"After Show Only" backstage passes are concert promoters' version of a good news-bad news joke. The good news is that you can go backstage. The bad news is that you are often segregated from the real action and rarely get to meet the band. If there is going to be contact with the stars, it's usually in a controlled situation called a meet-and-greet.
I knew all of this ahead of time, yet in January I found myself sitting in a barren room in the bowels of Austin's Frank Erwin Center with various radio-contest winners, disc jockeys, fanzine editors, and superfans. It looked like a casting call for one of those hip yet unfunny BBC comedies, so high was the level of goofiness, but still I sat there for at least an hour for the chance to tell the members of AC/DC they were--and are--the greatest rock-and-roll band of all time.
My friend Al and I got to the show a little late--the band had just started the third song, "Thunderstruck"--but entering the arena in midfury and being led closer and closer to the source of heat, while the crowd stood and screamed and shook their fists, was a remarkable experience. The guitars of the Young Brothers, Malcolm and Angus, were so in sync and tied together like an inhale and an exhale, and it was such a big sound that wrapped around the usually annoying "new" singer Brian Johnson that it hardly mattered he's no Bon Scott. The whole scene was surreal, and it felt like being a lucky extra in a monumental musical.
After "Thunderstruck" ended in a crashing storm, Al looked at me and said, "Man, this is the shit." For the next hour and a half, two men in their 40s stood in awe like kids and let the rhythm take them back to more painful and innocent times.
The other night I dreamt I'd had sex with Madonna, and all I kept thinking about was how I couldn't wait to tell everyone afterwards. It was a little like that when I first experienced an AC/DC record in 1978. As much as the music was tippin' my canoe, I just couldn't wait to play Let There Be Rock for the gang.
During my early 20s, I ran with a group of kids who liked to chatter on about music, as they "jammed to some tunes," occasionally taking on such hot topics as whether the guitar solo from "Green Grass and High Tides" by the Outlaws rocked harder than the end of "Free Bird." I knew there'd be no debate about AC/DC because before I "discovered" them, the records that rocked most were by the likes of Montrose, Zeppelin, Nugent, and UFO; when it was time to come down, the choices were either Caravanserai by Santana or Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.
That was the thing: In our group, bands were allotted only one word, which was usually preceded by a "the." Hence, Cheap Trick was "The Trick" and R.E.O. Speedwagon was "The 'Wagon." Anyway, at that age, you're looking to fit in so you talk like everyone else, even if it's that horrible stoner talk, and you live to turn your friends on to new music.
During those days I was kind of a know-it-all, so the gang usually gave my discoveries the cold shoulder. I was more esoteric than the rest of the group--preferring "Low Spark of High Heel Boys" to "My Woman From Tokyo"--and I was the first one of us to discover punk. When I brought by the Ramones, Blondie, and Television, everybody hated them. These were kids who probably thought minimalism was a new kind of killer pot from Mexico. Punk just didn't rock, not like Foghat.
I knew it would be different with AC/DC, and it was. Right away it was everyone's favorite band. There was nothing like it, and Bon Scott was the best rock-and-roll singer any of us had ever heard. One thing we'd do while listening to records was to keep building intensity until reaching the apex of "rocking out," and the last album in the chain was always by AC/DC. You couldn't rock any harder than that, and anybody who's thinking Zeppelin or the Clash or Sabbath can leave now.
At the time, I worked at a gymnasium on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, so I was aware that Australians were crazy fuckers. These sailors from Down Under would have full-on wrestling matches on the hardwood basketball court, and then they'd go out on the town looking for trouble or naked women--whichever came first. So I knew why AC/DC was harder, tougher, meaner than all the other bands: They were from Australia.
AC/DC's music reminded me of this time there were all these Australians at a burlesque club on Hotel St. called the Club Hubba Hubba. It was an old-fashioned strip joint, where the women would come out in elaborate costumes and then slowly peel off the layers. It took about three or four songs for them to get completely naked, but this particular group of Aussies would have none of that.
"We don't care about your fancy costumes," one Aussie said to Tempest Storm Jr., as he patted a spot on the runway. "We don't want to see your fancy dances or your strutting all about." Pat pat pat pat. "We want to see your twat--right here, right now!" That's AC/DC's raw and in-your-face attitude in a nutshell.
Being from Australia alone didn't mean much, as the likes of Olivia Newton-John, Rick Springfield, Helen Reddy, and the Bee Gees proved, but the flip side of that Top 40 scene were the bucket-o-blood rock clubs full of drunken rowdies who demanded a harder strain of "blooze."
