Published Nov 21, 2017If there's a single, essential passage in Bon: The Last Highway, Jesse Fink's compelling and conspiratorial new biography about the final years of AC/DC's Bon Scott, it's this: "Bon's death is arguably to rock and roll music what the JFK assassination is to American political history: the great unsolved history of our time."
That's the intensity with which Fink delves into the death of Bon Scott and what he views as AC/DC's complacency in enabling his alcoholism and, more surprisingly, their active erasure of Scott's contribution to one of rock'n'roll's best-selling and most iconic albums, Back in Black.
Scott was found dead in the back of a car in London in February 1980. The assessment of authorities at the time was that it was a "death-by-misadventure," as Scott had a large quantity of alcohol in his stomach and was thought to have choked to death on his own vomit while left passed out in a dangerous physical contortion in a car parked at the home of a mysterious figure named Alistair Kinnear.
By Fink's reasoning, Scott was not hanging out with the best sort of people in London, where AC/DC were prepping sessions for Back in Black. It'd been a hard road for the Australian band, who played big rooms opening for the likes of Aerosmith and Journey, but didn't really conquer radio until their sixth album, 1979's Highway to Hell.
Unlike the relatively straight-laced leaders of the band, guitarists Angus and Malcolm Young, Scott was certifiably wild on the road, consuming more booze than most who witnessed it assumed was humanly possible, and keeping a beautiful woman in every port AC/DC landed upon around the world. A romantic, he considered a few true soul mates, and Fink speaks to virtually all of them about Scott's frame of mind between 1977 and 1980.
Among Fink's chief, provocative assertions here is that the Youngs didn't truly care for Scott as their singer and that Malcolm in particular disdained him. Fink also believes that Scott's drug use was more prolific and extreme than AC/DC have been willing to admit publicly, going so far as to argue that heroin likely played a role in the beloved singer's death.
Fink also seizes upon a long-held theory that Scott was responsible for writing many songs on Back in Black that new singer Brian Johnson and the Youngs are solely credited for, arguing that they seized upon Scott's notebooks after he died, which at least one friend says contained the finished lyrics for the new album.
He breaks down "You Shook Me All Night Long" and presents a convincing case that it bears lived experiences and wit that belong to Scott. He also highlights a series of contradictory quotes from AC/DC about the songwriting timeline and various admissions and denials about Scott's role — plus the weird factoid that, despite no credit, Scott's estate continues to receive royalties from the record that came out six months after he died.
There's genuine rancour dripping from Fink's words about AC/DC. He's a jilted fan who's written about the band before (his book, The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC is considered definitive) but has been denied interview access to current members. And yet, he populates his book with firsthand anecdotes from friends of Scott's, close associates and ex-members of the band, not to mention witnesses and tour mates from bands like Foreigner, Van Halen and UFO, among others. Early on, he actually documents a recent passing encounter with the dementia-addled Malcolm Young shuffling down the street, but chooses to leave him alone.
Crossing continents and tracking key figures down, Fink's work here is impressive; his book is exhaustively investigative and engrossing. Tonally, he sounds embittered and indignant that AC/DC let Bon Scott spiral out of control to his death and subsequently treated his girlfriends and close friends with cold detachment. He even alludes to their sudden dismissal of Brian Johnson (who was, strangely, replaced by Axl Rose for the rest of their 2015/2016 Rock or Bust tour) as a further signal of their business-minded ruthlessness.
To his credit, Fink also ensures that Scott doesn't come across as a saint either. Far from a hagiography, he laments Scott's lack of control and human discipline to live healthily. An impoverished rock star, Scott let the road eat him alive, and Fink's book is a complaint about AC/DC's role in his death and their revisionist history.
Bon: The Last Highway views AC/DC's final years with Bon Scott as one giant crime scene that has never been properly solved and offers fans much to contemplate. (ECW Press)