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Jimmy Barnes’ Hard-Knock Life

Think you know what a Jimmy Barnes memoir would be like? Prepare to be very, very surprised.

You wouldn’t know it from the street, but behind a high wall in a nondescript industrial suburb of Sydney is an unexpected treasure trove of… um, savoury pastries. They’re being proffered by Jane Barnes, possibly the most immediately friendly human being on the face of the Earth, who is after opinions on the food being prepared for her grandchild’s upcoming birthday. The chefs are her sister and brother-in-law, and I can enthusiastically confirm that they do excellent work (Jane insists on my taking a few for the drive home after the interview, despite my half-hearted refusals), before her husband sweeps into the room. The man born James Dixon Swan looks all of his 60 years, but appears trim, fit and impressively healthy. He’s also a gregarious, upbeat fellow, which makes starting the interview unexpectedly difficult, since his appropriately-titled Working Class Boy is not your typical rock & roll memoir. For one thing, there’s barely any rock & roll in it.

Working Class Boy begins with the Swan family eking out an existence in the slums of Glasgow, before parents Jim and Dorothy gathered Jimmy, aged five, and his four siblings and set sail for Australia in 1961. While they might have hoped to start fresh, a lot of the same demons that affected the family in Scotland travelled with them.

The memoir follows Jimmy through his family’s arrival in Adelaide, their attempts to make a new life amid poverty, violence and alcoholism, the dissolution of his parents’ marriage and the appearance of the man who would give Jimmy his surname – his stepfather, Reg Barnes – and how life-changing that relationship would be.

Those hoping for tales of on-and-off-stage debauchery from Barnes’ storied life will have to wait for the second volume, which is already underway. Indeed, Cold Chisel, the band he joined at 17, and which would eventually make him the most successful Australian solo artist of all time, don’t even turn up until the last couple of dozen pages.

But where many such autobiographies would veer into bravado – “That salt-of- the-earth childhood taught me the resilience that made me a star!” kind of thing – Barnes does something very different: the scared, abused children in his story turn into scared, abusive adults.

Working Class Boy is also a very South Australian story, although one that’s unlikely to be adopted by Tourism SA any time soon. This isn’t the world-class Adelaide of fine dining and internationally-renowned vineyards, or even the fuddy-dud-dy punchline-worthy City of Churches: this is the Adelaide of the Beaumont children vanishing without trace on Glenelg Beach one crowded summer afternoon, and the “Family” abductions that began in the early Seventies and ended with a single arrest and a slew of never-officially-solved murders.

Barnes was inspired to write the book by a chance viewing of Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown, based on the bodies-in-the-barrels murders and set in the flat, desolate landscape of dilapidated Housing Trust estates in Salisbury North, not 10 minutes from Barnes’ childhood neighbourhood of Elizabeth.

The failed satellite town 25 kilometres north of Adelaide was originally intended as an industrial hub, mainly employing “10 pound poms” who, like the Swans, were lured over with the promise of a better life. However, despite the best of intentions, Elizabeth soon became a poverty-stricken outer suburb – a reputation it has yet to shrug off, decades down the track.

“I think I’m going to get some flak about it from some people,” Barnes admits. “I mentioned in passing on the ABC that the book was about ‘living in slums in Elizabeth’ and people were just like [mimes thunderstorm with sound effects]. But it was a slum when I was there.”

Why will people complain? Has the area become unexpectedly gentrified?
I don’t think it has. When I was there last, which was a few years ago, I was in Elizabeth West, and my primary school was boarded up and my high school was a training school for unwed mothers. So I’m guessing not. [Laughs]

I think that was part of the reason why the council was renamed “Playford”. Sounds a bit fancier than “City of Elizabeth and Munno Para”.
I mean, nice try.

Snowtown almost had a name change, actually.

They briefly considered calling it “Rosetown” after all the scandal. Which brings us neatly to the book…
Yeah, Snowtown [the film] was bizarre for me. I was sitting watching it alone at three o’clock in the morning in a hotel on tour, and suddenly it was just like [sudden gasp]. I haven’t watched it back since, but at that time it looked just like my house, just like my street, everything. And that triggered all this stuff, which came flooding back.

