The Return Of Jimmy Barnes

Jimmy Barnes, the hard man of Oz rock, is back on stage. This year he recovered from heart surgery; six years ago he entered rehab. Now he's swapped whisky for water with honey and he's rocking even harder. Jimmy Barnes is alive and well - and yes, he'll even play some Chisel. David Astle got a ride in the tour van into deepest Queensland.

Oh my God," says the flight attendant. "Are you Jimmy Barnes, as in the rock star, Jimmy Barnes?" Barnes shrugs. Sure. It's 9am. Not a good time for icons. But the hostie can't let the moment rest. "Maybe if you sign your boarding pass..."

Landing in Rockhampton, the mania continues. Baggage handlers pause at the conveyor belt. Three women - a teen, her mum and grandma - flip open the family Nokia for an impromptu portrait. No matter the chapter - Cold Chisel from the late 1970s; the two solo decades; or the recent Choir Of Hard Knocks - Barnesy is a hero to each generation.

At 51, in purple T-shirt and with wire-brush hair, the man has covered some territory. Evoking the feints of his late father, champion boxer Jim Swan, Barnes ducks and weaves about the carousel, quipping in Glaswegian ocker. If fame isolates the famous, then the cliche hasn't reached Jimmy Barnes.

Outside, five musicians try to squeeze 13 cases into two vans. Backup singer Elly-May Barnes knows better than to give advice. At 18, Elly-May is Jimmy's youngest daughter. She's dressed in sunnies and polka dots, and says, "It's like watching Tetris. Bad Tetris."

Later tonight, across the Divide, the band is due to play to 5000 coalminers, the first touring show for Barnes since heart surgery in May. Off the table and onto the road - and the butterflies flutter. "I always get nervous before a gig," says Barnes, behind the wheel. "No matter where I am in the world, the heart starts racing a few hours before the show."

Even a rejigged heart: the first operation was in February. Surgeons at Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital cracked open the singer's chest, draining his blood, clamping his artery - all to remove a faulty valve. "It had nothing to do with my lifestyle," he says. "I had a bicuspid valve that should have been tricuspid."

To operate, surgeons needed to stop the heart - putting the singer's life on hold to insert a new valve. Barnes woke up with a zipper scar - and photos. "Before going under, I gave my camera to the doctor and told him to take some snaps. A few days later, I'm looking through my camera and suddenly there's my chest wide open. They use this medieval-looking car-jack thing to split the breastbone. I'm looking at my own heart... It felt weird."

Maybe for Barnes but not for those who love his music. From the wild Chisel reign to the 17 albums since (actually 19 albums, if you include a best-of compilation and this year's box set of remasters), Barnes has been melting mikes for 35 years, selling more than eight million records, standing on stages from Pentridge to the Palais.

Barnes has five kids; four with his Thai-born wife, Jane Mahoney: Mahalia, 25; Eliza-Jane, 23; son Jackie, 21, and Elly-May. Jackie and Elly-May often perform with their dad. Barnes's oldest is singer David Campbell, 34, who was born when Jimmy was 16. (Campbell grew up in Adelaide, reared by his grandmother, for years unaware of his father's identity.)

We skirt Rockhampton Hospital. "That's where Mahalia was almost born." Jane was very pregnant in 1982 and Barnes thought a loll on Great Keppel Island was the remedy. "I dug her a hole in the sand so she could rest her stomach, but then her waters started breaking. I was 26 and Jane was 24. We went to the doctor, who said, 'Get the f--k off the island.' We grabbed a midwife from Rocky and flew with her back to Sydney. It was a very close thing."

Slaughteryards line the Capricorn Highway. We're escaping the Beef Capital of Oz, heading for Emerald, but Jimmy stays with the memory. "Having a family probably kept me alive."

Heart trouble is only one hurdle in the Barnes bio. Vodka, dope, speed - name a drug of dependence and the younger Barnes was there, depending.

"I spent 35 years abusing myself... part of that was genetic," he reckons. "I was drinking whisky, aged four. My father drank like a fish, my grandfather, my grandmother... I come from a long line of fish." The gravel laugh infects the van. "Maybe it's why I like fishing so much - I get to meet my ancestors."

The general cackle rises and Barnes can't resist an audience. "It's probably why I'm so good at scales and writing hooks." Elly-May groans. "Dad!" she squeals. "No more, OK? All puns are off the record."

Yet family secrets are open slather: "My mum left my dad when I was about 12 [eventually pairing with factory clerk Reg Barnes]. It was around then I worked hard to make people like me. Growing up, joining Chisel at 16, I'd always drink more than anybody else take more drugs than anybody else. As bad as that got, it also created who I was. If you want to be a singer, you don't have to be a compulsive-obsessive and an extreme show-off - but it helps."

Barnes's madness peaked six years ago when a burst stomach ulcer failed to curb the hell-raising.

"I got out of my hospital bed, a drip in my arm, and walked to the Albury Hotel outside St Vincent's, dressed in a gown, and ordered a double vodka."

If Barnes ignored the warning bells, then his family helped him to hear.

"The kids would tour with me all the time. Mahalia used to ring my room. If she got no answer, she'd get my key, thinking she'd find me dead. That was a horrible, horrible time."

It spurred the singer into rehab. He crossed the ocean in 2001 but not before taking "three grams of coke on the plane and drinking a couple of bottles of champagne along the way. I arrived in LA a mess. I spent thee days in detox". And then the hard part started. Cottonwood de Tucson is no "pop star place". It's hardcore rehab in the Arizona desert, where the only place to run is down "the corridors of healing".

Jimmy responded to treatment in a typical all-or-nothing manner. "I went to every class they had." He counts on the steering wheel. "Group therapy, family therapy, private psychiatrist, trauma group, acu-detox..." For Barnes, "the hard part wasn't stopping, but staying stopped." The man to emerge, says brother-in-law Mark Lizotte, alias Diesel, is "no rehab cliche with the whole resentment thing. He's still got that wild look in his eye. He's still encouraging - and incorrigible."

Wife Jane saw the suffering, and the healing, up close. "We learnt to understand that addiction was a sickness," she says. "Since Arizona he's essentially the same man - a kind and courageous man - but his choices aren't coming from a fear-place." Among those choices was to pick up a pen. Exiled to a bed for six months, the outpatient took to writing songs. Even a relapse of cardiac pain - known as Dressler's syndrome, where the body rejects initial surgery - didn't halt the project. "Major trauma helps you focus," says Barnes. "It felt like every emotional nerve ending was raw. And that started coming out in lyrics. Dare I say, it helped get stuff off my chest." Elly-May flashes a glare and her dad beams.

"Admittedly, there were a few songs where I felt sorry for myself... leave-me-here-to-die sort of thing, but they didn't make the cut." Was that a pun? Nobody twigs, as a roadhouse looms on the horizon and every stomach demands a refuel.

Fly zapper. Ceiling fan. This is Barnesy heartland - a replica of the grunge cafe captured in the Chisel video for Forever Now. ("We invented that place inside a Paddo pub," laughs Barnes.) Every soul in remote Duaringa wants to say hello to a man they feel they know. While Pete Satchell (of Dallas Crane), Tommy Boyce (the Casanovas), Yak Skerritt (the Injectors) and Dario Bortolin (INXS tour band) order burgers through the hatch, Barnes stalks the grocery aisle in search of a thermos cup. "These days, I drink hot water and honey before a show."

Keyboardist Tony Featherstone taps a tune on the table edge. "I'm having Khe Sanh nightmares," he whispers. "I've only been with Jimmy a couple of shows and if I stuff up a tune better-known than the national anthem then not just Jimmy will know."

His fingers keep busy.

Suddenly, three red-faced women burst in. "Barnesy!" shrills Kate, in her 20s, "you're a miracle worker: this is the first time I've run in my life!" The girls hail from the bone-dry golf course across the road, near enough to hear the murmur of a rock legend lobbing.

"If I have any phobias," says Barnes under his breath, hunching amid his flushed admirers, "then it's probably a fear of being alone." But before the camera clicks, the counter phone rings - a call for Mr Barnes. A local along the bush telegraph offers the singer and his crew a meal. "Thanks," says Jim down the blower, "but we got a show to do in Moura."

"Where?" eavesdrops the local cop, nursing a coffee. "Moura? You blokes are lost."

"Isn't this the road to Emerald?" asks Skerritt.

"Too right," says the cop. "But what you want is Dululu, excepting you turn off before Banana."

Two farmers escort the band along a red dirt road. "This is too Wolf Creek for me," quakes Elly-May.

Her dad blames Eliza-Jane, the middle daughter, who took his precious SatNav on her European holiday. "I'm lost without my gadgets."

On cue, the air fills with Elvis Presley's My Baby Left Me - the ringtone on Barnes's phone. The caller is Rick Szabo, the Queensland promoter awaiting sound checks, wanting to know where they are. "Surrounded by cows," says Jimmy, edging the Tarago tenderly amid a Brahman herd. "After my valve transplant," he tells us, "which is a bovine valve, I figure I owe cows big time."

Says great mate and industry guru Michael Gudinski, "If you do the right thing by Jimmy Barnes then he'll be there for you until you drop." The Brahman seem convinced; the herd ain't budging. And the sound check is shifted closer to curtain.

Alp-sized coal heaps fringe the town. We rattle over the railway line, past a "dragline bucket" in Rotary Park - a symbol of the town's mining industry - and into the Paul Young Reserve. "Gorgeous singer, Paul Young," jokes Barnes, and breaks into song, "Cos we're living in the love of the common people..."

Szabo, a former Meat Loaf impersonator, is waiting by the rodeo chute, Led Zeppelin logo on his belly and Bluetooth in his ear. "Mate, Jimmy, welcome." Thirty-two speakers hang from scaffolding like wasp nests. Barnes takes a swig of apple cider vinegar, gargles, spits in the dust. He grabs the mike on stage, staring at the empty showground, and blasts out Good Times with full rock backing to test the levels. I swear his wife at home in Mascot with the schnauzers could hear.

Back in town, Doc Neeson's Angels prowl the salmon-pink motel. Solemn and articulate, Neeson recalls, "I first met Jimmy in Townsville in 1422 BC. We were both on tour. He's always been irrepressible."

And next the Belfast-born Doc sings a traditional Scottish tune, "I'm only a common old working chap, as anyone here can see, but when I get a couple o' drinks on a Saturday, Glasgow belongs to me!" He smiles. "The man in that tune is Jimmy. He'll take on anyone - and that's without the drinks now."

"I'm not ambitious," says Jimmy, picking at Chinese food. "I'm competitive. I don't particularly want celebrity, but I want to be the best at what I do. Up against anybody and everybody - including myself." In room nine, Satchell and Boyce strum unplugged guitars in sync with Jimmy's master CD, issued by the agency - Flame Trees, I'd Die To Be With You Tonight, No Second Prize - to warm the fingers. The man himself is swallowing pills, including co-enzymes for the ticker, omega-3 capsules and multivitamins, washed down by honeyed water.

Elly-May enters the porch light, exhibiting her gothic chic for backup singing duties. A wary gait signals her mild cerebral palsy. "I was born three-and-a-half months premature. I weighed as much as 750 grams of butter and had a brain hemorrhage when I came out." Every three months, Elly needs a botox shot in her calf to ease the spasms.

She goes to tell us more when a DC-3 engine interrupts. At least, that's the first impression - the screech belongs to her father in a nearby room, opening with a rumble and building into a banshee shriek. Imagine the word "hey" stretched into infinity, climbing in pitch as you watch the force disappear through a shattered window.

The hour is here. A powdery night has fallen across the Dawson Valley and Jimmy Barnes is ready, dressed in purple silk and black jeans. Moura may seem a speck on the map but Barnes will give his all, swaying onstage ("my chained elephant dance") and living each tune, swamping his body in familiar sweat.

Deep in the list - as miners shuffle, women scream and kids with Spider-Man faces stand in awe - a flawless Khe Sanh is met with rapture.

Jimmy Barnes's album Out In The Blue is out November 24.

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1 comment:

Adam said...

Thanks for the update on Jimmy.

I actually reference him in my book about heart valve replacement.



Heart Valve Surgery