Jimmy Barnes, Working Class Boy (HarperCollinsAustralia 2016)
This is a terrific book.
These days, Jimmy Barnes turns up on social media as a genial grandfather who makes music with his large family for the pleasure of a nation beleaguered by Covid and other ills. Once he was a hard living, hard-drinking rock star whose songs ‘Working Class Man’ and ‘Khe Sanh’, the latter sung as front man of Cold Chisel, have anthem status.
At the end of Working Class Boy, he more or less promises us the story of how he made the transition from then to now. This book is a prequel, a back story: ‘How I became Jimmy Barnes.’ It begins in poverty-stricken Glasgow where alcohol-fuelled violence is the norm in the streets and in the home. It takes us through the small boy’s emigration with his dysfunctional family to South Australia, where the town of Elizabeth is hardly less violent or alcohol-riven than Glasgow. It leaves off as Jimmy, now as addicted to alcohol and other substances as the next knockabout young man, sets off for Armidale with the newly formed Cold Chisel, not with any hope of peace or stability, but at least with the possibility of making it as a rock band.
It’s a harrowing story, but it doesn’t ask for pity, and it doesn’t feel as if it aims to shock. The writer uses his great skill as a yarn-spinner to keep the narrative alive, at the same time never letting the reader lose sight of his serious purpose, as he articulates it in the Acknowledgements:
There’s a lot of my past that I wanted to push out of my memory and never see again. But I couldn’t. I tried to drown my past in every possible way, but as long as it was festering inside me I could never really move on. My childhood affected every step I took over the rest of my life. It twisted the way I thought and the way I interacted with normal human beings. Eventually I realised that these wounds needed to be brought out in the open and aired if I ever wanted them to heal.
So I started trying to write things down.(page 359)
I read Working Class Boy at the Emerging Artist’s suggestion, when I told her about Shuggie Bain. I’d read that novel for the Book Group (blog post to come in a couple of weeks), and was uneasy about its insistence on the main woman character’s wretchedness and victimhood amid alcohol-fuelled violence and poverty in Glasgow – was it a kind of misery porn? ‘Jimmy Barnes’s childhood was in Glasgow,’ the ER said.
It turned out that reading the books in close sequence increased my appreciation of both of them. I won’t talk about Shuggie Bain here.
None of Jimmy Barnes’s characters is a straightforward victim. He doesn’t hold back from telling us about his own violence, and sexism. He makes no excuses, but gives us glimpses of the inner struggles, and terrors, that he was dealing with at the time of his worst behaviour. The effect is that when he tells us about his mother’s and father’s violent moments, we aren’t invited to sit in judgement. It’s understood that they too are wrestling with demons. I was struck by his account of how his first son, David Campbell, was conceived and born when Jimmy was just 16. This episode of teenage sex and consequences can’t have been easy to write, but Barnes tells it with generosity to all involved, including David when he learned the truth of his origins. Then he says:
I don’t need to say much more about this time. Not to you guys anyway.(Page 317)
How’s that for telling the reader to respect the writer’s boundaries?
Comparing the two books made me appreciate the quality of Barnesie’s humour (I hope it’s OK to call him that). Even as he laments the terrible damage wrought by alcohol and poverty, he celebrates the wit and resilience, and the sense of community, of the people involved. I came away from the scenes in Glasgow wanting to see a lot more more of the Glaswegians, though I’d prefer to be out of striking range. Many of his adolescent exploits have a terrific derring-do about them. There’s the time he drove a half a dozen drunken mates to the drive-in cinema in a car with no brakes, or the occasion when he and a few of his mates took LSD and got drunk before turning up at a party given by ‘a quiet young guy’ from the foundry, to find that the young guy ‘was a drag queen in his spare time’, and the party a great success.
The book pulls off the minor miracle of taking the reader along on this wild ride, feeling the excitement of it, but not losing sight of the human cost both for the writer and the other young men like him, and for the many people – girls, women, strangers – they damaged. I’m not drawn to celebrity autobiographies, but Jimmy Barnes’s Working Class Man (HarperCollinsAustralia 2018) just made it onto my TBR list.