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AC/DC frontman rides the highway -- to hell and elsewhere
Brian Johnson is as explosive and energetic in conversation as he is fronting AC/DC at one of its gargantuan arena or stadium extravaganza.
The British-born singer, who joined the Australian rock group 35 years ago after the death of predecessor Bon Scott, booms over the phone line in merry and musical tones, as exuberant as a guy before last call at the pub. "How are you doin' me old tart?! How are you doing, me son?!"
And then he lets loose a laugh that's as infectious in its own right as the guitar riffs from "Highway To Hell," "Back In Black" or "You Shook Me All Night Long."
Johnson, 67, has every reason to be enthusiastic, of course. Since he joined the band AC/DC has become a worldwide sensation, selling more than 50 million copies worldwide of 1980's "Back In Black" album, more than 200 million albums total, getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003 and still showing a golden touch with its latest album, "Rock Or Bust," AC/DC's first set of new material in six years, which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 in December.
But if you want to get Johnson really excited, start talking about cars.
The coal miner's son is a bona fide gearhead, a devout enthusiast, modest collector and avid racer whose 2011 book "Rockers and Rollers: A Full Throttle Memoir" reveals more about his auto lust than his life in music. It's a romance Johnson kindled as a child, when he says cars represented a world entirely different than his own.
"It's probably because we were born with no money," he recalls, "and it was always something you dreamt of when you saw something driving past -- 'Oh, I wonder what it's like to have one of them?' But it went beyond that.
"I just loved these things, these motor cars, these things you could get in and do anything, go anywhere. You've gotta remember that it once upon a time everybody had to walk, or ride on a horse if you were rich. Usually people had to walk everywhere, and it's really such a short time in history where these (cars) came to be available to the general public.
"It was probably the Ford Model T that was such an important vehicle that got the car out to the masses, and people were then actually mobile. They could do things that they never dreamt before."
As he grew older, and especially after joining AC/DC, Johnson has been able to indulge his passion -- though he's quick to note that "cars can cause you anguish, too."
"Sure, when you've got no money you can bet your botty that things will go wrong every time," he says with a laugh. "You suddenly start remembering things about these old cars as you get on in life and you remember, 'My gosh, I remember that bloody thing always broke down coming back from a gig at one o'clock in the morning, and it was raining and cold and there was no cell phones and nothing around.' But somehow you managed.
"So it brings back those memories, you know."
Though he doesn't have "a big collection like other people have," Johnson does keep 11 vintage and new vehicles in his garage, including a Porche, a Rolls Royce, a Ferrari and a Mini Cooper, as well as a Harley Davidson motorcycle Earlier this year he acquired his first American car -- one of just 85 limited edition Mustang GTs, a 627-horsepower fastback beast created by Ford and Petty`s Garage that Johnson says, "has just taken my breath away. It really is one of the best cars I've ever driven."
So is a 1929 Bentley 4 1/2 litre which won the Le Mans racing series in the 1930s for five years running and has been part of Johnson's collection for years..
"I think owning that is me biggest price because you can't get them," says Johnson, who hosted a "Cars That Rock" TV series in the U.K. last year. "I bet you've seen it a million times on Christmas cards, the one with the British racing green with the number on the grill and the big headlights and the little aeroscreens instead of a windscreen.
"It's just a beast to drive, and it's quite an accomplishment to drive, too. You've really got to concentrate, and it's two and a half tons so you better start braking real early or you'll find yourself in all kinds of trouble."
Johnson certainly knows from drivability. He's raced around the world, sometimes piloting his vintage Royale RP-4 and Pilbeam MP84 around the track -- much to the consternation of the AC/DC camp and the band's insurance carriers.
"Well, if you don't tell them what you're doing, they don't know," Johnson says. "I just don't tell them anything. I just got out and do it and tell them how I did afterwards, because otherwise they wouldn't let me."
So is racing cars more of a rush than playing AC/DC songs in front of a stadium full of rabid fans?
"There's really not much difference, you know?" Johnson says. "When you think of it, you've got a race crew, and a band, you've got a band crew and they're all there to egg you on. They're like, 'Brian, get on that stage! Go on son,' a pat on the back. And before you go racing, a pat on the helmet -- 'Go on, give 'em hell!'
"It's the same thing -- the excitement when the flag drops and the excitement when you walk on stage for the first song, and you got to keep yourself balanced. You can't get yourself too over-excited. It's a very similar feeling, you know what I mean? Just that you can kill yourself in racing..."
Johnson and AC/DC are, of course, rock 'n' roll survivors -- even though the "Rock or Bust" campaign has brought about the retirement of co-founding guitarist Malcolm Young, who has dementia and has been replaced by nephew Stevie Young. And drummer Phil Rudd is effectively suspended after a felony conviction at his home in New Zealand, with Chris Slade -- who was with AC/DC from 1989-94 -- filling his seat.
There has been talk that "Rock Or Bust" and the current world tour will be the band's last hurrah, but Johnson prefers to be circumspect about what the future holds.
"Y'know, retirement is like anything," explains Johnson, who also sang on the companion album to Sting's 2014 musical "The Last Ship." "A good footballer, a good ice hockey player, they don't want to retire, but unfortunately sometimes there's a time when you have to call it quits. So it's an ongoing thing with us; we never say no, and we never say never.
"The thing about the boys in AC/DC, you've got to remember, is we're constantly surprised and amazed at how we keep the success going. We don't know what we're doing -- I mean, we literally don't know what we're doing except what we're doing is we just play 100 percent every night and give it everything we've got. If that's the secret of success, we'll pass it on.
"But we never expect the crowds. We never take anything for granted. How can you? Times change. You've just got to keep doing what you're doing, basically, and just hope they come back for more."
AC/DC and Vintage Trouble
7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 8.
Ford Field, 2000 Brush St., Detroit.
Some tickets remain at $85 and $45.
Call 877-212-8898 or visit www.detroitlions.com/ford-field
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