Jimmy Barnes: bio for My Criminal Record

After two best-selling, incredibly personal memoirs, Working Class Boy (2016) and Working Class Man (2017), you might think you know all there is to be known about James Dixon (Jimmy) Barnes.

You’d be wrong.

Barnes, by his own estimation, is still revealing himself. “There’s a lot of stuff I don’t know about me yet,” he says.

On 31 May, Jimmy Barnes will release his seventeenth solo studio album, My Criminal Record – his first rock album since 2010’s Rage and Ruin. It was recorded with his live band: Daniel Wayne Spencer and Davey Lane on guitars, son-in-law Benjamin Rodgers on bass, Clayton Doley on keyboards, with son Jackie Barnes and Warren Trout on drums and percussion.

It was written by Jimmy, with significant assistance from his oldest sparring partner, Cold Chisel’s Don Walker, whose name appears on six of the thirteen tracks. Outstanding contributions also come from close friends Troy Cassar-Daley, Mark Lizotte (aka Diesel) and the Living End’s Chris Cheney, as well as Rodgers, Harley Webster and Jade MacRae.

The earliest of these songs were written at the same time as Jimmy was in the process of writing his two memoirs – both of which won the prestigious Australian Book Industry Award – and the rest in the aftermath, as he sorted through the wreckage and triumphs of an uncontained life that sometimes spun out of control.

But Jimmy is back, older, smarter, healthier, and for My Criminal Record he has distilled and expanded upon those memoirs in 13 pieces of burning, heartland rock & roll. It will resonate with anyone who has ever found themselves standing on the outside, looking in.

The first lines of the album – the title track – set the tone.

Well I came from a broken home

My mama had a broken heart

And even though she tried to fight it

It was broken from the start

“I’ve got books of the darkest lyrics you’ve ever heard in your life – books that will never be published,” Jimmy says. In the context of his two books and the contents of this album, the most forensically honest and searching record of his storied career, it is a scary thought.

The earliest lyrics for My Criminal Record were written on planes, usually tapped out on a phone in between shows. Contemporaneous with his memoirs, the themes for the album quickly began to reveal themselves: of childhood poverty, huge success, self-destruction and self-discovery. Running away. Running out of time. And, ultimately, redemption.

But it’s a very different exercise trying to tell your story in a song than two books the size of a house brick. “You’re writing a chorus and trying to summarise a lifetime in a few lines,” Jimmy says. “It’s a lot more poignant and pointy than writing and telling the whole story.”

So, let’s get to the chorus of My Criminal Record:

My family has a record

That’s as long as your arm

And I don’t want you to read it

Because it’s going to do us harm

I keep it locked away somewhere I know

In a cellar that I call my youth

It’s my criminal record

It’s the truth

The sound of My Criminal Record, both the song and the album, is immediate: live, loud and in your face. Recorded with long-time producer Kevin “Caveman” Shirley, this is easily one of the rawest, hardest-hitting records Jimmy Barnes has ever made sonically, as well as lyrically.

“I couldn’t have done this record without my live band, because these were the guys who saw me fighting my demons every fucking night,” Jimmy says. “These guys get on stage with me and know that when I’m playing the songs, I’ll go, yeah, this is nice – but can you play it 10 times harder, like it’s the last time you’re ever going to play it?”

No song illustrates that approach better than Stolen Car (The Road’s On Fire), two versions of which appear on the record. Part I sounds like the car has already crashed, the wheels spinning mid-air after a rollover. Part II – which was actually the first version to be recorded – is a high-speed chase down thunder road:

I’m licking up the white lines

Going way too fast

They’re coming at me out of the future

Going into the past

“Licking up the white lines” is a Don Walker special, of course. Only he could have written that. From the beginning, Jimmy was sending his friend drafts of the lyrics he was feverishly writing between shows. A back-and-forth process would begin – Jimmy spilling his guts; Walker, ever the patient perfectionist, crafting and sharpening each idea.

“It’s funny writing with Don because I always feel like Don’s writing for me anyway, even though he’s not necessarily,” Jimmy says. “I used to think he was reading my mail, because he had an uncanny ability to write things that I thought were so personal to me, and when I’d read them I’d go Jesus, how did he know I felt like this?

“That’s why I never had a problem singing Don’s songs, and I think I was the perfect singer for most of his songs. But I think one of the appeals Don’s songwriting has [is] I think there’s so many Australian males out there who read Don’s lyrics and go, oh – this is about me.”

The most naked song on the album, however, was written not by Barnes and Walker, but Barnes, Benjamin Rodgers and Troy Cassar-Daley: My Demon (God Help Me). Anyone who has read Working Class Boy and Working Class Man will recognise where Jimmy is coming from, right from the song’s opening lines.

But the great gift of My Criminal Record, as with Jimmy’s books, is that this extraordinary man, who has lived a life of even more extraordinary extremes, has made his experiences so relatable. For most of us know, deep down, that whenever we’re running away – or running out of time – we can never outrun ourselves:

I’ve been running from something

That I could not see

I was running from something inside of me

I’ve been running from something that was hiding

Waiting to be free

Jimmy Barnes has done a lot of work on himself to get to this point – not just to stare down his demons, but to understand them. “It’s very easy to fall back,” he says. “Luckily one of the things that my childhood trauma made me was hypervigilant. I used to be hypervigilant and defensive and guarded; now I’m hypervigilant about those demons.

