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The Mild One

He was shocked to learn, aged 12, that Jimmy Barnes was his dad. A decade later, it was Barnsie's turn for a wee surprise: his eldest son loved nothing more than a good Broadway melody. Now a cabaret star in his own right, David Campbell certainly ain't a chip off the old rocker.

I T WAS SPORTS DAY AT SCHOOL AND 12-year-old David Campbell had the afternoon off. In the cicada-ticking heat of an Adelaide summer, he took the short cut home, over the back fence and across just one road.

In her tiny kitchen in a neat, red-brick home on the Ingle Farm housing estate, David’s mother, Joan, was waiting anxiously. There was something she had to tell this youngest child of hers, a sweet-looking dark-haired boy on the cusp of adolescence, a boy who wrote her poems and slew dragons in the vivid castles of his imagination, a boy who loved music and singing and directing make-believe plays, a boy for whom she had radically changed her life more than a decade earlier.

David breezed in, dumped his bag and sat at the kitchen table. The lace net curtains hung lank in the heat, silk flowers wilted in the cutglass vase. Joan Campbell, a determined woman and no stranger to firm, even brusque statements, steeled herself.

"I told him that I was not his mother," she says now. "I told him that Kim, my daughter, whom he had always known as his sister, was his real mum. And I told him Jimmy Barnes was his dad.

"I told him I wanted him because I loved him. I hugged him. But it took him a while to grasp everything. I think finding out that Kim was his mum, and not me, broke his little heart."

Thirteen years later, inside a hip Sydney cafe, David Campbell, 25, actor, singer, musical theatre and cabaret star, remembers that afternoon. For a few minutes, the quicksilver manner of this handsome, confident young man slows and tempers.

"Joan told me I was adopted and that she had adopted me," he says. "She said, ‘Jimmy is your dad.’ I said, ‘Uh, huh.’ That didn’t come as such a surprise because I had known him since I was a little kid. I sort of had the feeling he was popping in to see me every now and again for a reason.

"The concept that Kim was my mother was hard to take. It threw me into a tailspin, my whole world was turned on its head. I got upset. I was very confused. I didn’t want anything to change. I wanted Joan to still be my mother and Kim to be my sister."

Joan, the feisty Cockney matriarch of a clan of proud migrant battlers, put out an all-points bulletin that even though David was now aware of his true identity, nothing was to change. The baby boy born to her eldest daughter, Kim, when she was 16 would continue to be Joan’s son.

"I needed that stability," David says. "Now, I regard Kim as my mother, but that doesn’t mean Joan is any less my mother. I still see Joan as my mum. She was the woman who brought me up."

Joan Campbell, 63, who has four children of her own, several grandchildren and one great-grand-daughter, bristles with irritation at being described as David’s grandmother. Around her kitchen table in Ingle Farm, she opens album after album of photos – David as a baby, a toddler, a schoolboy, a teenager at a debutante ball. She has folders stuffed with his drawings, poems and stories. Her walls are decorated with posters of his plays and musical performances. She playsa video of him singing last year in New York’s exclusive cabaret venue, the Rainbow and Stars room in the Rockefeller Center; a news clip of him singing at the opening of Foxtel Studios in Sydney. She clucks over his various hairstyles.

She shows me a photo of Kim, a pretty, dark-haired young woman, but David’s biological mother is somehow detached from all this stuff of a mother’s memories.

Emotionally it is Joan who owns the territory. She was the one who fought against Jimmy Barnes’s family for the right to adopt-David, who fought against Jimmy when he wanted to send him to a private school, who left her second marriage and sacrificed her long working life soon after adopting David.

"I had reached the position of driver at the Holden factory – I was the first woman in that job – when I decided that I would stop work and care for him full-time.

"I was up at 6.30 am, dropping David off at child care. He got sick a lot and it was hard on us both.

"So I brought David up on the pension. He was worth it."

In recent years, David Campbell has metamorphosed from raw young promise (his first professional thespian roles in 1993 included the Stables Theatre’s production of Relative Merits and the Sydney Theatre Company’s Away) into one of this country’s most successful entertainers. His most recent gigs have included playing Marius in Les Miserables in Sydney, punctuated by a quick trip to London in June for a Cameron Macintosh world charity gala, Hey, Mr Producer, before the Queen. Yet the media has focused on the angle of him as "Barnsie’s illegitimate son".

