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Tom Jans
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"print the legend" ... James Stewart

 

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de Stemverklaring van
Tom Jans

Paul Evers
Oor magazine

15th June1977

This article is written in Dutch and was published in Oor magazine soon after Tom Jans played in Amsterdam in 1977.

The translation is of the article as printed.

 

[The title of this article is a kind of a translating problem. A ‘stemverklaring’ was a fashionable word, quite popular in those days (the political 70’s). It stands for the declaration of frontmen of labor-unions e.g. concerning the political party they will vote for in upcoming elections. (The article was written during one of the most exciting political campaigns that I know of.) The word is long out of use now. Maybe the more neutral "Statement" would be a better alternative nowadays.

On the right-hand page there is a quotation from the part on the Dark Blonde-cover that says: Maybe it was the light …

The picture is special for another reason. It’s an early one by Anton Corbijn who nowadays is one of the most famous rock photographers (think of his Miles Davis portrait, the U2 covers etc.). He started his career with OOR [Dutch for ‘Ear"].
Note: A quality scan of this photo is not available at the present time. The only image available has been used here to try to give some idea of the "feel" of the presentation of the original piece.

corbijn.jpg (13224 bytes)

The [lit:] Voting Declaration of
Tom Jans

 

‘It’s no coincidence that some people are attracted to making music. At a certain point in your life you get stuck. You lose contact with your friends. To compensate your loneliness you pick up your guitar.’

1975: These were the first words that stuck to my mind. Two years later he picks up his guitar again. The hotel room is cool and he isn’t alone. ‘I’m starting to learn something: Just when you’re at the point where you can’t take it anymore, you emerge again. The older you become the more you learn about yourself.’ With a grin he refuses to answer my image of him: the tormented loner, who is deeply melancholic and who keeps himself alive with an old guitar and an old school pad in which he has scribbled his words. He is kind, serious, intellectual and emotional. The only child has grown up, with the help of 3 albums full of moving lyrics and sparkling country-rock. Music as therapy? Tom Jans has been in the Netherlands for a week to explain this.

Tuesday afternoon. He is here already for a day and he shakes my hand extensively for the first time, a ritual that will be repeated several times during the next days. Smaller than I expected, sturdily built with a roughly sketched friendly face. He is invited as the singer, guitarist, pianist, composer and writer of a few hands full of jewels of songs that are to be found on his three albums: ‘Tom Jans’ (not released here), ‘Through [sic] The Eyes of an Only Child’ and ‘Dark Blonde’. And made a stir by turning a careful combination of very personal lyrics and a mix of country, rock, r&b and blues into his own original musical style. The result is a seldom-heard piece of emotional involvement put into vinyl.

‘Fear as [literally] sound-jewel’ was the title of an extended review of his latest album. Later, in his hotel room, I translate the article on his request. ‘What a beautiful title, ‘Fear as a jewel of sound’. I can, without you translating it, see by the pieces you picked out that you understand what I’m doing.’ At that moment I realize that it was a good thing to acompany Jans over a longer period of time and let him get used to my presence. ‘You know, I’m not that good when I’m under pressure; I’m more loose now [lit: I dare more now]. This is four days after that Tuesday afternoon, in the TopPop studio’s.

 

Play-Back [‘Dutch’ for: Lip-Synch]

