Jimmy Barnes: Broken glass and smashed furniture was all that was left of our lives

In this exclusive extract from Jimmy Barnes' memoir Working Class Boy, the singer reveals the extent of his abusive childhood.

Ah. Nothing. That's better. Nothing at all. No pain.

"Hey, pass that whisky back over here."

From the moment I start to drink, I feel absolutely nothing.

When I first started taking drugs and drinking, I found the fear that had filled me since I was small almost disappeared. The fear of not being wanted. The fear of letting my guard down. The fear of letting anyone in. The fear of being found out. The fear of not being worthy. The fear of looking into my own eyes. It was gone. All of it. As long as I stayed smashed.

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"Come on. Don't hang on to it. Give me some." I'd drink it down and for a minute, I'd stop breathing. "Oh yes. I needed that."

Jimmy Barnes has opened up about his harrowing childhood in the memoir, Working Class Boy. Photo / Stephanie Barnes.
Jimmy Barnes has opened up about his harrowing childhood in the memoir, Working Class Boy. Photo / Stephanie Barnes.

Whoosh. The air rushed back into my lungs. I was still alive. But was this what I wanted?

That minute I swallowed the whisky. The minute when the air stopped filling my lungs. That was when I felt peace. It was like being in a trance. I drank, then I slipped away.
Into the void. The odd times that I did have to be straight I could feel fear racing back over me like a freight train. Then I'd drink, and it was gone.

"Give me a line."

All I had to do to not think or feel was get f***ed up. I might never have to feel again.

"Give me everything."

Maybe this is why, for most of my childhood, my dad was drinking himself slowly to death. Not wanting to feel his own pain and not wanting to see the pain we were feeling.

Those nights when he had drunk just enough to want to talk to us but could never really get it out. Or did he try and perhaps I was too young to listen to him?

"I'm sorry, son. I love ye. You kids deserve better than this. Better than me. I need to let you know why I'm so f****d up."

"Don't tell me why. I don't want to hear it. I'm scared, Dad. Why is it all so hard?"

But he never talked to me. He never let me in. He just left.

Working Class Boy published by HarperCollins Publishers. Out now.
Working Class Boy published by HarperCollins Publishers. Out now.

Did he feel scared, like I do? Did he lie awake, afraid of anything and everything, like I do? Did he drink until he could feel nothing and pass out cold, like I do?

He said he wasn't afraid of anything. "Don't be afraid, son. You don't be afraid of anything. You're strong like me."

Even my big brother John told me, "I'm afraid of no man. I'm afraid of nothing that breathes."

Now I know John was lying. He was lying to me, to himself and to the rest of the world. John was surviving. He was so scared that he was dangerous. Dad was the same. Afraid and dangerous. Especially to those people who were closest to him. Just like me. I can see it now.

We knew Dot was as scared as we were but she tried to hide it. The cupboard wasn't that big. It was just an old second-hand wardrobe. But it was our only shelter. We spent a lot of time in there.

Dad seemed to prefer drinking in the pub to hanging around with us. I remember looking into his eyes on those nights he did come home drunk, and seeing tears welling up when he spoke to me. It was as if every night might be his last chance to tell us how much he loved us. Every night I caught a glimpse of him leaving in his eyes.

It was only a matter of time until it happened. I had felt this for as long as I can remember. Each night at home normally started with Dad coming home drunk and Mum waiting for him.

"Where have you been, ya bastard? Call yersel a man? You don't even bring home enough money tae feed yer kids."

"God, woman. Let me just sit doon and rest. Just gie us peace a minute." He always looked worn out.

"Why don't you just get the f*** oot o' here and go back tae yer pals?"

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As things got louder and louder, my sister Dot would grab Lisa, Alan and myself and hide us away from them. "Come on, kids, let's go play in here where it's nice and quiet," she would say as she led us little ones to the other room to hide in the cupboard.

We knew Dot was as scared as we were but she tried to hide it. The cupboard wasn't that big. It was just an old second-hand wardrobe. But it was our only shelter. We spent a lot of time in there. I remember it was dark and with the door shut it was hard to hear a lot of what was going on outside. Dot would sing to us, trying to drown out the words they were screaming at each other, words that we shouldn't have heard. But I always heard them, every word punctuated by the sound of breaking glass.

