From Darkness to Light
I was given a copy of Tom Jans' "Dark Blonde" a
few months ago and to my surprise the album was produced by Joe 'Silk Degrees` Wissert,
with Bill Payne and Fred Tackett mustered in the small print. Now I remembered Tom Jans as
a folksinger-songwriter from the very early seventies, but he is now influenced by the
current sound coming out of LA and this album seems to be an important step in his musical
I was pleased when I heard that Tom was due in London on a
visit arranged by his song publishers. He had been singing in Europe (where Valerie Carter
sang with him one night) but unfortunately there were no concerts in this country. He has
produced (and is still producing) some fine music and it was with great pleasure that I
spoke to him on a sunny afternoon in May...
"The Bay Area is the place where I grew up, cut my
teeth as a person, a writer. I started off writing my own songs, playing both piano and
guitar, and got kicked out of my own band because I wanted to play my own songs for ever
and ever. I always wanted to sing my own songs and be the kind of guy that was associated
with writing his own things.
So I was singing in a little coffee house in Palo Alto and
Joan Baez came up after the show. She said she really liked some of the songs and she
introduced me to her sister Mimi Farina."
In 1971 the album "Take Heart" (A&M AMLS
64310 UK, now deleted) was issued and the voices of Mimi and Tom were blended into a
pleasant folky sound. The composing credits were equally shared. At the time I thought the
album was a natural progression for the Mimi and Richard Farina sound. Richard was killed
in a motor-cycle accident in 1966 and Mimi had only recorded two solo tracks for a
memorial album and a back-up vocal for sister Joan since that time. Tom Jans proved to be
the catalyst to bring out some good music from Mimi.
"I had never listened to a Mimi and Richard album so
I went into our record just liking her and not knowing. I didn't really care what was in
her past. I think I brought about 50% of the record in and she brought 50."
It didn't worry him to follow Richard. When I put the idea
to him he quickly responded, "No, different size of shoes!"
The recurring theme in "Take Heart" is the
songwriting technique of a man-woman dialogue. "Kings And Queens" takes a
traditional melody and the idea is worked out with the man and woman singing alternately,
placing dreams on kings and queens and remembering the first day they met. "The Great
White Horse" is a country and western song with the same theme, given the Farina-Jans
arrangement; but in "No Need To Be Lonely" the idea is fully exploited by
"I conceived the song a long time ago but I like to
develop that theme of dialogue between a man and a woman. There's certain advice that each
of them is giving each other. They're not preaching. They go away possibly a little bit
better because of that. If you can capture that in a song it adds another dimension rather
than me singing the whole song. I wrote it when I was 22 which was a while ago but I still
like to hear the song."
Some DJ's in America play "No Need To Be Lonely"
in conjunction with the newer albums. The song will be included on the next record, with a
different woman singing.
Although they sang together at the Big Sur Festival,
Mimi's interest turned back to street theatre; and Tom...
"I always knew I wanted to be a writer on my own. We
wrote separately and brought our songs separately to each other, but I wanted to take that
step that had always been there. She wanted to take another step herself so it just grew
in different directions. I think we're both better people because of it. We're better
people because we were together, too. There were no more albums because we were into
something that we had to individually express. "
The music that Tom Jans brought to "Take Heart"
has completeness, confidence, and a great deal to say. It was a surprise therefore to hear
Tom's comments about the doubts he had before recording his first solo album in 1974:
"I spent a lot of time deciding whether or not I had
enough to say as a human being and put it on record. I spend a long time writing records
because it doesn't come easy. I spent two years writing ('73 to the end of '74) and I was
very scared, vulnerable, although some of the songs had a certain structure that I really
like. I didn't know if it would mean anything to anybody, but since the songs like
"Margarita" and "Loving Arms" have become more well known than my fear
behind them, I feel good about the record."
"Tom Jans" (A&M SP3644 U.S. ), produced by
Mentor Williams, was cut in Nashville but the sound is not country. Kristofferson did sing
back-up vocal on one track, but throughout the record the individuality of Tom Jans is
"If I was going to make a record, I wanted every
aspect of it to be mine so I put it all together under a production company. I wanted to
have as much control over what I did as possible because it is personal. You could say
that the songs are totally autobiographical... They reflect either what I'm about to go
through or sometimes, like "Loving Arms", I actually grew into the song, didn't
know what it meant when I wrote it and then three or four years later I'd hear a different
version, or my own, maybe, and I'd understand why I wrote it."
"Margarita" was released as a single in the
States and was played on some AM stations, but perhaps a more interesting song is the one
about Gino on "Hart's Island"...
"A friend of mine invited me to a drug rehabilitation
centre in San Francisco and I immediately became endeared to an ex-boxer called Gino. He
told me a story about an island off Manhattan called Hart's Island. There is a prison on
the island and the criminals dig the paupers' graves. Gino said that the biggest fear that
he had was dying and nobody coming to claim the body. Well, it just got me. I went to New
York and I took a trip to Hart's Island and everything just fell into place...
"That's where you go if you're some-one no-one knows..." - I knew what it meant
right away. Gino did die about two years after that and there were preparations for his
funeral so he didn't have to go to Hart's Island."
Eighteen months after that album came the move to CBS and
"The Eyes Of An Only Child" (PC 33699, US only).
