Jimmy Barnes: ‘It’s criminal the way the government has treated the arts’

Stephanie Convery
·4-min read

Australian rock star Jimmy Barnes is not known for his subtlety, either in music or in life – and he was characteristically forthright on Friday afternoon when asked about the federal government’s response to the arts crisis caused by Covid.

“I think it’s criminal the way the government has treated the arts,” Barnes said. “It’s actually shameful … I don’t think they realise how important music, art, literature, film is to the wellbeing of people.”

Barnes’ comments were made at Guardian Australia’s monthly book club, hosted over Zoom in partnership with Australia At Home, in which the Cold Chisel frontman answered questions from fans and reflected on his traumatic childhood, his rock-star life and writing three memoirs – the third of which, Killing Time, has just been released.

“I worked for four years up until Covid struck,” Barnes said, acknowledging that he was lucky to be able to have regular performing opportunities, which can be emotionally cathartic. “I was OK and had got that out emotionally, but a lot of people haven’t.

Related: Jimmy Barnes: ‘My demons can fight among themselves. They don’t own me any more’

“A lot of musicians are struggling. They’re already living hand to mouth and not only can they [now] not make money, but they don’t have that ability to escape and do what they love.”

Even the performances on stage were a culmination of the work of hundreds of people, he said, from roadies to designers to tech – many of whom worked gig to gig.

“A lot of them were casual workers who didn’t get any jobkeeper, jobseeker,” he said.

“The industry is going to have this huge depth of talent just sucked out of it because they’ve had to go and dig ditches or whatever, and there’s nothing wrong with digging ditches, but it means that these people who are really good at something else aren’t going to be bringing that into the industry. I’m sure the same thing is happening with film, same thing’s happening with dance, same thing’s happening with theatre.”

Killing Time is composed of vignettes from Barnes’ life that didn’t fit into his first two memoirs, Working Class Boy and Working Class Man.

Barnes appeared in conversation with Guardian Australia’s music writer Andrew Stafford, whom the musician got in touch with earlier this year, after hearing that Stafford was undergoing heart surgery. The writer and musician bonded over that shared experience: Barnes had undergone the same operation.

Related: Working Class Boy review – heartfelt Jimmy Barnes doco mixed blessing for Cold Chisel fans

“I remember going into surgery and thinking, ‘God, I might not make it out,’ but I wanted to reassure you [at the time] that you might get out of there,” Barnes said to Stafford.

Barnes described how he went back on stage after his own surgery – against doctors’ advice, just eight weeks post-op. “I didn’t tell them it was in Kuala Lumpur,” he said, where it was around 40C. “Because I hadn’t performed in months, I screamed like a banshee.” He returned to hospital immediately upon arriving back into Australia and underwent more medical procedures to undo the damage done to his still-recovering body – and then did the same thing again eight weeks later.

“I’m happy to sit and just be now. I couldn’t sit still before,” Barnes said.

Not your usual rock-star memoir, Barnes’s books have traversed family, childhood, trauma, substance abuse, depression and recovery, along with the touring life of a rock band.

“I didn’t want to write a book that just glorified sex and drugs and rock’n’roll; I wanted to write abut the darkness of it. Not only where I was, but where it came from. I had to unravel that for myself before I could move on,” Barnes said.

Writing about his own struggles with depression and trauma and alcohol abuse appears to have helped other men confront their own demons, too.

“Once [the book] was out there I’d have grown men in blue singlets walking up to me on the street and breaking down and crying,” he said. “We started a conversation and some blokes started to open up and take a look at themselves.”

Related: The arts sector is already suffering. This year's budget just pours salt on the wound | Leya Reid

Barnes now prefers gratitude to “killing time”.

“When I say life is precious, every moment is precious. Every minute you’re here, something beautiful can happen,” he said. “I want to live and appreciate all the things that I took for granted and skimmed over.”

Including some things that surprised his fans.

“I’m really good at arranging flowers! Who would have fucking thought!”

• In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org