The genetic link has been a great publicity generator for them both. Father and son are strikingly alike, sharing not only musical ability, but a mercurial Celtic charm and the ability to talk at the speed of light.

But while Jimmy Barnes mined a seam of pure pub rock’n’roll, David Campbell’s metier is derived from another age – swing, cabaret, classics, jazz, popular musicals, Broadway melodies. It’s an unusual one for such a young man, particularly one who, relaxing after a session at the gym, bears the hallmarks of a rock singer – tight black jeans, black boots, a sense of danger. There’s not a white sports coat or a pink carnation in sight.

Campbell’s favourite singers and composers include Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jnr, Johnny Mathis, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Henry Mancini. "I relate to songs written 50 years ago," he says. "The old-fashioned songwriters knew how to write about yearning. We get things instantly today, we don’t yearn any more. I like music that’s moving and interesting. Sometimes I feel as though I have been born in the wrong era."

His vocal cords might be Barnsie’s DNA, but his musical direction comes from a childhood steeped in music from another time. Joan Campbell – born in pre-war London within the sound of the Bow bells – played the piano. She filled her home with Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, Mario Lanza, Gershwin, Broadway musicals, Tchaikovsky.

"Joan’s gift to David was the sense of who he is musically," says Les Solomon, Campbell’s manager and mentor.

Onstage, Campbell has something of his father’s tangible sexual presence, but where Jimmy’s is raw, guttural rock in sweaty T-shirts, Campbell is sweet-voiced and smooth as silk, dressed to kill in designer suits. His openers, big cabaret numbers such as Tear Up the Town Tonight, are no less energetic than Barnsie’s belt around the ears with Khe Sahn; his audience – Campbell has a huge gay following – no less adoring.

His appeal owes much to the paradox in his performance: here is a very young man singing the sort of music usually associated with men from another generation, often campy and cryogenically preserved with hair transplants and capped teeth. In the dimly lit cabaret nightclubs of New York, Sydney and Melbourne, Campbell’s medleys and patter still the clinking of the martini glasses.

"David has an extraordinary ability to impart a depth of passion and yearning into his singing," says Solomon, who believes the emotional complexities of Campbell’s upbringing have helped shape his talent. "Women in the audience at the Rainbow and Stars were in tears. One told him he defined for her the meaning of ‘killing me softly with your song’."

Campbell, who has just become engaged to his Les Mis co-star, Natalie Mendoza, is currently ensconced in digs in New York, auditioning for musical theatre productions and lining up cabaret tours. "He’s got his Green Card and he’s there indefinitely," Solomon says.

After an untroubled adolescence, Campbell hit a particularly dark period when he left schooled moved in with the Barnes family in the NSW Southern Highlands, leaving behind the stability and discipline of Joan’s household. "I planted myself in the middle of a family with a father who didn’t really know me. Neither of us knew how to' handle things. I still needed guidance and I was used to strong discipline from Joan."

Life with a millionaire, hard-living rock star who didn’t act like the father Campbell craved was light years away – materially and emotionally – from Ingle Farm. Barnes recalls a party he held, attended by Fleetwood Mac’s Mick Fleetwood, where David got stuck into some sake. "He finally slid under the table," Barnes says. "As I carried him out, he threw up all over me and the Armani suit I had lent him. The only reason he survived was because a mate of mine, Dennis O’Toole, was there – he used to carry me out of parties in Adelaide!"

At 18, Campbell tried his father’s line of work. He went on the road with Barnes for three weeks, performing with guitarist Nathan Cavaleri and living out the rock star fantasy of wall-to-wall partying. "I went pretty wild for a while, but it got to the point where I was actually having a bad time."

About that time, Jane Barnes rang Les Solomon, who was running the Highlands Youth Theatre Company in Bowral, to see if her stepson could join.

"He embraced the theatre with such a fervour the Barneses never saw him," Solomon says. "He was riotous, extremely difficult to control, but a very fast learner. All the kids loved him."

