First published in Orange City Life 13 July 2017.
OAM John “Swanee” Swan’s rock music career has spanned many decades, with jaunts of booze, drugs, love and loss – overcoming his own demons to help others.
Musician John “Swanee” Swan made a name for himself in the music industry playing in a number of bands including Adelaide group Fraternity, and replacing his good friend Angry Anderson in the Party Boys, ushering their most successful period. He appeared with Cold Chisel from time to time providing backing vocals and percussion, until he was fired for “punching a roadie”. He was considered as Bon Scott’s replacement in AC/DC after Bon died from alcohol poisoning in 1980, but Swanee says it’s a good thing it didn’t transpire. “Bon was my drinking buddy! If I had’ve joined AC/DC they would have had another drunk as a singer. And why would you put them through that again?”
He went on to have a successful solo career and has a total of nine albums, and will soon start a soul show in Adelaide. But nowadays music takes somewhat of a backseat to his extensive charity work, which sees him go out to the parks, schools and hospitals, singing or talking with people one-on-one, his dedication resulting in his OAM earlier this year and being honoured as Senior South Australian of the Year in 2015. Contrast this with his younger years, living the rock n’ roll lifestyle and plying himself with alcohol and drugs until his body gave way at the age of forty-eight, and his doctor told him he was going to die.
“Seventeen years ago, that was my last drink. I was dying,” Swanee says with the slight Scottish accent he’s kept since arriving in Australia at age nine. “The doctor said you are definitely going to die; it could be two weeks or two months. I was losing a lot of blood from both passages, it wasn’t pretty. I was also consuming copious amounts of drugs and alcohol per night and not sleeping for four or five days at a time. And when you’re drinking non-stop like that, the body does really weird things, you know. The body will put up with so much and then it just shuts down.”
After being sexually abused by a family friend at age twelve and not coping with his parents’ break up, Swanee ran away from home at age fourteen, leaving behind five younger siblings. Swanee is the only child out of the six to keep his biological father’s name, and to this day describes both his parents as “heroes” – a striking contrast to the way his younger brother, Jimmy Barnes, portrayed his family in his 2016 memoir, Working Class Boy.
“It was cathartic for him, it was good. He’s spoken to me about it over a period of years when he decided to write it, but it was his perspective – it wasn’t mine. There are six kids in our family, and if you put those kids around a table you’d get six different points of view. I’m not canning Jim for it in any sense, I can’t be anyone else’s judge and jury on how they deal with things.”
In regards to the portrayal of his mother, Swanee states, “I would have given her a sainthood, she would have been mother Teresa to me.”
“I love [Jimmy] to death, I think he’s a wonderful guy. I would go to gaol for him, and I mean that. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to agree with everything he says!”
One thing the pair both agree on, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that their step father Reg Barnes was a wonderful man.
“I don’t know many guys who’d take on six kids, and they’re all brats. He worked seven days a week to make sure the kids had a good education, they had food on the table. He was the perfect father as far as I was concerned. But as I saw it, he was trying to take my Dad’s place, so I gave him a hard time. I was so immature.
“I didn’t realise what a great man it took to stand up and do something like that. Now I look back on it and I thank God he helped my brothers and sisters become who they are. I don’t know why anyone would want to take on six kids, and my mum was a handful as well. Glaswegians are hot heads, we’re not the type to go ‘let’s sit down and converse over this’. You’re more likely to get hit over the head with a bat.
“But having said that, I wrote to him before he died and I said, ‘I’m really sorry I gave you such a hard time’. He said, ‘You know something? I never felt like you gave me a hard time. I’m sorry that you felt like that son because I never tried to take your dad’s place, and had I have known I would have done something about it’. I said, ‘Well, you just have’. I got the chance to say it before he died.”
Despite his tumultuous childhood and decades of alcoholism and drug abuse, Swanee describes his life as “fortunate”. In the past six months he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, lost his mum, separated from his wife of thirty-six years, yet has not changed his viewpoint. “That’s life,” he states matter-of-factly. “You just have to live in the moment and try to help other people who are less fortunate.”
He speaks about his wife with great fondness, mentioning that they still talk often – in fact, he only just got off the phone with her immediately prior to our interview.
“It doesn’t stop the love. All [the separation] means is we can’t live in the same house together. Being a drug addict and an alcoholic there’s consequences. I’m smart, I’m not an idiot, but I can be very short tempered. I’ll take something you say and I’ll take it the wrong way because I’m always on the defensive. God bless her she took that for thirty-six years. And then one day she said, ‘I need to get on now and get a life of my own, I’ve been living your life for thirty-six years’. It’s not my place to write her story, but I just want people to know you can love someone and not be with them.”
I ask Swanee how he and his wife first met.