"It was recorded in Los Angeles at Sunset Sound. I
had a little house in LA and I spent a full year and a half literally at the piano or at
the guitar. It was a good time for me. I knew there was something about being an only
child and I'd reached a certain point in my life when I wanted to reflect what it meant.
Lowell George had a good effect on that album. The guy is a genius. He introduced me to a
group of people like Fred Tackett and Jeff Porcaro. But it wasn't until I made "The
Eyes Of An Only Child" that I decided that I was going to make a very bold step about
what I wanted to do and Lowell just hated that. He produced two tracks on that record and
had to bail out; but he gave me an insight into the good way that records can be made, not
the pressured, worried way."
I found that the song "Struggle In Darkness"
takes a lot of getting into. Tom said it was one of the songs he was most pleased with,
one of the most honest statements in his work, and continued :
"Bill Payne of Little Feat and I were going through a
time when we both had low blood sugar, which means a lot of nightmares, passing out,
drowsy, tired, and I played "Struggle In Darkness" to him. He immediately
latched on to it. He helped me arrange it and threw his own craziness into the
arrangement, and I still love to sing it.
The song "Eyes Of An Only Child" is about my
family and the way I was;
"Felt like a fool when the Laughter rang,
My parents held so steady by their smile,
Knowing that my life would always be seen,
Through the eyes of an only child."
My mother called after hearing the song and was crying on
the phone saying she had no idea she had raised such a sad child, and I said, 'Mama, it's
just a time I was going through'. Reflections about loneliness may possibly give strength
and that's what I wanted to do in that album. I still feel close to it because it was a
turning point artistically for me. It was a big step."
When talking about a song Tom Jans will cut into the lyric
and quietly recite part of the song. Perhaps the song needs no more explanation
album covers sometimes benefit from explanation...
"Well, I think an artist should be reflected in as
complete a set of circumstances as possible all the way down the line from the cover. I
have total control and I wanted the covers to tell a story in themselves - to be a
semi-movie if possible."
The picture on the cover of "Eyes Of An Only
Child" shows Tom Jans leaning against a wall in the bright sunshine while in the
shade, totally ignored, is a boy of 10 or 11 with a cigarette
"He was one of those kids who immediately latch on to
what you want to say. He would get down into this kind of pose with the cigarette. I'm
looking the other way. He's in the darkness. Usually, children are in the light - that
thing that Hesse says that there is a certain time when everything is white, nurses, good
food and going to church. But the little kid was in the darkness and I was in the
On "Dark Blonde" (PC 34292, US only), the most
recent album, the layout of the cover is in the same style with just a black and white
picture. The two albums form a set, a progression which you expect to be reflected in the
music. The idea for the cover art was Tom's...
"It fascinates me as it's part of you that's being
reflected visually as well as aurally. Ethan Russell, the photographer, is creative,
delicate and so sensitive that he goes to the very last detail. We took a week and a half
to build an exact duplication of the room I grew up in. We had to get all the things
together down to the last minute detail, which most photographers don't want to go
through. There's a phenomenon called after-image, which you sometimes get on television
when you turn it off. Well, my after-image comes through windows. I'd walk into a room and
there would be something, not necessarily a demon or spirit, and then it would be gone.
The man in the picture, that's me, sitting down writing, is unaware that there is
something possibly sitting on his shoulder. The little kid this time sees it as opposed to
the "Eyes Of An Only Child" when the little kid was... I don't know, maybe like
Picasso said... if you've got to explain it, nobody got it.
"Dark Blonde"? Well, my grandmother said I was
the darkest blonde she had ever met, meaning - I thought - my hair. But she meant I was
the most musically perverse child in the entire family. My grandmother had a jazz band
called The Rocky Mountain Five; she played drums and trombone, but she died when I was
There's a song on "Dark Blonde" called
"Distant Cannon Fire" about Franco. In America, people don't even know who
Franco was, but in Europe they know exactly who he was, and I did write it because he was
a very strange, monstrous human being. This guy castrated people, he killed wives of
poets, he killed poetesses, he sent his guard out into the night, and I'm sure that's what
attracted Hemingway and people on a more physical level to be with Franco. When he died it
was as though some great phenomenon had passed before our eyes and I wanted to say
something about it maybe because of my background. My mother is Spanish, her mother was
born in Barcelona. But it's not a political song as much as a story, a fear I felt for
someone living in the thirties and forties. I went back to Barcelona and I was hoping to
play the song for my grandmother and see if it was as real as I wanted it to be; but she
passed on before there was time."
One of the musicians assisting on "Dark Blonde"
is Valerie Carter who sang background vocal on the chorus of "Back On My Feet
Again" about which Tom commented, "Very nice, very subtle - tongue in cheek. Tom
also played on three tracks of Valerie's "Just A Stone's Throw Away" - the more
folky, guitar orientated songs. Tom was scheduled to enter the studio to cut a new album
in June and it will probably be a synthesis of the things learned from the last two
records. We can therefore expect the music to continue to develop and grow.
"I am trying to learn as much as I can about my
writing and my voice, so the struggle to learn is more important than being the artist, I
think. I would say that my struggle is to learn more about myself. My music keeps moving
around and my life becomes more enjoyable because of it"
Tom Jans gave the interview on which this article is
The Churchill Hotel, London, England on 20th May 1977.
Original illustration by Trevor Wright.