SAD SONGS

Jimmy Barnes’s brave and dis­turb­ing mem­oir ends be­fore the start of his rock ca­reer, writes David Free

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

This isn’t, then, a mem­oir of its au­thor’s ca­reer as a rock star. When Barnes brings the book to a close, he has only just joined an ob­scure Ade­laide band called Cold Chisel. Nor is there any other sense in which this book re­sem­bles the typ­i­cal celebrity mem­oir. Most star au­to­bi­og­ra­phers have noth­ing ur­gent to say; their books aren’t driven by the im­pulses that make a real writer write.

Barnes’s book is, to a star­tling de­gree. 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. The iden­tity of its au­thor is in­ci­den­tal, and in some ways even dis­tract­ing. Af­ter all, you don’t open a book by Jimmy Barnes ex­pect­ing a clas­sic of Aus­tralian au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. But I sub­mit that 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. The au­thor sounds, for a while, like the ge­nial lat­ter-day Bar­nesy. He cracks some awk­ward jokes. He of­fers some thoughts about drink­ing and obliv­ion that sound, for the mo­ment, like sketchy gen­er­al­i­sa­tions. Only later does it be­come ap­par­ent what Barnes is do­ing in these open­ing pages. He is ner­vously clear­ing his throat, find­ing the right tone to talk about the all-too-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. One night in Cow­cad­dens, one of his sis­ters was dragged away by a stranger and as­saulted. Barnes is hazy on the de­tails — he can’t even re­call which sis­ter it hap­pened to. But half-re­mem­bered hor­rors will turn out to have been a sta­ple of the Barnes child­hood, along with fully re­mem­bered ones.

When Jimmy was five, the fam­ily im­mi­grated to South Aus­tralia, where their first home was a sti­fling tin hut in a mi­grant camp. By day Work­ing Class Boy By Jimmy Barnes HarperCollins, 384pp, $45 (HB) the kids got to play bare­foot in the sun­shine. By night, how­ever, they were obliged to re­turn to their cramped and ter­ri­fy­ing shed. Barnes is now 60 but he has for­got­ten no de­tail of how it feels to be a child liv­ing in an at­mos­phere of vi­o­lence. “Ev­ery punch and threat that Mum and Dad threw around hit each of us as if we’d been thrown against the wall.”

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.” The chil­dren hid in a cup­board while glass and fur­ni­ture smashed out­side. No­body came to save them. Nar­rat­ing these scenes, Barnes builds a sense of dread. He gives each bad thing its proper weight. But he makes it plain that worse things will be hap­pen­ing soon. One of them hap­pened when Barnes was around nine. “One morn­ing, I woke up and mum wasn’t there.” Un­able to cope, his mother had sim­ply fled the house. She stayed away for around two years, al­though Barnes has a hard time re­call­ing ex­actly “how old I was or how long this night­mare went on for”.

Nom­i­nally, the chil­dren spent this pe­riod in the care of their fa­ther. Ef­fec­tively they raised them­selves in a house that soon be­came a hovel. It was Lord of the Flies in Aus­tralian subur­bia. Their fa­ther was rarely present and con­scious si­mul­ta­ne­ously. Barnes’s old­est sis­ter stole money from him for food. Barnes re­calls get­ting

Jimmy Barnes’s grip­ping mem­oir doesn’t seek pity from the reader; op­po­site page, Jimmy, sec­ond from left, with his sib­lings Dorothy, Linda and John aboard SS Strath­naver en route to Aus­tralia

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