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Tom Jans
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Tom Jans:

"A macho California-based hip country singer"

Henk Dekker
Platenblad
1997

This article draws heavily on previously published articles
and the translation is of the article as printed.

"Best known for his collaboration with Mimi Farina, Tom Jans later had a Seventies career as a sort of macho California-based hip country singer. He developed a small cult, which apparently found sustenance in his plaints about the tough life of an All-American stud".

This rather cynical quote is out of The Rolling Stone Record Guide. The following story reveals if there's some truth in it.

In 1949 Tom Jans is born the son of a farmer from the San Josť California area. He grows up in wilderness-like surroundings and as an only child he was raised by two very different people. His father, a very hardworking craftsman, takes his son out working on his land as much as possible. On the other hand his mother was an intellectual who tried to put Tom in contact with all sorts of spirituality and culture. Above all world literature had the highest priority. In the field of music there was also a dilemma: His dad loved country-singer Hank Williams Sr. while his Mom, of Spanish descent, let him hear all kinds of music, Flamenco among them. But the biggest musical influence comes from his Grandmother. She plays trombone and drums (!) in a jazzband and she's the one who inspires Tom to start making music by himself. Under the influence of Beatle-mania in the USA he learns to play piano and guitar at an early age and he also starts reading and writing poems. Through his mother he becomes acquainted with the English poets from the beginning of the 19th century (Lord Byron, Shelley and Keats), so it's not so strange he later gets a degree in English Literature.

When he was around twenty he starts making music on a professional basis. He plays in different little bands, but at a certain moment he gets thrown out of his own band because he wanted to exclusively play his own songs ([Engl:] "I always wanted to play and sing my own songs for ever and ever and be the kind of guy that was associated with writing his own things", he tells in an interview). There's no other choice for him than to to perform his songs as a solo-artist and subsequently he plays the coffeehouses in the Bay Area. After one of those gigs in Palo Alto he meets Joan Baez who likes some of his songs very much. She introduces him to her younger sister Mimi Farina.

Upon hearing the name of Joan Baez a lot of older and younger old-aged readers' eyes will probably glaze over. The too perfect soprano of this peace-activist and the pathetic edge to her voice acutely causes allergic reactions. The disaster is that her little sister Mimi is blessed (well, blessed) with an identical sound.

Mimi Baez is born in 1945 and she marries Richard Farina in Paris in 1963. He is apart from as well as a political activist a talented and charismatic singer-songwriter. With him she starts a folk-duo and they release in '65 and '66 two beautiful but dated folk records: "Celebrations for a Grey Day" and "Reflections in a Crystal Wind" The untimely end to their career comes on April, 30th, 1966 when Richard dies after a motorcycle-accident. Widow Mimi resigns from the music world and in 1968 after a rather short mourning period she marries a certain Mr. Melvin and resumes her activities as a singer (eg at the Big Sur Festival, September 1969) and as an actress in The Committee.

At Joan's instigation she starts cooperating with Tom Jans. They're touring England (with Cat Stevens) and they're recording an album: Take Heart. The record is produced by Michael Jackson (no relation) and is released by A&M in 1971. It's a worthy folk album full of nice little vocal duets with capable accompaniment by session-musicians like Leland Sklar on bass, the drummers Russ Kunkel and Jim Keltner and keyboard player Graig Doerge.

Unfortunately the five compositions by Mimi Farina are lacking some quality: the little folk tunes don't stick to your mind and in her lyrics she doesn't have much to tell.: for instance the cheerful (!) "In the Quiet Morning" deals with the destructive life of Janis Joplin, but when you listen to the refrain ("la la la la la") you think you've fallen into some kind of a religious gathering. With two beautiful songs Jans proves he's got more composing talents than his partner: The melancholic (dressed up with a cello) "No Need to be Lonely" and the lovesong "Carolina". The first song has a short history to it. Jans: [Engl.] I conceived the song when I was twenty-two, but I like to develop that theme of dialogue between man and woman. There's certain advice that each of them give to the other. They're not preaching. They go away possibly a little better because of that. If you can capture that in a song it adds another dimension rather than me singing the whole song." "Carolina" is in line with the work of James Taylor, but it resembles even more the 1974 Dave Mason-hit song "The Only One": An acoustic jewel with flat lyrics. Farina and Jans do perform a few times before they split up in autumn '71. For a short while Farina is onstage with Joan (December 1971) and she sings on Ben Sidran's debut-album before she makes a definite choice for the more adventurous street-theater. Later she's also a co-founder of the Bread & Roses institution which specializes in organizing all kinds of entertainment for criminals, psychiatric patients and other folks.

