As someone who has seen and done it all, Jimmy Barnes has gone back and relived it all in recent years, with two autobiographical books, and now a feature-length documentary, Working Class Boy.
While his first book of the same name examined a rough and tumble childhood surrounded by domestic abuse and alcohol, the follow-up, 2017’s Working Class Man, centred on the icon we think we all know and upon its release was described by Barnes as ‘the book that people expected the first time around’.
“Well sort of,” he clarifies now. “This time period was certainly what they expected me to write about – the musical years – but I think it’s a different story to the one they expected.”
The man in book two is inextricable from the boy in the first tome. To know Jimmy Barnes is to meet the younger James Dixon Swan.
“Working Class Man was a continuation from the first book; what it does is show the impact that child abuse, domestic violence and alcoholism and all that stuff can have on a person as an adult. It is about how we made records and stuff like that, but it’s also about how I coped with growing up the way I did as I became an adult.”
A hard knock upbringing – as a child in Glasgow to his teens in Elizabeth, South Australia – was perfect for a hard rock life. By the time Barnes left home to join Cold Chisel he was already drinking heavily and indulging in hard drugs. He hit the road in all sorts of ways but couldn’t run away from himself.
“I felt like I’d gotten away from this dark cloud that was having over me,” he says. “And it was like that for a long time, but slowly, because I didn’t deal with the issues from that childhood and I didn’t talk to a therapist or seek any help, those issues crept back in and affected everything I did, including the songwriting. Including live performance. And including my role as a parent, as a husband and as a human being.”
Rock’n’roll excess and the energy of live performance seemed to be a way of coping as a wellspring of issues bubbled underneath. Barnes says he just needed to feel safe and liked.
“I got up onstage and suddenly I needed to make people like me. I needed to be the centre of attention. That affected me again because I needed to live up to all that stuff.
“If you wanted to create a rock’n’roll singer, my childhood was perfect for it. I was angry, I was needy, I was wanting to be the centre of attention and I got that when I joined the band. I was jumping in front of people going, ‘look at me, look at me. Please like me!’”
It seems to have been more exposing for Barnes to write about the man the Australian public has come to ‘know’ as opposed to the little boy they’d never heard about. The boy had no say in his circumstances, but the man certainly did.
“I can look at the effects of childhood trauma but I’m an adult, so ultimately the buck stops here. The blame for my behaviours has to rest on my shoulders.
“To make things worse, or better I guess, while all this is all going on going horribly wrong, there’s ton of stuff that is just going horribly right. My career just kept getting bigger and bigger and it appeared that the worse my behaviour was the more successful I got. And you think, ‘this is what people expect of me’. “So you become sort of a puppet to your own behaviours, which is a really dangerous situation.”
Fortunately for Barnes he’s been able to find some balance in his life and pretty much save the good from the bad. It’s a tough transition that he’s talked about in the books, his talking tours and now in the documentary.
“Along that road I made some good decisions,” he says. “I met the love of my life (his wife of 35 years, Jane). I started a family. In the mid ‘80s I remember gong to meditate with Buddhist monks and I struck up a friendship with Deepak Chopra.
“All these things would eventually become parts of the puzzle that would help me get through it. This has been an interesting life to say the least (laughs).”
Working Class Boy screens on Monday, October 1, at 8.30pm on the Seven Network.