Jimmy Barnes: “still changing and still learning”

Australian rock legend Jimmy Barnes shocked the literary world with Working Class Boy, his honest, heartrending account of a childhood on the brink. After winning the 2016 Australian Book Industry Award (ABIA) for Biography of the Year, he has returned with a second volume that focuses on his adult life.

In his time with powerhouse Aussie band Cold Chisel, and later as a solo artist, Barnes struggled with self-destructive tendencies, and alcohol and drug addiction. In Working Class Man, he lays bare these battles with raw and unflinching prose.

Barnes will also embark on a companion tour for his new memoir in March 2018, which will combine storytelling and stripped back versions of his classics.

WYZA spoke to Barnesy, where he opened up about his inner demons, revisited his Cold Chisel days, and shared his thoughts on the same-sex marriage postal vote.

WYZA: You've experienced immense success in the musical realm, but how did you react to the success of Working Class Boy — especially the response from literary circles?

Jimmy Barnes: It was a shock. I never expected people to react so well. But the book seemed to strike a chord with a lot of people, even from the literary world.

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Despite his past struggles, Barnes says he's much happier now

I never wrote it to impress anybody. This was just the story I had to write down to get it out of my system. These stories from my childhood were poisoning me, and I just had to purge myself of all these deep, dark secrets.

The ABIA was an absolute shock to me and I was very moved to receive it.

You write early on that a reader doesn't necessarily have had to read Working Class Boy to read this second volume, but that it does give valuable context. Just how much did your childhood shape the experiences and emotions that you're writing about in Working Class Man ?

My childhood affected every step of my adult life. In the new book, I refer back to the childhood story so the reader will get the drift of what I’m saying. But the story can stand alone.

It is the story of me floundering and struggling to find my way in life. This is the same story that a lot of men share. We are all trying to get through life with as little damage to the ones we love as possible.

Men are hurting each other, ourselves, and our loved ones. We need to talk to each other and lot of us need to get help deal with our issues — they are killing us.

Do you regret your experiences with drugs and alcohol earlier in life?

I can’t take back the things I have done. It would be useless to sit and be overwhelmed by my past. All I can do is look at my life and change it for the better.

Every step I have taken has brought me to where I am now. I am much happier now but I am still changing and still learning.

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Barnesy’s latest memoir is an honest reflection on success, fame and addiction

If Jimmy Barnes today could give Jimmy Barnes 30 years ago one piece of advice, what would it be?

Don’t give in. And look for help. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It takes real courage. You have so much to live for and look forward to.

Just how much has writing these two memoirs helped you in coming to terms with your experiences and pent-up emotions? Are you in a better frame of mind having gotten it all out?

I think so. It also opened up a can of worms; lots of things that I have to work on and follow through with. But at least I know where I am heading now instead of running around in the dark looking for a way out.

Cold Chisel were one of those bands that straddled the line between being hugely popular commercially and staying raw, beholden to no one. What do you think about the changing power dynamic of bands with record labels in today's music landscape?

Bands and labels have always fought but they have also worked together. I think that a band has to be able to stand its ground when it knows it’s right, and be ready to listen if it doesn’t know what it’s doing.

When you sign to a label, it has to be because you have some faith in them. It becomes a sort of partnership at that point.

I worked closely with Mushroom Records and Michael Gudinski when I went solo — I couldn’t have done it alone. Michael’s knowledge of the industry and his love of music helped me make a lot of tough decisions.

You've supported same-sex marriage for years — what are your thoughts on this postal survey and the way the whole issue has been handled?

The postal survey is a waste of time and money. $122 million dollars could have helped a lot of homeless people or struggling families. Instead the government has encouraged the community to wound each other and to splinter.

This is about making a better society. One that is open and respectful, not afraid of the differences.


Volume 2 of Barnes’ memoirs, Working Class Man, is published by HarperCollins Australia and is now available at all good bookstores and online.

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Image credit: Nic Walker