“Oh I was 24 something like that. She walked into the Bondi Lifesaver, which was a big club in Sydney, I was working in there as a chef bottle wash/cook/bouncer/barman and I was in the kitchen one night and she walked in there. AC/DC were playing; they were warming up doing their sound check. And I looked at her and thought she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. She was standing underneath the mirror ball and it was dark and there were all little sprigs of light around her. And she had her hair up in a ponytail, she had long dark hair, she had just arrived from England, she was beautiful. I said to the guy, ‘I’ve got to go, I’ve got to talk to her’.
“I went to her and said, ‘Would you like a glass of wine?’ I wouldn’t be able to tell you what a glass of wine looked like – I drank Scotch, something with a bit of a kick. Anyway I bought her something that was really bad, some deplorable wine. And she said, ‘Ohhh this is nice’”, he laughs.
“We were together from that night until the Sunday and we were just ‘talk talk talk talk’. My flat was like a typical rock n’ rollers, it had a mattress in the corner and no furniture. It just wasn’t the sort of place you’d bring a nice girl to. But we just sat there and talked… and she said, ‘You know I’ve got to go back to England on the Sunday, but I’m thinking about coming back next year in 12 months’. I said, ‘I’ll wait for you’. She said, ‘Yeah sure’.
“I bought her a little teddy bear and I said, ‘Take that, I’ll be inside that teddy bear wherever you are, carry that with you’. And she did. I wrote to her all the time, and the more I wrote to her the more I realised what was missing in my life. Falling in love is such a wonderful thing.”
As for falling in love again at the age of sixty-five, Swanee isn’t fussed on the idea.
“I’m not confident in how I deal with anything. I’m a quiet man, I’m shy and I have reservations. I find it hard to break through those boundaries. I’m in love with love, but I could never show it to the one I love most – so what’s the good of putting some other poor bugger through that?”
With no topic off-limits, intimacy issues are even discussed at schools when he speaks to young girls.
“Young girls are so impressionable. I go visit schools and give talks on drugs and alcohol, and I also go into the intimacy of ‘do not be sucked into being forced into having sex in a relationship just to keep a boyfriend’. Girls these days are expected to do terrible things. Before we used to kiss them good night, hold their hand and maybe you’ll get to touch a boob. That was it. These days girls are under so much pressure and it’s from their peers!
“And they see so much of it in the rap videos… I personally hate all the rap videos. I don’t hate the rap artists; I just don’t like the videos. It’s porn! When I hear some guy cussing and cursing and calling some girl a whore: “My whore baby, my main whore.” I mean, what? Why would you call somebody a whore and think it’s attractive? We copy Americans, and they’re in so much trouble…
“I try very hard to make sure to make sure that kids realise the cool ones are the ones who say no. And you know it sounds very cliché, it sounds very old, but it’s not – it’s actually true.”
The positive response Swanee receives from both young and old, rich and poor, has much to do with not only his background, but his belief in showing all people respect.
“If you put your hand out, it’s open, it’s empty, ‘what can I do for you’. That’s much more important than ‘look at all these things I’ve done for you!’
“You can say, ‘I’ll come around and see you in an hour, put the kettle on’. Or you can say, ‘I’m going to send you into hospital again you bastard, I’m sick to death of trying to help you!’. Well, you may mean well, but what you’re doing is blowing your own trumpet!”
Swanee also shared a lesson he learnt quite a while ago – back when he was still drinking – about the importance of not making assumptions.
“I met a homeless guy in Perth after a gig, and I immediately sat beside him because I thought he’d need a drink, ‘poor bastard he’s homeless’, you know. Well, in actual fact he was a very rich man, he had a house in Hunters Hill, and he had a boat in Hunters Hill and God knows how much he had in the bank, but his riches dwindled in value when his three children and wife died in a car accident. He left the Range Rover and he just walked, never touched his bank account. He told me his story and said, ‘Don’t assume all homeless people are alcoholics young man.’ A lot of that man I carry with me today.
Speaking about his Order of Australia Medal, which Swanee states is “still in its box”, he’s more proud of what it doesn’t represent, than what it does.
“I didn’t get it for turning up and doing charity gigs, I got it for going up to people’s houses, going to the parks, the pits and places where people hide because that’s all they’ve got. I take them a coffee and a blanket, and go back there night after night until you get their trust. Slowly they get enough confidence to walk from the park to the Salvos, which is maybe four hundred metres. It takes a long time of gaining that trust.
“I become elated when I think about what it is I do, but I don’t want to come across as some sort of angel who comes over and makes everything right. I’m on my own and my wife’s in Adelaide, my health’s not great, but I’ve got something in my life that means more to me than most people have got – I can sing well, and I can go and help people.
“When I sing, I am usually thinking of an experience and I hope it touches your soul. But when I meet the people I don’t want them to meet a pop star, I want them to meet a man; rock and roll is my job, it’s not who I am. I’ve walked the hard yards and I’m still walking the hard yards, but I’m doing very well, thank you. How are you doing?”