Almanac Book Review – Running like a cyclone: Jimmy Barnes’ “Working Class Boy”

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
– Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird


To kick-off: I used to really like Jimmy Barnes. We have never met. But through his music and consequent vibe, J. Barnes has been present at many events of my life.
Now, having read this autobiography of the childhood of James Dixon Swan, my admiration knows no bounds.
This book “Working Class Boy” inspired awe.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough.


Unfortunately, though I want to share this news, I don’t really understand the genre of the book review. So this is not so much a book review, as a collection of thoughts.


Jimmy Barnes.
Jimmy Barnes.
Look at him there; standing in front of that burning sugar cane. Roaring.
We know him.
Look at him staggering on that stage, fronting Cold Chisel, bottle in his hand.
We think we know him.


“You got nothing I want, you got nothing I need!”
We didn’t know a thing.


This is a mighty mighty story. It is an enormous story of hardship, really, and attitude. And clarity. For anyone to have lived the childhood therein described, and then to have the wherewithal to step outside of it and of its consequences sufficiently to document it and then to do so in such a generous, humorous, self-deprecating , humble, grateful fashion – is staggering. Staggering. This story reads as an awakening.


This story is incredibly honest.
This story breaks societal taboos.
This story will help many.


It’s 2017. We’re in Readings bookshop, Lygon Street, Carlton. It’s a September Sunday night. And Trinity picks it up; nods. It’s “Working Class Boy” by Jimmy Barnes. I’m aware that it won ABIA Biography Book of the Year. I’m aware that it must be good to beat the wonderful “Life as I know it” – by JTH with Michelle Payne, in that category. But I’m surprised Trinity chooses it.


It’s the late 1980s. We flick cassette tapes into the twin-deck Hitachi (high-speed dubbing). Double D batteries peeled open, jammed into the back. Summer on the beach. No Second Prize. Barnestorming.

It is screaming and it is class and it is alcohol. It it youth and it is raw.


What is a life?
What is hope? What does hope look like?

What does it look like for you?
What does it look like for wee boy named James Dixon Swan of Cowcaddens, Glasgow?


Chapter titles give an insight:
The best sparring partner in Britain.
A real Glasgow hardman.
Cardboard inside our shoes.
The sound of breaking glass.
Messing with the kids.
A murderer but a good bloke.
You’ll hear more if you shut up.



This story comes to us now through Jimmy Barnes’ unique awareness. It is a story of family and of circumstance. It begins with young James Dixon Swan and young siblings, children of Scottish boxing champion and alcoholic father, tyrannical alcoholic mother, living a rough old existence on the mean streets of Glasgow.

I heard something once about one of my sisters being dragged into a back court by a stranger. I don’t know exactly what happened. No one spoke about it. But the story I heard was that the police caught him and locked him up in a cell with my dad for fifteen minutes before they charged him. Old-fashioned Scottish justice. Violence with violence.” p47.


And it follows the family’s decision to move; to seek a better life. The optimistic steps that took them all aboard a ship, bound for Adelaide. And ultimately towards the brutal reality that wherever you go, you take yourself with you.


This is a stunning account of a stunning life.



Domestic violence.

Youth crime.

Sexual assault.


When our parents weren’t there we ran riot. There were also more and more dodgy people hanging around the house. I’ve learned from being an addict myself that when you’re caught up in the middle of your addiction you hang around with people who you wouldn’t normally spit on if they were on fire. Well, Mum and Dad were the same. There were people, so-called friends of theirs, who were allowed to get close to us. People who should have been locked up, never mind hanging around young children.” p130.




I don’t want to see you again
I don’t want you for a friend
I don’t want you hanging around
I don’t mind just putting you down
Cold Chisel, “You got nothing I want” (by Jimmy Barnes)



It’s October 2017. It’s school holidays. And with Trinity away with work, I’ve taken the Buds on a wee holiday. We’re up and over the Black Spur. We’re through the Mountain Ash country and we’re sliding down among the Upper Goulburn hills. Green grass, blue skies. And stars. Incredible stars. And each night this is a story I cannot put down.

