I mean, what the fuck, the police investigation just must have been absolute bollocks. If after 37 years I can find some people who were there… And it’s not like I’m going out to kind of tear down this, what people believe or anything like that. There’s sort of been an extreme reaction from some members of the ‘Bon Scott militia’ about the heroin stuff. But like you say, it’s not like I’m the first person to mention heroin. It’s just I’m probably the first person that’s come up with some new evidence to really back it up. And I don’t think there’s any doubt really. But if people want to go on believing what they believe, that’s fine, that’s their prerogative.
Q: Another key aspect is Bon’s looming spectre over the creation of Back in Black, and the rumours and questions since his death about how much he may have contributed to that record. Tell us about tackling that issue.
A: Well, as I point out in the book, I point out two instances where Angus Young sort of admits that Bon had written lyrics. Like, if Angus Young himself is saying it, then how do you explain that? I can come up with so many people saying, ‘I believe that Bon wrote lyrics for Back in Black’. But some people will never be convinced, no matter what I produce. But if Angus Young is talking to an interviewer from Kerrang! and he says a little bit of Bon’s lyrics are on Back in Black, okay, what are they? Tell us. And if it’s true, why didn’t he get a credit? Why is it such a problem to admit it if that is true?
Q: Would it be perhaps because the band may have felt that acknowledging any songwriting contributions from him would have detracted from the narrative they’d established? That being that Bon had died, then the band decided to continue with a new singer and triumphed in the process?
A: Well, David Krebs, who was the owner of Leber-Krebs, the management agency that handled AC/DC spoke to me for this book. His idea was that it was as simple as, we want to give Brian Johnson the best possible start and if we have Bon’s name on the record, that kind of undermines the new singer to a degree. And if you think about it, if they had said, ‘okay, our singer died of a heroin overdose, and we’re going to put his name on the new record’ (laughs), and that ‘he wrote most of the songs and our new guy didn’t have much to do with it’… I’m just raising a hypothetical here. I guess that wouldn’t have been as powerful a narrative (laughs) as the one that has served them very well. But again, I reiterate that this a version of a story that I propose in the book and if they have their own story, by all means, they have their own story.
Q: Any famous last words?
A: I hope everyone reads the book and makes up their own minds.