“It’s all relative, whatever your pain is. My pain, I couldn’t take away and I can’t let go of it, it’s always going to be there, but I’m not going to let it rule me or define me. I can see the patterns starting to emerge, and I know what to do to try and stop them, most of the time.”

Doing that work has had another, perhaps more unexpected benefit: Jimmy is singing maybe better than he ever has. He explains that he is better in touch with the emotions in the songs, and better able to express them as a result. The raw power and volume is still there, but it’s modulated by a new self-knowledge and sensitivity.

Once, he said, “I’d get up and scream and yell, drawing on that pain every night I sang from the time I was 15, maybe younger … My body would go automatically into that mode, just because that was all I could do; it was the only way I knew how to get it out, spitting venom at whoever walked past.

“Now, I know why I’m singing it. I know why I’m feeling it. I know why I have to get it out now, and writing the books helped me identify it. I still sing about the same things, but now I know exactly what I’m singing about.”

You won’t find a better example of the newfound subtlety and strength in Jimmy’s voice on My Criminal Record than Shutting Down Our Town, written by Troy Cassar-Daley especially for Barnes, after Troy finished reading Working Class Boy. Jimmy inhabits the song as fully as he inhabited the place he grew up in.

Everything I knew was back there on those streets

Every lesson learned kept me on my feet

But I can’t help thinking of the ones I left behind

“It’s about Elizabeth,” Jimmy says, referring to his childhood suburb, very much on the wrong side of the tracks in north Adelaide. “I changed a couple of words just because of local knowledge, but it was 99.99% a Troy song, and he played it to me and I immediately felt the connection.

“I drove through Elizabeth not long after I heard the song, and I felt a pain in my heart for the people there who are battling, trying to make a living when everything is stacked up against them. And only by a fucking complete miracle did I escape from that, and the truth is, I never escaped from it – it’s still there, it’s still in my heart.

“It’s sort of a heartland Working Class Man anthem, but Working Class Man was written by an American [Jonathan Cain]. This was written by somebody who feels the pain, and who’s writing about the darker side of Australia which I never wanted to face before. So it’s like the bookend to Working Class Man, but for me, it’s the real story.”

 My Criminal Record is rounded out by two cover versions. The first – right in the heart of the record – is John Lennon’s Working Class Hero, a song Jimmy incorporated into his solo sets last year. It might seem an obvious choice for the singer of Working Class Man, but no song by a Beatle can be tackled lightly.

“John Lennon was such a wounded, dark person, and I always felt I was either going to sing that, or Mother,” Jimmy says. “Or Instant Karma. But once I put it in the show, every single line in the song, I could spit out and think oh fuck – this is me.”

The song bears a close relationship to another song on the album, Money And Class, that reflects Jimmy’s insights into the long-term impact of poverty gained through writing his memoirs. “That [feeling] where I’m never going to be good enough,” he says. No matter how successful Jimmy became, self-belief and self-doubt were forever locked in a death-match.

The other cover version is of Bruce Springsteen’s Tougher Than The Rest, from The Boss’s “divorce” album Tunnel Of Love. In Jimmy’s hands, however, Tougher Than The Rest is a hymn of undying devotion to the love of his life, Jane, his wife of 38 years.

“When we were in the thick of my worst moments, Tunnel Of Love came out, and I remember I’d be thinking, I’ve lost Jane, and I felt so bad about myself – how I was behaving and how out of it and how fucked up I was,” he says.

“And that song would come on, we’d be having parties, or people would be around, and every time, I’d turn it up and sing along with it. I’d sing it to Jane – “If you’re rough enough for love, baby, I’m tougher than the rest” – don’t give up on me now. I’m flawed, but I’m here.”

Years later, when Jimmy was supporting Springsteen on tour, he was called to The Boss’s dressing room. “He said, what song do you want to do? I said, Tougher Than The Rest. And he said, do you know it? I said, absolutely! I think he might have thought I was a stalker. I knew every nuance of every line.”

Tougher Than The Rest is the final song on the record – really, it couldn’t be any other way. But it’s preceded by another song of hope, written by Mark Lizotte, which complements the desperation of the Springsteen song perfectly.

“Mark’s seen the best and the worst of me, he’s lived through it with me, and he saw me fighting not only for my own sanity and my own life, but fighting to save my relationship,” Jimmy says.

“I wanted a rock song that was up; that had hope. The title is If Time Is On My Side. That’s saying, I’m hoping time is on my side – hang in there with me. That’s exactly what I was thinking when I was scratching and clawing and trying to save my life and my relationship with my friends and my family and the people around me.”

At the age of 63, close to 50 years into his career as one of Australia’s greatest ever singers and live performers, time has proved to be very much on Jimmy Barnes’s side. His is a story of astonishing tenacity and force of will. He has outlasted almost everyone, overcoming every hurdle thrown in his way – many of them, he will now admit, by himself.

