Originally published in The Weekend Australian, Nov. 12-13, 2016
Jimmy Barnes has been trying to get the story of his childhood off his chest since the early nineties. 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 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 might otherwise 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 emigrated to South Australia, where their first home was a stifling tin hut in a migrant camp. By day 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 sixty, 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 flights 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 something like 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 through the week on sacks of potatoes so heavy that the children couldn’t carry them from the shop; they had to drag them along the ground.
Barnes has unusually vivid memories of being nine, but one doesn’t envy him for it. His perceptions were sharpened by fear and deprivation. At one point his younger sister adopted some stray cats who used the potato bag as a toilet. Barnes recalls “gagging at the sink” while scrubbing cat shit off the last few potatoes. Eating them sickened him, but he was too hungry not to force them down.
When the Barnes children were on the brink of becoming wards of the state, their mother, who in the meantime had acquired a saintly new husband, took them back in. For a handful of pages, things look up for the book’s hero. And then, for reasons that Barnes still can’t fathom, his mother moved the family back to Elizabeth – the scene of Barnes’s nightmares. When she stepped back into that “void,” Barnes says, “she dragged us with her.”
After that, a different kind of bad time started. In his teens, Barnes was routinely involved in near-homicidal episodes of street violence. “These fights were not just about knocking people down, they were about hurting people as much as you could.”
Some of the violence is unbelievable. Barnes scarcely seems to believe it himself. There is so much of it that it would numb you, if Barnes were a lesser storyteller. But he knows how to make startling things sound startling – probably because he has never stopped being startled by them himself. Also he gives the violence meaning, by showing how its roots lay in fear. He is in a good position to know. He spent a lot of his childhood being violent. He spent all of it being terrified.
Barnes has a knack for making words echo and embody the barren, hardscrabble atmosphere of his former life. 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. He starts writing like a man possessed. His scenes get shorter; they come tumbling out of him fast, as if he needs to get each thing out of his head as efficiently as possible.
One story starts off like this: “I’m not sure when or why this next thing happened but it was horrible.” This sentence will fill you with an almost visceral dread, if you’ve followed Barnes to this point. You know, by now, that he has an unusually high bar for what makes a horrible incident.
Further on, deeper in, another chapter begins: “Someone was messing with the kids.” Having made that arresting start, Barnes gradually expands on his theme. A friend of the family had an older teenaged son “and he was a fucking deviant. It seems he was messing around with all the kids.”
Does this mean he messed around with Jimmy too? Barnes doesn’t know, but he suspects that he probably did. He is writing blind, addressing things that he and his siblings have never discussed with one another, much less with anyone else. “I am writing from what I feel; I don’t really know any facts.”
Barnes writes about these things with deep anger; but he knows how to use his anger as fuel, so that it keeps his book hurtling forward instead of burning holes through it. If he sometimes sounds like a man in therapy, it’s because he is one. The book is an act of purgation.
Barnes’s honesty is total; it overwhelms and absolves the book’s weaknesses. Early on, he displays a worrying tendency to crack off-the-shelf jokes. “A Glaswegian could start a fight at a funeral, even his own.” Such second-hand gags have a way of stopping a book in its tracks, and for a while you wonder why nobody weeded Barnes’s out. And then he says, after cracking one of them: “I shouldn’t joke but laughing is the only way I have got through most of my life.” Under normal circumstances this would sound like a cliché. But the circumstances are far from normal – by the time he says this, Barnes has already given you some sense of the life he’s had to get through. So the cliché reconstitutes itself as a genuine insight. Suddenly you see that his jovial, fast-talking persona is a kind of nervous tic, a band-aid covering a still-open wound.
In a similar way, the preface of the book contains some stock phrases about how Barnes’s parents tried their best in tough conditions. These are conventional pieties; and no doubt they are perfectly true, in a sense that doesn’t get us very far. But Barnes, while uttering them, temporarily sounds like a man saying what he ought to say, not what he really thinks.
Unfortunately he sounds far more convinced, and convincing, when furiously and extensively evoking the damage his parents inflicted while doing their worst. At times he seems to write himself into a kind of trance, as if channeling his abandoned younger self. 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 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. He could have written the kind of book prized by Oprah, if he’d wanted to milk his story for sympathy. But there are no requests for pity here, no wallowing in victimhood. Above all there is a bracing intolerance of bullshit. On God he says simply: “If he was up there he should’ve looked down on us a little more often; things might have been better. Now it’s too late; I don’t need him.”
You can’t fake such a tone. You have to earn it. One would like to claim Barnes’s voice as quintessentially Australian, although one would have to concede that its central toughness was imported from Glasgow. Also, before we get too patriotic, we need to grasp the ugly fact that the Australian suburbs, in the process of forging Barnes, very nearly killed him.
But he survived, and became the front man of Australia’s greatest rock band. Then he had a second career as a solo artist. Those achievements, you might have thought, were more than enough for one man. But now he’s accomplished something new and wholly unexpected, by flinging down, from out of the blue, this rugged, haunting book.