He's not everyone's cup of tea. Often he's not mine. He tends to scream rather than sing. Yet I also have a sneaking admiration for him, like a kind of dirty musical secret hidden amidst my supposedly more cerebral tastes. When he has great songs to sing, for instance those written by Don Walker for Cold Chisel, or singing Andy Durant's 'Last of the Riverboats', he can pull back the intensity and deliver as well as any singer in the country.
Lately his musical output has dropped off, and instead he has written and published two volumes of his memoirs - Working Class Boy, which tells the story of his childhood, and Working Class Man which covers his adult years. It is a difficult read, not because he writes badly but because the story is so confronting.
Jimmy was born James Swan in 1956, in a poor suburb of Glasgow, son of Jim and Dorothy Swan and one of six siblings. In 1962 his parents decided to leave their problems behind and emigrated to Australia, ending up in a Housing Trust home in Elizabeth on the outskirts of Adelaide. Unfortunately, although they left Glasgow behind they couldn't leave themselves. Jim Swan was an alcoholic and bar-room brawler, and Dorothy, already traumatised by a difficult childhood, had to choose whether to fight back or run.
Initially she fought. Their home descended into choas, with many nights starting out with the parents yelling at each other and ending with Dorothy bruised and bloodied while the children cowered in a dark wardrobe. In between, their home became party central with drunken, drug-fuelled orgies in which various of the children were sexually abused.
Eventually Dorothy realised that it was leave or die, but this didn't help the children because she left without them. Their father, always largely absent, gave up completely. He travelled between work and the pub and only came home to collapse in a drunken stupor. The oldest sister, barely into her teens, was left to try and keep the others alive as best she could. While her father slept she would go through his pockets for any loose change and then buy whatever she could afford. Perhaps some potatoes or bread which she would stretch out for as long as she could until next pay day brought more loose change. To supplement this meagre offering Jimmy would hang around friends' houses at dinner time hoping to be invited to stay, or failing that would shoplift.
This is all bad enough, but it could have ended up so much worse. Apparently the South Australian child welfare department paid Dorothy a visit and told her that if she couldn't provide a safe home for her children they would have to step in. There was no sole parents benefit in those days and women were paid less than men. How could she possibly provide a home for six children on her own? She was sitting crying in the kitchen when Reg Barnes popped in for a visit. The two weren't an item, just friends, but of course he asked her what was wrong and when she explained he offered to marry her and help care for the kids.
Perhaps Reg was a saint. Jimmy thinks he had been planning to enter the priesthood. In any case, for the first time in his life Jimmy had a safe home. Reg took the kids fishing and to the movies, supported them through school, did his level best to make up for the father they never had and the mother who was only partly there for them. Nothing shows the value of this more clearly than the fact that Jimmy uses his surname to this day.
Not a stable home, necessarily. Reg did his best, but both mother and children were highly traumatised. The older kids were rebels, with big brother John (now in his early teens) devoted to his father and resentful of Reg. Dorothy herself was assailed by periodic anxiety which led her to shift the family from place to place with Reg tagging stoically along. They ended up back in Elizabeth and Jimmy and John ended up as street hoodlums, drinking and fighting the evenings away in their respective gangs.
As I say, not for the faint-hearted. Working Class Boy ends with a kind of transition to adulthood. Jimmy joined Cold Chisel and the band decamped to Armidale so pianist Don Walker could finish his science degree.
But really, this is an illusion. Jimmy didn't grow up, he just got older. As you read through the second volume, Working Class Man, you see that his adult life is just an extension of that wild youth in Elizabeth. He travels around the country, and around the world, like an out-of-control 15 year old, mixing alcohol with speed and cocaine so that he can be both blind drunk and super-hyped at the same time. He fights with everyone, sleeps with nearly everyone and generally sabotages his own life and the lives of those around him.
It wasn't until 2003 that he finally started to get serious about growing up, and it wasn't easy or quick. He went to a rehab centre in the Nevada desert where he dried out and took part in programs. But when they gently suggested he attend a trauma group he reacted angrily, at first refusing and then, when he did attend, sabotaging the group with a violent outburst before it was his turn to talk. No trauma here, he was screaming to himself. So although he managed to get clean and spent a number of years largely drug-free, the underlying issues went unaddressed.
Of course there were advantages to not taking drugs. Apart from the money it saved and the fact that it was possible for others to live with him, he found to his surprise that you can sing a whole let better when your nose isn't stuffed full of cocaine. It also meant that when he was diagnosed with a serious heart problem in 2007 he didn't die. The downside was that he had to face himself sober, and he didn't like what he saw. The trauma of his childhood was compounded by hundreds of hurts he had caused his friends, his family and himself. He gradually started using again and before long he was as bad as ever. It was only when he tried to hang himself in a hotel room in 2011 that he finally realised that he had to change or die. The memoirs are the result, his way of finally facing his past.
Why is Jimmy still alive, and why is he a celebrity and Aussie icon, not in jail? There must be a certain amount of good genes and plain good luck, but along with the trauma and dysfunction he also had some things going for him. First of all he had people who loved him - two in particular. His step-father Reg, and his wife Jane.
He married Jane in the 1980s and they are still together. God knows why she stayed. Jimmy doesn't tell us - perhaps one day she'll write her own book. It's tempting to think that like Reg she must be a saint, but such details as Jimmy tells us suggest that she was also a co-addict, doing her best to keep up with him when she joined him on the road and preceding him into the Nevada clinic by a month or so. Nonetheless, she is still there, still watching his back, still encouraging him to be a better person.
Then through his story you see that along with the anger and destructiveness there is a strong base of love for others. You see it in his relationship with Cold Chisel, which despite some rocky times is still going strong - he refers to them as his first family. Even more so, you see it in his tenacious love for his children. Although he reprised his father's addictions he seems to have avoided the child abuse. He has four children with Jane, and three others from teenage liaisons. Many of them are musicians and they often play in his concerts. The most famous, of course, is the singer David Campbell, the product of a relationship between Jimmy and a young Elizabeth girl when they were both 16.
There was no way that Jimmy or his girlfriend could parent a child, and David was adopted by his maternal grandparents on condition that his paternity be kept secret. Despite this attempt to freeze him out Jimmy stuck with the relationship, turning up to visit a baffled David (who was told he was a 'friend of the family') whenever he was in Adelaide. When he married Jane she was adamant - a son needs his father, Jimmy should not give up. The result, of course, was not easy - who wants an addict for a father? - but the two have grown closer over the years. Jimmy also speaks proudly of the other two daughters he has discovered (or who have discovered him) in recent years.
Finally, of course, Jimmy had a gift to give the world. Along with his destructive addictions, he also developed an addiction to work. He has a clear, simple vision of the music he wants to share with the world (music designed to be so loud it pins people to the back wall of the venue) and he has produced it time and again. It's not subtle or philosophical but it is about love and hardship, about the life on the edge that he has lived himself for so long. His fans love it and even people like me can respect it.
We all need someone to love us, and someone to love. We all need something worthwhile to do with our lives. Jimmy Barnes story tells us that if we have those things, we are a chance of getting through even the toughest times. Of course it would be better if we didn't have to have the tough times to begin with. No-one would choose to grow up with an abusive alcoholic. But flowers can grow in the poorest soil with water and fertilizer.
As I say, I don't love everything Jimmy does but here's one I love. It's called Largs Pier Hotel, a tribute to the tough Adelaide pub where Cold Chisel played some of their earliest gigs.