Most biographies or memoirs of great rock ‘n’ rollers take the sensational approach – get to the dirty stuff and get to it fast. After all, why do rock fans worship these guys after all? Besides the music, it’s sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll that people want. Mostly sex and drugs, if Mötley Crüe’s landmark rock bio The Dirt is anything to go by.
Perhaps this is what makes this new book about AC/DC’s Bon Scott so interesting. It’s not a tell-all tale of heroin and orgies (although there are hints of both at various points), but it relates the story of the Scottish-Australian singer’s life from his wife’s point of view, just before, during and just after he hit the big time.
The result is perhaps the truest written record of the ‘real’ Bon Scott in all his complex glory, told through the affectionate and highly personal memories of a young woman living in a man’s world; someone who loved and stuck by her guy when she had every reason to turn her back on him. The inclusion of 15 never-before-published letters only serves to make this even more of a personal insight into the head of arguably Australia’s greatest ever vocalist.
In 1974, Australian rock music was in a fairly grim spot. Skyhooks (or ‘Cunthooks’, as Scott referred to them in a letter to Thornton) dominated the charts and Bon Scott was a washed-up singer pushing 30 who had failed with his two chances at stardom with the Valentines and Fraternity. It took the Young brothers and Scott to make AC/DC kick it into life with their high-octane, fuel-injected brand of rock ‘n’ roll that stole much from Chuck Berry yet still sounded fresh.
That much everybody knows, but it’s Scott’s life just before his big break which is much more fascinating, and it’s all here.
Thornton enters the scene when Scott is plying his trade in the pubs and clubs of Adelaide with prog-rockers Fraternity, earning next to no money and spending all his spare time partying in the Adelaide hills. A quick marriage later and the two head off to London with the band in an attempt to make it big, but the strain of living in a communal house takes its toll and the band and relationship fall apart. Throughout this time Thornton paints Scott as, perhaps unsurprisingly, selfish and chauvinistic, although there’s never any malice or bitterness in her words. In fact, it seems she could have said a lot more.
It’s at this point Scott joins AC/DC and never looks back, and despite a string of obvious affairs and general bad-boy behaviour, he still sees Thornton as his wife and keeps in regular contact via the letters that make this book better than your average rock biography.
“Not bad for a 29 year-old, 3rd time round has been,” he writes in one, describing record sales of the High Voltage album.
In some ways the story of the start of Scott’s success with AC/DC is hinted at being the beginning of the end of the true period of happiness in his life, although that, of course, is probably truer of Thornton. As she grows tired of his constant boasting about sexual and business conquests and moves on with her life, he catches her off guard with a few lines that don’t sound like the normal Scott cockiness.
“I just wanna be famous I guess. Just so when people talk about ya it’s good things they say. That’s all I want. But right now I’m just lonely.”
This isn’t high literature, but then Scott’s lyrics never were either. It’s simply an affectionate and fascinating look at the makings of an Australian legend, told from a never-before-heard point of view.
MY BON SCOTT BY IRENE THORNTON WITH SIMONE UBALDI IS OUT NOW.
For the AU Review