Among the misinformation that's been spread about the band's history, the greatest myth is that the late Bon Scott was once a roadie with the band. It's true he met the other members of AC/DC when he was dispatched from a local club to pick them up at the airport, but Scott had been singing in bands for years, and he volunteered for shuttle duty because he wanted to get with the Young brothers and their manager/brother George (formerly of the Easybeats, who hit it big in 1966 with "Friday On My Mind") and convince them to can their wimpy singer Dave Evans and hire him.
The type of clubs AC/DC played in probably had a lot to do with Scott's appeal to the teeny-tiny Youngs. "Bon was a rough sort, and he used to watch out for me and Malcolm," Angus said when I interviewed him before the Austin show in January. "After he joined up, he told me, 'Whatever I do, you do the opposite.'"
So Angus stayed relatively sober most of the time. Not that Scott was uncontrollable--in fact, Angus said Bon worked hard when it was time to work--but he also cut loose when it was time to party: "We'd get off a six-month tour, and Bon would say, 'It's time for a wing-ding,'" Angus recalled. "And you wouldn't see him for awhile. But he also used to say that no matter what he did, he always got eight hours of sleep."
Often that meant waking up in the early evening, but there was one time in 1980 that Bon Scott didn't wake up, and it only takes one. He'd been out drinking all night in London and a friend drove him home. Scott had passed out, so the friend let him sleep it off in the car. The next morning, Scott was found dead drunk in the car. AC/DC would never be the same. Cry as much as you want about John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and all your other dead rock stars: Bon Scott ranks with Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain as one of the greatest losses because Bon ate it near the peak of his vitality.
I mean, John Lennon hadn't made a good record for 10 years before his death, and Elvis died wearing that gaudy jumpsuit with the cape. But Bon Scott was choking on vomit just a few months after recording Highway To Hell. That's like dying of a heart attack a few minutes after giving Shannon Dougherty, or someone like her, a sticky kiss of appreciation.
Even though the albums featuring Scott as the singer remain AC/DC's golden era, the band actually became more popular after his death when they hired Brian Johnson, who's also been incorrectly pegged as a former roadie. Back In Black, Johnson's debut with the band, has sold more than 10 million copies in the U.S. alone. He's made the best of his situation, and even though he sings "Whole Lotta Rosie" like old people fuck, he doesn't keep AC/DC from being a great concert act.
Still, when our group of meeters and greeters were finally escorted into another barren room at the Erwin Center, I had absolutely no desire to meet the singer. Or the bass player or the drummer. I really wanted to talk to Malcolm and Angus Young, who keep the whole thing together. Angus is the flashier one, with the schoolboy uniform and the U.S. flag underwear and the constant duck-walk energy. But older brother Malcolm's hard-charging rhythm guitar is the engine that drives the AC/DC sound. I wanted both of them to sign my backstage pass: AC/DC turns me back into a teen-ager.
The fans backstage were lined up, and when Brian Johnson bounded through the door first, Sharpie pen in hand, I sorta moseyed on out of the line. I didn't want this guy's name to devalue my pass. When the bassist and the drummer came down the line next, I stayed out of flow, but then in walked Angus and Malcolm, each about 5 feet tall and extremely skinny and showing age in his face, which you don't get in concert because they're too busy pounding your brain for you to notice.
I went back to my original place in line right before Malcolm got there, and I told him AC/DC is the greatest rock band of all time. He just smiled and muttered something and moved on as if I'd just told him that the sun rises at 6:17 a.m. tomorrow. Then came Angus, another mutterer, who gave the thumbs-up sign to virtually everything that was said to him by the radio people.
After he went through, the line broke up into little groups around each member, and I actually heard this guy, who was dressed like Brian Johnson with the touring cap and black leather vest, offer the singer his girlfriend. She was one of those 43-year-old rock chicks with the shag haircut and the '70s groupie garb, and on hearing this Johnson wheeled around as if he suddenly had something to do.
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Just then, he saw me admiring my backstage pass, autographed by Angus and Malcolm Young. "Here you go," that talentless yob said as he took my pass and signed his name, right between the signatures of the Young brothers. Oh, well, what am I doing collecting autographs anyway? I'm 40 years old.
I went to get Al so we could leave, but he was deep in conversation with Malcolm Young, who seemed confounded by consonants just a few minutes earlier. I couldn't really get close enough to hear what they were talking about, as a crowd had gathered around, but they ended up rapping for about 10 minutes. When they finally shook hands and we were on our way, I remarked to Al that he and Malcolm seemed to be getting on quite well. I wanted to know what Al had said to him. "Oh, I just asked him what kind of pick-ups he had on his favorite guitar."
The members of AC/DC don't have hobbies. They don't play golf or date models or try to get young people to vote. They only serve one purpose and have one function. They are here to rock your world, and when they're not doing that, they don't exist. The next day, I couldn't find my autographed pass, and I haven't seen it since. I must've left it in the cab.
AC/DC performs April 4 at Reunion Arena.