This is slack-jawed honesty.

It is confronting. It is enormous.



Why would you go back there?
Why would you want to go back there?

Jimmy Barnes reveals that he feels that he has been running for his whole life. Running. I suspect that he is not alone there. And the writing of this story – including some horrific accounts – has ended his need for the running. Ended the need to run.


Dad never hit us, as far as I can remember. Mum was the enforcer of the family. I don’t remember seeing Dad hit Mum either, but I know that he did. It was probably so fast and deadly that we looked away and missed it, thank God. But some mornings I would get up and there would be Mum with a black eye or a fat lip, sitting alone in the kitchen crying while Dad was unconscious, snoring on the bed in their room, sleeping it off.” p140.




It’s late in 1994. Uni-exams-just-finished late.  An-afternoon-at-PAs-into-an-evening-at-the-Clyde-into-a-night-at-a-North-Carlton-share-house late. Take away pizza boxes spill into the alley – over legs and arms and smiles and stubbies and everywhere the first widely exposed flesh of the season. Arm-in-arm and swaying with these people I’ve never met. Mates of mates and housemates twice removed. It’s getting big. And here she is (what’s her name again?) and it’s Merry-Go-Round belting off the terrace house brickwork. And it’s When the War is Over and it’s Khe Sanh and who-really-cares-and-names-don’t-even-matter-now-anyway. And it’s Jimmy Barnes on lead roar. Only she matters now.


Many of us shared those wild nights, with Jimmy Barnes there on the airwaves, infusing the spirit of the night. And as wild as some of those days were for many of us – the childhood of Jimmy Barnes has them appear as a teddy bears’ picnic.




We knew nothing. We were too young to know what was going on, but by that time I could recognise danger when it was near me and I knew it was near me at that moment. I remember this man trying to fuck me. I was terrified. I screamed and kicked until I got away and I left the house as quickly as I could. As I jumped out the window I looked back and I remember not liking what was happening to my friend. His own big brother was trying to fuck him. But I couldn’t help him. It reinforced to me that nowhere in the world was safe and I was on my own.” p142.




“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
So says Socrates; referencing Plato’s Apology. Socrates is attributed with these words after choosing death rather than exile from Athens or a commitment to silence.

This book is Jimmy Barnes channelling Socrates; with humour and passion and respect. And we are all the better for it.




‘How much money you got for petrol?’
‘I’m broke, but I’ll get you some tomorrow and slip you a bit for gas.’
‘Na, fuck it, Billy’s got money, I’m going around to see him instead. Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.’
‘Thanks, mate, that’s nice of you.’
‘Fuck it. I’m not running a taxi service here.’
‘Yeah, fuck you, too.’
It seemed the more of us that got together the more trouble we got ourselves into. The size of the gathering fed the need to be violent – with each other and with anyone else. One or two of us could have a laugh or see a movie but any more than one or two and we would only want to drink and fight. Young blokes, driven by fear and testosterone with no morals and no sense of decency. It was frightening how quickly things could change. From laughing to leering; from friends to fighting. It all turned on its arse in a matter of seconds…

“…Most of the guys didn’t seem to care if they really hurt someone or not. We all wore R.M. Williams riding boots with Cuban heels. I wore them because I thought they looked cool but my mates wore them because they did more damage when you jumped up and down on people’s heads. Pounding them into the ground and smashing them into the gutter on the end of their boots. Leaving people bleeding and gasping for air while they laughed out loud and shouted for one another to come and join in. It was frightening.” p279.



There is violence.
There are girls.


Well I was pretty young
You were young and pretty
I was so naïve
It was such a pity.
Cold Chisel, “My turn to cry” (by Jimmy Barnes)



There is plenty of youth sex.
There is alcohol and there are drugs.


“Take away temptation now
From before my eyes
Take away temptation now
From before my eyes”
Cold Chisel, “Temptation” (by Jimmy Barnes)


Yer man Jimmy Barnes states that in documenting this brutal life, that he hopes to break the cycle. The cycle that, if unbroken, is prone to slaying generations of families. The cycle that sees abuse handed down as a millstone.


