AC/DC is one of the biggest bands in the world, having sold more than 200 million records worldwide. The Young brothers, Malcolm and Angus, have achieved heights few other bands will scale. Their famous “lightning bolt” logo is instantly recognizable and has given the band a brand that few others enjoy. But, underneath all of those riches and fame is a tragic story that leaves bitter divide amongst their hardest core fans.
Jesse Fink’s Bon: The Last Highway documents AC/DC’s lead singer Bon Scott’s rise, his fatal fall and the controversy surrounding his death in 1980, just as the band was about to break through to superstardom. Scott’s songs guided the band through what many consider the band’s creative peak, and the book makes a compelling argument that Scott had a major hand lyrically in the mega-selling Back In Black that would come out later the same year of his death with Brian Johnson out front, and launch the band into another stratosphere. The question of who was the better singer, songwriter and frontman is strictly personal; I come down decidedly in the Bon Scott camp, having seen that version of the band.
More importantly, the book also questions the “official” version of a London coroner as to how Bon Scott died. That accepted version— one the band has embraced so as not to tarnish their brand — is that Scott choked on his own vomit while extremely intoxicated or, as this rock’n’roll classic is often defined: “death by misadventure.” Scott was a heavy drinker, often downing a fifth of scotch in a night, so a night out on the town ending in such a tragedy seems either hard to believe, due to his fortitude, or simply an inevitability, ironically due to the same reason.
Fink, however, posits that, having finished the lyrics to “the new album,” which would become Back in Black, Bon was ready for a night on the town. The new information provided in detail from several witnesses involved, suggests heroin — that other rock’n’roll “classic" — was likely involved. Although some of the accounts conflict in detail and timeline, most point towards a scenario that Bon likely dabbled in a line of heroin that evening, and it killed him. Old girlfriends, dealers, and running buddies that include members of the hard-partying band UFO are interviewed. No one denies Scott was left alone in a car, unconscious, under a pile of blankets on a chilly London night, but Fink suggests two variations to the accepted story of a lonely asphyxiation due to alcohol. I’ll leave it to readers to discover those theories in the book.
The other can of worms Fink smashes open is whether some, a lot, or even all of Back in Black’s lyrics were written by Scott, rather than Brian Johnson to whom the songs are credited. Fink’s first book on AC/DC was the excellent 2014’s The Young’s: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, and focused on Malcolm, Angus and producer George Young, and the clannish “us against them” approach they took in all things business of AC/DC. Scott’s lyrics always had more to them than appeared on the surface, and were certainly slyer, funnier and more autobiographical than Johnson’s, whose words were, to be kind, a bit clunky and one-dimensional. However, Bon’s lyric notebooks also went missing almost immediately after the Young’s were notified, and the band began recording just two months after Scott's death. Coincidence? Brian Johnson says, simply, that notion is "rubbish."
Equal parts mystery, detective story and music memoir, Fink has written a well-crafted, well-researched tale that connects a lot of dots. There’s bound to be more questions asked (although likely little "official" word from the band's camp), but if you’re an AC/DC fan, particularly of the Bon Scott era, you’re going to find this one hell of a story.
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