Content warning: The below article touches on the topic of family violence, alcoholism and mental health issues which may be triggering for some readers.
Christmas, like everything else in Jimmy Barnes’ childhood, was a bit of a mixed bag. Growing up, first in Glasgow, then in working-class Elizabeth, South Australia, he watched his parents struggle just with the everyday demands of life. “Then Christmas came along,” he says in that lovable Aussie-Scottish brogue, “and brought a whole pile of new pressures to the family.”
Jimmy remembers one year when kids he knew in the neighbourhood were getting fancy new bikes.
“So, they got me a bike,” he says. “It was this old bike – just a rusty piece of rubbish. And on Christmas Eve, I went outside and looked back in through the lounge room window, and I saw them trying to make it look like it was something decent. They painted it and then they got candles and smoked the paint to make it look jazzy.
“The next day, I had to look surprised, and I rode around the block and got wet paint and ash from the candles on me. It was really sh-tty, but I rode back and pretended it was the best bike I’d ever seen. I think it fell apart within a few months. But for me, seeing the two of them trying to put it together on Christmas Eve, that meant a lot, it was just nice.”
Readers of his memoirs, Working Class Boy and Working Class Man, will be familiar with Jimmy’s family. His father, Jim, “his own worst enemy”, a violent man whose anger was fuelled by alcohol, but a man who was also capable of kindness and “who didn’t want to let us down”. His mother, Dorothy, so desperate to escape the violence that she left when Jimmy was 11. His older sister, Dot, like Peter Pan’s Wendy, stepped in to raise her four siblings who were, no doubt about it, a handful.
“At Christmas time,” Jimmy tells The Weekly, “Mum would be waiting for my dad to bring the money home and he wouldn’t show up or he’d have spent all the money on booze or something. She’d struggle to get us presents.”
Even so, he says, “they’d try, and they’d try harder at Christmas,” which was one of the reasons that, against the odds, he’d always look forward to this time of year. “My mum would be more forgiving at Christmas,” he says. “My dad would come back and he’d feel guilty but he’d smile a bit more. It was a time of joy – as a kid, you feel that excitement – but also pain. I could see in their eyes that they were just beating themselves up.”
And, as at other times in Jimmy’s life, music smoothed the way. “One thing that was constant was music,” he says. “Singing White Christmas or Little Drummer Boy or Silent Night. My sisters and my brother and I would go carolling. We’d sing around the houses. People would come out and give us sweets, and sometimes money. People were open and giving. Then back at home, we sang carols every year. Regardless of the pressure my mum and dad felt, they seemed to smile when we sang. So, carols are something I’ve connected with all my life, as a singer and as a human being.”
Some of those carols the Barnes kids loved to sing have made it onto Jimmy’s first Christmas album, Blue Christmas, the complete package of sleigh bells, joy and laughter, a dash of rock and roll, and also a little of the honest, soulful melancholy of Christmas. “There are a few,” he says, “like Brenda Lee’s Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and Run Rudolph Run that have an obvious connection to my rock and roll roots.”
Jimmy has, for nearly 50 years, fronted iconic rock band Cold Chisel and in more recent decades belted out a rich mix of rock, soul and blues hits in a phenomenally successful solo career.
“But there are other tracks on the album that are just the songs I love, the songs I’ve sung since I was a kid.” And the songs his own kids have loved and sung as well. Jimmy and Jane’s four (Mahalia, Jackie, EJ and Elly-May who all now have children of their own) launched their recording careers, back in 1991, as pint-size popsters, The Tin Lids, with a Christmas album called Hey Rudolph! And Mahalia and her two gifted girls, Ruby and Rosie, bring the joy and the choir of angels to Blue Christmas.
The last track on Blue Christmas is Auld Lang Syne, a Barnes family favourite. “I put that on there because, for the Scots, the biggest day of the year is New Year,” he explains.
“As a family, New Year was the biggest feast in the calendar for us. That’s when the big party was on, all the friends came over, late dinner, waiting for the bells at midnight. I remember, we’d go to bed and I’d be sound asleep, and my dad would wake us up at midnight and give us all a whiskey. I was maybe five or six years old … You wonder why we became alcoholics.
“These celebrations often ended in tears, but they always started with hope. You know, it’s a time when we look for and hope for the best to come out in people … That’s something I like about Christmas and New Year. It’s a time when people make a bit of effort to be nicer to each other.
WATCH: Jimmy Barnes: Working Class Boy Official Trailer. Article continues after video
“You think about people who are struggling, people who need a phone call, your family. It makes people reach out a bit more. It brings out the best in people, and I like it for that reason.”
Auld Lang Syne will feel especially poignant in the Barnes family this year, calling to mind those who can’t share the festive season with them.
