Let There Be Cherry Rock

cherry rock sign
[Sign displayed on the wall at Cherry Rock…]

Have I mentioned how amazing this job of mine is? The people I get to meet!!

On the weekend Katie and I went to Melbourne to chase down some of Bon’s old old friends. And, in a way, to meet Bon himself.

Katie is curating an exhibition of letters written by Bon Scott, which will be displayed in Fremantle in May. The rest of the Bon Scott Project will contain interpretations of the life and work and culture and mythology surrounding Bon. It’ll be interpretations by artists, who (like me) you can pretty much rely on to put their own spin on things.

But this letters exhibition is important. When you enter the room filled with his letters, it will no longer be Bon “as seen by others”. It won’t even be pictures of Bon, taken by others. It will be Bon himself, speaking to you in his own words.

We jumped off the plane and took a cab straight to Cherry Rock. Cherry is a marketing, branding, PR and rockband management company run by a fellow called James Young (no relation to Malcolm and Angus). James’ claim to fame (at least from our point of view) was that he bought a whole swag of Bon’s letters when they went to auction two years ago. These things are pretty valuable, so we weren’t sure if James would be willing to part with them.

Cherry Rock is located only a stone’s throw from ACDC lane. Formerly known as “Corporation Lane” ACDC lane was renamed in 2004 to honour Bon and the band. It’s a grungy alleyway lined with wheely bins and peeling posters.

cherry rock office

James invited us into his office, a big loft three stories up. Most of the space is an empty expanse of plush burgundy carpet, and running along one wall are three desks piled high with books and CDs and computers, where the Cherry Rock staff brew their magic. This is not just an office, but a social space, which, I warrant, must play host to ritzy soirees with clients (and potential clients) – the carpeted floor filled with attractive champagne-clinking networking culturalists. On the wall opposite James’ desk are the letters of Bon Scott.

James showed us the letters. They’re beautiful things, fragile and folded and creased and smoothed out again. They’ve been framed and mounted on the wall in a roughly chronological sequence, from about 1972 to 1980.

These letters are from the collection of Irene Thornton, who Bon married in 1972. Irene and Bon split up a few years later, but judging from the mailbag, the ex-couple maintained friendly contact right up until Bon’s death.

bon scott's letters at james young's office

From a biographical point of view, Bon’s letters are pure gold. They contain reports on what the band was recording in the studio, personal reflections about life on the road, and Bon’s plans for the future. Many of them have an upbeat tone. It’s like he mainly wants to tell good news – “something to write home about”. But they also sometimes have a sad undertone. Like maybe you can hear the lonely echo of the hotel rooms in which many of the them were composed…

Many of Bon’s letters to Irene contained hot-off-the-press updates on his working life:

HIGH VOLTAGE (L.P.) HAS MADE A GOLD ALBUM (LAST WEEK) SO IT CAUSED A SLIGHT CELEBRATION. I’M GOING TO GIVE IT TO MUM SO I TOLD HER TO MAKE A SPACE ON HER MANTLE PIECE. SHE TOLD ME TO WRITE SOME CLEAN SONGS FOR THE NEXT ONE BUT…..WAIT TIL YOU HEAR A COUPLE OF ‘EM. ONE’S CALLED “SHE’S GOT THE JACK”. & IT’S ALREADY BEEN RECORDED. SOUNDS GOOD. […]

Some were sprawling anecdotes about life on the road:

YOU’LL NEVER GUESS WHAT I DID IN CANBERRA….. I WENT ON A GUIDED TOUR (WITH ABOUT 100 PEOPLE) OF PARLIMENT HOUSE + ALL THE GOV’T PLACES SUCH AS THE WAR MEMORIAL, WHICH WAS FANTASSO. PHIL THE DRUMMER WAS WITH ME + WE WERE STONED. OF COURSE. GOT SOME PHOTOS TOOK OUTSIDE GOV’T HOUSE + THEN WE WENT TO WHITLAMS HOUSE + TOOK SOME THERE TOO. HAD A RAVE TO THE GAURDS ON THE GATES OF HIS MANSION + I’M SURE THEY THOUGHT WE WERE MAD BUT WE WERE JUST A COUPLE OF TOURISTS OUT FOR THE DAY.

And others were very personal in nature:

HEY HAS OUR D.I.V.O.R.C.E. HAPPENED YET. DO I GET A BIT OF PAPER OR WHAT. I DON’T CARE IF I NEVER GET A D. CAUSE I’M NOT PLANNING ON MARRYING AGAIN UNLESS SHE’S A MILLIONAIRE + I THINK MY CHANCES OF FINDING ONE ARE SCARCE. BUT WHEN I PULL OUT MY PHOTY ALBUM I LIKE SAYIN “& THIS IS MY WIFE.” THEY ALL FANCY YOU AND TELL ME WHAT TASTE IN SPUNK I’VE GOT.