In that tough year, with Campbell rubbing up against an unfamiliar family and lifestyle, desperately wanting to impress his father yet rebelling against Barnes’s spasmodic bouts of discipline, Solomon’s theatre company offered him another life.

"It was this glimmer of hope. I loved it and I was good at it. I wasn’t riding on the coat-tails of a rock star."

His year with the Barnes family blew apart on Campbell’s 19th birthday. He and Jimmy had a huge blue over a disciplinary issue and Campbell stormed out. He moved to Sydney and began to tread its vastly larger stage as an actor. Father and son had little communication for several years.

David at the Mo Awards 1998On the long, flat drive from Adelaide airport to Ingle Farm, Joan Campbell and her second daughter, Lesley, highlight the route – David’s old school, Northfield High (now Ross Smith High); the shop that sold his school uniforms; the Bridgeway Hotel where Jimmy Barnes and Cold Chisel raised the rafters.

At the local shopping centre where we stop to buy groceries and lottery tickets, the shopkeepers we meet are chuffed that someone from the media is talking to Joan. David’s roots in this working-class neighbourhood, racked now by crippling rates of unemployment, have been virtually ignored in the media profiles. The people who knew him as Joan Campbell’s son are fed up with the hype that portrays him only as Barnsie’s boy.

The two families who migrated to South Australia for a better life for their children – Joan and her first husband and their four kids, Tottenham Hotspur supporters fresh from inner-city London, and the Barneses from Scotland – were neighbours for a while. Their kids were schoolmates. As teenagers, Kim and Jimmy had a one-night stand, a fling that went nowhere. Jimmy was well on his way out of Adelaide and on to rock’n’roll fame and fortune.

"Kim wanted to adopt the baby out, so I decided to take him myself," Joan says. "He was never meant to be given away."

Desperately proud as she is of him, Joan is torn by the fact that David’s success and his new, exotic lifestyle of jumping on planes to New York and London and being feted by people such as Elton John’s manager, has removed him from his Adelaide family and their lives. She feels acutely the physical void between them – a void being filled by Barnes, who has recently developed a close, if not fatherly relationship with his son.

Lesley and Joan venture carefully that they would like David to remember who he is and how he got to where he is. "David wants to be built in a day," Joan says.

Watching the strain on David’s relationship with his family, Jimmy Barnes is filled with a sense of deja vu. "When I became wealthy and successful, my mum begrudged it," Barnes says.

"If I rang her from New York, or somewhere, she’d say, ‘Well, don’t worry about me, alone here.’ When I bought her a new home, she complained it was too cold.

"I sat my parents down and told them that even if they didn’t like what I now was, I still loved them. Slowly things loosened up over time and we now have a good, honest relationship. Joan has had David all her life, and now she misses him."

Settled into a banquette in his favourite local cafe, Double Bay’s 21, Barnes, who has one of the rock world’s most enduring relationships (19 years with Jane) and is recognised as a devoted father (to Mahalia, Eliza-Jane, Elly-May and Jack), looks the quintessential successful eastern suburbs family man. It’s a long way from working-class Adelaide.

He talks about Campbell, who is making the same journey, with pride and affection. "He’s full on, really intense, like me. I see it in his performance and in his personal life. He really touches people when he sings, as great performers should do.

"When he started singing cabaret, I thought, ‘Hang on! What’s wrong with me? I’ve got one son, Jack, who’s a goalkeeper – I’m a striker – and another who sings cabaret!’ "

Barnes’s love for his first-born has evolved slowly. As a teenage father, the wildest man of rock saw him infrequently – Joan would show him photos, or he’d pop in for a quick visit. He began to get interested in David only when he started having children with Jane, and it is only in the past couple of years that he and Campbell have come to an easy, fond relationship.

"Joan and I had some big fights over David, but she did a great job with his upbringing. No-one could have done better. She was always worried she didn’t have enough materially to give him, but she made David the man he is. He has good values, good friends, he loves the truth. He’s a good boy, it’s a great thing to see."

The family man of Australian rock reflects on the role of mothers. "I can remember being held by my mother. It was the safest I’ve ever felt in my life."


The Good Weekend Magazine - September 19, 1998.