I watched my parent’s car head down the driveway. I would watch the car slow down, then take a left. The car vanished past the neighbor’s house. As soon as I confirmed them gone, I, a shy and introverted thirteen-year-old, ran over to the new Bose CD player in the kitchen. I picked up the black CD casing, pulled out the guilty party, and placed it into the player. I’d press the rubber play button, and as quick as I could, press the rubber volume up button in a manic machine gun pace.
Then I’d hear them — the ominous sound of church bells. Four ominous church bells rang. I felt like I stood at a cliff’s edge. The riff, that haunting riff in the rock-n-roll key of all rock-n-roll keys, the key of A. My head would start bobbing, then the cymbals, the bass drum. I’d stand close to the speakers to feel the bass drum, like a punch to the gut.
It felt like a calling. Like a deity speaking to me. I’d spread my hands and look up at the ceiling, and then it came….
I’m a rolling thunder, pouring rain
I’m coming on like a hurricane
Today, nearly thirty years later, I still have the same feeling when I hear Hells Bells by AC/DC.
My top three favorite bands:
The Lives of Brian is a cathartic and touching memoir written by AC/DC’s frontman, Brian Johnson. I love AC/DC and I love their first frontman, Bon Scott. In my opinion, arguably, Bon Scott is the greatest rock-n-roll lyricist of all time. He’s a rock-n-roll poet. And as far as a singer, Bon Scott is one of rock’s greatest phrasers (how he phrased the lyrics when he sang). He phrases emotion and wry humor into a song, unlike any other singer. I love Bon. And I loved Bon as a kid. And when I started writing for a living, I grew to appreciate and respect Bon far more. But Brian Johnson’s my man. His voice led me down many rabbit holes as a kid and directly and indirectly led me to discover various artists I love.
Needless to say, when I read his memoir, I was touched.
Brian Johnson hand-wrote the memoir. He wrote it as a letter to his great-great-great grandchildren. In part because he never knew his grandfather, since his grandfather hated him due to Brian’s mother being Italian. While it’s also a letter to his lineage, it’s also an ode to his love of music, his love of his band, and his appreciation and gratefulness for what happened to him. But he also hand-wrote it as a cathartic release.
In 2014, on AC/DC’s Rock or Bust Tour, Johnson lost his hearing. I’ll leave it to the curious to read the books to get the details. But from the outside, then, it looked like the AC/DC machine dropped him from the face of the earth. Johnson was devastated. Absolutely devastated. He fell into a state of despair. Realizing sitting around was doing nothing, he worked to find a miracle to recover his hearing (which he did with the help of a mad genius hearing doctor and a specialty device) and he hand-wrote this book. It’s touching. You see a love for his bandmates, a love for the music.
Brian grew up in near poverty in Dunston, England, right outside of Newcastle — the Geordie-land area of England. He had to start working at a young age to help put food on the table. His parents weren’t singers and had no musical bones in their bodies. Yet early on Brian loved hearing songs on the radio, and he loved singing them. It wasn’t until he joined the Sea Scouts that a scout leader noticed he had a gift. When he got invited to sing at church, he became head choirboy instantly (which got him beat up by the much older, previous choirboy, until the priest stepped in). And you could say the rest is history, but it was a complete grind.
Most musical memoirs you read of drug addiction, or the wild hedonism of say Motley Crue, or the sanctimonious virtue signal of, “I rediscovered love while on a beach in Malibu, when I met my wife, Vendela during a photo shoot. She couldn’t speak a lick of English, but behind her beauty and fame, I knew my soulmate existed.” With Brian Johnson, you get a working-class guy who joined the Paratroopers for an entire year, all so he could afford a P.A. system to sing in men’s clubs, it makes for a refreshing musical memoir.
If you’re a music fan, you’ll love the rabbit hole Johnson can lead you down. His first band, Geordie had a minor glam rock hit in the UK. That rabbit hole, however, if you’re interested, leads you down Johnson’s uncanny vocal range. A vocal talent discovered when he joined the Sea Scouts, was recognized at the Church choir, and when singing around town, often the clubs and bars would kick out the band, then someone who could play piano would sit down, and tell a young teen Johnson to sing. But you get introduced to an excellent musical soundtrack:
- Boz Scaggs
- Talking Heads
- Joe Walsh
- Robert Palmer
- The Who
I enjoyed it because it allowed me to relive the musical discovery Johnson led me down. In high school, I tried finding other voices like Brian Johnson. In my dorm room (I went to a co-ed boarding school for high school, stereotypical New England elite preppy stuff), I had a stereo system. I figured out how to jerry-rig a set of big speakers into a CD player. Luckily, for two years, my best friend at the time lived next to me. We shared similar musical tastes. We set up our rooms to listen to our music as loud as humanly possible. We had a whole system of wires, blankets for soundproofing, and we somehow managed to get into the walls. It’s an absolute miracle we didn’t electrocute ourselves. And how we snuck in wall spackle, to fix a massive hole, or remove what looked to be important studs from the wall, and not get caught or injured, another miracle. But we set this up, to listen to the music we loved for hours on end. And I listened to AC/DC for hours on end. But the influence of Brian Johnson led me to crank bands like Geordie, Nazareth (I have to imagine, I might be the only person in prep school history, past 1980, that had Nazareth and Geordie playing on the repeat for three years), Led Zeppelin, Dire Straits, Robert Palmer, and The Who for hours. Also, the amount of Country I played, and the amount of 80s hair metal, bugged my dorm mates to all ends. I didn’t care. I spent time jerry-rigging a super loud stereo system to listen to what I wanted. Most of the kids played rap or things like Limp Bizkit, The Wallflowers, Matchbox 20, or Dave Matthews. And being shy, at our dances, I would listen for a bit, and then Irish exit to head back to my dorm, to listen for hours on end, having the dorm to myself. I even missed that I got voted to what would be the Prom King of our school. It was the Valentine King, but all the girls would vote, and the boys for the Valentine Queen, it didn’t matter what year you were, it was somewhat akin to a hot or not (it got shut down after my dorm, with the student book each of us got at the beginning of the year, ranked the girls on a scale between one to ten, and we got caught — that forty-year tradition gone in an instant). Well, in my junior year, to my utter shock, I won. But when they announced, I had Irish exited to go listen to AC/DC alone.
I’m sharing some personal memories because that’s what the memoir brought up to me. And it was touching to see that Johnson while fronting the biggest and most successful rock band, remains humble, and still a massive fan of music. All of his mentions, his adoration of music, took me back to those days.
Sentiments aside, the work ethic of Brian Johnson, his un-affectedness, the pure raw talent, and his endearing sense of humor, the book inspires on some ends, but it also injects a sense of humility. It’s like reading a perspective from a fan, but that fan got a break, and that fan happened to own one of the greatest rock voices ever, and that fan happened to sing on one of the greatest rock albums ever. An album that is the number two-selling album of all time. Only Michael Jackson’s Thriller bests it.
If you’re a music fan, I suggest Johnson’s memoir. It’s fun. Johnson is a story of insane, raw untapped talent, discovered once, then dropped by a nasty music business, then discovered again. But he never gave up. He kept singing, kept working, kept his nose clean from drugs and booze, and when the break came, put everything he had into it, and still does to this day.