Rock 'n' roll has lost some of its swagger.
Malcolm Young, who co-founded, led, and provided the philosophical and musical core of AC/DC, the internationally revered Australian hard rock act, has died at 64.
Like so many lovers of rock 'n' roll, I have many AC/DC-related memories. One in particular stands out, however.
On May 25, 1991, I walked into Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, and kept walking, all the way to the front row, stage right, where I'd spend the next several hours receiving a master class in rock 'n' roll rhythm guitar from a diminutive, long-haired Australian with a battered Gretsch guitar and an ever-present sneer. That man was Malcom Young. And he proved to me, at incredibly high volume, that the simple, primitive essence of rock 'n' roll was both a primal and a high art.
Malcolm didn’t seem to like the spotlight too much, preferring to let his younger brother Angus take that role. And take it Angus did, adorned in his old school boy's uniform, a Gibson SG dwarfing his tiny frame while he ricocheted across stages like a whirling dervish suffering a seizure.
Malcolm, meanwhile, manned the rear of the stage, where he laid down an oft-imitated, never duplicated raunchy rhythm that suggested what it might sound like if Chuck Berry morphed with Muddy Waters, drank a 12-pack, and turned a Marshall amplifier up to 11.
AC/DC has often been labelled a meat-headed, reductio ad absurdum rock band by haters. They didn’t get it, probably because they never actually tried to play it. Malcolm wrote mighty, meaty and memorable riffs, and his brother helped send them into the stratosphere with his approach to playing and performing. The result was infectious, high voltage, deceptively straight-up rock 'n' roll that, though it never "swung" in the literal sense, suggested a lithe sense of swing and a seriously deep pocket. This was rock stripped of all its fat and its pretense. It grooved like crazy. It was loud. It was rude. And it did not care what you thought of it.
Malcolm made it look easy. That doesn’t mean it was.
Iconic riffs and chord sequences seemed to simply fall from Malcolm's fingers. Most guitarists would kill for a single tune as indelible as "Highway to Hell," "Back in Black," "Riff Raff" or "Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be" in their entire career. Young wrote dozens of them, and with his band-mates, forged them into songs that have already been passed down through several generations of rock lovers, and will quite likely endure in the way that the songs of his heroes Muddy Waters, the Rolling Stones and Howlin' Wolf have.
Fellow rock legends like Eddie Van Halen and Tom Morello took to Twitter immediately following the news of Young's death to express their respect and admiration. "It is a sad day in rock and roll," wrote @eddievanhalen. "Malcolm Young was my friend and the heart and soul of AC/DC. I had some of the best times of my life with him on our 1984 European tour. He will be missed and my deepest condolences to his family, bandmates and friends."
"Rest in rock power AC/DC's #MalcolmYoung, #1 greatest rhythm guitarist in the entire history of rock n roll," read @tmorello's Tweet."THANK YOU for everything."
Twenty years after that unforgettable May evening at the old Aud, I took my son to see AC/DC in Buffalo's new hockey arena. I felt like I was sharing something significant with him, something about the mysterious ability of rock 'n' roll to take simple ingredients and craft from them a delectable gumbo.
Maybe someday he'll play "Back in Black" for his kids. And the torch will be passed.