To break the cycle.

I suspect that in writing this rare gem, Jimmy Barnes may help break the cycle in families other than just his own.



The book ends as Jimmy Barnes joins a band. Don Walker leads things; but they need a singer. Another book, “Working Class Man,” is being released now that will pick up the story.




So for now I’m saying kudos, Jimmy Barnes.
Your writing, optimism, perspective and message are profoundly moving.
Strength and courage to all who read or face ghosts of their own past.
Running like a cyclone.

Thanks very much to you. Cheers to you and your family.


I’m looking forward to “Working Class Man.”


About David Wilson

David Wilson is a writer, editor, flood forecaster and former school teacher. He writes under the name “E.regnans” at The Footy Almanac and has stories in several books. One of his stories was judged as a finalist in the Tasmanian Writers’ Prize 2021. He is married and has two daughters and the four of them all live together with their dog, Pip. He finds playing the guitar a little tricky, but seems to have found a kindred instrument with the ukulele. Favourite tree: Eucalyptus regnans.


  1. Rob Clancy says

    This review is a great read in itself, so I can’t wait to read the book. My memories of Jimmy are different but the same. Never liked his voice until I listened to Don Walker’s lyrics through it & saw it as the harmony to Ian Moss’s melody. Looking forward to reading this, then Walker’s account of the Chisel years.

  2. bruce dowsing says

    Great review and a great book. Apparently it was the movie Snowtown, with its familiar streetscapes and struggling residents that brought Jimmie’s memories back and motivated him to write his biography.

  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Yes, this was an extraordinarily gruelling read, but I couldn’t put it down.

    I never liked Chisel, Barnes represented, to me, the type of life that I didn’t want any part of, even though we both grew up in Elizabeth during a similar timeframe, and they had a style of music that wasn’t “cool” enough for me then. Hard to explain, let alone justify in hindsight.

    What the book also confirmed, after all of these years was that it was his younger brother Alan who was in my Grade 7 class briefly in 1972. I’d always thought that it couldn’t have been him, despite his Barnesian resemblance, as I thought that they only lived in Elizabeth West, a long way away from my Elizabeth South home. How many homes must they have had? What many of us take for granted, he never had.

    I’ve been overusing the word insight lately, but Barnes gives it to us in spades. This is essential reading.

    Thanks David, thanks.

  4. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    Barnesy lived in the same southern highlands street as my grandparents . We used to crane on the bend to see him perhaps heading to the garden studio.

    Then fresh out of school, I lived in a Darlinghurst share house with a friend who split her time between Sydney and Los Angeles and we would nostalgically play Chisel when she was back. ‘Mossy’ lived down the street. It was abandon and confinement in one. Summer and sadness in one. Home and longing in one.

    Shall pursue the read Mountian Ash. Merci.

  5. Looking forward to reading this, e.r.
    Even more so now after this excellent review.

    We think that we know those in the public eye,
    claim some small ownership of them,
    but do we ever truly know them?

  6. Things are probably pretty grim when the Snowtown documentary reminds you of your own childhood.

    Thanks for your comments, all.

    Yes, Swish- gruelling. I wondered about Elizabeth and your experiences there as I read.
    Wistful painting, MdH. Of Darlinghurst. And of a time.
    And Smokie- do we ever know another? Do we ever know ourselves?

    This is such a mighty work.

  7. Get ye (and me) to a bookshop. Thanks for a brilliant review of what sounds like a must-read.

    Yes, so much Chisel on our lives. Didn’t think about it much. Had been in the same room as the Khe Sanh blast a million times, but never heard the words – really heard them. Then caught a line or two and went looking. You all know what I found.

    I felt awkward about Jimmy Barnes’s contribution on QA – initially. Then it started to make sense. I wish I’d read the book first – as Tony Jones had.

    Thanks ER.

  8. Second comment.

    Timely to have Cielo Zurbo and the Jimmy Barnes childhood story sitting side by side on a small website on Oct 18 2017. Also Theo’s tenth birthday.

    Where life starts and where life takes you.