“It’s been a tough year,” Jimmy says simply. It’s been a tough couple of years in which the Barneses have lost many of their closest friends and family, including Jimmy’s great mates from the music business, Mushroom Records founder Michael Gudinski, Warren Costello (Mushroom executive and true friend with whom Jimmy worked closely, daily for decades) and Pierre Baroni (friend, photographer and creative co-conspirator). Then they lost Jimmy’s sister, Linda, and Jane’s mother, Kusumphorn Visuthipol.
“It all started with Michael,” he explains. “When Michael left, it was such a shock. Since then, we’ve lost about seven people who were really close to us, who we weren’t expecting to lose, including Warren, one of the nicest people in the world, and Pierre, who was like part of our family.
“We were just so close. Warren and Linda and Jane’s mum died within two weeks of each other. It was just horrendous. It sort of took the wind out of my sails.” Over the years, Jimmy and Jane’s mum had developed a special friendship.
“Jane’s mum was a really amazing woman, really complex,” he says. “The first time I met Jane’s mum and dad was in Japan and it must have just terrified them that someone like me was going out with their daughter. But even then, they were warm, and over the years we became really close. Jane’s mum used to come on tour with us, and she was really close with all our kids.
“I made a point of letting Jane’s parents know, when I started working through all my problems, how blessed I was to have them in my life. They were the family I’d never had. They were strict, they were tough, they were loving and caring. Jane’s mum had a temper too. But if we had a fight in my family it was like Scottish feuding – it would last years. Whereas Jane’s mum would have a fight with Jane and it would be over in five minutes. So, I learnt a lot about love and family and about being able to rely on people you love. I learnt a lot of that – I learnt it all actually – from Jane’s mum and dad.”
Kusumphorn had been suffering dementia and in the last hours of her life the family gathered around her bed and sang for her. “After everybody finished singing,” Jimmy says, “I walked back into the room and sat beside her … and I just said thanks for letting me be a part of the family because it showed me what love was.”
For Jimmy and Jane, Christmas has always been a big family affair, filled with joy and that love that Jimmy found when they married. “My Christmas morning is always the same,” Jimmy says. “Before anyone else is awake, I get up and I put The Tin Lids Christmas record on, and then the kids will come out and I’ll be crying.”
Later, there’ll be perhaps 50 family and friends, orphans and strays in the house – everyone’s welcome – while the whole family prepares dozens of dishes between them.
This year, however, Christmas will be a little different. Jimmy and Jane have put up the tree – it’s monumental – and there’ll be gatherings in the lead-up to Christmas.
“Then,” Jimmy says, “Jane and I are going away for Christmas, by ourselves. It’s because we lost Jane’s mum and I think the idea of her not being here for Christmas is very difficult for us to deal with. So, we’re going to Thailand to visit the temple where we left her ashes, but also to get a bit of air. Our kids are big now. They’re doing their own Christmases. I just need to sit on the beach and hold my girl.”
They’ve been through the best and worst of times together, and the bond between these two runs deep.
“She’s an amazing girl with incredible spirit, an incredible soul,” Jimmy says with an earnestness that’s as true – truer – than it was the day they met. “She has eternal bloody optimism. For her, there’s always something good happening. And she sees the best in me – she could see it long before I could.
“Every relationship is going to have good times and tough times – times when you want to throw it all away – but there’s something about riding through those times that strengthens the bond between you. It’s been 43 years now that Jane and I have been together. I wake up and I see her face and it makes me happy. She is one of the best, most positive and caring people I know.
“To be able to share life with her – every day I thank my lucky stars, and I don’t take it for granted.”
Sitting on the beach in Thailand on Christmas morning, Jimmy knows he’ll have a lot to be grateful for – his two newest grandkids, Teddy and Kai. “It’s great to see the world though their eyes,” he says, “it’s fresh and new and full of wonder.” He’ll be grateful for the family and friends who’ve supported him through the tough times recently.
“And I’ll be grateful I have Jane there to give me a cuddle and tell me it’s okay that the kids aren’t with me. I’ll put on The Tin Lids and I’ll cry for sure. But I’ll be grateful that I’ve got the girl I love in my arms.”
After this article was completed and the magazine was sent to print, Jimmy Barnes was diagnosed with serious back and hip injuries that have forced him to cancel his summer touring schedule and his holiday in Thailand. Jimmy will spend at least some of his Christmas break in hospital this year. Here at The Weekly we wish him all the best for a speedy recovery and a healthy, happy new year.
Jimmy Barnes’ Blue Christmas is available now. Buy it here.
You can read this story and many others in the Christmas issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now.
If you or someone you know has been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, help is always available. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14.