An interview with Bon Scott's ex-wife Irene Thornton met, in which she recounts the story of how she met the late AC/DC singer, how they fell in love and grew apart, and tells us about the real, gentle man behind the myths and stories.
“The first time I saw him was at a party in Adelaide, up in the hills where Fraternity were living in Aldgate. I’d just come back from a year in England, and a girlfriend took me up to the party. She had built Bon up to be a fantastic guy and was obviously very keen on him. And when she pointed him out I think I sort of grimaced a bit [laughs]. It was a very packed, crowded, loud party, lots of loud music, smoking, drinking, everything. She said: “There he is.” And he was bare-chested, little shorts on, no shoes, arm around a girl, drink in the other hand, banging into people, weaving his way through a crowd and laughing his head off – which was a typical Bon image. I think I thought something like: ‘You’ve gotta be kidding’ [laughs].”
At what stage did your opinion of him soften?
"I saw him another time. The same girlfriend, Julia, had a clothing shop in Adelaide. It was in a downstairs shop. And while I was chatting to Julia and a group of other girls, we heard this thumping and banging noise coming from the staircase into the shop, and looked up to see Bon somersaulting down the stairs and then bouncing up. He could have hurt every bone in his body, but just for effect he bounced up like it was just perfectly normal, and proceeded to chat to Julie. She introduced us, and he really gave me a second look, and I gave him another grimace [laughs].
And then another night, Vince Lovegrove, who was in The Valentines with Bon, took me along to a place called the Largs Pier Hotel to see Fraternity. There was a sea of people having a great time, and I thought the music sounded really good. And during one of the breaks Vince waved Bon over and he came over and said hello and Vince introduced me to Bon. He cracked a couple of jokes, and that changed my opinion of him. I said something that came right off the top of my head – I made a comment about his really tight jeans, and his retort was pretty quick and funny. I’d said: “What a well-packed lunch,” and then thought: “Eurgh! Where did that come from?” And he just as quickly said: “Yep, two hard-boiled eggs and a sausage,” and went on talking to Vince while I was killing myself laughing. So after that we had a lot of banter, I think we were trying to hang it on each other a bit when we first met, until I suddenly thought he’s not really silly. And I was quite intrigued with him."
He seemed to have that ability to charm women. What was it that women in particular found attractive about Bon?
"It’s probably his outgoingness and his sense of humour. He just had a very bubbly personality and a lovely laugh and would be very quick with a joke. But you’d have to ask a few other women."
You mentioned him somersaulting down the stairs. Was that typical behaviour for Bon?
"I don’t know if it was true, but I had heard that in a club in Adelaide he’d driven up the stairs on his motorbike just in his undies. I didn’t really investigate it, but I did hear that a couple of times.
I went to see him play when we were going out together. He was playing at a festival at Berri in South Australia, and I saw him climb up a tree and dive into water, and I looked at him horrified, probably thinking: 'Spinal injury!' I don’t know what I was thinking, but I just thought: 'Danger.'"
Did he have rock-star qualities from the outset?
"No, he didn’t. But I wouldn’t have been thinking about anything like that back then. When I saw him play I thought he had fantastic charisma and a great voice, and he was a really great frontman – not as wild as he was allowed to be when he joined AC/DC. That was Bon doing what he wanted to do. I think he was held back by the band he was in [Fraternity] and the music they played. The guys were more intellectual. When he joined AC/DC he was able to develop, in my opinion. When he was with them he didn’t think he had to be that controlled. It was like he’d found his niche, in music."
As his girlfriend and then wife you would have seen a lot of things off stage the average person wouldn’t have seen. What was the off-stage Bon like?
"Still with the risk-taking stuff. Driving with Bon in traffic was a bit hair-raising. Even though he didn’t have a huge motorbike, he’d be weaving in and out of traffic, and my knees would be in danger of being dislocated. And there is some old film clip of him in Fraternity falling off his trail bike and racing around the hills. But he wasn’t one to hold back with anything.
Little things come to mind. When we had to stay at mother’s place before we were going to England for the first time, there were kids in the street playing football, and Bon would just suddenly meet them and be out the front playing football. He would get involved. I have another vision, an image that came to mind: I often think about something simple like Bon staying at my mother’s place, wearing a woman’s dressing gown, probably mine. And looking at him from the back, with his shoulders popping out, a woman’s dressing gown tied around the waist, and the wavy hair on his shoulders, looking like it should be a woman but everything was all wrong! He’d be making a cup of coffee. 'Would you like a cup of coffee, ’Rene?'"
Peter Head told me he was quite a thinker and would talk about things like philosophy.
"I don’t know about the philosophy bit. I never encountered that sort of thing."
Was there more of an intellect to Bon than people might expect?
"I’d say so. He wasn’t an idiot. We were similar in that we never had great education, and we were both aware of that. But he kept his ears open and had thoughts on… I wouldn’t say very deep thoughts, but he was quick to pick up on things. And he had a really good bullshit detector and was quick with sending something up that we both thought was funny. He’d give me a nudge. I wouldn’t have called him philosophical, but perhaps he had different types of conversations with Peter than he ever had with me."
Once he joined AC/DC did he ever talk to you about his relationship with Angus and Malcolm Young, and how he was feeling about the band, and the fact he was older than the other members?
