There are few Australian music legends that loom as large as Jimmy Barnes. With Cold Chisel he was (and remains) a peerless front man and ferocious party animal. His solo career has always been hugely popular and with his reputation and remarkable constitution for booze and drugs is as astonishing as the fact that he is still here at all. While those excesses are championed in some ways, as they often are in rock ‘n roll circles until somebody parties themselves to death, Barnes was actually self medicating and avoiding a lot of deeply troubling issues that it took til he became a grandfather to address. Over the course of two volumes (so far) of autobiography (Working Class Boy and Working Class Man), Barnes has revealed himself as a deeply troubled man, with a horrendous childhood of poverty and abuse, and a mountain of issues and addictions. He has also revealed he is quite the storyteller and in the stage shows accompanying the books, to be an excellent raconteur of incredible skill, depth, poignancy and humour.
Essentially Working Class Man : An Evening of Stories & Songs is part spoken word, part rock gig, part telling yarns between mates, part stand up comedy, part confessional, part mental health advice and part slide night at Uncle Jimmy’s place. It would be confusing to advertise it as such (and it would be a bugger to fit on the poster) but it turns out to be moving and shocking and at times, beautiful and heartbreaking. Last years version of the show concentrated on his troubled younger years growing up, and this one takes up the tale in the rock ‘n roll years. It the story of Cold Chisel, the early struggles, the fights, the drugs, the booze, the conflicts with record companies and Countdown, of excess and INXS. Everything about this night is remarkable.
The stage is set in distinct two halves. Stage right is a band set, drums, guitar, bass and upright piano. Stage left is set up like a backstage dressing room, clothes, road cases, a couch. It is a subtle and deft piece of set design. When Barnesy is talking the stage left lights dim and the impression that is given is that we are backstage with Jimmy and he is telling some yarns like we are old mates, which in many ways we are. Jimmy got his start in Adelaide, as did Chisel, and as he mentions the Largs Pier Hotel and other SA landmarks crucial to his history, cheers go up throughout the night. When the songs are played the stage lights come up and it feels like a gig. It is clever and impressive, while not being referenced at all or even slightly hamfisted or awkward. At the back there is a large screen on which images and videos help illustrate his story. Behind that is a large backdrop featuring street posters for gigs by Cold Chisel, Jimmy & The Boys, Angels and other 1980s alumni. I mention this because another subtle bit of staging was after the intermission when he was taking about the solo years those posters had all changed to 90s posters. It’s not referenced, it’s just there for train spotters like me to notice.
Like his exceptional memoirs, this show is quite the roller coaster. There are certainly plenty of songs from Chisel rarities and hits, to covers like The Turtles Happy Together which Chisel used to sing in the back of the van in the early days. But is not a regular Barnsey gig. Not by a long way. It is a man, and a hard rocking party animal rock legend of a man, talking about how all of his successes were plagued with self doubt, self sabotage and how his childhood demons grew and amplified with him and without realising it became a five decades long suicide attempt. Even when everybody was falling over themselves to give him every opportunity to succeed, he was constantly burning bridges and blowing chances he shouldn’t have.
Don’t think this show is all doom and gloom because it is not, but the darkness is the constant undercurrent. It is really funny in parts, laugh out loud hilarious. There are plenty of rockin’ road stories and unexpected tales about himself and other people we are familiar with ‘John Farnham is a fucking animal’ he laughs with awe and affection.
The other thing this show has in one of the best love stories you’ll ever hear. For Jimmy it was love at first sight when he met the woman in 1979 who would become his wife Jane and now partner of thirty nine years. It’s a story like Lux and Ivy from The Cramps, or John and Yoko. The way he tells their story, is tender, emotional. When he says her name his whole body is filled with deep love A (somewhat) stabilising influence on Jimmy, she has endured decades of his self destructive behaviours and for a long time had no idea about his inner demons, nobody did. Partly those demons were so insidious because men, and in particular men in Australia, don’t talk to each other about their demons. So emotional damage doesn’t heel, psychological baggage gets bigger and heavier, and ramifications more and more amplified. ‘The most courageous thing I have done in my whole life,’ says Barnes, ‘..is to ask for help.’.
It runs for around three hours with an intermission and there is the distinct impression that there are still many tales to tell, jokes to tell and issues to deal with. Certainly there are more songs to sing.
Ordinarily I’d kind of break down a show and tell you what songs were sung and some cracker jokes, but I feel like this is a story and show that really deserves to be seen and experienced as a complete ‘thing’, without a bunch of spoilers. Fortunately you will get the opportunity when Jimmy Barnes : Working Class Man returns to Thebarton Theatre on Saturday June 10. Tickets available from ticketmaster.com.au, but I’d do it soon as everybody who was at last night sold out performance are telling their friends about it today, just like I am telling you.
He is a living legend. There is no doubt of his legendary status. The fact he is still living is the astounding part of his story. An outstanding, unusual and fantastic show and most highly recommended.
Live Review By Ian Bell