Brian Johnson Talks Heart-Wrenching & Hilarious Memoir, Shoots Down Idea of an AC/DC Movie
By Billboard on
As AC/DC’s frontman since 1980, Brian Johnson is used to shaking people all night. But writing his new memoir, The Lives of Brian, affected him in a different way.
“I had to be careful, because sometimes it can get a little emotional, and it all comes out,” Johnson tells Billboard from his home in Sarasota, Fla., which he had to vacate briefly during Hurricane Ian. “It goes from your brain into your heart, through the soul and then the hand and you’re writing and you gotta stop and, ‘Whoo, this might be a bit much now, come on.’ And there were tears. There were times I actually started crying.”
One of those times, Johnson says, came as he wrote about being treated for debilitating hearing issues during October 2015 at the same medical facility where AC/DC co-founder and guitarist Malcolm Young was being for dementia. “When I was writing about being next to Malcolm, just over the way, it was horrible,” Johnson recalls. “The tears were falling when I was writing it. It was a very touching moment.” The two bandmates did not connect, however; he writes that Young’s wife limited visitors to immediate family only. Young passed away during November 2017 at the age of 64.
Johnson says he had other Kleenex-dampening moments throughout his writing, which he did primarily by longhand. The 373-page The Lives of Brian, which publishes Oct. 25, is his second book and the follow-up to the car-centric Rockers and Rollers: A Full-Throttle Memoir in 2011. And it may surprise fans how little is in the book about AC/DC; he limits the discourse to his joining the group (including the first audition when he was late because he was playing pool downstairs with crew members), recording the 25-times platinum Back in Black album, the hearing issues that took him out of the band, temporarily, during the 2015-2016 Rock Or Bust World Tour and the making of 2020’s Billboard 200-topping album Power Up.
Why not more?
“I didn’t want to write an AC/DC book, ’cause that’s not my book. It never will be. It’s not my story to tell,” Johnson explains. “That book is for the boys, or whoever was there from the start. That’s what I want to read. I want to read what it was like when Malcolm and Angus just had a meeting and said, ‘Right, let’s do this’ and got the drummer and the singer. I think it would be fantastic if it came out, if somebody wanted to do it. But that’s not my book. And I think a book about the present day or, say, when I joined to the present day would be nothing more than a catalog, a diary of what happened.”
Johnson does tease at the end of The Lives of Brian that “I will save all those stories for another time, another book,” but he now considers that an “unfortunate” and unintended promise. “I should have said that’s another book, but it’s not mine,” he says. “I wouldn’t write another book about the band, absolutely not. If there’s something else to write about I would, but there isn’t. It’s somebody else’s story. If I can think of something like the great f-ck-ups on stage, maybe, THAT would be a f-ckin’ book!”
Johnson had no problem filling The Lives of Brian with other compelling stories, however, both humorous and heart-wrenching. Writing in a conversational style that conveys the energy of his soul-banshee vocal delivery, Johnson digs into his family history — an Italian mother who came back to England with Johnson’s father after World War II (“He must’ve had a silver tongue, ’cause my ma was from a better place”) — and growing up poor working class in industrial northern England. Music seemed a way out, and Johnson chronicles early days of “having to go on stage and sing, not a clue what the f-ck I was doing but enjoying it and, ‘Hey, this is good when people clap at the end. That makes me feel good, that does.'”
The Lives of Brian details his early bands, most notably Geordie, which had some British and European hits and toured around the continent. It was with Geordie that Johnson met his AC/DC predecessor, Bon Scott, who at the time was in a lighter-weight band called Fang. “They opened for us,” says Johnson, who writes in the book about Scott and Fang sneaking into Geordie’s hotel room one night after the band’s tour bus broke down. “I think at the time Bon was learning his trade,” Johnson recalls. “He was playing flute and (Fang) was a bit Jethro Tull-y. It was very different than what he would do with (AC/DC).” Johnson’s kindness was repaid down the road, however.
“It’s so great to think that I met him and did two gigs with him, and the wonderful part is that he actually mentioned me to Angus and Malcolm when they were talking about rock singers. (Scott) said, ‘Well, I met a f-ckin’ one that was worth his weight.’ I never saw him after that, but it was amazing that we did meet.”
The Lives of Brian’s telling of Johnson joining AC/DC is also highlight, documenting the band’s hospitality — they had his native Newcastle Brown Ale waiting for him — and the singer guiding them through an unexpected rendition of Ike & Tina Turner’s “Nutbush City Limits.” “I was me,” Johnson recalls. “I don’t give a f-ck. I was like, ‘That was brilliant! Wasn’t that great?!’ And these guys were just not used to that kind of thing, and they were looking at each other going, ‘Yeah, well, do you know one of our songs?’ and I go, ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’? And they all went, ‘Yeah!'”
Johnson — who had a business replacing auto roofs at the time — left convinced that he wouldn’t get the job. “I finished me Brown Ale and I said, ‘Y’know what, lads, thank you so much. I’ll never forget this. Wait’ll I get home and tell the boys I’ve had a sing with AC/DC — they’ll never f-ckin’ believe it. Anyway, I’ve gotta get shootin’. Got to open the shop tomorrow, and I’ve got a gig tomorrow night.’
“Then one of the managers (Peter Mensch) comes out and says, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘I’m f-ckin’ going home.’ ‘You can’t’ go home!’ I said, ‘Why not?’ He’s going, ‘Well, well, well, the lads haven’t finished yet.’ But it was true — I had to open up the shop in the morning and we did have a gig that night. But it was a joyful ride back.”
Mensch prevailed upon Johnson to return and the rest, of course, is history. He reveals in the book that he made Malcolm Young call him twice to make sure the job offer was real, and Johnson also recalls playing Back in Black for the first time at one of his Geordie II bandmate’s house because Johnson didn’t have a turntable of his own. “He was like, ‘Come on, the quicker we get this over with the quicker we can get the band started again,” Johnson remembers. “So I drive to his house and I get (the album) out and he’s going, ‘F-ckin’ black?! Is that it?’ Then we put it on and it starts with ‘Hells Bells’ and he’s going, ‘Ooh, it’s taking its time isn’t it?’ Then I start singing and he went, ‘Oh, no, that’s way too high!’ It wasn’t anything bad or nasty, just, ‘That’s way too high, son’ and he took it off and said, ‘Come on, let’s go get some beer.’ And that was my introduction to the f-ckin’ album.”
Johnson has recorded an audiobook version of The Lives of Brian but laughs off the idea of a movie based on it. “If they do, I’ll shoot the balls off anybody. I hate movies about bands,” says Johnson, adding that his management has received multiple offers for the film rights. “One of theme even sent a full script. I read about 30 pages in and it was awful. That was just one and I knew the others were going to be the same, so…nah.”
As The Lives of Brian rolls out, Johnson is looking at other endeavors. He’s been active in helping Asius Technologies develop the hearing aids that allow him to perform live again — most recently at the Taylor Hawkins Tribute Concert on Sept. 3 in London. He also has a hankering to “jump into my race car, put the helmet on, qualify as high as I can and just go racing.”
He’s more circumspect about AC/DC, however. He refers to the band as “still a working entity of sorts” but stops short of revealing any future touring or recording plans.
“I would love to do music again,” Johnson says, “whether it’ll be guesting with somebody, whether it be actually playing live with the boys. I’ve heard that term ‘hell freezes over’ a million times before with people saying, ‘I’m not doing that again.’ But I’d be up for it. I think everybody hopes to make more music.”
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