On February 19th 1980, Bon Scott, the then lead singer of the Australian rock group AC/DC passed away at only 33 years of age. His death came after a night of heavy drinking with an acquaintance of his, Alistair Kinnar. After arriving at his flat in the London suburb of East Dulwich, Alistair (who was intoxicated himself) was unable to carry Bon inside. Alistair decided to leave Bon in his car over night to sleep off the alcohol.
He set the front passenger seat where Bon was lying all the way down and covered him with a blanket (or two). Alistair then locked up the car and heading to his own bed. When he awoke sometime in the late afternoon of the next day, Alistair made the gruesome discovery that Bon was dead. Bon was lying at an awkward angle and had choked on his own vomit sometime during the early morning.
Two months later AC/DC, headed by brothers Angus and Malcolm Young, were back in the studio recording their next album, Back In Black. The Young Bros. decided to carry on without Bon (being over $1 million in debt is a solid motivator) and all of the lyrics to the album’s tunes was credited to their new lead singer, Brian Johnson. Back in Black went on to have über success becoming one of the top ten selling albums (world-wide) of all time.
Both Bon’s death and his involvement in Back in Black have been questioned over the years but not seriously for the most part. The only substance found in Bon’s body during the autopsy was the equivalent of a half a bottle of whiskey. Questions to the band from the music press as to if any of Bon’s material ended up on Back In Black was answered with a “no” before they moved on to asking about Angus’ school boy uniform or where AC/DC got its name. For many years there was no real reason not to believe the official story.
Leave it to the internet though to give a platform to the conspiracy theorists. Here they can repeat misinformation and junk science until it grows into ‘fact’. (The world is flat, y’all!) The more times it is stated that Bon had written the lyrics for some of Back In Black‘s songs, or the facts about his death are questioned, the chances become greater that someone will listen.
I bring all of this up because these internet rumors are an integral part of Jesse Fink’s book, Bon: The Last Highway. Jesse claims that there is something to these conspiracies and that his book will provide evidence to show it. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t.
Jesse explores the last three years of Bon’s life, most of it taking place States side as the band hit the clubs and visited local FM stations while touring in support of Powerage and later Highway To Hell. Along the way, Jesse (who was denied an interview by any of the band members) talks to the people Bon hung out with in between shows and recordings. They are some former managers, radio DJs, and members of other bands they toured with. But the majority of the interviews are with friends, acquaintances, and the many lovers he had. (Those bulging, ripped jeans could talk! Lemme tells ya!)
These folks tell interesting enough tales about Bon. They describe how he could light up a room while being an all around good guy to hang with, but he also could be recluse at times. He was unsure of himself and didn’t like the ‘rock star’ persona he had to put on for every show. He also didn’t know when the party should stop and would continue long after everyone else had ended their night.
Honestly, this is where the book is at its best. Jesse is a good writer that will keep you invested as he spins these yarns. When I read biographies I sometimes feel like I’ve cracked open an encyclopedia, but not with this book.
However, I do have an issue with Jesse’s journalism. Jesse believes these people’s testimony can prove Bon’s work is on Back In Black and substances besides alcohol were in his body the night he died. People who had a relatively brief encounter(s) with a man they hardly knew. Most of which came away with good, lasting impressions of someone who would later go onto become a legend in rock music.
These are the people Jesse asks, Do you believe Bon could have written the lyrics to Back In Black‘s biggest hit, ‘You Shook Me All Night Long? Can you guess what their opinion will be? Some of these folks are not able to bring themselves to listen to post Bon AC/DC. I can understand why since they’re fiercely loyal to his memory and it would be difficult to accept how the band went on to have greater commercial success without him. But they are also likely to give an emotional opinion. Let take a look at a few of them.
Bon’s former lover Holly-X from Miami Florida (an area the band spent a lot of time in) is convinced ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ is written about her. Change a few words around, omit one lyric for another, point out how the horse she once owned that had a verb for a name gets a shout out, and she makes a convincing enough argument. Thing is, I’m sure we can find a few ladies who spent some time with Brian Johnson who could make as convincing of a claim. Interpreting the meaning behind song lyrics may be compelling, but it isn’t evidence.
Vince Lovegrove, the lead singer of Bon’s former band The Valentines ‘confirmed’ that Bon’s estate receives royalties for Back In Black. Hmmmm… why would the Scott family receive royalties for an album that Bon’s name doesn’t appear on? And how does Lovegrove of all people know this? According to the book, Bon’s brother told Lovegrove this interesting piece of accounting. Hearsay aside, this is not evidence. For one, Bon’s brother or Lovegrove could be mistaken. Second, the interview took place in 2006. Since Bon’s brother doesn’t claim the Estate has been receiving money since 1980 it could have started anytime in between. It is possible that the Scott Estate receives royalties from the copies of Back In Black that were bundled inside AC/DC’s 1997 boxset, Bonfire. Bonfire was designed as a tribute to Bon and features him prominently on the cover.
