Listen: Jimmy Barnes chats with Hope 103.2’s Katrina Roe.
With raw anecdotes of a violent childhood and a reckless journey into adulthood, Jimmy Barnes has made publishing history—and advocated for domestic violence victims along the way.
The Aussie rock star’s book Working Class Boy topped Australia’s 2016 biography chart with sales of 119,000, knocking JK Rowling off the number one spot, and placing ‘Barnsey’ alongside Andy Griffiths as one of the best-selling authors in the country.
It’s clear his story has struck a chord with thousands.
In an honest and warm chat with Hope 103.2’s Katrina Roe, Jimmy writing the book was a kind of therapy, helping him to unravel the trauma of his past.
A Biography 20 Years in the Writing
“I had a couple of attempts at writing it,” he said of his revealing book. “I started in the ‘90s and wasn’t really sure what I was writing about – because at that point I didn’t really want to look back at my past. There’s a lot of things from my childhood that I’d just sort of blocked out. As a kid it was dangerous and unhappy, so I didn’t want to go back there.
“They say the book is a memoir of running away, because I ran away from my past all the time. I ran away from my childhood, ran away from the shame of poverty and the fear of domestic violence, so I tried not to look back at it.”
Even when he sat down to write for a second time in 2000, the book still didn’t get off the ground.
“At that time I was drinking too much,” he said. “The effects of this childhood were nearly killing me.”
About 14 years later, the words finally flowed.
“I just think it was the right time to do it,” he said. “I’m obviously in a lot better shape than I have been in a long, long time. I’m healthier and more focussed; I’m not trying to drink myself to death. Once I thought about it with a clear head, all this stuff from my childhood just came flooding back…it just poured out of me.”
When the singer finished writing, the book had already done its most important therapeutic work: helping him to process his past.
Now that it’s in print, it’s sparking conversations and helping those who’ve been through similar experiences: particularly immigrants, and those who’ve experienced poverty and violence themselves.
The Moulding of Barnsey, the Reckless Rock Star
As a child, Jimmy thought his violent, troubled life was normal, because all of the families around his were the same.
“We grew up in a tight-knit Scottish community; all immigrants,” he said. “Elizabeth in South Australia was built around the Holden factory, a flat, desolate horrible piece of land… and they decided to bring all the immigrants and stick them there so they’d have someone to work at Holden, basically.”
The lack of social support led to the formation of a kind of ghetto, and violence and fear was all Jimmy knew.
“I spent most of my life trying to make people like me, to make me feel safe.”
The outcomes of this unhappy marinade were, surprisingly, his high achieving at school, then his rock ’n’ roll career. Music gave him a sense of approval and worth, and an outlet for his anger and hopelessness.
“The stuff that I hadn’t been able to do in my own life, I was allowed to let these emotions run free on stage,” he said. “And the more I did, the more people liked it. I spent most of my life trying to make people like me, to make me feel safe. I thought, ‘if people like me then I’m worth something’. And that’s been really what’s driven me for 55 years.”
Making Good of his Pain
Today, the much healthier Jimmy is making good of his life story, by encouraging others that they don’t have to stay stuck in the pain of their past.
“You can leave it behind,” he said. “You can deal with it. I found that people are much more resilient than I imagined.”
He’s also speaking out about domestic violence and supporting the Luke Batty foundation.
“If you’re a victim of this you have to go talk about it, get it out in the open, get help, talk to a therapist,” he said. “If you’re a perpetrator, nobody’s proud of being like that, and that shame causes them pain. They’ve got to get help too.”
The Jimmy Barnes Story Comes to Life on Stage
To celebrate the release of the book, Jimmy is touring a stage show called Working Class Boy: An Evening of Stories and Songs. With his son Jackie, daughter Mahalia and son-in-law Ben Rodgers singing and playing the songs alongside him, Jimmy brings his biography to life.
It’s a draining, emotional experience every night, he said.
“It’s emotionally tiring, which is much different to doing a hard rock ‘n’ roll show,” he said. “It’s a different sort of tired.
“I’ll be talking about a situation and see someone’s face in the audience, and I know they’ve been through the same thing.”
“Some nights I get up there and I think, ‘I’m breezing through this’… But there’ll be points in every show where suddenly something new will occur to me, or I’ll be talking about a situation and I can see someone’s face in the audience, and I know they’ve been through the same thing. Or I’ll be talking or singing and I’ll notice a new expression on one of my children’s faces. And suddenly it becomes very difficult to do.”
He said the rewards of the show are reaching people with his story, as well as connecting with his own children on a deeper level than ever before.
“My children have seen the effects my childhood had on me,” he said. “They’ve seen it nearly kill me over the years. They’ve seen me drink myself to death. They’ve worried about me. And to see me getting it out of my system on stage is enlightening to them. It answers a lot of the questions they have about me and about the effects it’s had on them. And also it’s a bit joyous because they get to see that I’m letting it go.”