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Highway to Hell: The Life and Times of AC/DC Legend Bon Scott, Clinton Walker (Pan Books 1996, 2006)

AC/DC were never experimental or avant-garde. No, they were authentic and unpretentious. They sounded like Australia: hard-drinking, hard-living, home-spun and humorous. Or so outsiders liked to think. But there was an intelligence and subtlety to them all the same. Even a sensitivity. At least, there was while Bon Scott wrote the lyrics and sang the songs. Then Scott died, Brian Johnson came in, and AC/DC lost the magic, becoming crude and witless heavy metal instead.

I used to regret Bon Scott’s early death. After reading this book, I’m not sure if I regret it any more. It seems as though his passing was inevitable. He wanted to die and he did. The only question was how he’d do it. Drink? Drugs? Dangerous driving? In the end, he did his ancestors proud and killed himself with drink, getting blind drunk one night in London and choking to death in his sleep (in his death-certificate, reproduced here, it says “Acute Alcohol Poisoning”). That was in 1980 and he was only thirty-three. But he’d packed a lot into those years. That might have been the problem. He’d seen and experienced everything, except truly big success as a musician. Big success was beckoning for AC/DC in 1980 and Scott must have known it, but the prospect didn’t attract him. And anyway, Clinton Walker suggests here that Scott wasn’t necessarily a fixture in AC/DC. He might have been on his way out at the time of his death. After all, he didn’t have the burning ambition or the fraternal bond of Angus and Malcolm Young, the two Scottish-Australian brothers who founded and kept an iron grip on AC/DC.

Instead, Bon Scott had charm, wit and intelligence. And those things had already taken him everywhere he wanted to go, it seems. This book is good at putting his career into context. It quotes extensively from his friends and fellow musicians (with the notable exceptions of Angus and Malcolm). Those people know his backstory and saw his early struggles. The vast majority of Bon Scott’s fans, on the other hand, will have first come across him in AC/DC. But he was a veteran of Australian heavy rock by the time he joined the Youngs’ battle for world-domination. He was the “old man” in the band (Angus literally called him that) and “he was always sort of separate from the rest”, as Richard Griffiths puts it here. Griffiths was AC/DC’s “booking agent” on their first British tour. He goes on:

[The drummer] Phil [Rudd], he was off on his own, he was actually pretty obnoxious. Angus and Malcolm, they were thick, obviously. And then [bassist] Mark [Evans], you knew he wasn’t going to last, he was too much of a nice guy. I mean, these were tough guys, they were pretty tough on each other. (ch. 11, “England”, pp. 199-200)

Mark Evans himself backs this up:

They [the Youngs] would dispute this, but I think they viewed Bon to be ultimately disposable. In hindsight, it seems to be preposterous, but at the time he was always in the firing line. And there was a lot of pressure, mainly from George [Young, Angus and Malcolm’s older brother and AC/DC’s producer], and record companies. I think within that camp, there’s been a certain rewriting of history, about how they felt about the guy – no, that’s wrong, how they felt about the guy professionally. Because there was no way you could spend more than 30 seconds in a room with Bon and not be completely and utterly charmed. The guy was captivating; he was gentlemanly, but he had the rough side to him, and he was funny. (Ibid., pg. 200)

Is it true that Scott was “separate” and “ultimately disposable” or are Griffiths and Evans working off grudges against the Youngs, who are not known for their charm and clubbability? Maybe. Both Angus and Malcolm “refused to interviewed for this book”, but I don’t think they come out of it badly. Walker doesn’t “tip the bucket”, as the Australian idiom goes. There isn’t anything to tip, because Angus and Malcolm aren’t monsters, just hard-working, hard-headed musicians who found a successful formula and stuck to it. Or they weren’t monsters, because Malcolm is dead now. But he wasn’t when Walker paid tribute to his band at the end of this book:

[…] like a vintage bluesman, AC/DC deserve the respect and success they enjoy. The energy and commitment AC/DC have is the least the punters should expect from any rock’n’roll band. But AC/DC have always been distinguished by their lack of pretension and their sense of humour, and these are the qualities they cling to. (“Epilogue”, pg. 310)

But did they cling to those qualities after Bon Scott died? Angus kept wearing his uniform and Malcolm kept wearing his T-shirts, but Brian Johnson was now writing and singing lyrics like these:

What do you do for money, honey?
How do you get your kicks?
What do you do for money, honey?
How do you get your licks? – “What Do You Know for Money, Honey?

Compare this by Scott:

It’s another lonely evenin’
In another lonely town.
But I ain’t too young to worry
And I ain’t too old to cry
When a woman gets me down.

Got another empty bottle
And another empty bed.
Ain’t too young to admit it
And I’m not too old to lie:
I’m just another empty head. – “Ride On

And this by Scott:

And I got patches on the patches
On my old blue jeans –
Well, they used to be blue,
When they used to be new,
When they used to be clean.