You’ve tried to write a memoir before, I believe?
Yeah, I just thought I should try to write one, but I really didn’t want to talk about any of this stuff. And when I was writing before, the first one I wrote was in 1994 or something, I was just writing things down because I thought it’d be a good thing to write – it was just rock stories and that sort of stuff. And when I went to France it disappeared.

What happened?
When we moved to France I’d written 30 or 40 thousand words and we were just so far away from Elizabeth, so far away from my siblings, so far away from the bloody taxman chasing after me, living like a rock star – it was like a breath of fresh air, so I just put the laptop up on the shelf where it collected dust. And we lived in Provence, in the South of France, and there’s a festival called the Camargue, which is like a gypsy festival. And gypsies from all over Europe funnel down through the south of France for this two-week festival, and during that time there’s a spate of crime.

So I went to bed one night and thought I heard a noise, so I went downstairs and there’s the TV and the stereo with the leads all rolled up nicely outside the door – they’d obviously been in and I’d disturbed them so they took off. But they’d already been in my room and taken the computer, been in the kids’ rooms and taken their laptops – obviously not out for anything except stuff they could sell, you know? And of course I didn’t back up the book, so that was gone.

I did try to write it again in about 2000, but at that time I was so smashed, I was taking copious amounts of drugs and drinking three, four bottles of fuck- in’ vodka a day. I’ve actually still got the stuff I wrote then, but I didn’t use any of it.

None of it?
I used “Scottish people fall in love very easily, especially on a Saturday night”, which became the opening line of the book. But that was the only line I took from it.

From left: Jim and Dorothy Swan, who’s holding son John, in 1952; Barnes (in blue) in his first real band, Tarkus; Barnes sitting outside the Gepps Cross Hotel.

Your early childhood in Scotland’s a huge part of the book, despite the fact you left there so young.
When I was writing it I didn’t know why I was writing about Scotland so much. I thought I should start at the beginning, but the thing is that the stuff about where I was born, in Dennistoun… I moved out so young [but] I remember Scotland vividly. My brother John [Swan, aka Swanee] remembers a lot, but my sisters just remember that it was scary and they were always scared. But the more I wrote the more I realised it really was the core of all the issues. The violence and promiscuity and alcoholism, it all started there.

And I was writing it down for my own sake, of just wanting to know, “OK, where did this all stem from?” Because my parents didn’t come to Elizabeth and go, “Right, now we have problems”: by the time we got to Adelaide, we were already fucked. [Laughs] They’d been through the wringer, my parents, they were literally on their way out. So the more I wrote the more I had to write about what the Scottish mentality is, and by the time I finished I thought it was just so integral to the characters, to where my parents came from.

Despite what you and your siblings went through, the characters of Jim and Dorothy Swan are presented very sympathetically: you write about these two broken people trying their best with no money or support or models of what a good family life might look like, trying and failing to keep a family together through poverty and alcoholism and mental illness . . .
When I was writing it at points I’d be getting really angry with them, but at the end of it I had to think, well, it’s not their fault. They lived through worse than me, and they did it in Scotland where it was much more violent, much more cold, amid such hard people. And I can talk about Glasgow being a hard, brutal place – but who’d ever think that Adelaide was? So it’s not the place, it’s the people around you. It was the culture of the people around us: my family, their friends, their relations.

There’s stuff in Glasgow that I sort of touch on, like sexual attacks on one of my sisters when they were four or five years old. There’s that deep-seated violent, horrible stuff that just continued to happen to the family. Nowhere was safe – I was safer out of the house, risking running into the people that stole the Beaumont kids, than I was at home. And that’s a scary thing.

Was that a consideration, that some of this stuff wasn’t really your story to tell, as with the attack on your sister?
It’s not my story to tell, that’s the thing. I wrote it all first, without editing, and then I started to bounce things off my siblings. But with some of it . . . look, this has been the last three weeks, right? The publishers say to me, “Maybe you should run some of this past them”, and so I ring up John and say, “Hey, you remember this?” And he says, “Never happened.” I said, “John, I was in the room . . .” “Nup. Never happened.” “Whatd’ye…” “NEVER HAPPENED.” “John, I have you on television being interviewed by Andrew Denton, talking about all this.” “Never happened.” He’s trying to distance himself so much from where he’s come from because it was so ugly and horrible.

