Jimmy Barnes says he never played soccer on grass until he came to Australia from Scotland in 1961 as a five-year-old.
It was paradise found for the little boy from Glasgow, even if his new home was the hardscrabble suburb of Elizabeth in northern Adelaide.
The now-revered rocker and happy family man – a great-grandfather no less – says he owes everything to Australia, becoming a citizen in 1988.
“Where I lived in Glasgow looked like Dresden after the war. It was a bomb site. I don’t think I’d ever played football on grass until I moved to Australia,” he said.
“When I came to Australia, it was like heaven. I’d escaped this bleak, overpowering, northern British depression that was happening after the war.
“We still had all our problems growing up as a struggling immigrant family but Australia was like a breath of fresh air, literally. Playing on grass, having good schools – trees. I didn’t even know trees where I’d come from.
“So from the day I got here, I’ve loved Australia. And then having the opportunity to grow up here and follow my dreams, to join a rock ‘n’ roll band and write songs and play to people and travel the country playing music making people happy – it’s been pretty bloody good to me.”
It’s ironic that it took a migrant to bring to life some of the most quintessential Aussie rock anthems – Flame Trees, Khe Sanh, Working Class Man, songs all written by others but sung with unequivocal passion by Barnes.
They’ll all be sung again by Barnes as he takes to the stage on the grass in front of Parliament House in Canberra on January 25, the headline act at a concert to celebrate Australia Day and the Australian of the Year Awards. He says he won’t be “hammering” the audience but playing a set the whole family can enjoy.
“I’d done it before quite a few years ago now and I just thought it was great. A lovely setting, in front of Parliament House. And it’s not just a Jimmy Barnes audience. It’s a broad-scope-of-Australia audience so it’s a really nice place to play,” he said.
There is still an immense sense of gratitude to Australia from 59-year-old Barnes, who’d like others to share in the same good fortune he experienced
“I keep my Scottish connection. I know where I was born and that’s an important part of my history, and I think all immigrants are the same. But if I could live anywhere in the world, it would be Australia,” he said,
“I’ve got a place in Thailand I go to with Jane and I still go back to Scotland but after about two weeks all I want to do is come back home. I want to be back in Australia.
“Australia means everything to me. It’s given me everything and I just think it’s best place in the world. I feel lucky to be bringing up my grandkids and great-grandkids here.”
The singer last year took to Facebook to tell the group Reclaim Australia that it could not use his songs at its rallies. The group, which says it is “patriotic” and “stands up to radical Islam, political correctness and the threat of home-grown terror”, was “deeply saddened” by Barnes’ request.
Barnes said at the time “none of these people represent me and I do not support them”.
“The Australia I belong to and love is a tolerant Australia,” he said last July.
Ahead of Australia Day, which can more than veer into bogan, jingoistic territory, Barnes says he is reluctant to talk about groups like Reclaim Australia because he doesn’t want to give them any oxygen.
“I think this is a country for everyone. Everyone is welcome to their opinion. I really respect that too. I just don’t like when they try and force their opinions down other people’s throat. Or when their opinion is biased and narrow-minded,” he said.
“We’ve got to be broad-minded in this country. We’re a lucky place to be, we’re away from the real trouble in this world and we’ve got to keep it that way. We’ve got to be tolerant, we’ve got to be open, we’ve got to be caring and we’ve got to work hard.
“There’s no two ways about it. You can’t have immigration without hard work. You can’t have tolerance without compassion and making an effort. And I think that’s what we all have to do on Australia Day, just reflect on that and then get on with life, make life great for your families.”
Barnes said there was one Australia Day which would always stay with him, which involved two Aussie icons, actor Bryan Brown and singer Billy Thorpe.
“I think the funniest one I ever done was also the most Australian,” he said.
“A week before Australia Day more than 10 years ago, I get a phone call from Bryan Brown, ‘G’day Jimmy, I want you to come and play at my house, I want you to play at a barbecue at my house.’
“He said, ‘It’ll be great. Billy Thorpe will be there’. And I’m a huge Thorpie fan, he’s like my hero.
“So I arrive at Bryan’s door on Australia Day for a barbecue on Sydney Harbour and I walk in and he says, ‘I want you to sing Waltzing Matilda with Billy Thorpe. And I said, ‘I don’t know all the words’. And he said, ‘I’ve printed them out for you’.
“It was around the reconciliation time, Everyone was having a few beers and Bryan had a boy called Joe who was only a little monkey at the time and Bryan was trying to make this speech about reconciliation after a few beers and Joe kept squirting him with one of those super-soakers. Then Bryan says, ‘And now Jimmy and Billy will sing’.
