Guardian Book Club: Jimmy Barnes

When singer Jimmy Barnes’ memoir Working Class Boy was released in 2016, it caused a sensation. Barnes’ account of his childhood went beyond the usual adjectives like “raw” and “harrowing” on the cover to something much more purgative: here was one celebrity memoir that hadn’t been written for the sake of a generous advance. Barnes had wrestled the demons of a traumatic childhood in private for decades. Now he was doing it in full view.

The other thing that made Working Class Boy so shocking, frankly, was that Barnes had written it himself. Wasn’t piano player Don Walker the literary genius behind Cold Chisel, with “Barnesy” the red-faced screamer out front? Barnes further upended expectations by gambling on the story of his pre-fame years first, but his way of telling it was riveting. His voice was urgent, empathetic, as wry as it was moving, with a gut-wrenching turn of phrase.

Inevitably, the sequel Working Class Man followed. This was the proverbial sex, drugs and rock & roll memoir that perhaps was originally craved, and certainly expected – but it was far more compelling for us knowing where Barnes had come from. Jimmy Barnes – the rock star, and sometimes the caricature – had been a fixture of Australian life for so long that we had underestimated him. It turned out we had known little of the man born James Dixon Swan.

The first book was subtitled “A memoir of running away”. The second, “A memoir of running out of time”. Barnes’ life was far too big to be contained in just one volume. And now we have a third: Killing Time is a collection of short stories – 45 anecdotes, jokes and sideways reminiscences that didn’t fit into the first two narratives. But these are more than leftovers: they’re essential stories from the spaces in between. And it’s these stories, and the books that came before, which will form the basis of the next edition of Guardian Australia’s book club.

So much of a life in music is spent waiting. The Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts, asked (in 1987) what it was like to have toured with the band for 25 years, quipped he’d only worked for five of them; the other 20 he’d just been hanging around. That’s a lot of time to kill. Barnes eventually realised, while waiting, he was slowly killing himself and causing terrible suffering to those around him – most importantly his beloved wife Jane, whom he refers to as his saviour.

Barnes is in a steadier place now. Like all of us, he still has his demons, but three books and an album later (last year’s superb My Criminal Record is perhaps his best solo work, a lyrical extension of the first two volumes) he’s wrestled them to the ground. “After all those years on the road, all those years of drifting, with no sense of belonging anywhere, I finally feel I have found my place in the world,” he writes.

A slight disclaimer is necessary. Early last year I wrote an artist bio for My Criminal Record, my first real contact with Jimmy. Twelve months later, I was diagnosed with advanced valvular heart disease, requiring open heart surgery. In July, while on the short list and waiting for the hospital to call me in, the phone rang from a private number. My enlarged ticker skipped a beat. “This is it,” I thought – only to hear Barnesy’s familiar Glaswegian chirp on the other end.

Like me, Jimmy had been born with a bicuspid aortic valve, and had joined the “zipper club” in 2007. He was checking in on me, offering support. Over the next couple of months, either side of my surgery in early August, I took several calls from Jimmy and Jane, sending their best wishes. I’ve since discovered I’m far from the only one they’ve offered their kindness and generosity to in a time of strife, both to people you might have heard of and others you probably haven’t.

Jimmy says he’s not killing time anymore. “Every moment is precious,” he writes – and after my own surgery, it sounds true, not trite. Every second feels like a second chance. His books are precious, too, because they touch on things that are common to us, in all our flawed humanity.

Please join us as we talk about love, life, music, family and time – killing it, marking it, wasting it, making up for it – and have your own questions ready, too.

First published in the Guardian, 1 October 2020

Comments are closed.