Once Scotland Yard issued an announcement on Wednesday, 20 February 1980, the news quickly spread around the world: Bon Scott, the 33-year-old lead singer of Australia’s greatest ever rock band, AC/DC, had been found dead in a parked car in London. There were “no suspicious circumstances”. By Friday that week, coroner Sir Montague Levine had ruled his demise a ‘death of misadventure’ caused by acute alcohol poisoning.
It was an open and shut case — or was it?
For decades, many conspiracy theories around Scott’s mysterious death have emerged; some of them worthy of investigation — a possible drug overdose, others patently absurd — murder. But to be able to solve what I regard as the Da Vinci Code of rock, it required going back much further than 1980 — back to AC/DC’s first tour of the United States in 1977. For it was in America that the road to Scott’s death, his last highway, began.
As a biographer of Bon Scott, the challenge for me was answering one simple question: “Just how had a rough-edged and sometimes inarticulate but charming, witty, street-smart young man with a bent for reinvention and a talent for lyric writing end up a chronic alcoholic with two heroin overdoses under his belt by age 30? Why did his life end just as AC/DC was on the cusp of fortune and international superstardom?”
Bon Scott's stage persona embodied the raw rock of AC/DC
There had to be more to it than just one fateful night out on the town that ended in a tragic accident. And there was — much more. In Bon: The Last Highway, I delved deep into Scott’s unknown past, meeting friends and lovers he had during three years of touring America. They all told a similar story: he was troubled, conflicted, sometimes depressed, and sick of playing the role he’d created for himself as a sort of rock ’n’ roll Fagin.
The pressures and loneliness of life on the road were getting to him, and he was masking a lot of his inner torment by drinking alcohol, using drugs such as Quaaludes and cocaine, and bedding groupies as AC/DC moved from gig to gig, city to city across America.
The real Bon Scott liked reading Doris Lessing and Colette. He listened to The Pretenders and Steely Dan. He wanted stability and commitment in his romantic life but he wasn’t getting it from the few women he was genuinely interested in. He was too wayward, too unpredictable, too uncertain about his own identity for them to consider a serious relationship. He was even unsure whether he wanted to stay in the band.
And so, by the time Scott got to London in early 1980, he was not in a good way. Though AC/DC had finally cracked the US market with Highway To Hell and money was finally starting to appear in his bank account, physically he looked haggard and tired, and wasn’t his customary fit self. Emotionally, he was at a weak point and susceptible to temptation.
London, flooded with brown heroin from Iran, was a not a good place to be.
Bon: The Last Highway by Jesse Fink, published by Penguin Random House, is available now for RRP $34.99.
What are your memories from when the news hit of Bon Scott’s death?