Bon is known to have been a “ladies man”. But it was surprising to both Katie and I to see how amusingly frank he was with his ex-wife about his many conquests (and subsequent sexually transmitted infections):

A NOD MEANS YEP
A SHAKE MEANS NOT
IF SHE’D SHOOK A BIT MORE
I MIGHTN’T AVE GOT WOT I GOT

(James has posted an image of the greeting card that contained this little ditty here.)

There is even a Christmas card, sent by Bon in December 1979. Perhaps because of insufficient postage, the card didn’t arrive until March 1980, two weeks after Bon died. James pointed out that the front of this card featured a photograph of a pair of white underpants with the Superman logo on them. He thought it was a bit spooky and symbolic – like Superman had finally hung up his trunks, or something.

James is clearly very fond of his collection. When Irene decided to sell her letters at auction, it sent ripples of anxiety throughout the Aussie rock world. Would they be snapped up by some offshore enthusiast or (worse) an investor who might break them up and sell them on? Some people even suggested Irene shouldn’t be selling the letters at all, and instead consider opening a kind of ‘Bon Land’ theme park. But would you open a theme park dedicated to your ex-husband? I don’t think so.

In the end, it’s all turned out for the best. James loves the letters, and from our conversation, it seems unlikely he would ever want to sell them on. Instead, he is delighted to be the custodian of a rich chunk of cultural history. Admittedly, owning the letters also brings great kudos to his own organisation. Cherry Rock’s slogan is “USING MUSIC TO CREATE BRAND EXPERIENCES”.

Katie told James about the forthcoming exhibition of letters at the Fremantle Arts Centre. His collection is one of the biggest in the world, and as such, his participation is pivotal to the show. At first he seemed reluctant to let them go. Partly, I think this might have been fear of the unknown. Who will guarantee that the letters will be taken care of? Who will make sure they don’t get stolen or lost or damaged in transit?

But Katie has a calm and unhurried manner of explaining things. From watching her in action, I can testify that she exudes trustworthiness. And for good reason. She’s got years of experience under her belt dealing with “works on paper”. These fragile and decaying art pieces require extra special care, bespoke insurance policies, and the attention of expert freighting companies. Although the deal is far from sealed, Katie left Cherry Rock with the distinct possibility that James would come to the party.

james scott in his office

Before we left, I asked James if I could take a photo of him in his office for the blog. He was happy to pose, but he wanted to get a painting on the wall behind his desk into the shot. When he moved in, he commissioned this canvas from an artist duo called “Doug Bartlett“. What resulted was a sprawling colourful pop collage, made up of silkscreened rock, movie and sport icons, surrounded by naive crayon text and bright roughly slapped on paint, scattered with various corporate logos, and framed by cheesy ’70s nudes.

James requested that the artists insert a few Acca Dacca references. The first is a black and white grimacing Angus rocking out on Bon’s shoulders. And the second, at the very top of the canvas, emblazoned in red capital letters on a bright yellow background, is the phrase “YES I ARE”. I knew it sounded familiar, and then James reminded me – it’s the very last line of Rock and Roll Singer:

Gonna be a rock ‘n’ roll singer
I’m gonna be a rock ‘n’ roll
A rock ‘n’ roll star
YES I ARE!

yes i are

I remember when I first heard this, two months ago when I bought the TNT album. It was a really clever twisted rhyme, I thought, and it made me laugh. Bon seems to delight in these little asides – short quips inserted into the regular flow of a song. I don’t think AC/DC has often been accused of taking itself too seriously (at least not during the Bon era), and these asides are probably one reason why. Another one that comes immediately to mind is from Problem Child, where Bon squeals “I’m a problem child!” and then from the side of his mouth spit out “even my mother hates me!”

But humour aside, the words “YES I ARE” scrawled over the top of James’ commissioned painting made me think of two things.

First, the phrase is like a slogan for Cherry Rock itself. The stuff depicted in the painting is the jumble of cultural reference points which combine to make James and his business thrive: celebrity, commercialism, art, rock n roll, popular culture. It’s an exchange of prestige between creative street-smarts and corporate interests which somehow “enriches” both.

“YES I ARE”, it occurred to me, is an inherently inclusive slogan. “I AM” could only ever imply a singular person. “I ARE”, on the other hand, embraces multiple personalities – a trait that no doubt stands James in good stead in his role as rockband manager and branding guru.

And the second thing, of course, is that the phrase “YES I ARE” applies equally to Bon – to his many many selves, owned and loved and mythologised in various ways by so many different fans. And even the conflicting selves he shows us “directly” through his letters. He are all of them.

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