    From what I know already of Jimmy Barnes his struggle is epic and beyond admirable. Again, I look forward to reading his story.

    I see Working Class Man is available from Monday (Oct 23).

  9. Yes, JTH, regarding Cold Chisel and the stories in their music.
    And yes, on the juxtaposition of Cielo ( and Jimmy today. Timely.

    Happy birthday to Theo. On the bell curve of human experiences, long may he track along in the zone of relative comfort – with an awareness of the rest of the curve.

    I think often of Tim Winton’s Sam Pickles and his idea of the “shifty shadow of luck.”
    Today is another lucky day.

  10. Fine piece of writing ER (and JB I’m sure). A story more common than many of us think. Look into the eyes of a homeless person and you generally see cycles of trauma reflected. Break or be broken. Emotional poverty before financial poverty.
    As a teenager in the Adelaide in the early 70’s knew just a few people from north of the Mason Dixon Line of Grand Junction Road. Swish – the southerners did Prog Rock (knew a few King Crimsoners living Close to the Edge) while the Northerners smashed heads and guitars (a la Chisel and ACDC)?
    Pubs and places I never wanted to go near on the way to and from Gawler Trots.
    More power to your arm Jimmy.

  11. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    PB – Close To The Edge was Yes (don’t tell anyone but it featured on my in-vehicle entertainment for a few days last week). You may have been thinking of 21st Century Schizoid Man.

    Those north west of Elizabeth Town Centre may have appreciated “smashed heads and guitars” but those of us on the city side of the clock tower were more your Bowie/Lou Reed/T-Rex/Skyhooks/Split Enz/10CC types. I was in Para Hills when I discovered The Saints et al.

  12. DBalassone says

    Excellent piece David. I picked the book up in an airport bookshop last year while waiting for a flight and read a big chunk of it. A gut-wrenching read. You realise how much you love the man. You also realise how easy you had it, when you read about Jimmy’s childhood.

    It’s an interesting to compare Walker’s book ‘Shots’ to this. Walker coming from Northern NSW ending up in Adelaide after getting a Physics degree. Barnsey coming from the Glasgow slums to Elizabeth. And the two crossing paths at a rehearsal with Barnsey initially skeptical of Walker because of his university background (I think Barnsey now admits that was ‘reverse snobbery’ on his part).

  13. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Thank you for this ER,
    A huge Chisel fan in my teens, I did my best to emulate the wild boy style of Jimmy, flanneled shirts, tight jeans, celebrating the nihilism of Cheap Wine and a three day growth.
    There was something about Barnsey’s gravelly howl that attracted me, a defiant fuck you to conformity and reason. Some existential highs, but mainly an exploration of the darker, seedier side of life: The Boys Cry Out For War – No Second Prize – Saturday Night – Sing To Me – Bow River (my anthems).
    Then the tenderness and longing of the first relationship: I’d Die to be With You Tonight.
    He lost me with ‘Freight Train Heart’ – Thought he was going soft.
    He won me back with ‘Soul Deep’ – A man trying to make the best of what he has – gratitude/redemption – Many Rivers To Cross.

  14. Luke Reynolds says

    Wonderful words ER. It’s on my pile of unread books. It has moved to first in the queue after reading this.

  15. A brilliant albeit gruelling read, and all rather sad. I knew too many of the characters and the stories to be too comfortable. Highly recommend it. Swish, some of liked Chisel AND Bowie AND the likes of the World’s best band, Joy Division. The Skyhooks/Sherbet divide was pretty big amongst the girls at EWHS, but was nothing compared to the Bay City Rollers (as expected at a school with so many Jocks).

  16. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    What was it about Scots and the West, Rabs?

  17. John Butler says

    ER, for a bloke who claims not to understand the book review ‘genre’, that’s a fair old stab at one.


  18. Epic review ER.

    I’d heard this book was good.
    That’s why I bought it for my brother for Christmas.
    I’ll be asking for a loan.


  19. Thanks all.
    Jimmy Barnes’ next book – Working Class Man – out now.
    He was interviewed on ABC Drive (Sydney) yesterday.

    Good grief.
    So open. So honest.

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