Mum's screaming always seemed to cut through no matter how hard Dot tried to cover it.
Mum never let up on him. She would have been waiting for hours for something to feed us and it never arrived. She had a lifetime of waiting for something that never came. She wanted to kill him.

"I hate you. Why did I marry you?" she would cry, half sobbing and half cursing.

Then, nothing. There would be silence. When it was quiet we didn't know what was going on but we knew that was when it was most dangerous.

Some nights we would fall asleep in there, waiting for the all clear to sound. Then Dot would cover us up with Mum's or Dad's overcoat. I remember almost feeling safe then because I was able to smell them on the fabrics. The slight scent of Mum's perfume mixed with Dad's cigarette smoke made me feel a little calmer as if I was closer to them both.

Some nights I felt nothing at all. It was as if my senses would shut down to stop me from being scared. At those times the darkness of the cupboard swallowed me up.

After the shouting had stopped, Dot would slowly open the door. Just a little at first as if she didn't want to see what had happened. The light would shine through the half-open
door, blinding us, and we'd cover our eyes as she poked her head out. Then we would follow her as she walked out of the bedroom and into the kitchen to see what damage had been done this time. Broken glass and smashed furniture was all that was left of our lives. That and the sound of Mum crying in the bedroom again.

Sometimes, if he hadn't already left the house, Dad would bundle us out of the wardrobe. "Come on kids. Everything's gonnae be aw right. Yer dad loves you." That same look on his face every time. "I'm sorry," he would whisper.

Dad didn't know how to love us. His dad never showed him.

Working Class Boy published by HarperCollins Publishers. Out now.
Working Class Boy published by HarperCollins Publishers. Out now.

The fights were getting more intense, more extreme, and we were in more danger. Sometimes physically, but more and more of the time, we were in emotional danger. Some nights we were in the cupboard for hours waiting for the battle to subside, other
nights we couldn't leave the cupboard at all. The police never came to stop all the fighting. They must have had bigger fights to stop or families who were in bigger trouble to save, but all I know is they were never there to save us.

We would have to get up for school early and leave the house - walking over broken glass and blood, with nothing to eat, no clean clothes. Dot would say, "Just keep moving, I'll find something for you to eat at school." She never really did. She had no money just like the rest of us.

On one occasion Mum locked Dad out of the house because he came home too drunk. I remember Dad calling out to be let in. "Come on Dot, I meant to come hame but it was Shuggy's birthday. I had to have a wee drink wi' him." He wasn't angry sounding, just unhappy. But Mum just screamed from the safety she thought she had behind the locked door, "I've had enough of you. You're no comin' in here."

Dad suddenly went quiet and then bang! He punched a hole in the front door. This was a heavy fire door so I don't know how he did it. Then he put his hand through the hole he had just made, opened the door, came in and sat down, and began to calmly watch television as if nothing had happened. He never said a word.

The silence was frightening. Mum ran to the bedroom and came out with a stiletto-heeled shoe and started screaming, "I'm sick of you!", hitting him on the back of the head with the heel. Blood spurted out everywhere. I know one of them ended up on the floor. You can guess who. Dad passed out in the chair. Dad didn't hit us, as far as I remember.

Mum was the enforcer of the family. I don't remember seeing Dad hit Mum either, but I
know 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.

It seemed that in those days it was normal for husbands to hit their wives. All Mum and Dad's friends seemed to do it at some time. Their wives would turn up on our doorstep with black eyes, crying to Mum, saying, "That's it. This is the last time. I'm never goin' back. He'll never lay a hand on me again, I swear to God." They always went back and the violence never stopped.

It wasn't right. We always knew it was wrong and sometimes we wanted to hurt Dad for hitting her. We were learning that lashing out was the way to solve problems and we were hitting each other and kids at school. This was all wrong.

Someone was messing with the kids. There was a family who were friends of Mum and Dad's who were around all the time. If they weren't at our house we were at theirs. Mum worked nights with the wife, wherever they worked, and they spent a lot of time
together.

We used to go over to their house and swim in their aboveground pool. In the summer it was really hot so we loved this. We would swim in the pool with these kids and I remember the girls, who were my age, not much older, would swim underwater and touch me and when no one was around they would take off their swimmers and want me to look at them. I thought this was just normal. Maybe it wasn't normal, but it was where we came from.