For a long time Jans has serious doubts about a solo-career: [Engl. "I always knew I wanted to be a writer on my own. 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 spent two years writing songs, because it doesn't come easy. I was scared, vulnerable, although some of the songs had a certain structure that I really like."

Since 1972 he is composing songs in Nashville Tennessee, and it's there that he writes one of his greatest hits, Loving Arms. This song is covered by more than a hundred artists (including Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson, Petula Clarke and Dobie Gray). In 1974, uplifted by this success the insecure Jans records a Country-related album in The Quadrophonic Studios in Nashville, produced by Mentor Williams ("Tom Jans"). Still the sound isn't directly C&W orientated. The songs are more folk and ballad-like and only because of the regular use of dobro and pedal steel guitar it sounds like country from time to time. With it he joins the new generation of progressive young singer-songwriters. This solo-debut shows to all what a talented composer and textwriter Jans is. It sounds as if he seems to have no trouble at all writing all kinds of gorgeous melodies (while he says it gives him a very hard time) and in general the expressive lyrics are autobiographical and strongly personal. Incidentally some of the lyrics are written together with Will Jennings, who later was to become Steve Winwood's foremost text-writer. Jans is accompanied by a compact band of experienced session-musicians, among others the guitarists Reggie Young, Troy Seals and Lonnie Mack, steel guitar player Weldon Myrick, the pianist David Briggs and the rhythm section consisting of bassplayer Mike Leech and drummer Kenny Malone.

Despite the undisputable qualities of the songs and the professionality it's a careful, laidback even rather dull album that on top of that is slickly produced (most of the songs are decorated with strings). The delicate piano-ballad "Margarita" is released as a single but despite some airplay from the FM-stations it fails to become a hit. Beautiful refrain by the way: [Engl.] "Margarita/The softness of your body/ and the hunger in my soul / Is the only secret I'll ever know/ Margarita…" Among some other striking tracks is "Green River", in which a restless Jans confronts himself with some painful experiences from his past, and of course "Loving Arms" that is put together here with the help of Dobie Gray and Kris Kristofferson. The theme of "Hart's Island" is different from Jans' usual lyrics about unfulfilled desires and his desperate search for true love. "Hart's Island is written after Jans met Gino, an old boxing champion, who tells him of the existence of this little island in the vicinity of Manhattan. There's a jail there and as a kind of working therapy the inmates are digging holes for burying homeless people. Gino's fear is that he will die in total solitude and will be buried in the absolute anonymity in a desolate place like Hart's Island. Much impressed by this story Jans travels to New York and visits Hart's Island where everything falls into place: [Engl.] "The only thing that's worse than dying in disgrace / Is being buried there on Hart's Island / that's where you go, if you're someone no one knows / Just a plastic rose on Hart's Island / No one comes around and no names can be found / The homeless underground, Hart's Island."

In 1974 Jans moves back to California. He finds a small house in Los Angeles and starts, seated at the piano or with a guitar in his hands, the difficult preparations for his second solo-album. His health suffers severely from the a year-and-a-half-long Spartan reclusion and he's going through a hard but fruitful period. With Lowell George (Little Feat) as a producer he starts the recording-sessions for the country rock album "The Eyes of an Only Child". With the help of George, Jans hopes to achieve the sound of the Little Feat classics "Sailin' Shoes" and "Dixie Chicken". The recordings take place in the Sunset Sound Studio in Los Angeles and a stream of famous session-artists shows up. George has got a huge network and it is his merit that celebrities like David Lindley, the late Jesse Ed Davis, guitarist Fred Tackett, the than very young and now very late Toto-drummer Jeff Porcaro and Little Feat-members Bill Payne and Sam Clayton collaborate on the album. But alas, after only two songs producer George quits the scene. Jans: [Engl] "Lowell George had a good effect on that album. The guy is a genius. 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 only two tracks and had to bail out."

John Heaney (who produced "Jackson Browne's "For Everyman") finishes the job together with Jans and the result that is released in the Summer of 1975 is not to be missed. It's an lp full of variation that shows Jans as a versatile musician who is covering different styles like country, folk, rock'n'roll, rhythm & blues and even funk. Highlights: "I Got to Move", co-written with Lowell George, that tells of restlessness and the life-on-the-road-feeling of the first-person narrator. The slidesolo in this Little Feat-like song is by master-guitarist David Lindley who excels on "Where Did all my Good Friends Go?" too as well. This song that has a funky shuffle to it, deals with someone who's got it made in financial / materialistic terms but hates the vacations with his wife and subsequently asks himself where he has lost is old friends. (not sure what to put here - Where did all my good friends go is a idiomatic saying ??? The easygoing country rock song "Out of Hand" later becomes famous in the version of Gary Stewart (a #1 hit single in the US). The title song, a beautiful ballad is dealing with young Tom and the relationship to his parents: [Engl.] "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."