Together with his own guitarist Jerry Swallow (the man behind the gorgeous slide-parts on ‘Dark Blonde’ ) Tom Jans steps onto the stage. All around him lights go on and off and in this disgusting uniform stage-design he sings his ‘Why don’t you love me’. Although he brought a tape against which he wants to sing live, he is forced to lip-synch the song six or seven times. Finally they let him do what he wants and it is decided that there will be two versions: One lip-synch and one live. ‘The situation was rather strange, I didn’t feel at ease at all, but I had agreed on doing it. And I really did fight for it to do it as good and as honest as I could. But on a moment like this you do ask yourself why you’re doing things as ridiculous as these …’ And: ‘ If I would like to have a hit-record? If I can learn something from it, yes, but if that’s not the case it would mean nothing to me. And hit or no hit, usually you learn more from your misses than you learn from your hits. Hit-records, there’s a strange sort of mentality behind it and they stand for so many different things to so many different people. I want my life to follow it’s own path, not too slow or too fast, because it’s my life. A hit can easily divert you from the things you really want to do.’ Or: ‘Once there was a Chinese poetess who in the end saw only one way left to bring her poems to the attention of the people: through an affair with one of her superiors. She used his name as her family-name and he read her poems as if they were his own. Through him at last she became famous …. It’s so strange, if you think about it, how many perspectives there are. CBS [In that time the Dutch division of Columbia Records] is thinking about how many records Tom Jans will be selling while it’s my concern to get through to the audience in the best possible way ….’

Once we’re driving on the way back from Hilversum [where the studio’s were] to Amsterdam Jans enjoys the prospect of the arrival of his girlfriend Valerie Carter. ‘Val taught me not to be ashamed and put more emotion into my voice. Before the ‘Only Child’-album I still sounded too much like a singer/songwriter, but a song like ‘Struggle in Darkness’ is already much more bold.’

We agree to meet each other the next day.

 

Dilemma

Wednesday: It never happened. Time is something God must have invented to prevent that everything happens at the same time. We take it easy and in the evening I go through his records once again.

 

‘Raised by a cowboy
And a woman's only dream
Held so steady by their smile
Knowing that my life
Would always be seen
Through the eyes of an only child’

‘Nice of you to pick out these words, they mean so much to me, they encompass my whole past. For Tom Jans the past has been very important: He wrote so many songs about his childhood, that it’s not strange to encounter lines like ‘I am a prisoner of my past’ or ‘ I feel my past seducing me’. ‘I’m 28 now and looking back I feel like I’m on the edge of things. Again there’s a period behind me and I’m entering a new one. I wanted to put to record the period I left behind and my youth was very important in that respect.’

As the son of a Californian farmer Tom grows up in the vicinity of San Jose. ‘ One of the areas in California that are very hard to travel, it’s one of the purest natural environments. That has been very important to my lyrics. Songs like ‘Margarita’ and ‘Rosarita’ deal with that country. I grew up in a complete dilemma. My parents were very different people: My father could hardly read or write and my mother an intellectual. By him I was drawn to the country and by her to the mind. I didn’t have any brothers or sisters and that means that you have to sort things out for yourself, play games and the like to fill your life. I was always attracted to making sounds that people would like to hear. But when I was forced to it I didn’t do it; When my mother said like: Now Tom is gonna play for everyone, I refused. But on my own I did play. I learned to play guitar and piano, I had one lesson, I realized that if I wanted to develop my own style I had to do it by myself. What attracted me in music-making? Drawing attention, not from my parents but from the outside world.’

Through his grandmother who played drums and trombone, music is a stimulating force in Jans’ family. Tom’s father loves the C&W-idol Hank Williams and his mother, being Spanish, brings in European music. Their son picks his part of everything, blues and Big Bill Broonzy, via C&W and Flamengo to the Beatles’ first records. Also he starts reading and writing poems. While his Dad reads Westerns and his Mom goes through Jung and Marx, Tom gets into Lord Byron (romanticism, opium, tuberculosis) who he still adores. ‘And then I would sit down somewhere and try to sing to those lines: his rhythm was so perfect, you could make the melodies instantly while reading, just like in those books about Don Juan.’

While studying English literature his musical career is beginning to take shape. He starts singing his own songs and now and then he is performing in coffeehouses. I got thrown out of every band because I only wanted to sing my own songs. Nobody thought much of them. During one of his gigs he meets Joan Baez. ‘She invited me and so I got to know her sister Mimi, the wife of Richard Farina. We played some songs, it matched and we started a duo. Besides that I fell in love with her and I was young and all that, very exciting. