Working Class Boy

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Jimmy Barnes famously drank two bottles of vodka a day, much of it on stage, as the front man for what many believe was Australia’s greatest pub band – Cold Chisel.

The band, formed in 1973, went on to chart-topping success until it split 10 years later and Jimmy embarked on a solo career as one of the country’s most popular and best-selling music artists of all time. 

But fame could not erase memories of a childhood dogged by fear, hunger, booze and violence. It began in Scotland and continued in the mean streets of Elizabeth, in Adelaide’s north.

In 1961, five-year-old Jimmy, his parents Dorothy and Jim Swan and their five other children, left the slums of Glasgow as assisted migrants to start a new life in Australia.

But their problems followed them. Jim Swan drank and gambled away his wages until Dorothy eventually divorced him and married a kind, gentle clerk named Reg Barnes. Reg became the father the Swan children had never had, and all but the eldest boy, John, changed their surname to Barnes.

As a troubled 17-year-old, Jimmy started an apprenticeship at an iron smelter but soon gave it up to play in a band, briefly known as Orange, before being renamed Cold Chisel. The rest is Australian rock music history.

But on a personal level, Barnes still had a long way to go before he could exorcise his personal demons. His autobiography, Working Class Boy, is the result. Rosemary Desmond asked him to share some thoughts about that journey.

Why did you write the book?

There were issues I had to deal with and unless I wrote them down or acknowledged them, they would have driven me crazy for the rest of my life. I realised that I didn’t just owe it to myself; I owed it to my kids and to my grandkids. They are like software: every time I make myself a better person, they get upgraded as well. After I had written about 100,000 words, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. There are topics in the book that blokes talk about – domestic violence, alcohol abuse and shame are all intertwined in this nasty little cocktail. So if this book started a conversation and allowed some people to talk about it, it can only do good. I’ve been in the public eye for 40-odd years, and if blokes can see me dealing with this sort of stuff, it might make it easier for them.

The book also gives the impression you have a chip on your shoulder...

I’m a well-balanced person – I have a chip on each shoulder (laughs). I’ve had this reverse snobbery thing of shame about where I came from, and not being worthy or having education or coming from a well-off family. I disliked educated people and didn’t trust the wealthy. My wife came from a well-to-do family and was well educated and I used to tell her I hated uni students. But how can someone make a broad statement like that? I remember arguing with my wife about whether our kids should go to a private school. I said I didn’t want them to go to any ‘snotty nosed’ private school but of course, she won the argument. I remember going down to the schools and seeing the facilities, the size of the classrooms, the care and the quality of the teachers and thinking, ‘Oh God, I wish I had had this’. It made me realise I had a chip on my shoulder about all the wrong things.

Did your older brother John teach you to sing?

When I was first singing around the house it was probably with John. I first sang with an acoustic guitar but John was in bands and I went and sang with them and watched him sing. He was a big influence and played music to me the most. John is still working in Adelaide and last year was a finalist for Senior Australian of the Year.

How long ago did you give up drinking?

I gave up drinking in about 2001 and stopped for about eight years. Now I can have a glass of wine but I don’t binge drink. But I never drank because I liked the taste; I drank because I wanted to get smashed. I didn’t want to drink wine when I could drink straight vodka. I did that with everything – with drugs as well. I wanted to escape. I didn’t like who I was, where I had come from or what I was doing.

Is there a ‘use by’ date for you as a singer?

I’m one of the few artists who still sells out big concerts. My last album went to No. 1 in this country. People still listen to me and still think I’ve got something to say. I think I’m a better singer now and I’m still to reach my full potential. Since I got sober and healthy, I’ve just become a better person, better singer, better parent, better husband. As long as I can keep doing that, I’m happy to keep going. There’s something special that happens in the communication with an audience. When I get up there (on stage), it’s like a transfer of energy.

What will you be saying to your audiences on your speaking tour around Australia in November and December?

Domestic violence is in plague proportions and we really have to talk about it. Violence doesn’t just happen in working class families; it happens to all types of people. Quite often, the victims are not the only ones being beaten. It could be the kids as well. Telling my story in my own voice is going to start those discussions. A lot of it comes from shame, ignorance and alcohol. My dad would be ashamed he couldn’t feed us but at the same time, he’d be gambling or getting drunk. Issues like booze and gambling, fear and shame lead to aggression and violence. There are a lot of different fronts that we have to tackle domestic violence on. If as many people died from terrorism as die from domestic violence, we would have armed guards on the streets and martial law. My parents were violent towards each other. We kids weren’t beaten by them but every time they hit each other, they may as well have been hitting us with a baseball bat.

Are you still recording?

My last album was my 15th No.1 album. That’s something I’m pretty proud of and there’s another record coming out next year. I’m really happy that at 60 I’m still relevant and that new people come and see me. I still have a voice, I still have something to say and I still have the energy. I’m still making people laugh and enjoy themselves. Music is about escapism. If I can transport people a bit, it’s worth doing.

Jimmy Barnes’s show Working Class Boy: an Evening of Stories and Songs will tour Australia in November/December.

The book Jimmy Barnes Working Class Boy is available at bookstores RRP $45.

This article by Rosemary Desmond originally appeared in the October/November 2016 edition of 50 something magazine.

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