29 Oct 2017

Jimmy Barnes: from boy to man

From Sunday Morning, 10:05 am on 29 October 2017

Australian rocker Jimmy Barnes’ first memoir, Working Class Boy, recalled a childhood tainted by alcoholism, abuse, violence and poverty. The book ended with Barnes, a wild teenager, taking his first tentative steps into music.

The newly published Working Class Man, is the follow-up story, chronicling Barnes'  50 years in music as lead singer in Cold Chisel and as a solo artist.

Jimmy Barnes

Jimmy Barnes Photo: Supplied

Barnes says his troubled childhood haunted his adult years. Drink and drugs were his refuge and they almost killed him.

“A lot of people went through the same thing you know? I grew up in poverty and I grew up surrounded by violence, domestic violence, promiscuity and alcoholism and fear and shame and unfortunately for everybody there’s a lot of people who went through similar upbringings.

"I was very lucky at the age of 16 I joined Cold Chisel and went on the road and played rock n roll music for the next 50 years. I was living a dream, I was making money, making records touring the world …. I was in a privileged position and I got to release all my wildness on stage.”

The Largs Pier hotel in Adelaide was the place Barnes got his first taste of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle in the early 1970s.

“It was one of the toughest rock venues in Australia. I used to sneak in there in the old days when I was 15 or 16 and pretend I was 18 and I’d watch Bon [Scott] singing in a band he was in called Fraternity and I’d see Billy Thorpe.

"It was a wild pub, extremely rough, the clientele were blokes who worked on the wharves and in factories, it was a tough, tough pub. I fitted in there, most people came from the working class areas. We were all misfits, we didn’t fit in, we were all struggling to find our place in the world and we all found this place.”

Barnes says he forged an early friendship with fellow frontman Bon Scott there, before Scott went on to front AC/DC.

Cold Chisel

Cold Chisel in the 1970s. Photo: Wikicommons

“He was a good guy, funny even before he joined AC/DC he was cut out to be a rock star.”

The pub rock scene in Australia, that was at its peak from the early 1970s to the early 1980s, meant aspiring bands had plenty of chances to hone their craft, Barnes says.

“You could play three pubs in one day in Australia, we used to go out and do eight shows a week, you’d play in these little pubs that were licenced for 300 people and they’d have 1500 people squeezed in just going crazy.

“A lot of Australian bands cut their teeth playing in these pubs and consequently they became very, very good live rock ‘n’ roll bands.”

He found his home when he met the other members of Cold Chisel in the early 1970s.

“Not only did I like them musically and I felt a connection with them. But also felt this is my way away from the upbringing I’d had, I wanted to escape from Adelaide, escape from poverty. We left, went on tour and never stopped for 40 years.”

Cold Chisel’s brand of raw live performance and subtle songwriting soon earned them a huge audience in Australia and New Zealand but the US market remained elusive. Barnes says a series of missteps put paid to an American career, saying the US label “never really got them”.

“We were signed to Warners [Bros] in Australia and New Zealand and the parent company was committed to signing us but I don’t think they really knew what they were signing.

“We went to Los Angeles went to meet the record company for the first time, unbeknownst to us they’d released ‘My Baby’ as a single which wasn’t the first song we wanted released and they’d sent it out to every radio station in America wrapped in a baby’s nappy!”

Working Class Man Jimmy Barnes

Photo: Supplied

The band were far from happy and less so when they met the senior executive looking after them and their nascent American career.

“There was a guy who was head of promotions for the label; we were only doing one show in LA and this was the guy who was going to be in charge of our careers. So we asked if he’s coming to see the show and he told us he wasn’t because he had to go to a famous DJs dog’s birthday party!

“We were furious right? So we stormed out of the office and that night we did the show and I remember finishing the show and he turned up we asked him whether he’d seen the set and he said he’d missed it.

“He took me aside and he offered me some cocaine he said, ‘Do this don’t tell any of the boys’, so I grabbed him by the throat, took it out of his hand and I went out and threw it at the audience and then I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and pants and threw him out on the street and told him never to come back. That was the head of promotions for Elektra records in America, they didn’t take well to it!”

Barnes wrote ‘You Got Nothing I Want’ for Chisel about the experience and sent the US exec a copy.

“Basically that was the end of Cold Chisel’s career in America!”

The touring and partying continued unabated and Barnes says he was sinking deeper and deeper into drink and drugs.

“I can look back now and see myself for 40 years trying to drink myself to death, I’d take any drugs that were laid down in front of me. I’d do anything I was absolutely crazed, maniacal and it wasn’t because I was having fun most of the time.

“Eventually I got to the point when I was just smashed and running all the time. It was a horrible, horrible place to be. I think I’m really lucky to be alive. One of the only good things I got from my parents was a constitution - I got the Scottish constitution, so I was tough. “

Now some years sober, Barnes continues to tour with Cold Chisel and as a solo performer and that connection with the audience has never left him he says.

“I try and connect with an audience. There are windows where that happens most nights, in amongst all the chaos, the screaming, the singing, the music, lights and smoke there’ll be a moment when you’ve stepped into the eye of a storm and it’s all calm.”


Jimmy Barnes is playing An Evening of Stories & Songs in New Zealand in May 2018.
Tuesday, 8 May 2018, Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch
Thursday, 10 May 2018, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Friday, 11 May 2018, Spark Arena, Auckland
Saturday, 12 May 2018, Claudelands Arena, Hamilton