While Working Class Boy and Working Class Man told the story of his life in many hundreds of pages of raw, riveting prose, My Criminal Record does it in around 50 minutes of brawling rock & roll. It is one of his finest ever albums, cut by a red-hot band committed only to the moment – and to the truth.

Jimmy’s finally ready to let you hear it.

 

MY CRIMINAL RECORD – TRACK BY TRACK

My Criminal Record

The opening cut of the album was written early, while Jimmy was working on his first memoir. It set the tone for everything to come. Jimmy: “My Criminal Record sort of sounds like the first book summed up into a song, to me. I feel really blessed that I actually got to the point where I could get to writing these books and deal with some of this stuff, because a lot of my mates didn’t.”

Shutting Down Our Town

A song that exemplifies the term heartland rock at a time when the blue-collar heartland that Jimmy grew up in is under more pressure than ever. Jimmy: “Troy rang me up and said, look, I read Working Class Boy, and as soon as I put it down I picked up my guitar and I wrote this song for you. It’s about Elizabeth. We’re told that if we work hard, we’ll be OK, but how can you work hard when they keep pulling the fucking rug out from under you?”

I’m In A Bad Mood

A song about rage, something Jimmy has never been short of. It’s about how you deal with it. Jimmy: “Writing these books, sitting passively inside my own head was one thing, because I had to process the information, but a lot of it did make me angry. This record I think allows me to get some of the anger out.”

Stolen Car (The Road’s On Fire) – Part I

The first version of this song to appear on the record came later in the recording sessions. Jimmy: “This was one of the later ones. I wrote the lyrics on a plane one night when I thought my life was out of control. We started working on that song, and I thought you know what, there isn’t enough of a chorus, it didn’t pay off enough for me. So, we went in and we dug deeper and it developed into this very moody piece.”

My Demon (God Help Me)

Along with Working Class Hero, My Demon (God Help Me) forms the emotional centrepiece of the album, a classic devil-down-the-crossroads blues. Jimmy: “We all have those demons to deal with, and you’d be surprised how similar they all are. They’re always there and if you drop your guard they’re going to fucking pounce on you. I know a lot of men who fight that same battle. But I’m sure it’s just the human condition.”

Working Class Hero

Jimmy sings this John Lennon masterpiece like he was born to. “I started doing the song on the Working Class Man shows in the light of Working Class Man, and how that song defined my whole life, really. It was one of the first ones we recorded, and I just thought we’d put it down and maybe use it somewhere, for a film or a B-side or something, but it just seemed to fit on the record so well.”

Belvedere And Cigarettes

This song was written by Jade MacRae, best friend of Jimmy’s daughter Mahalia, and her former partner Harley Webster. “It’s almost a blue-eyed soul melody with a scathing, self-hating lyric [about how] people who are going through traumatic times tend to make things worse by drinking themselves to death … I really related to that at the time, while I was in the process of sorting my life out and coming out the other end.”

I Won’t Let You Down

Written by the Living End’s Chris Cheney, this song provides an important counterpoint. “I wanted to have a couple of songs that had light at the end of the tunnel. Chris, when he sent it to me, said ‘I wrote this about my girl, but I couldn’t help thinking it was about you and Jane at the same time.’ It’s a great lyric – the fact that ‘I won’t let you down again’ means I’ve let you down in the past. That song’s about breaking that cycle.”

Stargazer

A Walker–Barnes composition, this was one of the first songs from the album to be written, once again combining a winning melody with a dark lyric. “It’s one of my favourite songs on the record. It’s about the emotions in the melody – from the repetitive chorus to when it bursts open in the verse, which gives you this chance of hope, and then the lyric cuts you down, which I really like.”

Money And Class

Jimmy: “It’s about that [feeling] where I’m never going to be good enough, I’m never going to be as good as those guys on the hill, no matter how much success I have. I’m in the process of letting that go. Money And Class and Working Class Hero, those two songs are really closely connected.”

Stolen Car (The Road’s On Fire) – Part II

The initial raw cut of this song forsakes moodiness for speed, volume and impact. Jimmy: “I just thought it had a lot of the urgency and anger and intensity that I felt when I was writing those lyrics. I was to-ing and fro-ing which version of Stolen Car to put on, and Kevin suggested that we put both on. I think both songs are different sides of the same coin.”

If Time Is On My Side

Along with Tougher Than The Rest, this one is for Jane, written by Mark Lizotte to a very specific brief from Jimmy. “I’ve known Mark since 1987, and we’ve been best friends and family since, he’s seen the best and the worst of me … I wanted a rock song, that was up, that had hope. The title is If Time Is On My Side but the full title is actually If Time Is On My Side, I’ll Never Let You Go. That’s saying, hang in there with me, you know.”

Tougher Than The Rest

Recorded in Brisbane on a day off with Jason Bonham, the son of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, when the pair crossed paths on tour. They had been hoping to record together for years. Jimmy: “There’s just something about where his snare sits in relation to the kick and the hi-hat that gave weight to that cover. I didn’t want to put covers on this record, but they were just so poignant to the whole story.”

Album bio, May 2019

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