The REAL Jimmy Barnes speaks... and sings (obviously)

He’s been a fixture of the Aussie entertainment landscape for decades, which makes you feel like you know Jimmy Barnes. But as anyone who has read Working Class Boy will tell you, there’s plenty more to know about the man behind the legend...

Six months on, how’s the reaction been to Working Class Boy ?
Obviously it’s been very successful, which is great. I wrote this book really with no expectations. I didn’t know what to think. I joked with the publisher saying I need the number one book because I have number one records. Really, it was much deeper than that. As I wrote it, every step I took, I felt like I was unravelling some part of the ball and some part of the puzzle. Every chapter, I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. By the time I finished it, I felt the process was “... I needed that.”

It must have been a difficult process.
The stuff that I wrote about was stuff that I’d been running away from all my life. You know, stuff that I’ve never spoken to people about – my siblings, my wife, my friends. There was stuff in there that was so dark, it had wiped out of my memory. It only came to me as I was writing the book. I’d write something and then I’d go, “Oh god, I remember something else.”

Getting that out was its own reward, and I felt lighter for it. Once I finished it I thought, “Well that’s good, I can let go of it now.” I could rip this up, or delete it or whatever, and it wouldn’t matter. I got all the good I need out of it.

Then I thought to myself, “I bet you there’s other people going through the same shit as I am, or have come through the same shit as I have, who would like to talk about this.” I put the book out, and immediately connected with a lot of people. Whether their father or parents went through this, or friends or their partners. I’m signing books, people were taking photos, everything was good, and some people were slipping me notes.

I had people slipping me notes saying “I’m suicidal” or “I’m in a violent relationship, how do I get help?” I realised there was so much more to this, so I started talking more about it on the radio. The major issues in this book are poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence, and the impact they have on people and the impact they had on me.

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Barnes' story touches on the power of ambition in tough times

Did you show your siblings what you were writing about them?
I was going to, but there were a couple of things. I spoke to the publishers, and they said we think you should write it yourself first, and then show other people. Then I spoke to – because I was having therapy at the same time – I spoke to a therapist, who said if I start outlaying the story to other people, because of the nature of the way I am, I’ll edit it to make them happy, and I won’t tell the story the way I want to tell it. So I didn’t tell them anything.

Were you worried about their reaction?
I spoke to my big brother about some stuff along the way, some of the stories he told me in the past, but I never let him read any. At the end, I talked to them all and let them read it before I put it out. It was a mixed reaction.

My big brother John, his initial reaction was, “Oh no, it wasn’t that bad. We didn’t live like that.” As he lived with it and read it and lived with it more, he agreed that it was pretty bloody accurate. He can see how it’s from my perspective.

How did the idea of a live show develop?
I put this show together because that’s a way of talking about it more, to more people. The show is not all doom and gloom though. I talk about childhood from a child’s perspective. I talk about not knowing this stuff, and I also talk about having to deal with it, the impact that it had on me, and seeing my mum and dad fight.

I put music with the show, and instead of just putting in songs we’d written along the way that weren’t important, I thought, when I look at being a five-year-old at a hospital in Adelaide, there’s certain songs that I remember hearing on the radio, songs that immediately when I hear them take me back to places in my life.

They were like sign posts. Every time I hear that song it takes me to that place. These are the songs that we decided we would do in the show, and the show fell together. Once again, it’s resonated with people. It seems to make the issues in the book more accessible.

How has it evolved since the first performance?
It changes every night. There’s no script. Basically, I’ve got a setlist, a list of topics of things that I want to talk about, and within that process, every night that changes. New things occur to me, I have realisations from watching people in the audience and seeing how they react.

Things occur to me when I’m talking, and – two of my kids are on stage, Jackie and Mahalia – and the way they react to things, and something will take me back to when I was younger and trying to deal with this stuff. So the show evolves every night. It has the same format, but it’s by no means scripted. 

How do you think the Jimmy Barnes from the end of Working Class Boy, who’s just joined Cold Chisel and is heading off to Armidale in a van, would respond?
I think he’d be sort of screaming out, “What are you doing?!” because I didn’t want anyone to know this stuff back then. In a way, everything that I talk about was sort of there in the songs. People have seen my train wreck of a life for the last 50 years, and everything I talk about was sort of there, lying in the wings. People could see it I think, every night on stage, so maybe he’s going, “You don’t have to say this – I’m already saying that.”

Finally, will we be seeing your story get the Hoges or Molly miniseries treatment anytime soon?
Listen, they’ve been hassling me for years, but I’m not finished yet. When I’m dead, they can do what they want, but they’re not going to do it while I’m alive because it’s a work in progress. They’re entertainment, but I’m not here to be a celebrity. They’ve asked me a million times and I’ve said no.


Barnesy shares a special message and sings his cover of ‘Heartaches By The Number’

Jimmy is touring throughout Australia and New Zealand with his Songs & Stories tour. See here for dates and tickets.

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