Finally, one of Bon’s long(er) time lovers, Silver Smith claims the alcohol Bon downed on the evening he died was in celebration for “completing the lyrics for Back In Black“. According to Silver, Bon wrote these lyrics down in a notebook and left it in his flat. Since it was hastily stripped clean by the band soon after he died, this has led her to believe that they used his notes. With all due respect to Silver, this makes no sense.
Some song writers do write music around lyrics. Elton John is probably the most famous person I know that writes this way. AC/DC does not. Their business begins with hammering down a big guitar riff, maybe get an idea for a title, then melody and lyrics over top. One thing that isn’t in dispute is how after the Highway to Hell tour ended, Bon did not have an opportunity to collaborate with the Young Bros. before he died. So, how would Bon have the lyrics to songs he didn’t know the melody or phrasing of? He would not know how many syllables to fit in a line, let alone words. It is entirely possible he did have some ideas written down, but a full set of lyrics like Silver claims and Jesse backs is ludicrous.
I could go on but I don’t want to turn this into an essay (If I haven’t already). There are claims that Bon died of a heroin overdose instead of alcohol poisoning despite the autopsy report not mentioning it… ah crap… I have to go on. This one sticks in my craw too…
Ok, so Jesse biggest piece of ‘evidence’ for this claim is how Alistair has changed the details in his story of what happened that night. Over the 30 odd years Alistair had been interviewed about that night (He disappeared at sea in 2006. Yeah, another odd part of the story), he added a second phone call to Silver Smith (apparently she was the one who told him to leave Bon in the car), how he was able to keep an eye on Bon from one of the windows in his flat, and how someone stopped by midday and told him his car was empty. He went back to sleep thinking Bon got up on his own and left.
To Jesse, Alistair’s ever-changing story is proof of a cover up. Jesse believes Bon died before they arrived at Alistair’s apartment. Apparently Alistair wanted to wait to give the heroin in Bon’s system time to leave (How does heroin leave a dead body?) before calling an ambulance or the police. Alistair later drove Bon to the hospital only after he thought it was ‘safe’. Not an impossible theory, but also not a likely reason why Alistair changed his story over the years.
Place yourself in Alistair’s shoes for a moment. You went out with this rock singer one night and now he is dead. Year after year he becomes increasingly bigger in death than he ever was in life. Every time his death is brought up, be it in a book, magazine, or blog post your name is in the cross hairs. Your actions on that evening are questioned every time. Imagine telling the story of how you threw a blanket on him and left him in a car on a chilly February evening. Then you are asked the question, “How could you leave him like that?”
“Uh.. I asked the girlfriend twice what to do…. There was some one who stopped by and told me he left… I could see the bloke from my bedroom window…”
Wouldn’t your story change too? These are attempts by Alistair to not present himself as the aloof drunkard he was that evening. The burden of Bon’s death placed on his shoulders must have been unimaginable. The fact is, Bon is the one who downed the booze that night, but no one wants to believe their hero makes mistakes. It’s much easier to pin the responsibility on some guy from East Dulwich.
Towards the end of the book, Jesse builds to two theories he has for what ‘truly’ happened that evening. His evidence was so thin to this point that I didn’t even bother to read them. I approach a conspiracy like how detectives like Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Andy Sipowicz, or Odo would approach a crime. Motive. Motive is key. Without motive you do not have a crime. So, what reason would the Young Bros. have to cover up Bon’s death? Why would they not take the opportunity to use Bon’s lyrics on a tune or two and not give him the credit?
Two people in the book do mention a couple of possible motives, but they are so ridiculous Jesse glosses over them quickly so the reader doesn’t spend too much time thinking about them. But they were the only ones I could find.
One is money. The Young Bros. wanted to cut Bon out of the royalties and keep the dough for themselves. Well, if we are to believe Bon’s estate is receiving a cut of the royalties for Back In Black, as well as Brian who is credited on the album, than this makes no sense what so ever. The second is how The Young Bros. wanted (needed) to prop Brian up as an amazing song writer. Again, if money was the motive here, the Young Bros. missed the mark. What a crutch it would be for Back In Black to have the last two or three tunes ever written by Bon Scott, an album AC/DC desperately needed to succeed better than Highway To Hell. Instead of they prop up Brian Johnson? A relatively unknown singer they were not sure would be accepted. It doesn’t add up.
I’d be cool with this book if Jesse presented these stories without prejudice and let people decide for themselves what to believe. Instead he dismisses any testimony from the band as lies or takes quotes from them out of context. He paints the Young Brothers as mustache twirling villains who are only out for their own greed. At times, Malcolm is the bad guy, other times Angus is. Sometimes they didn’t do enough to monitor Bon’s behavior, other times they pushed him away with attempts to control him.
Towards the end of The Last Highway, right before he is about to revel his theories, Jesse recaps all of his evidence which he admits is “Anecdotal, circumstantial and subjective”. Three words that perfectly describe this book. The stories Jesse uncovered about Bon do make it a worthwhile read, but I recommend you take his rhetoric with a huge grain of salt.