Small fish, big sewer: How America broke Cold Chisel

Singer Jimmy Barnes performing with band Cold Chisel in 1970s.
Singer Jimmy Barnes performing with band Cold Chisel in 1970s. NWN

HE'S a working-class hero in this country.

And from today we can learn a little more about Jimmy Barnes as Harper Collins releases his new book.

Here are some edited extracts from three chapters of Working Class Man, available today.



I grew up thinking that American music was the best in the world.

Cold Chisel, Australian band.
Cold Chisel, Australian band. NWN

For years, when it seemed that no one in Australia was getting us, we thought that at some point we would go to the States. By the time we got around to going there, we were pulling huge crowds here in Australia so we didn't really want to leave these shores.

But for the band to grow we knew deep down that we would have to try our luck overseas. America was calling us, calling us like sirens, whispering to us to come crashing to our deaths.

In June 1981 we jumped on a plane and headed for Los Angeles. Things started going wrong from day one.

Our first and only tour of the States was a mismatch of gigs. I don't think there was really a lot of thought put into it by our American agent, our record company or even our management. And going from being a big fish in a small pond to being a small fish in a big sewer did not fill me with hope.


Singer Jimmy Barnes performing during concert at Memorial Drive, Adelaide Sep 1982.
Singer Jimmy Barnes performing during concert at Memorial Drive, Adelaide Sep 1982.


USA, 1981

Our first US show was in San Diego. We arrived backstage at some big baseball stadium a few hours before we were due to go on. Our gear had been sent ahead with our crew. When we found them, they were standing near the parked trucks with our gear, sitting in the sun. 'They wouldn't let us put our gear on the stage to do a line check. They told us to wait over here until they're ready for us. That was two hours ago.'

It wasn't an ideal start but we tried to stay calm.

'Where's our dressing room?' I asked, wanting to get out of the burning sun.

'You'll have to ask their production manager. They haven't told us anything. They're not very helpful.'

We went to find the production manager. He was sitting in an air-conditioned hut with a few girls in very short skirts, laughing and drinking a beer.


Singer Jimmy Barnes in the deep south of the USA scouting locations for video clips.
Singer Jimmy Barnes in the deep south of the USA scouting locations for video clips.

'Hi, we're the support band, Cold Chisel. Sorry to interrupt, but if you could just point the way to our dressing room, we'll get out of your hair.'

He had a lot of hair to get out of, now that I think about it. Anyway he didn't look happy to see us. We were obviously cramping his style with the girls, so he put his beer down and said, 'You're not the support. You're the f---ing opener. You don't get a room. Now go and stand under the stage and wait until I tell you to play.'

'Sorry, I must have misheard you.'

'No, you heard me fine. Just f--- off until we need you.'

Now on any other day I would have busted his jaw, but this was the first gig in America. I thought I'd control myself and smash his face in after we played.

So there we were, trying to stay calm in the shade. We were told we would be on stage in half an hour and we were in various stages of getting dressed when someone yelled at us, 'Okay. You f---ing Aussies are on.'

'But our gear isn't even finished being set up yet,' one of our crew protested.

'Well you've been here all day. You should have been ready.'


Aust rock singer Jimmy Barnes (L) singing with Michael Hutchence (R) December 11, 1980.
Aust rock singer Jimmy Barnes (L) singing with Michael Hutchence (R) December 11, 1980.

I had no shoes on and hadn't put on my shirt. Mossy was still in shorts and none of the guitars had been tuned. We ran up the stairs and onto the stage. I tied my headband around my head as I ran. I was looking for something to drink on the way but there was nothing for us.

The gear wasn't ready. We were standing in front of thirty thousand people and we had no leads in our guitars. Our crew ran around frantically, trying to get us ready.

'Come on guys, play some f---ing music,' one of the Canadian stage techs yelled at us. I went up to my mic. It worked.

'Good afternoon. We're Cold Chisel and as soon as we have power we'll play for you.'

We stood there for ten or fifteen minutes with no power for our guitar amps. The crowd were getting restless and started shouting and booing us. I looked around the stage, trying to work out which one of the crew I was going to kill first.


The cover of Working Class Man, the new Jimmy Barnes book
The cover of Working Class Man, the new Jimmy Barnes book

After about 20 minutes we had noise coming from the amps. It wasn't a good noise but we started playing anyway. Halfway through the first song all the power went out again. It seemed to be out forever, but eventually it came back on and we started our next song. We might get a show going after all. Then one of the stage crew called me over and shouted in my ear. I thought I'd heard him wrong.

'What did you say?' I yelled.

'Your time is up. You guys have to get off.'

We had only completed one song and even then not everything had worked. I came off stage ready to kill someone. And so our doomed American tour had started. I was ready to quit and go home after the first gig.

We did a lot of what were politely called the 'secondary markets', small towns that really weren't going to help break us into the bigger markets. It was like the booking agency and record company had something against us.


Cold Chisel front man Jimmy Barnes. 1996.
Cold Chisel front man Jimmy Barnes. 1996.