Except for this key song his slightly traumatic childhood forms the leading thread that runs through the whole record which could even be interpreted as a kind of conceptual album. His personal lyrics are rather heavy-laden, although Jans himself says it's quite optimistic for example in: "The sky may be burning, but I don't wanna close these eyes of an only child". In the heart-heart rending piano-accompanied tearjerker "Inside of You" he shows his personality to everyone without restraint: "I have been lonely, lost and forgotten / Crying at sundown, burning the mountain / But the beauty of that freedom can't match the feeling / Of what I am, when I'm inside of you."

The absolute winner is "Struggle in Darkness" that which has an interesting genesis. Both Jans (during his recluse) and Little Feat-pianist Bill Payne suffered from low bloodsugar and blood-pressure that come with unpleasant symptoms like nightmares, fainting fits and tiredness as a result. When Payne hears the composition that deals with that he gets very excited, writes the arrangements and plays a solo on his Moog. With a heavy-set piano, and a funky refrain this piece of southern rock even could have been a potential hit.

The symbolistic cover is also worth some notes. According to Jans an artist should have total control over all aspects of his product, the cover-design included ([Engl.] "I want the covers to tell a story in themselves, to be a semi-movie if possible"). On the back of the cover he failed tragically: On this close-up he looks like a much-hated Dutch soap-actor. The sedate grey frontcover by Ethan Russell shows Jans, standing relaxed against a wall, smoking in broad daylight. He unconsciously turns away from a ten-year-old boy, almost invisible in the shade, who is secretly smoking a cigarette-butt.

The cover design of the next album, "Dark Blonde" which is released at the end of 1976, follows the same style: again a black & white picture by Ethan Russell telling a story, placed this time in a piss-yellow passepartout. For this occasion a week and a half is spent on building a detailed copy of the room Jans grew up in. In the scarcely lit space Jans is sitting at his candle-lit writing table. Resembling Rodin's Le penseur he seems to be in a thoughtful mood, a bottle of tequila within reach, unaware of the devil who peers inside through the half opened window. But a little boy, half undressed, did notice him and is stiff with fear against a wall. This touches implicitly on the main theme of the record: fear ("Fear as a jewel of sound" is the header in the Dutch music magazine "Oor")

The vivid, semi-autobiographical lyrics of the nine songs are drenched with latent fears, loneliness, despair, painful memories and an endless searching. Stylisticly Jans has more or less left behind countryrock and the songs are more related to funk and southern rock. This has to do with the sober production of Joe Wissert who gained recognition for his work with Boz Scaggs. "Dark Blonde" is Wissert's next job after "Silk Degrees" and influences of that record can be detected. Also the band is responsible for a sound that is much heavier and fuller. Bassplayer Kerry Hatch once collaborated with discostar Sylvester and his playing together with ex-John Sebastian drummer Kelly Shanahan leaves its imprint on the for a large part concrete-like funk foundation of the songs. The technically gifted slideguitarists Jerry Swallow and Scott Shelly play clean, tasteful and somewhat jazzy which gives the whole thing an extra dimension.

Variation enough: Stirring funk with jazzy breaks in the opening song ("Ready to Roll"), funkrock in the nervous "Bluer than You", a melancholic country duet with his girlfriend Valerie Carter ("Back on my Feet Again") and the longing midtempo "Why Don't You Love Me?" (with a Sax solo by Ernie Watts), that deals with unreachable love with Jans as a hot stud: "Why don't you love me like I love you / I can see through your dress, babe / So what do you want me to do?". Pianist David Paich (later in Toto) and organ player Mike Utley assist him here as in the best song of the lp: "Distant Cannon Fire" The subject is the Spanish dictator Franco who died in 1976. Jans (Spanish blood in his veins) feels obliged to write something about El Caudillo because people in America haven't the faintest idea of the gruesome deeds of terror of this fascist. The song isn't downright political but it deals with the fears that came with living under the totalitarian regime of Franco especially in the 30's and 40's: "Distant cannon fire in the hills above our town / Me and Ramone got so scared, we hit the ground /Of the twenty men in my sweet short life all but five have felt the pain of Franco's knife / So the wind blows through the Barcelona plain / when they burned my poems and touched her skin I went insane." Jans ends in a militant spirit: "So only time will tell, just how long we can last / Ramone says: just behave / But I can you one damn thing / I'll never, no, I'll never be a slave."