But I’ve got a Mumma who’s a hummer,
Just keeping me alive.
While I’m in the band doing drinking with the boys,
She’s working nine to five
(Knows her place that woman). – “(Ain’t No Fun) Waitin’ ’Round to Be a Millionaire

Bon Scott wasn’t a feminist, but he wasn’t a crude misogynist either. And where Johnson shouted or shrieked his lyrics, Scott used to act them and bring them to life. His phrasing and timing were excellent and he could enliven an ordinary line with irony or innuendo, ribaldry or resignation. Like Chuck Berry, he had the ability to turn songs into stories. Unlike Chuck Berry, he was more than the narrator of the story: he was the one who had lived it.

For all these reasons and more, Bon Scott is one of my two favourite singers in rock’n’roll. The other is Sean Harris, once of Diamond Head. But if Harris is always pleasant on the ear, he always sounds the same too. Scott doesn’t. And Scott had an intelligence that’s rare in rock’n’roll. If you want to know a lot more about him, from his birth in Forfar to his death in London and his time in Australia in-between, this is a good book to read. But reading it may stop you regretting his death, because it looks as though death was exactly what he was looking for.

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Front cover of Dougal Haston The Philosophy of Risk by Jeff ConnorsDougal Haston: The Philosophy of Risk, Jeff Connors (Canongate Books 2002)

Shortly after Dougal Haston set off for the skiing-jaunt that would kill him, his girlfriend was struck by the impulse to catch a last glimpse of him. She hurried upstairs and looked out over the route he had taken, but she was too late — he was already out of sight. That’s how Jeff Connors starts the book and the story is so appropriate that you start to wonder whether it’s true. Reading on you’ll discover that Haston was always hurrying, always in pursuit of the peak experiences that would lift him out of mundane reality and place him where he wanted to be: up with the Nietzschean Übermenschen he had studied during his never-completed philosophy degree in his hometown of Edinburgh. In a saner world, Mick Jagger might have been the Dougal Haston of popular music; as it is, Dougal Haston was the Mick Jagger of mountaineering, idolized around the world for his joli laid looks and his Byronic aura of tragic, suffering, misunderstood genius.

But it wasn’t only his looks that were odd: he was tall and slender but so “pigeon-toed” that people sometimes wondered how he managed to walk. It’s almost as though he was some new species of human, Homo montanus, mountain man, evolved for the sheer rock and ice of high altitude. A strange contrast with Britain’s other mountaineering genius of the 1960s and ’70s, the stocky, aggressive, almost ape-like Mancunian Don Whillans, born working-class like Haston but unlike Haston determined never to let people forget it. The two of them performed one of the great feats of twentieth-century mountaineering: the first ascent of the south face of the Himalayan massif Annapurna on an expedition organized by Chris Bonington in 1970.

Haston was Whillans’ protégé then, but he later rejected his mentor, casting one of the votes that kept “The Villain” off one of Bonington’s expeditions to Everest. Whillans didn’t voice open resentment, perhaps recognizing himself that his best days were behind him. Haston’s own position as one of the world’s five or six greatest mountaineers was beginning to be challenged when he died in 1977, strangled by one of his rock-star scarves after he was buried in an avalanche while skiing. And Connors hints earlier in the book that he might always have been in the shadow of another mountaineering genius from Edinburgh, Robin Smith.

But Smith died in 1962 on an expedition to the central Asian mountain range the Pamirs at the age of only twenty-three, and his full greatness remains only a might-have-been. Connors’ implied belittling of Haston there isn’t an isolated flaw: this is often a mean-spirited book and Connors sometimes seems to follow the motto De mortuis nihil nisi malum. The Californian John Harlin, a blond “Greek god” who died in a thousand-foot fall climbing the north face of the Eiger with Haston by the direttissima — straight up — comes in for a thorough kicking when he’s literally down. But perhaps that’s the kind of thing Connors enjoys most, as an ex-rugby player. He’s much more sympathetic with the first of Haston’s two big personal tragedies. The second was his own early death, the first the manslaughter of a hiker in a drink-driving accident in Scotland.

Haston’s distaste for publicity was increased by the court case and his two months in Glasgow’s justifiably notorious Barlinnie Gaol, and he never liked to be photographed smiling afterwards. The brooding melancholy or scowls by which he became known to the newspaper-reading public increased his legend and he found it relatively easy to earn his living by mountaineering, becoming a climbing-instructor in Switzerland.

But his students were often disappointed: expecting individual tuition from him, they could easily find him “out of sight”, climbing too fast and too skilfully for mere mortals to match. His appointment as the director of the international climbing school at Leysin in Switzerland precipitated his death, when he translated his taste for mountaineering in extremis to the ski-slopes and took one risk too many. Some of those who knew him were surprised only that he died skiing and not climbing, like so many of his friends and colleagues. Even the most careful and safety-conscious mountaineer places his life in the lap of the mountain-gods every time he climbs. But without risk there is no rush. Although Connors dismisses the suggestion that Haston had a death-wish, it’s certain he had a defy-death-wish. “Genius” is an over-used term but Haston’s achievements — Eigerwand by the direttissima, south face of Annapurna, south-west face of Everest — speak for themselves and will continue to do so long into this century.

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