"I think he took it with humour. They would banter with him about being the old bloke. Before he had joined them, he would make comments, when he didn’t have a band after his bike accident, that he felt like he was an old bloke in the music world and a has-been, and like it was all finished for him. So his relationship with the AC/DC guys… he seemed to laugh a lot with them and he thought they were great."
And they were equals?
"Oh yeah, I’d say so, for sure."
Did you ever see him writing lyrics? He used to carry a notebook around.
"He had a lot of old shorthand notebooks lying around, message pads or whatever, and he was always writing down lyrics."
So they came to him quite easily?
"Yeah. Now and again he’d give me a line and I’d think it was really funny or not. He’d get an idea in his head and run with it. One of the crummy songs that Fraternity had done when they were in England, I think at the time they were changing their name to Fang, he wrote this song Women Like You Are Rare Like Rocking Horse Shit. And I thought that just sounded like not one of the better ones [laughs]. But he was always writing stuff down."
Did you ever see any of the lyrics that ended up in AC/DC songs?
"Not that I remember. They were just always around. I disregarded them. I didn’t take much notice."
Bon was clearly quite gregarious. Was he genuinely like that with most people? Were there people he didn’t get along with?
"He was accepting of anyone. He got along with everyone, from kids to old people. My grandmother, they had banter between them when they first met. She was making comments about his long hair and snide comments, and her eyes would twinkle as he’d come back with something else. But he got along very well with everyone."
When he would visit you, did he talk much about AC/DC and how it was going?
"Yeah, he’d talk about it. In fact a lot of it went in one ear and out the other because he would talk about it so much – that he was having a great time, and he would talk about the concert they played and it was going really well here and there.
I think the last time I saw him, it was New Year’s Day. I was pregnant at the time with the man I was with after Bon. And there was alcohol left at the front door when we’d been out during the day. Bon had written saying he would come to visit me, and I saw alcohol at the front door, and thought the only person who’d be stupid enough to do that would be Bon. And I mentioned to my partner then that he’d been but he’ll be back to drink it. And when he met my partner they were chatting together and he was talking a lot to him about America, and he was talking with a lot of confidence and happiness about what was going on in his life then. He was really full of confidence and optimism and happiness. I just let them talk the music talk, I just faded out."
You didn’t get a sense that he was tiring of life on the road?
"No. He had said that in a letter to me, and I know he said that in an interview with Vince [Lovegrove], but it’s probably just how he was feeling at that time; he probably was feeling worn out. He had written in one of his letters that he was lonely, and it started off quite a sad letter, saying he was on his own in the motel room and there was no booze and no woman, and how he felt down. And then towards the end of the letter he said: “I felt terrible when I started writing but I feel much better now.” So I guess he would have had times like that where he was starting to feel tired and drained, but then he’d be up again. And there’d be letters where he was happy and he said it was going so well and said he wanted to buy a house in California and it’s nice to know he’s got enough now to pay the rent for a couple of years. So he had ‘up’ letters, and that was probably his only ‘down’ one. And he wouldn’t be human if he didn’t get tired and worn out.
He was definitely really happy when I saw him last. But then I’ve read about how he went on to see Bruce Howe, the bass player in Fraternity, and that he was sort of talking in a searching way about what to do in his future. So I imagine just like anyone else there were times when he’d feel a bit flat and then lift up again. That’s the way I saw it. I can’t say that’s how he was feeling, but that’s the way I saw it."
He sounds like a gentle person.
"He was a gentle person."
The legend of his drinking prowess – has it been exaggerated?
"He didn’t wake up in the morning and start drinking. When we were first married, before we went away, I had a job, and he’d be up when I got up and he’d pick me up from work most of the time. I don’t think it was out of control. It was controlled drinking. He could certainly put it away. But that was the way the whole lot of us lived at that time, we’d go out and party and drink. And I’d be on the back of his bike and we’d have a few drinks before we went out. They didn’t have the drink-driving laws then."
Are there any nights out with Bon in particular that you can remember clearly?
"I remember a lot of nights. Our wedding was great. It was like a big party. And even then he was responsible and making sure the oldies were all right. Well, until later, until he started to have a good time [laughs].
He was very protective of me after we’d split up, and he came back to Melbourne to visit when I was living in Melbourne. We’d been to a club in Melbourne, and we were going with another friend of his and his friend’s friend to a party, and we were all squashed into a car. I made a comment about being squashed in the back, and the guy in the front who was driving just turned around and told me to shut up and hit me. And Bon was just livid. It all happened in fast motion. Bon had him out of the car – and he was about twice Bon’s size – and Bon was beating the crap out of him. With every punch he was saying: “You hit my effing missus,” and he kept repeating that. It was a memorable night but not for good reasons, it was a really terrible night. He would be protective, often getting into fights but not causing fights, but by trying to break them up or… he wouldn’t go out looking for a fight. But he’d be the centre of attention, he just always had people around him."
Do you remember where you were when you heard he’d died?
"I was at home in the lounge room. I had a call from his brother Derek’s wife, who would have been my sister-in-law, Val, and she told me that he’d died. And it was a real shock. It was an awful shock. Very upsetting."
Did it change your life?
"Yeah, that was a really terrible time. Cos I was due to have my first child then, and I had him when they had the funeral in Perth and I wasn’t able to go. It was sad. And for years after it was just terrible. I would often see something or think of something that he would like or think was really funny, and I’d think Bon would love this, or this is something to tell him. But he was gone."