Bon Scott: The mysterious death of AC/DC’s legendary frontman
“AC/DC wrote the law about playing rock’n’roll. As simple as that. And Bon was brilliant. You’d see him first thing in the morning, and he’d been with the barmaid or something, and he’d go: ‘Had a good workout last night.’ He’d get out of the elevator, he’d clap his hands and he’d say: ‘Large Jack Daniel’s.’ Brilliant.”
Unprompted, Way brings up the subject of Bon Scott’s death: “I’m still alive, Bon isn’t. I’m not saying his lifestyle should be endorsed or recommended, but you have to say that certain people lived in a different world, or created a different world. You write movies about people like Bon Scott.”
Bon’s demise, Way says, affected him badly: “It hit me hard. And it’s funny, it took his death to wake the world to AC/DC. It was like, something special. Punk rock almost made it, but AC/DC made it to the max. Bon launched AC/DC’s career into stardom. You can’t buy a Bon Scott. But you know, when we were on tour in the US with them, every night I watched Angus and Bon I thought, wow! It was like a hurricane. It was much better than UFO, and we had to go on and follow it.”
We return to memories of that photograph of Way and Bon backstage at Hammersmith Odeon in February 1980. Way continues: “Now we as UFO were on substances, right? We were using heroin after the show. I’ve got to be very careful here. One of the guys that was bringing it to us was Australian, and he came down with Bon. And, you know, if you do cocaine and drink you can get a violent reaction. But if you’ve never done heroin before – and we were doing heroin after the show like we always did – and you drink, the odds are that at some point you’ll fall asleep, and you’ll choke and you’ll die.”
Rania Habal, MD, of the Society For Academic Emergency Medicine, places Way’s comments into context: “Alcohol is a very common co-ingestant in heroin overdoses,” he comments. “Additionally, a fatal heroin overdose is nearly always caused by respiratory arrest.”
So, Way remembers Bon hanging out with a heroin dealer at that time. Would he go so far as to say that Scott was doing smack backstage with UFO? “I don’t really know,” Way shrugs, “but you generally know the symptoms. Cos we were doing smack and Bon was there… and he drank a lot. But, you know, a lot of people drink a lot, but they drink and throw up and live to tell the tale.”
Who was the Australian guy who arrived with Bon? “Joe Silver or whoever it was.” [Way is getting confused here: this name is an amalgam of Joe Bloe/Joe King and Silver Smith; see Paul Chapman interview later in this story.] “Well, he had different names. Lots of different names. Look, some people sell drugs; you can’t make judgments against them… He was a nice guy. Like, if someone dies in a car crash because they’ve got drunk in a bar, you can’t blame the barman. Just because somebody has cocaine or heroin or something like that and brings it down to your friends… You can’t point a finger at anybody if they’re living a life of excess. And unfortunately I think what probably happened… If you’re not skilled at the art of heroin, then you do dance with the Devil…
“But what a beautiful guy, what a great songwriter Bon was… As I say, it was like Alex Harvey, some of Bon’s stuff, the tongue-in-cheek thing. He was a real personality.”
Classic Rock tries to pin Way down and to get him to offer his precise memories of Bon’s death. As we do so, Paul Chapman’s name is mentioned for the first time.
“I got a phone call,” Way recounts. “Paul Chapman [then UFO’s guitarist] called me. He said: ‘Pete, Bon’s just died. The people – the police or whoever – need to tell the band.’ I’ve got Angus and Malcolm’s home numbers. So I thought, don’t let Angus know; Malcolm’s the person to tell first. So I gave Malcolm’s number to Paul Chapman. I got on quite well with them [the members of AC/DC], so I had the numbers of where they were in London. And I really didn’t want to [give the number to Chapman], because it’s quite early in the morning when I got the phone call.”
Here’s where the popularly accepted version of the Bon Scott story takes a major detour. To recap: Alistair Kinnear said he discovered Bon’s body in his car at 7.45 in the evening on Tuesday, February 19. Pete Way says that he was informed about Bon’s death on the Tuesday morning. So, what happened? How did Paul Chapman know so early that Bon had died?
Way: “Well… [coughs] you know… [voice tapers off]. But, you know, some people do fall asleep and choke in the car. Paul will probably… I’ve got to be very careful here again. Paul’s one of them people who can have as many drinks as you like, and he’ll do as many drugs as you like. Remember, we used to call him Tonka. But yeah, he was actually the one who called me early in the morning to say: ‘Can you get me one of the band’s numbers, because Bon’s dead’. So I probably knew before anybody. But I don’t know the actual situation.”
Way adds: “With Bon there were no limits, so really and truly you don’t know, do you? It can happen to any of us. These days I’m older and perhaps wiser, because I’ll have a few drinks or whatever, and one night I might do a bit of coke. But at least I’m older and wiser; sometimes you’re young and you ain’t that wise.
A week after our conversation with Pete Way, we track down former UFO guitarist Paul Chapman at his home in Florida. We know the Wales-born musician from way back, having first met him when he played guitar in 70s rockers Lone Star.