[Mary, one of Bon’s closest friends, shows us a shirt he posted her in the late 1970s, complete with perfectly preserved stain running down the front…]
It was forty degrees in Melbourne and the Grand Prix was on. The Formula One racing cars sounded like angry flies. I guess they were “warming up” for the big race on Sunday. We couldn’t see them, but the noise cut through the thick air. Katie and I hopped off the tram at the wrong stop. In this heat, the prospect of walking four blocks to Mary’s house in St Kilda seemed a bit much. We were still dragging our suitcases behind us. Why didn’t we just take a cab?
Mary is one of Bon’s oldest and most loyal friends. They first met when he was still playing with The Valentines, in the late 1960s. Apparently, at one Valentines gig, Bon invented some pretext to speak with her. (I am coming to understand he was good at inventing pretexts to speak with girls.)
Anyway, they hit it off. Actually, Mary’s own story is that he was interested in her outfit. She was a budding young fashion designer with a bent for adaptive reuse. She would get existing bits of clothing, cut them up and put them back together again in innovative ways. She began making customised shirts for Bon to wear: “Just stuff I thought I would like to see him in. Sometimes they were women’s shirts I adapted!” Mary laughed. “They were too small and they’d ride up on his back but that was the look we wanted.”
It was thrilling to see Mary’s letters from Bon. He wrote to her as often as he had to his wife Irene. Mary brought a blue and pink polkadot cardboard box into the loungeroom. I guess everyone has a box of letters like this under their bed. We felt privileged to be able to hold and unfold Mary’s yellowed envelopes in our own hands.
Here’s how it worked. Mary would delve into the polkadot box and fish out an envelope. She’d extract the letter and scan it fondly. Clearly she knew these letters well. Then she would pass it on to Katie. Katie would look at the first page, then she’d pass it on to me while she read the next page. My hands felt crude and unnecessarily large for the task of gently grasping the thin pages. I imagined the sweat on my fingers penetrating the fibres of the paper and starting an acidic chain reaction that would lead to their rapid decay. Mary’s two big dogs, plus two extra slobbering hounds belonging to her son Paris, kept snuffling and barging their way around the loungeroom. Our glasses of iced water wobbled on the coffee table dangerously close to the pile of letters. This is not the kind of viewing environment Katie would normally approve of.
[The final sentence in the above letter finishes with the words “…BY WOMEN’S LIB.”]
Here are a few of my observations about Bon’s letters to Mary:
Like his messages for Irene, Bon’s missives to Mary were all written in CAPITAL LETTERS. (What is the significance of this, I wonder?)
There were spelling mistakes scattered throughout. Not as many as you’d expect perhaps, and pretty minor stuff really -“HADDN’T”, “UNFAITHFULL”, “AMMUSING”, “YOUR” instead of “YOU’RE” and so on…
When they first find out, many people (including myself) are surprised to hear that Bon was a prolific letter writer. Perhaps such a solitary thoughtful activity is uncharacteristic for a wild rock n roller. The fact that he sent letters home somehow softens Bon’s public persona. It enhances his reputation as a hero of the working class. “He never let fame go to his head”, “he never forgot who his friends were” etc etc. Notwithstanding the struggle with alcohol which eventually brought him down, Bon managed to avoid those negative transformations that are supposed to afflict celebrities (i.e. they become egomaniacs living in a la-la land disconnected from real life).
In Bon’s letters, you can witness firsthand his craving for success, although it’s often tempered with self-deprecating irony:
THINGS ARE SLOWLY GETTING BETTER ALL ROUND & I THINK WE’LL BE HEADING OUR OWN FESTIVAL HALL SHOW SOON. THE TROUBLE IS GETTING A GOOD SUPPORT BAND. THE BEST SUPPORT BAND IN THE COUNTRY IS US OR I SHOULD SAY WAS US. WE SUPPORTED SKY HOOKS THE OTHER WEEK AT FESTIVAL HALL & A COUPLE OF NEWS PAPERS GAVE US FULL MARKS & NOT THEM. THEY’RE A PAIN IN THE ARSE. WE’D LIKE TO USE THEM FOR SUPPORT BUT THERE NOT GOOD ENOUGH. MAYBE WE COULD BEAT ‘EM UP ON STAGE & WITH A BIT OF LUCK GET AN ENCORE (DOWN BOY).
[By the way, have a look at this page of SkyHooks photos. Talk about performative dressing!]
Bon really believed in what he was doing, even though it meant constant hard work and (for some reason) not much cash. In one letter, he wrote, disappointedly: “DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE SHOES, I JUST CANT GET THE MONEY TOGETHER.” Mary explained that he really wanted a pair of “Brothel Creepers”. Mary was working in London at the time and he wanted her to buy some and send them over, but he didn’t have enough cash.
* * *
During the last month, I’ve been spending a fair bit of time with Bon’s fans. Most of the hard-core fans I’ve met didn’t discover Bon until some time after his death. It’s almost as if their elaborately constructed shrines, extraordinary photo-walls, and painfully applied tattoos are a way of bringing him back to life in a visible and tangible way – a way of reconstructing something that they wish they could have seen for themselves.
Mary’s living room, by contrast, was a shrine to nothing except her own down-home comforts. On her walls she’s stuck up some postcards by Howard Arkley, including his portrait of Nick Cave. There’s also a framed Beatles poster. Her shelves contain an eclectic selection of books and CDs. What’s lacking is the zealous, single-minded pursuit of a worshipped icon – the characteristics of diehard fans as outlined by Lizzie at the end of her comment here.
As if to demonstrate the ordinariness – the lack of awestruck reverence – of her relationship with Bon, Mary showed us a few more letters. On the back of one envelope, she had doodled with a pencil, practicing drawing lips and female faces and flowers.
She had used one of Bon’s Christmas cards to jot down her lucky Lotto numbers.
And a third letter from Bon had a 5X3cm chunk cut out of it. What was that all about, I asked?
“Oh, one of my friends wanted Bon’s autograph so bad. So I just cut it out and gave it to her. I was always getting letters from him anyway. I didn’t need it.”
Katie and I were humbled by the warmth of Mary’s welcome. She made it clear that she wanted to support the unusual approach that the Bon Scott Project is taking to revisit the history of her friend. She promised to help Katie out with whatever letters she needed for the exhibition, and said she hoped she’d be able to come across to Freo for the opening. As we struggled out the door with our suitcases into the insufferable heat and whining din of the race cars, she kissed us goodbye and urged us to call her again whenever we find ourselves back in Melbourne town.