And so there’s that constant fear everywhere we went, even at home. And our parents were drunks, there were drunks in the house, we didn’t know who was who.

And in Elizabeth, the guy who was abusing us kids, our parents knew him: he was the son of someone they were hanging around with, so he was always in our home. He was even in our home when Reg [from whom all the Swan children bar John adopted the Barnes surname] was there, so he was a friend of my mum’s. I can only assume they didn’t know. I sometimes think that they must have known something was up, which makes it really dark for me and I have to stop thinking like that otherwise . . . I just try not to go there.

And John is still riddled with guilt that he couldn’t protect us. He ran away from home when he was 13, but he had to because there was all this sexual abuse in our house and he was the target. He had to run away to save himself, but he left us.

But John was my hero. I would have been killed in Elizabeth if it hadn’t been for him. I think there are two heroes in the book: him and Reg.

Reg was clearly a huge influence – and it can’t have been easy to take on six kids, especially that had been abandoned by their mother and left to essentially fend for themselves for two years.
But Reg had his own problems. He was alone and empty in his own life. I think Reg was probably gay, but obviously it was Australia in the Sixties, you didn’t come out. This is just my theory, but I think then we kids came along and he could throw all his love to us. And I think he saved us, but I think we also saved him in a way too. He was such a gentle, sweet guy, just so caring – and John made his life fuckin’ miserable. John wanted my mum and dad to be back together and my dad to be happy, and that was never going to happen.

Speaking of not intruding on other people’s lives, your relationship with David [Campbell, Barnes’ first son, now star of stage and screen] and his mother gets what, a page and a half? Was that a deliberate decision?
Yeah – but also, there wasn’t that much of a story at the time. Me and his mum, we were just two similar people. She was being beaten and abused at home, I was being beaten and abused at home, and we felt safer out on the street, and one of those nights walking home we slept together.

We were just lost souls. And then when she became pregnant it was the most frightening thing on so many levels, because of where I was then and the thought of, “How can we possibly bring another human being into this sort of a life?” That was really scary. And David’s grandmother ended up adopting him, which was a little bit sneaky [Barnes thought that David had been adopted out, and only discovered Campbell had stayed with the family later], but she did a good job.

I was talking to him the other day, actually, and he said, “The most moving part of the book was the bit where you say if you could have spent every day with me, you would’ve – but then I read the rest of the book, and I’m so fuckin’ glad you didn’t!” [Laughs] My relationship with David is such a complicated, long story – but it wasn’t then. Then it was just fear, and running away.

So given all this, everything you went through, the models you had growing up, how do you end up here: not just alive but with a huge, loving family?
Part of it was that John sheltered me. These dark people would be scared off from me because of John, and then someone would come in and save me; someone like my Auntie Mary, who was a friend of the family, who would say, “Come with us.” I was the lucky guy. And Reg: when Reg came along I was right on the edge of just going ballistic, becoming a complete hoodlum, and then he showed me love.

And when I was fighting and taking any drugs I could get my hands on, hanging out in gangs, that’s when I met Cold Chisel – and Don Walker. He was middle class, studied quantum mechanics, he was just a really steadying influence on me. And then I met Jane. I knew she was the right person for me and that I wanted to become an adult and a father. I had these people who just popped up in my life at just the right time. I’ve always been lucky.

“I was an angry, violent, drunken womanising, horrible person. If you don’t stop and address it and change it, you pass that onto the next generation.”

By your own account you were dangerously feral at 17 – so what was it about Don Walker that intrigued you enough to hang around with a bunch of middle-class musicians?
He was someone who really cared about what he was doing, and who seemed to have a plan. Don has been such a great influence on me. For a while there I thought he was reading my mail, because I’d read a set of lyrics and go, “How’d you fuckin’ know that?” And he’d go, “What? It’s not about you”, and I’d go, “Yes it fuckin’ is!” That’s how I could sing his lyrics so well.

