Rocker sets his sights on Coffs
AMONG memories of a childhood marred by poverty and alcoholism, John 'Swanee' Swan lays bare a relatively simple one that still resonates with him today: how, every day, his teacher would silently leave a packed lunch on his school desk.
A small but kind gesture, it's one of many memories of humanity that shines through for the 67-year-old, who sits dressed in sharp black suit by a Christmas tree at the Coffs Hotel.
"She knew I never had anything to eat. Things like that, they touch your heart," he says.
With the release of younger brother Jimmy Barnes' memoir Working Class Boy, it's no secret the siblings, who had moved from the mean streets of Glasgow to the suburbs of Adelaide at a young age, did not grow up privileged.
Swanee admits he began drinking alcohol when he was just 13. Fast forward three decades later, with a liver destroyed by alcohol and drug abuse, he'd been told he had just one month to live.
The singer had led the typical rock 'n' roll lifestyle of addiction that culminated in what was expected to be his premature death before the age of 50.
For Swanee, this was the moment that changed his life.
"I was blessed, because I shouldn't be here today. I was told I had a month to live and - call it an intervention, I don't care what you want to call it - it motivated me to help others.
"I'm the happiest now that I've ever been. I was earning 30 grand a night and all I could do was snort it or drink it - that's not a life."
Today, Swanee is 20 years sober. He's since dedicated his life to charity work, earning himself an Medal of the Order of Australia, as well as South Australia's Senior Australian of the Year.
"When your number's up, your number's up. I want to make sure I've done something for somebody else before I go because I've had incredible people in my life who've done it for me."
Swanee says he started off volunteering with Meals on Wheels, before working as an ambassador for the Salvation Army and co-founding the Autism Music Fund, and Music Matters, a program which supports the sick with music therapy.
Today you can find him - like usual every Wednesday after midday - at the Coffs Hotel singing at the Special Needs Karaoke with an exuberance that doesn't stem from alcohol, but community spirit.
"When I first came here a few months ago, the girls were all sitting in the back row. But I'm watching them now and they're at the front singing and dancing. And it doesn't matter what they're singing, as long as they're having fun," he says.
"For me that's the best part of my day, in any week."
Swanee says he moved to the area with his wife about a year ago, and he wants the community to know that he's here and willing to help.
He's recently performed at a number of bushfire fundraisers in the region, and says he'll soon be starting music lessons for those with a disability.
His vision is to establish a community choir with those who have a disability, and those who are homeless.
Swanee, whose latest album One Day at a Time is out now, will be performing at this year's Coffs Coast Carols at Brelsford Park on December 14. He's hoping to return for the Carols next year with his new choir to support him.
"Unless people are given hope, they won't be able to pull through. I couldn't have, Jimmy couldn't have," he says.
"We need the community to get behind the community, and we can really change a lot of things around here.
"The Carols will be great fun and I'm looking forward to helping out here in Coffs."
Swanee is also keen to speak at local schools.
He urges anyone who could use his help to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org