AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson chronicles a life of ups and downs in new memoir

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Before he started ripping roofs off stadiums as lead singer for hard rock icon AC/DC, Brian Johnson was fixing roofs.

In his new memoir, the “Highway to Hell” singer recounts how he went from being a vinyl car roof fitter in the North East of England to fronting one of the world’s most acclaimed bands.

It’s a Cinderella story. Solo Johnson, now 75, was Cinderella at least three times and never gave up her dream of singing in a rock ‘n’ roll band.

“I don’t know what it is, I just never, ever gave up,” he said recently by phone from his home in Florida. “I was always willing to try something when the most pessimistic people wouldn’t. I always thought the glass was half full.

“The Life of Brian Johnson” from Dey Street Books, chronologically traces his ups and downs growing up near Newcastle, ending with him joining AC/DC and recording the band’s seminal album “Back in Black”.

“It wasn’t so much to validate my life,” he said of the book. “It was to validate the lives of all the wonderful people I’ve met who have helped shape my life: friends from school, friends in factories, friends in music.”

Music was his North Star and he remembers first hearing Little Richard sing “Awop bop/a-loo bop/awop bam boom” at age 11 and freaking out. “Many have described that song, ‘Tutti Frutti,’ as the sound of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, which is appropriate, because my dream of becoming a singer was also born at that time,” he writes.

Johnson was an engineering apprentice who sang on the side and was a young father and husband. To earn enough money for a public address system, he joined an airborne infantry regiment in the British Army.

He attended one of the first Jimi Hendrik shows in Britain, saw Sting perform when The Police star was 15, and befriended members of Slade and Thin Lizzy. He met Chuck Berry but it didn’t work out. “Never meet your heroes,” he writes.

Johnson, who would later pen the immortal lines “Forget the hearse/’Cause I’ll never die,” made his live debut in the delightfully named The Toasty Folk Trio, survived a horrific car accident, and eventually found some success in the band Geordie. . .

The band made it to “Top of the Pops,” a show that was a crowning achievement for any nascent band. He gave up a good career at his engineering company, but Geordie only had one Top 10 hit and soon fizzled out.

“At the age of 28, I had lost everything. My marriage, my career, my house,” she writes. She moved in with his parents and remembers once watching AC/DC on the BBC. “I loved every second of it. But of course it was also a reminder that I had my chance and I blew it.”

Johnson rebuilt his life, becoming a windshield fitter, later an auto roof repairman, and founding Georgie II. He was happy. He had a small business and a small band. “I thought it was my second Cinderella story, but there was more to come,” he says.

The book reveals the origin of his trademark cap: he once rushed to a concert with no time to change, sweating glue and glass shards into his eyes. Her brother Maurice lent her his cloth driving cap for protection, a accessory that fans loved.

Still, Johnson’s part was not fulfilled. It was a meeting with singer Roger Daltrey that was pivotal. The Who frontman invited Johnson, who was then living with his band in an apartment with only four mattresses on the floor, to eat at his manor house.

On that day, Johnson recalls Daltrey riding toward him bare-chested and barefoot, saddleless, clutching the mane of his galloping white horse (“If this isn’t a rock star, I thought to myself, I don’t know what it is,” he writes.)

“He said, ‘I’m going to give you some advice, Brian. Never give up. You understand me? Never give up.’ And I really took it very seriously,” Johnson recalled. “He probably forgot he said that, but I haven’t.”

Bon Scott, AC/DC’s original lead singer, died in 1980, and Johnson got an audition to replace him based on recommendations, including from Scott himself, who had heard him sing one night. Only years later did Johnson realize they had met.

At the audition, co-founder and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young offered him a Newcastle Brown Ale, a nice nod to Johnson’s heritage. And Johnson’s first song with the band at the audition was Tina Turner’s “Nutbush City Limits.” (“It was the most electric moment of my life,” she writes.) Then they sang some AC/DC songs. He got the job, of course.

Johnson’s publisher, Rowland White, an author whose most recent novel is “Into the Black,” said the form of Johnson’s story is “remarkable because it doesn’t usually happen that way.”

“He was happy with the idea that he had been given a chance and made peace with that. And it’s what makes the AC/DC opportunity all the more joyful because it wasn’t something he was striving for anymore.”

The book ends just as Johnson finally achieves his life’s goal. If fans are hoping for more information on the origins of AC/DC, he argues that’s not his story to tell: It’s for the surviving members, guitarist Angus Young, bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd. “That book belongs to the people who were there from the beginning because that’s what I want to hear,” he said.

Johnson is a natural storyteller, and it was his manager who first suggested a memoir. Johnson resisted. “Every week a book by some old actor or musician comes out. And I’ve always said, ‘No, not another.’”

But encouraged to write a few chapters, Johnson sat down with a yellow legal pad. A few years later, he had a book, which he has dedicated to his great-great-grandchildren.

Why? She remembers asking his father how his grandfather was doing on the way to his funeral. He was “just a guy,” his father said of him. He then asked what his father’s grandfather was like and the answer was “how the hell would I know?”.

“I was like, ‘Shame on me, too bad,’” Johnson said. “Nobody knows anybody just a couple of generations later. So that’s why I wrote it for my grandchildren. I hope that the words of this book help to know myself a little better. And I hope there’s a little bit of me in you, and I hope you have a long and beautiful life.”



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