And people think of Cold Chisel as this wild rock & roll band, and I was wild – they weren’t. They were really staid, really decent – just really nice blokes.

They were really the first people I’d met who’d say, “This is serious, this is an important thing, let’s try and write a song” – nobody ever said anything to me like that at home. There was no “Do your home- work” – my parents weren’t there, they were pissed! So they acted a bit like Reg, like this role model going, “C’mon, you have to do the right thing.” And that’s how they were as a band.

And then I’d go from a Cold Chisel rehearsal back to Elizabeth and get in street fights outside pubs, and then I’d go back there [to the band] and this felt safe. So I thought, “This is where I wanna be, and if they’re going to leave, I’m going with them.”

So joining Cold Chisel was pretty much the first time you ever relaxed?
Yeah! And leaving Elizabeth and moving to Armidale, where Don was doing his masters at the uni there, and we moved into a farm. There’s a line I’ve already written for the next book, about all the hippie chicks: “all they ever ate was vegetables, and rock band members”. [Laughs] But it was the first time I’d lived anywhere where you could walk down the street and people weren’t trying to bash your head in. It was just uni students and country folk, just really nice people, and I’m the loaded revolver amongst them all. And so I started to calm down. Cold Chisel was a complete change of lifestyle for me.

I think you’re the first person to ever join a rock band to calm down.
I know! But I was a smart kid, and suddenly I had something I had to be focused on. I wanted to do something good: I started to see what they were doing, and to really enjoy it. I had never been in a band that was serious before, and I was like, “Oh, this is good!” We got wilder, but I was still never as wild as I’d been.

I hadn’t realised how abrupt the decision for the band to move to Armidale was. How did you feel when Don said, “So, we’ve done two gigs, and now I’m off to a country town in the NSW Tablelands” and the band said, “Rightio, so we’ll all go with you then”?
I couldn’t wait. I mean, I’d been running away for as long as I could remember – when things got really tough at home I’d steal 20 cents and run away to the beach. I was safer away on my own than I was in my home environment. So by the time I tried out for Cold Chisel, it was a band, it was in the city, it was away from Elizabeth, I wanted to give it a go because I wanted to get the fuck out. And also remember they’d been together for a while, and Don was the song-writer, he was the boss. So when he said he was going to move they were like puppy dogs, just like, “Well, we’ll go with you.”

But you’d been there for what, literally a few months?
Yep, and I didn’t even know how much I loved the band at that point. I just wanted to get as far away from Elizabeth, my family, my life, myself as I could. And it turned out that of all the things that happened from the life I led – that I needed to be liked, I wanted to be the centre of attention, I wanted somebody to care – all of those things were the perfect upbringing to be a rock & roll singer.

I wanted to run away and never face any of that shit again. And joining a band is just constant running: you just leave things behind you. Do what you want, then you move through the next town. It’s gone! The lifestyle served me. Never mind Armidale being too far, I would have gone to Vladivostok! But everything you do, everything you run from, always comes back. It’s always there.

And that presumably is where the second volume starts?
Yeah. People say, “Oh, this is really brave”, but I tell you: this was much easier to write than the next book.

It’s one thing to talk about the shadowy past, but so many of the people it’s going to cover – the band, Jane, your children – are still a big part of your life. How do they feel about raking over those years?
My family know everything I’ve ever done. Everything. That’s the only way I could get over it. They know about the terrible womanising and all that. And they know that I’ve changed. I’d be away from home and I’d go crazy – just “I can’t do this”, getting more and more guilt ridden – and eventually that drove me to the point where I was drinking myself to death. So nothing I could write in the book would shock them, but whether I want or need to share all that with everyone is a different question.

But the next book has to be about the impact of this stuff. I was an angry, violent, drunken, womanising, horrible per-son. But if you don’t stop and address it and change it, you pass that on to the next generation.

I’m a result of that system, and I’m just so lucky that I had people on my side looking out for me, so I landed on my feet. But even my shrink says that if I hadn’t been a rock & roll singer, I could have been a serial killer. [Laughs]

Sorry, but you still seem far too empathetic to be a good serial killer.
Maybe [laughs]. But y’know, it doesn’t take much. I was lucky, but you think about how close it might have come. I mean, you can kill someone with one punch, and then you’re in prison and your life suddenly changes forever.

