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“I don’t know about New Zealand, it’s probably similar, but in Australia the problem’s at plague proportions,” rock legend Jimmy Barnes rasps over the phone. “People are dying every week; women, children, men, as a result of domestic abuse and violence.”
Jimmy is heading to Mount Manganui’s ASB Baypark Arena on February 16 as part of his Working Class Boy: An Evening of Stories and Songs tour, one of nine intimate shows featuring music that “influenced me as a young fella”, plus stories contained in his memoir ‘Working Class Boy’.
“One of the songs I’ll probably sing is Nat King Cole’s ‘Around the World’ because it’s one of those songs my parents always used to sing at parties. They’d have a few drinks and start singing. Dad loved Nat king Cole and used to copy the tone of voice.
“Then there’s the Hank Williams song ‘Your Cheatin Heart’, my mum would sing songs about cheating hearts and about people throwing people out the door or leaving just because that’s what my mum and dad’s relationship was like.”
A memoir of running away
‘Working Class Boy’ is the story of how James Swan – the son of Scottish parents Jim and Dorothy ‘Dot’ Swan, who moved the family of eight to the tough northern suburbs of Adelaide in the 1960s – became the Australian rock legend Jimmy Barnes.
Tracing the first 17 years of Jimmy’s life, it reflects on his family’s collapse due to poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence, but also a young boy’s dream to escape the misery of the suburbs with a once-in-a-lifetime chance to join a rock‘n’roll band – Cold Chisel – and escape for good.
“I call the book a memoir of running away, basically I ran away all my life. I’d never really spoken at length about it before, like a lot of people I was ashamed and blocked a lot of it out. When I left home for the final time at 17 and joined Cold Chisel I never wanted to go back.
“Even though I shut it out, never talked about it and tried to wipe it out of my mind, it affected everything I did from then on. It was part of the reason why I drank so much. I didn’t deal with it and I was slowly drinking myself to death.”
Dot and Jim were really lovely people
If you had of met Jimmy’s parents in the street they would have been charming, nice, all that sort of stuff. And despite what they did to each other, he’s adamant his parents loved their children.
But while Jimmy’s parents never laid a finger on any of their six children, they might as well have, he says, because “every time your father punches your mum in the face it has the same effect on you”.
From the moment he began writing his memoir he felt the weight of a lifetime of anger, hurt and shame lifting off of his shoulders. But while cathartic when asked what was the most difficult thing? He replies frankly: “Most of it”.
“We were poor, afraid, hiding. There were six kids huddled in a cupboard while mum and dad beat the shit out of each other. It’s very difficult to put that down on paper and talk about it.
“There’s stuff in there about sexual abuse in the family, which was very difficult. But it had to be spoken about. There’s stuff in there about alcoholism, promiscuity; all the things.”
The truth will set you free
Dot Barnes died about two months before Jimmy’s memoir was released. Jimmy was in the process of doing the final edit of ‘Working class Boy’ when they took his mum to hospital and were told she wouldn’t make it. She’d been sick for a while and in a lot of pain.
The day his publisher Harper Collins sent the final draft to him they said it was the last very time he could change anything. It was also the same day Dot died.
“I sat down and my first reaction was to open the manuscript and scratch out everything that mentioned anything about mum. But I realised that wasn’t right either.
“The truth is what it is and the truth is what will set you free.”
Jimmy says his mum, broken down by the years of abuse and Jim’s alcoholism, walked out on the family when he was about eight. When she ran away, the children were badly abused after that.
“We’ve never been that close since, there’s always been something between us.”
But in the final two weeks of her life Dot found peace in herself and she was able to let go of the pain and the hurt of all the things she’d done as a young woman, says Jimmy.
“There was some sort of resolution, and part of that I think came from me writing the book. Part of it just came from her coming to terms with her own mortality and letting go.
“She didn’t have to stress about us anymore, we were all big and ugly enough to look after ourselves.”
Hope and light
One of the great things for Jimmy about penning his memoir book and February’s tour is having an opportunity to start a conversation with audiences in both Australia and New Zealand.
Domestic violence must be spoken about, he believes, it’s an issue which he describes as “a festering wound” because if you keep it hidden away in the dark it will never heal.
One of the first steps towards ending domestic violence is getting the issue out in the open and shine some light on it because it’s an ugly thing “and we’ve got to deal with it”.
“I thought opening up would be hard, but it was actually much harder keeping it in. The thing about running away from things is you can’t stop, you can’t stumble, you can’t fall, because it’s all going to catch up to you, it’s all going to swamp you.
“To turn around and face up to demons is a challenge, but it’s also very rewarding and the only way to deal with them. Some of it was harder than others, but that’s what people have to do. You can’t hide from things. I found it a step towards hope and light, that’s got to be a good thing.”
Eccles Entertainment and The Sound’s Jimmy Barnes’ Working Class Boy: An Evening of Stories and Songs at Mount Maunganui’s ASB Baypark Arena is on February 16. Tickets cost $65-$120 from ticketmaster.co.nz
Sun Media has one double pass to Jimmy Barnes’ Working Class Boy: An Evening of Stories and Songs tour to give away to one lucky reader who can tell us where Jimmy will be performing this February?
Enter online at www.sunlive.co.nz under the competition section. Entries must be received by Wednesday, February 15.