When John “Swanee” Swan takes my phone call he answers with a surprising “Hey girl!”, even though we’ve spoken only once before. I suspect this level of familiarity is something he offers everyone, not just yours truly, since his passion these days is found not at the bottom of a bottle, or even while holding a microphone, but in the simple act of connecting with another human.
Swanee made a name for himself in the music industry playing in a number of bands including Fraternity and later The Party Boys, where he replaced good friend Angry Anderson and ushered in their most successful period. He appeared with Cold Chisel providing backing vocals and percussion until he was fired for “punching a roadie”, and was considered as Bon Scott’s replacement in AC/DC after Bon died from alcohol poisoning in 1980. He says it’s a good thing that didn’t transpire. “Bon was my drinking buddy! If I joined AC/DC they would have had another drunk as a singer. And why would you put them through that again?”
Music is still a big part of Swanee’s life, but at sixty-five years young he’s a vastly different man from his rocker days, with a new outlook and new priorities. He tells me he’s almost finished renovating his kitchen and is sweaty, filthy and has also pulled out his back, but he’s enjoying watching the transformation unfold. “It’s all about the simple things,” he says.
His charity work sees him discussing drugs, alcohol and mental health at schools and hospitals, singing to the terminally ill, or talking with people one-on-one. This dedication resulted in him being honoured as Senior South Australian of the Year in 2015 and receiving a Medal of the Order of Australia earlier this year.
This is a far cry from the man who at the age of forty-eight was told by his doctors, in no uncertain terms, that he was going to die. His hard-drinking, drug-taking lifestyle caught up with him in full force. “I was losing a lot of blood from both passages. It wasn’t pretty.” He explains his shyness as a teenager contributed to his reliance on alcohol to overcome crippling anxiety.
Swanee has been sober for seventeen years, and during this time has held back none of his story. At public speaking gigs he shares openly not only about his past addictions to drugs and alcohol, but also his tumultuous childhood. Having moved from his birthplace of Scotland with his family to Australia at age nine-years-old, he was sexually abused by a family friend at age twelve and ran away from home at age fourteen. The only child out of the six to keep his biological father’s name, he describes both his parents as “heroes” – an interesting contrast to how his brother, Jimmy Barnes, portrayed his family in his 2016 memoir, Working Class Boy.
“He spoke to me about it when he decided to write it, but it was his perspective – it wasn’t mine.” Swanee explains. “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 love [Jimmy] to death, I think he’s a wonderful guy, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to agree with everything he says.”
Differences aside, the pair both agree their stepfather, Reg Barnes, was a wonderful man. “I don’t know many guys who’d take on six kids, and they’re all brats,” Swanee tells me. “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.”
“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.”
Swanee considers Reg, now passed, to have been the “perfect father” for his siblings. “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. But as I saw it, he was trying to take my Dad’s place, so I gave him a hard time.”
Despite his difficult childhood and decades of alcoholism and drug abuse, Swanee describes his life as “fortunate”. In the past few years he’s been diagnosed with prostate cancer, lost his mum, and separated from his wife of thirty-six years, yet none of this has swayed him from this viewpoint. “That’s life,” he states matter-of-factly. “You just have to live in the moment and try to help other people.”
It’s been through helping other people that he’s found his true calling, although he admits his initial approach was not the best way. “I learned some hard truths very quickly,” he explains. “I would go out there wanting to help and would start talking about how I got sober, telling my story. But it’s not about me. They wanted to get some shit off their chests, too. I found that if you just sit and listen, and then say ‘Just text me and I’ll come round,’ or ‘I’m on the end of the phone if you want to talk again,’ they just go ‘Wow, my arse is covered, someone is there for me,’ you know?”
I ask Swanee if he’s happier now than he was in his drug-fuelled rockstar days.
“I’m as happy as a pig in shit. I’ve lived fifteen lives, I’m having a great run. I wake up every morning and do a gratitude thing. I’ve got nothing but an old Mercedes and a guitar. I’ve torn a muscle in my back, I can hardly move my knees. Life’s good. I’ve got what I want: living without anxiety, fear, or panic attacks. Basic, basic qualities of life.”
This exemplifies what I like most about Swanee; his ability to be refreshingly authentic. I tell him as much, and he replies that there isn’t much point being any other way. “If you try and be something you’re not, people will just see straight through it,” he says.
“Look, I’m a fuckhead. I’ve done everything you shouldn’t do, five times over. But eventually, you get it. You have that ‘ah ha’ moment and see that there really is a bit of heaven on earth. But you make the choice for it, every day.”