(For a Review of Jimmy Barnes period as lead singer with Cold Chisel, check out the 4TR blogs on October 22-24, 2019)
James Dixon Swan was born April 28 1956 in the infamous smog-wreathed Cowcaddens district of central Glasgow (above), his parents Jim and Dorothy (below far left) raised their family in a slum environment of poverty and violence. Dorothy would have five children before the age of 21 – John, James, Dorothy, Linda and Alan and the sixth Lisa in 1962 after the family had emigrated to Australia in 1961, and settled in the working- class, migrant, satellite suburb of Elizabeth (SA). Jimmy Barnes (in his early teens below far right) childhood was steeped in neglect, abuse, and abject poverty, his father was a ne’er-do-well prize fighter who let his fists do the talking, Elizabeth was a close-knit community, and regardless of how many of the mums had black eyes, they didn’t embarrass each other by talking about them. Below centre Dorothy with sons John and Jimmy.
Later in life Jimmy saw the brutally homicidal Australian film Snowtown, and knew that the many scenes of a dysfunctional, violent, gruesome, macabre family, in that movie, paralleled his own childhood existence.
When Dot left Jim and married clerk Reg Barnes, all the family moved in with their stepfather and took Reg’s surname, except for older brother John. At sixteen years of age Jimmy was balancing the demands of a railway apprenticeship and a lifestyle of experimenting with acid and increasing alcohol consumption, not surprisingly he opted for the rock and roll life, and joined a band that would become Cold Chisel. He was an incendiary hothead, quick to take offence, ready to physically confront anyone and anything, by the time he was eighteen he had fathered three children to three different women, but wouldn’t even know about two of them for another thirty years. Below Jimmy at right with older brother John.
He was running as fast as he could away from a childhood that had mentally scarred him, not that he ever saw himself as an unfortunate, contrarily he saw himself as the aggressor not the wounded survivor, he would say “I’m homicidal not suicidal”. For the next forty years he would perpetuate this myth by self-medicating with drugs and alcohol to block out the memories and tainted legacy of his dysfunctional family, until his demons almost consumed him one night in an Auckland hotel room in 2012, when he attempted to commit suicide.
Jimmy Barnes took his early musical cues from such black American artists as Mahalia Jackson (after whom he named his first child with Jane), Jackie Wilson (after whom he named his second son), Otis Redding and Little Richard, and later from Paul Rodgers (Free), Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, and his older brother John, who was also a musician, and would directly and indirectly influence the career path of his younger brother and consequently the early history of Cold Chisel. Between 1978 -1983 they were quite simply the biggest band in Australia, even though they would never match the global reach and record sales of the two other local bands they admired – AC/DC and INXS – and when Barnes went solo in 1983, angry and frustrated at his inability to make a decent living, and feeling unsupported by his bandmates, who would inevitably side with Don Walker, the spiritual leader of the group, he would leave behind the band that he still loved. Below early days with Cold Chisel left to right – Don Walker, Jimmy Barnes, Ian Moss, Phil Small, and seated in front Steve Prestwich.
Barnes is frank in his admission that much of his ensuing 35-year solo career was fuelled by his desire to live up to Chisel. “For a long time, it was all about chart position,” he admits. “‘If my record doesn’t come in at No 1, I’m a failure.’ I cared too much about what people thought of me, and that was symptomatic of the trauma from my childhood.”
He’s since had to reassess his definition of success, with the painful knowledge that it’s possible to have five # 1 albums in a row and also face bankruptcy. “Success isn’t about reaching your goals, it’s about striving for things, like the joy of trying to raise a family, trying to be a successful singer, trying to write good songs, trying to be a better person,” he says. “It’s that old thing about life being about the journey, not the destination.” Both he and his wife Jane (above), have lived the party life and sought to remedy their addictions at various rehab facilities, the Buena Vista Health and Recovery Centre, Tucson Arizona, the Sanctuary at Byron Bay (NSW), Deepak Chopra’s clinic in San Diego, and even a session with Thai monks at the Wat Pa Tham monastery, but every time Jimmy would yield to his addictions, and fall off the wagon.
It was not until later in life that Jimmy managed to resolve the mental health issues that had tormented him, increasingly his lyrics became more self-analytical, his memoirs were confessional and therapeutic, the sarcastic, hard-drinking, down-to-earth, lightning-in-a-bottle, Aussie male, through whom many of his fans had vicariously lived their lives; had sublimated his bravado and addictions to become a dedicated family man. Still with a herculean work ethic, cramming seemingly endless recording sessions, and performance tours into his life, but now more relaxed, a recent convert to Buddhism, he seems more comfortable in his own skin. Family photo taken in 2005 left to right – Elly-May, Jane, Eliza-Jane, Jimmy, Mahalia, and Jackie.
After a career spanning more than four decades, Jimmy Barnes has achieved the highest number of hit albums of any Australian artist in this country, with 16 Top 40 albums, including four #1s for Cold Chisel, and 22 charting solo albums including ten #1s as a solo artist; and two best-selling autobiographies. He was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame for the second time as a solo singer in 2005, twelve years after his initial induction as a member of Cold Chisel. In 2020 Jimmy Barnes seems to have achieved a hard-won sense of inner peace, as he continues to surprise and delight his legion of fans.