Barnes takes his childhood pain on tour
JIMMY Barnes has been trying to lift the story of his childhood off his chest since the early 1990s. He had abandoned the project twice when a viewing of the movie Snowtown impelled him to push through with it once and for all. “The floodgates opened and I couldn’t hold back the past any longer.” When Snowtown serves as a trigger for the remembrance of things past, it’s a fair sign your childhood was less than ideal.
He doesn’t just have a scarifying story to tell. He has a grippingly effective way of telling it: one that does full justice to the grim facts without overcooking them.
The result, Working Class Boy, is a stunning piece of work – relentless, earnest, shockingly vivid. You don’t open a book by Jimmy Barnes expecting a classic of Australian autobiography. But he has written one by revisiting the Dickensian squalors of his childhood in a spirit of near-fanatical honesty.
The book’s early pages don’t prepare you for what’s coming. Only later does it become apparent he is nervously clearing his throat, finding the right tone to talk about the alltoo-detailed horror show that only he knows is coming.
Barnes spent the first five years of his life in Scotland in a rough suburb of Glasgow called Cowcaddens. His mother was a formidable and sometimes violent woman with a “voice that sounded like an open razor, slashing everything it came close to”. His father was a champion boxer and abject alcoholic, with a habit of drinking away money that otherwise might have fed and clothed his children.
Jimmy was one of six: three boys and three girls. Many of his first memories revolve around hunger. He remembers worse things, too.
When Jimmy was five the family immigrated to South Australia, where their first home was a stifling tin hut.
Nor did things improve much when the family moved to a tiny house in Elizabeth, a new suburb on the fringe of Adelaide. “The fights were getting more intense, more extreme, and we were in more danger.”
Some of the violence is unbelievable.
Whether he found the book’s style instinctively or had to work at it, I don’t know. But as he careers towards the harrowing central chapters, he stops cracking jokes. Here he is leaving home for good, taking a jacket that once belonged to his older brother, who has left too:
He left it with the rest of the rubbish. The shit he didn’t want to see anymore. I was part of that rubbish, now that I think of it. So were the rest of the family. I don’t blame him. I don’t want to see him or any of this again either.
What makes this so effective is that it’s not written for effect. Barnes’s only aim is to say how he felt at the time. But his hair-raising commitment to the facts, and his shocking lack of sentimentality, forge a memorable style.
You can’t fake such a tone. You have to earn it.
Rock legend Jimmy Barnes’ "Working Class Boy" is now a touring show
Working Class Boy, the top-selling memoir by Jimmy Barnes