Australians know rocker Jimmy Barnes as ‘Barnsey’ – Cold Chisel front man, solo superstar, father of cabaret star David Campbell and, most recently, Australian Human Rights Advocate on ABC’s ‘Q&A’ – but who we have not known until now, is the boy behind the man: James Dixon Swan.
James Swan is one of 6 children born to Jim and Dorothy ‘Dot’ Swan in Glasgow, Scotland – a city that, according to Billy Connelly, is the only place in the world where ‘Hello!’ is a threat. From the opening chapter of Working Class Boy, Jimmy makes no bones about how true this is. Drinking and violence are a way of life, both inside and outside the family home.
Cut to a new life opportunity as a ‘Ten Pound Tourist’ (as the ex-pat Scots and Brits of the 1960s were known) when the family relocated via a rickety steam vessel to the north of Adelaide and, ultimately, The City of Tomorrow, now known as Elizabeth, South Australia. As Barnes attests, it was the old ways in a new location. Transplanting the Scots only relocated their ways and attitudes; a life of drinking, violence and discontent.
Over the ensuing 360 pages, combining honesty, self-reflection and a cheeky, playful sense of humour, Barnes reflects on his Swan family childhood: an absent father, a disconsolate mother, a rough and tumble brother (the Aussie rocker, John Swan) and protective sisters, living in a community fuelled by alcohol and violence. This life is brought into stark contrast when his mother meets Reg Barnes, the man Jimmy identifies as Dad and whose name Jimmy proudly carries.
This book is a true testament to the strength and resolve of Jimmy Barnes’ ability to look back and openly assess the man he was. It’s also a much needed tome about facing the demons that drove Jimmy to an overindulgence of alcohol, drugs and sex; one that haunts so many men in Australia today regardless of age or location. It is also a reflection on the Elizabeth of yesterday, one which still exists in pockets of the area today and an acknowledgment that, while the past cannot be changed, it can be faced, accepted and forgiven.
Jimmy has freely admitted this book caused him pain and it is, at times, an uncomfortable read. It is one that is also filled with laughter, familiar locations (for any Adelaidean) and sincere emotional and personal forgiveness. To the author and the man, heartfelt congratulations are in order – and the Rock Legend? Well, that remains to be read in the next volume.
Reviewed by Glen Christie
Rating out of 10: 10
Publisher: Harper Collins Australia
Release Date: October 2016
RRP: $45 hardcover, $19.99 eBook
- Read our review of Jimmy Barnes narrating his own life story in the audiobook of Working Class Boy
- Jimmy Barnes’ website
This review originally published 7 November 2016 and is republished to coincide with the release of the film.