Mahalia Barnes sings with her father Jimmy Barnes at the Mission concert in Napier. Photo / Glenn Taylor
Mahalia Barnes sings with her father Jimmy Barnes at the Mission concert in Napier. Photo / Glenn Taylor

Something weird was going on with our parents too. I'm not sure what it was; we didn't know anything about anything. Was Dad having an affair with the wife? That was more than likely. Maybe Mum was the one playing up, who knows?

They had a son who was a few years older than John and he was a f***ing deviant. It seems he was messing around with all the kids. We have never talked about this with anyone; in fact, we have never spoken about it with each other, so this is hard to write about.

I am writing from what I feel; I don't really know any facts. But what I feel has driven me to the brink of insanity for many years. I have spent most of my life ashamed of something that I didn't understand. I have been subconsciously trying to kill myself. I've tried to drink myself to death for a start, but I tried anything that would keep me from facing things in my life that were too hard to look at. And there were lots of things that I didn't want to face. This period in my life seems to be the key to the whole mess.

I remember this man trying to f*** me. I was terrified. I screamed and kicked until I got away and I left the house as quickly as I could.

I always used to say to Jane, my wife, that I thought my childhood was just normal. And sadly, in some ways it was. By that, I mean that there are a lot of kids who have gone through the same horrors that I have. But that doesn't make it right. I have been afraid all my life and for good reason, not only because of this one person but because of many. The things I went through then and since have scarred me almost beyond help.

I don't remember him touching me but I'm sure he did touch some of the other kids so why should I be any different? I wonder if my mind has blocked this time out of my memory. But it will come back to me sooner or later. Then, if I have to, I'll find him.

I can still feel the touch of drunken strangers grabbing me as I walked through the living room. The smell of booze and cigarettes on their breath as they tried to touch or kiss me. I wanted to be as far away as I could get from our home. I used to go and stay at a friend's house because I felt safer.

Debbie Harwood and Jimmy Barnes. Photo / supplied
Debbie Harwood and Jimmy Barnes. Photo / supplied

Until one night my friend's brother came home. He had been away for a long time in jail. In the middle of the night he came into the room where we were sleeping and told us that he was going to show us how men practised sex. 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 f*** 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 f*** him. But I couldn't help him. It reinforced to me that nowhere in the world was safe and I was on my own.

Fighting wasn't the only thing we did but it did seem to take up most of our time - either fighting or bragging about our fights. In Elizabeth there were two types of people, fighters and victims, and I wasn't going to become a victim for anything or anybody.

The gang were like a pack of wolves, looking for weakness - if you looked weak, even for a second, one of them would turn on you. But most nights I was ready and struck out at one of them first. Whoever I would hit, I had to hit really hard. This normally made them all back off in fear they might be next.

There is one night I remember very clearly, when things didn't go as easily as I thought they would. I was in the coffee shop and there was a new guy hanging around the pack. He was very big and I think my mates, if I could really call them that, wanted to find out how dangerous he was. These guys were your friends while they were scared of you or needed you. If they didn't need you, you were a target.

Anyway, one of them told me the guy had been talking s*** about me. We'd all been drinking so it didn't take a lot for the rest of them to get themselves whipped
into a frenzy.

"This f***ing guy has been telling people you're scared of him. He lives near your house and he says you avoid walking near him," one of them said, baiting me to see if I would react.

"Yeah, get him. Go on, hit him."

Their voices were getting higher pitched, louder and more desperate. They wanted someone to get hurt. I don't know why. Maybe it was because they got hurt all their lives at home or maybe they were just animals.

"I've hardly seen this guy. I wouldn't know him if I fell over him."

"You'd know him. You can't miss him. He's fucking big. I reckon he'd knock you out," one of them sniggered.

"What am I supposed to be, scared because he's big? Is that it?" I was a bit but I didn't let on to them.

"Yeah. I reckon you are, and I think you're letting him talk about you because he could do you in."

I could see their eyes turning to knives and suddenly they all looked like they were after my blood, not his. I had to protect myself. I had to fight or risk becoming a target whenever they got bored.

Jimmy Barnes performs at the Mangawhai Tavern. Photo / Tania Webb
Jimmy Barnes performs at the Mangawhai Tavern. Photo / Tania Webb

I walked over to him as he was standing outside the coffee shop. "What the f*** have you been saying about me? If you want to get yourself killed, I'm happy to do it."

He looked me straight in the eye with the look of a man who wasn't bullshitting and said, "I haven't said anything about you. I don't talk about people I don't know."