I've heard stories as to why that might have been but I don't know anything first hand so I'll keep it to myself. Let's just say a few things might have gone down that f---ed up our careers before the band ever got to the States.

There were a few good shows. Austin, Texas, with Joe Ely, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and a young Stevie Ray Vaughan, was one of the highlights of the tour. I remember having a few drinks with them all before the show. They were wild people and I liked them.

They loosened me up so much that I climbed the PA stacks. Mark Pope shadowed me in case I fell. He was just below me, feeding me the lead to the microphone. I got to the top and opened my mouth to scream and a huge Texan moth dived into it. I was about forty feet off the ground and I nearly keeled over. My automatic reaction was to spit it out as fast as I could. Unfortunately for Mark, I spat it straight onto him. Along with vodka and anything else I heaved up. I didn't even know he was there and just kept singing.



We ended up in New York for about 10 days, without any work.

We were a sad, sad band. Because the shows we were supposed to play had been cancelled - maybe they were never booked, we never knew - none of us had much money. It was the first time in a while that I had been in this situation and Jane was meeting me here too. This only made me angrier and harder to get along with.

So Jane and I were in New York together, with no money whatsoever. Times were very lean. We couldn't see the city the way either of us expected to. We could hardly afford to buy meals, never mind see the sights.

Jane and I made the most of it anyway. We found a little bar around the corner from the hotel that was cheap and served reasonable food. But we went too far. And on the last night before the band was due to go back on tour we really tied one on. I can't remember how many drinks we had but let's just say, for argument's sake, a lot.


Singer Jimmy Barnes performing in Sydney on September 26, 1989.
Singer Jimmy Barnes performing in Sydney on September 26, 1989.

Jane had been slowly worn down by the lack of money and my aggression towards the other members of the band. Not to mention, she was sick of the drunks that lined the streets between the hotel and the bar. One guy in particular annoyed her. We saw him almost every night lying on the footpath, trying to start fights with passersby. On the last night he was lying with his trousers down around his ankles, playing with himself, and it really annoyed her. So we started arguing at the bar and it escalated from there and by the time we got back to the hotel we were out of control.

Jane and I both had a bad habit of storming off when we fought, which isn't good, but that's what happened. We both left the hotel to go home to Australia alone. Jane was walking off in one direction and I was heading in the other. My plan was to hitchhike to Australia without my passport. You can see I had really thought it through.

Whenever we did this, I would normally get a hundred yards down the road and then come to my senses and start to worry about Jane. But this night I couldn't find her. I was in a state of panic. Jane in the meantime had walked past a park alone and a guy had jumped out of the bushes with a knife to rob her. He got more than he bargained for.

'Give me your money, bitch. Now, or I'll cut you up,' he shouted.

'Ahhhhhhhhh!' Jane screamed at him. 'I don't care what you do. Kill me, rape me, stab me. Do what you want, I don't care anymore. Ahhhhhhhh!'

This obviously caught the young guy off guard. 'Hey, wait a minute lady. What's wrong with you?'

'I don't care what you do, just kill me and go!' Jane was ready to kill him by this point.

'Hey, come on now. It's not that bad. What's wrong with you? Can I help you?'


Singer Jimmy Barnes in the deep south of the USA scouting locations for video clips.
Singer Jimmy Barnes in the deep south of the USA scouting locations for video clips.

The thief had become the counsellor.

'This town is a hole. There is shit all over the streets and people are drunk everywhere.' Jane started telling him everything she had seen that night.

'My husband is an arsehole and there's a guy lying on the street with his pants around his ankles and he's playing with himself. And you're robbing me!'

'Hey, calm down girl. It's not that bad. I know that guy who lays on the street. He just does that for attention. He's not that bad. I'm only doing this because I got no money, that's all. And where is this husband of yours? You want me to fix him up for you?'

He looked at his knife and then at Jane. By this point the situation was coming into focus and she realised that this was not a good place to be.

'No, I'll be all right. He's gone anyway.'

'So why don't you just go home before you get yourself hurt? This is a dangerous town for a little girl like you.'

Jane turned and walked quickly back to the hotel.


Cold Chisel 36 HR Marc Christowsk Jimmy Barnes.
Cold Chisel 36 HR Marc Christowsk Jimmy Barnes.

We were both back in the room. Anger turned to tears and then laughter as Jane told me about her adventure. By the morning Jane was in the bathroom throwing up continuously. I had to get a doctor for her. He quickly came to the conclusion that Jane was suffering from extreme alcohol poisoning. He gave her an injection to stop the nausea and told me to keep her in bed and give her plenty of fluids.

But there was a problem. We were supposed to go back on tour that day. We had to fly to Dayton, Ohio.

I didn't want to go. Ten days with no money, not to mention copious amounts of alcohol, had worn me down and I wanted to leave the band, again. So I rang tour manager Mark Pope. 'I've had enough of this band. I'm finished.'

Topics:  entertainment jimmy barnes new book

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