Jans has improved as a singer too. His voice had a melodic but a not very expressive sound to it and on the earlier records his phrasing isn't very lean . According to Valerie, Tom is capable of singing in a more emotional, more daring way and indeed some of the songs on "Dark Blonde" ("Rosarita" and "Young Man in Trouble") are performed in a very inspired way. In Rosarita his vocal cords are in direct contact with his libido and he moans his way through the text, but the subject of the song remains an ideal that is beyond reach ("I wanted to take you, but I guess I never will") . "Young Man In Trouble" is built up to a climax: a laidback verse, a bridge (with a fluent slideguitar) an than the refrain that is played and sung in a higher gear. Jans snarls like Oasis' Liam Gallagher in his heydays (1993?): "Till my dying days I'm gonna stay a young man in trouble". In this song he also touches on his inability to keep up a steady relation: "I can't keep a lover / Much too soon they all discover / Strength must be found with another / Another man stronger than me."

The record ends with the moving piano-ballad "Starlight" where he's supported by a regiment of strings. Jans sings: "This road that we're travelling on, baby / Is harder than stone / And it can cut right to the bone." It took him eight minutes to write the song after a crackling quarrel with his girlfriend Valerie Carter and out of self-preservation he is back on his way to the unknown: (with drama) "In a week or so there'll be no finding me / no finding me / No finding me …." He seems to take this more than serious after that because in the following years it gets fearfully quiet around Jans. Yet in the Spring of 1977 he is in Europe on a promo tour for "Dark Blonde". In May Jans visits the Netherlands. With his guitar player Jerry Swallow he playbacks (lip-syncs) his single "Why don't you love me?" in AVRO's TopPop, plays at the occasion of a party of the "Muziekkrant Oor" and in the Ahoy' in Rotterdam he joins Valerie Carter (who opens for The Eagles) in "Back On My Feet Again". He also supported her on three tracks of her 1977 debut-album "Just A Stone's Throw Away" but after that there is a blank period of six years, during which there is neither sign nor word from Jans. That's strange because there are already advanced plans for a new album: In June '77 even studio time and space is reserved and the concepts of the songs seem to be finished. His fourth solo album is to be a crossover between "Dark Blonde and "The Eyes Of An Only Child" but more "warm" and closer to his roots.

According to an interview in the English music magazine "Dark Star", from which some of the quotes in this story were used, the guy still makes an extremely motivated impression in this period: [Engl.] I'm trying to learn as much as I can about my writing and my voice, so the struggle to learn is more important than being an artist. 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."

In 1983 he releases another record on Canyon International, called "Champion". The lp is distributed in limited edition in the USA only and gets totally neglected by both the media and the record buying public (the writer of this included). On March, 25th 1984 he is found dead in his home in Santa Monica. At first there weren't many clear reports, but it's likely that an overdose is the cause of his sudden passing. In Billboard his death is commemorated through a full page advertisement by one of his greatest admirers and singers of his songs, Bette Midler.

The answer to the question about the truthfulness of the quote in the header of this piece should be "Yes but …". Jans looks like a slick and self confident All-American boy who presents himself in his songs not only as a tormented loner but also as a sex oriented hetero (although with some fantasy he can also be called a [Engl.] male chauvinist pig. In that sense now and then he seems not very credible when without any restraint he translates his deepest inner feelings into music. But his qualities as a composer of accessible, varied songs and writer of introspective lyrics with an enormous sense of imagination, are beyond any doubt. In this respect the Rolling Stone Record Guide ratings for his first three solo albums, two stars (=[Engl.] "mediocre") are a great shame. This has to be corrected straightaway! So three stars (="good") to "Tom Jans", four stars (="excellent") to "The Eyes Of An Only Child" and four-and-a-half stars (="almost indispensable") to "Dark Blonde".

And maybe this posthumous artistic recognition would be a nice inducement to a World Wide Web-surfer looking for a subject to honour Jans who is now completely disappeared into oblivion, with a nice homepage on the Internet.


 Notes:

Platenblad is a collector's magazine published in Holland. 
This article uses Oor magazine and Dark Star as sources. 

The use of the present tense is a language device used in Dutch to give the writing an immediacy - an excitement.

Milan Melvin, a DJ in California,  passed away in October 2001

The press section on this web site carries the banner "print the legend" 
to remind us all of the factual inaccuracies in journalism that can so easily 
occur for any number of reasons. 
The Jans family have asked this web site to note the following:
	Art Jans was very well read.
 	According to his death certificate Tom Jans died of a heart attack.
	Tom was raised in Willow Glen, a suburb of San Jose Ca.
	Tom's mother was born in Montana.
Like all rock legends, the stories seem to grow in the telling. 

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photo credit:
tom sheehan London 20th May 1977

This page updated June 2002 by Geoff
GMGough@clara.net