“So I remember sitting there singing Waltzing Matilda with Billy Thorpe in Bryan Brown’s backyard under the Harbour Bridge, looking at the harbour, thinking, ‘It doesn’t get any more Australian than this’. That was the ideal Australia Day for me.”
“I don’t think it is one of those things where we have to get all carried away and run the flags up the flagpole but I think everyone should take a minute to reflect on how great this country is we live in.
“I came from the immigrant background, and with all the problems we’ve got now with immigration and refugees, we’ve got to look at ways to help each other out. The world’s a dangerous place and there’s a lot of families out there who just [want] to come here and have some peace. And if we can help some families find some peace, we should do that.”
And he’s looking forward to coming to Canberra, a city that has a special place in his heart. He met his wife Jane in the national capital. Born in Thailand, she was the step-daughter of Australian diplomat John Mahoney and was living in Canberra at the time of the fateful meeting nearly 37 years ago.
“I did meet Jane there. November the 29th, 1979 at four o’clock in the afternoon,” Barnes said. To be precise.
“We were playing at the university but I met her at the Motel 7 was it? It was a hotel there and she was with a bunch of friends throwing frisbees and stuff.
“I was on tour with The Angels doing The Dirty Pool Tour and they were all mates of The Angels and we were all in the carpark and I spotted her. She was gorgeous. The most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. Love at first sight. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
And the meeting means the national capital has more than grown on him.
“I’d only been in Canberra playing really badly-paid gigs in the freezing cold and I didn’t like Canberra much until then, but after that I loved it. I could live there now, I’m quite happy there,” he said.
They are a couple obviously still very much in love, with Barnes taking to Facebook earlier this month to wish his wife a happy birthday – “You are the love of my life and I am blessed to spend this life with you.”.”She’s the best in the world,” he said. “We still have our moments, like every relationship. But we have a great family, we have a great life. We get to do what we want. We’re doing good work. We’ve got lots of grandkids, a great-grandchild. We’re powering along.”
He and Jane have four children. He also has three children from other relationships including television host and singer David Campbell and two daughters. One of the daughters in Adelaide recently became a grandmother, with her son, Luke, welcoming little Lewis, now seven months old, making Barnesy a great-grandfather.
“He’s gorgeous. He was up staying with us the other day from Adelaide. A beautiful boy,” he said, of Lewis.
“I just love having them. We have one or two of the grandkids with us most of the day every day and it’s just fantastic to watch them. They’re little mirrors of their parents and you get to see all those things again that you thought you’d lost.
“And being a grandparent, it’s a bit different to being a parent. All those pressures, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’, ‘Oh, baby’s got a runny nose, what do I do?’. You sort of know all the stuff now so you’re a lot more relaxed, and I’m a lot more settled these days. I’ve made a lot of money, if I want to spoil the kids I can.
“The old saying about they’re not yours, you can give them back? We never want to give them back.”
After years as a rock ‘n’ roll hell raiser with his own battles with the booze and alcohol as well as surviving a heart attack and heart surgery, Barnes is enjoying what appears to be the perfectly balanced life. He still puts his heart and soul into performances but his Twitter feed and Facebook page are full of pictures of contented domesticity, whether it’s reading to his grandchild’s kindergarten class one day or making a chicken and pomegranate salad the next (“I’m an excellent cook!”)
“I’m ridiculously well. I’m really healthy,” he said. “This morning I got up and walked the dogs through the rain and I’ve just finished yoga. I’m a healthy chap these days. I’m 60 [this] year so I’ve got to look after myself.
“I’m having a big party [for my 60th] and then I’m going to take all my kids to go swimming in underwater caves in Mexico.”
With the recent loss of David Bowie at 69 to cancer (“he influenced the world, he was an amazing character”) but also Steve Wright at 68 of pneumonia, Barnes has reason to be grateful for all he has.
“Stevie was one of the saddest cases I’ve seen because I love Stevie, huge Easybeats fan. And just to see the ongoing battle he had with drugs and alcohol,” Barnes said.
“It sort of reflects what’s going on in society. There’s a lot of people like that. And the other thing I’d like is to look out and see more drug rehab, more care taken for families who are victims of drug and alcohol abuse. It’s a real problem in this country and Stevie was sort of at the front of that and it killed him eventually.
“I was lucky because I did always have a great family around me. I’ve got a great wife. Even in my wilder days, we’d still be a very close family. I feel really blessed to have got through a lot of that stuff, I mean a lot of people didn’t get through it, whether it was drink or drugs or just being on the road. I mean I’ve got friends who’ve died in car crashes on the road. Rock ‘n’ roll has claimed a lot of victims and I owe my parents a great tip of the hat, for their great constitutions – and Scotland.
“But I think the fact I had such great family, great support, good people around me, got me through and I’m very happy to be where I am.”