This seemed like the right response to me. What more could he say? So I walked away and back towards the guys. Suddenly I knew they could taste my blood.

"Why didn't you hit him? You are a f***ing coward just like he says."

I had always hated these stupid thug games. I'd seen them since I started school in Elizabeth and I knew if I wasn't careful, I was next on the menu. I had to do something. It was either fight him or fight six of these animals - my so-called mates.

I turned and walked after him. By this time, he had moved away from the shops and was heading home. The rest of the boys were walking behind me, snapping at my heels like a pack of starving jackals.

I had just about caught up to him as he started walking over the bridge that led over the railway line to Elizabeth West. I could feel the train racing under the bridge, rattling it as
I approached him. The wind was blowing and it suddenly felt colder. My heart was jumping out of my chest.

I reached up with my hand and grabbed his shoulder, spun him around and swung. I caught him hard right on the chin. He swayed, clearly stunned, but he didn't fall so I hit him again. This time even harder.

He shook his head and then turned on me. He smashed me to the ground and began to beat me senseless. This was the worst beating I had had for a long time. I couldn't help but think to myself as I lay on the ground being kicked to death that I deserved everything I got. Probably worse.

Meanwhile the jackals scattered like scared dogs, disappearing from sight, their high-pitched whining voices fading into the distance. Leaving me lying alone on the ground
as he sunk another boot into my ribs. He left me bleeding, dazed and stunned.

After a minute I felt a hand pulling me up. It was him. I expected to be hit again but instead he helped me to my feet and stood and looked at me.

"I told you I didn't want to fight you but you pushed me."

I felt even dumber than I looked. I was an idiot and I knew it.

"I live just down the road from you. I'm going home now. So do you want to walk with me?"

I'd never been belted then helped out by the person who beat the shit out of me before so this felt a bit weird.

"Yeah, why not."

We walked along saying very little to each other.

"Sorry for starting you," I muttered quietly.

"Didn't hurt a bit." He laughed as he looked at me.

"That makes me feel a lot better."

I had learned a big lesson. I would make my own decisions and do what I thought was right from then on, no matter what the consequences were. I'd rather get beaten for doing the right thing than the wrong. It was as simple as that. I never picked another fight in my life.

Working Class Boy published by HarperCollins Publishers. Out now.
Working Class Boy published by HarperCollins Publishers. Out now.

***
I'd never tried out for a band before. My other bands I just walked into. Friends of friends or something like that, so it was always easy. This seemed more difficult and I wondered if I could be bothered. I didn't want to waste my time trying out for a bunch of dorks and I didn't want to go and be out of my depth. I didn't take rejection very well and would probably swing at them if they pissed me off. So I was a bit hesitant to go. I think I really
wanted to try but needed some prodding.

"Shall we do a few songs," Don said, rubbing his hands together.

"Sure. What do you want to do?" I was really worried.

"What about a Free song?" Ian piped up.

"Wow, I like this guy," I said to myself.

"Do you know The Stealer?"

"Yeah. I think I know that one." It was my favourite song at the time and I knew all the words like the back of my hand.

We did the song and there was an awkward silence.

"Yeah that was great. Give us some time to have a chat, would you?" Don said softly.

"Yeah well, just let me know. I'm fine if you don't want me. I got lots of things to do." I started walking out the door.

"You want to just stay there a minute and we'll just have a quick talk over in the corner?"

I was getting defensive. "You sure? I'll get to f*** out of your way if you want."

"No, just wait."

They went to a corner to discuss how I sounded. In the meantime, I stayed on the other side of the room, scowling at them. Pretending I didn't want the gig anyway.

Les was the first to speak. "So yeah. We like what you do. Do you want to join our band?"

Now to tell you the truth I'd never sung with a band who could actually play that well. This band owned their own gear. They knew what they were doing. Ian was a great guitarist
even in those early days. When they told me that Don was a songwriter, that was it. They had me. I'd never been in a band with someone who wrote songs before.

I acted as cool as I could and said, "I'll give it a go and we'll see, eh?"

But inside I was really excited. They weren't the hardest band I'd ever heard but I was sure we could change that with a bit of pushing and shoving. Eventually I would jump all over
these poor guys, fuelled by booze and cheap speed, making them play louder, harder and faster every night but that would come later. They didn't know what they were in for.

© Working Class Boy
By Jimmy Barnes
Published by HarperCollins Publishers

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