And more than one person is killed every week directly because of domestic abuse, and we’re taking money out of those services. I’m sick to death of hearing, “Oh, the system is underfunded, this kid slipped through the cracks.” They can’t be underfunded, it’s just too important.

When a woman can’t leave her home for her own safety, because she can’t leave her kids…I mean, my mum left. She ran away for two years, and left us in the middle of all that fuckin’ hell. But there was nowhere she could have taken us.

Cold Chisel backstage at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre in 1979.

The book’s coming out at a fortunate time, when those sorts of issues are very much in the public sphere.
And that wasn’t the intention, but there has to be more training, more money, more facilities. And for men, too. These are social, family issues that have to be ad- dressed. If one person a week was being killed because of terrorism, we’d have armed guards on every corner. This is the sort of reaction we need here. We need to tackle this like a war.

I was ashamed all my life. I was ashamed that I was hungry, or had holes in my shoes or was wearing shorts from the Salvation Army that were big and baggy and itchy. And so if anyone at school said anything, I’d belt them. And at lunch-time, I wouldn’t have had any breakfast, I wouldn’t have any money, so I’d go sit by myself on the oval and pretend I didn’t care. Kids shouldn’t live like that. These are easy things to fix. What’s the big deal, when we can apparently spend billions of dollars on submarines?

So ultimately you were saved by people like Reg, Don and Jane, who’d provide that necessary influence at the right time?
Yes–but it also was a matter of my attaching to people and going, “Right, you save me. [Laughs] I’ll just do this stupid, dangerous thing, you save me in the meantime. Oh, you can’t? Right, where’s the next person? You save me.” I’d just attach and attach – even with music producers when I became a solo performer. “Right, I’ve finished Cold Chisel, this has all blown up, so Mark Opitz: he’s the producer, he’s the steadying influence. Mark, save me.” I gave away responsibility to a lot of people.

Well, it evidently worked: Opitz did give you a Number One album right out of the gate with ‘Bodyswerve’ in 1984.
True, but [attaching to people] wasn’t quite as smart as it should have been. Part of it was laziness, and part of it was also, “If I give him responsibility, then I can walk away.” And even my own behaviour, I’d be like, “I’ll behave like this, because who’d want to be with me? Cold Chisel? If they’re gonna leave, I’m gonna leave. Jane? If you’re gonna leave, I’m gonna fucking leave first.” And I pushed everybody away all my life, until I realised that people are going to go away if you push them.

Is that what happened with Chisel?
Oh, I would constantly leave Cold Chisel. I’d hitchhike home, wake up the next morning and think, “Oh, fuck…”, hitchhike back and do the next show. I used to leave every second week. But in the end I left because we were making more money than any band in the land, filling halls everywhere, and we were making $25 a week and we had nothing in the bank.

Why so?
It was bad investments, and the band going, “No no no, let’s put it all back into the band. Let’s stay at the Plaza Hotel.” I wanted somewhere to live. I lived for two years in Sydney with a kit bag with my leather jacket, some T-shirts and a couple of cassettes. I’d pick up a chick and sleep at her house, or crash on a couch, or go to a party and outlast everybody and stay there – and I did that for years. Chisel didn’t make any money, and I got tired of the battle. We were all fighting and finally I thought, fuck it, I’ll start my own band.

What was that point?
It happened in Germany, just before we broke up. Steve [Prestwich, drums] had got to a point where he was just playing like shit, he didn’t care, he wouldn’t listen to the others, we’d look at him on stage and he’d just look away. And in the end Don, who’s Mr Level Headed, he threw his piano off the stage and stormed off. So he was at the edge of leaving then.

Does that ever completely go away?
When we came back in ’97, with that Last Wave of Summer record, that was really venomous. A lot of the ghosts were still there. It’s a really good record, but when we got into the studio we immediately – immediately – remembered why we broke up. In the end we had to get away from each other to come back, and I think we’re a better band now than we ever were.

Top photo, credit: Joshua Morris.

From issue #780 (November 2016), available now.