This working class boy is a changed man

TELL ALL: Jimmy Barnes brings his Working Class Boy show to the Civic Theatre on March 23. Want to win tickets? Enter today's giveaway.  Picture: Stephanie Barnes
TELL ALL: Jimmy Barnes brings his Working Class Boy show to the Civic Theatre on March 23. Want to win tickets? Enter today's giveaway. Picture: Stephanie Barnes

It takes a brave man to face his fears. But to bare your heart and soul and talk publicly about your deepest, darkest secrets in an attempt to help others? That takes real guts.

Jimmy Barnes made the decision to be that man. And it saved his life. 

The much-loved singer’s career, both as a solo performer and as the lead vocalist of Cold Chisel, has made him one of the most successful artists in Australian music history. But all his life Barnes had been battling the demons of his childhood.

Writing Working Class Boy was a form of therapy for Barnes. A sorely needed one at that. This is a man who, over many years, almost drank himself to death in a desperate attempt to forget his past.  

“A lot of the issues I hadn’t spoken about to anybody, not even my siblings. I’d tried to block them out,” he tells Weekender. 

“They say it’s a memoir but in a way I’ve been running from this shit my whole life. 

“The stuff I wasn’t addressing was killing me. That was what had been making me drink myself to death, you know? It was damaging me in so many different ways.”

His Stories & Songs shows, based on the book, are a distinct change of pace. Barnes is joined on stage by children Mahalia and Jackie, and son-in-law Ben Rodgers, and shares the stories and memories that made him the man he is today. 

Working Class Boy closed a chapter of his life, opened a new one and uncovered some life-changing footnotes along the way.

“I knew I had to write it. So I sat down and every time I’d write a chapter I’d feel a weight lift off my shoulders,” Barnes says.

“It was great but towards the end of the book I thought ‘You know what? As soon as I finish it I could tear it up’. Delete it. It had done its job.

“It was only when I finished the book that I realised there were probably a lot of people who had been through something similar and hadn’t dealt with it. 

“And I knew there were a lot of people still living in the middle of it. A lot of people living in poverty, a lot of people living with domestic violence, a lot of people living with alcoholism and abuse.

“I put it out there and thought I could start a conversation because people really do need to talk about it. Especially domestic violence. I don’t have the solution but it can only help to shine the light on it.”

The story of how James Swan became Jimmy Barnes traces his life from his earliest Glasgow recollections of trauma, alcoholism and violence to the beginnings of Cold Chisel in 1974 when he was 17 and left the family home.

“I don’t blame my parents, you know, for how my life was,” Barnes says.

“I know what they went through. It’s not about blame, it’s about acknowledging what effect something has had on you, and letting go of that.” 

Barnes investigated all aspects of each memory, from all sides, to discover how the story really panned out. The sometimes painful revelations answered a lot of questions, and joined many dots, for his family. 

“It gave them another insight into why I am who I am. For 50 years I was trying to drink myself to death and they couldn’t work out why,” Barnes says.

“It’s been really therapeutic, really cathartic, for my family. 

“There has to be a point in life where you break the cycle. My father started to try to do it, my stepfather helped, but I had more opportunity to do it. So I took it.”

Barnes gave up drinking for 10 years and now “drinks a little but not much”.

“From the time I was a young fella until not so long back, whenever I drank it was to get hammered. I didn’t drink for taste. Now instead of a bottle or two I have a sip of whisky,” he says.

“I’m just enjoying life now, you know? I’ve still got issues and problems but I’ve dealt with most of them and it’s opened up the door to deal with the rest of it.”

When asked if these thoughts, feelings and memories could have been expressed by him in song, Barnes pauses.

“You know what? They could be now. But not while I was still blocking them out. The big issues didn’t come out in the lyrics of my songs but the fear and the guilt, the anger and the love – those emotions came out in everything I have sung since the day I started singing.”

And people felt a connection?

“That’s because I was reaching out in those songs. I needed to talk to someone, anyone, and it came out in the way I sang,” Barnes explains.

“Songs can allow you to show that you’re vulnerable, to show that you’re on the edge. Music gives you a lot of avenues to express emotions where you don’t have to talk.

“People think it’s a sign of weakness to show that they’re vulnerable when in fact it becomes a strength. Everything I wrote in this book, it empowered me. I don’t feel vulnerable any more.”

Jimmy Barnes is at the Civic Theatre on March 23.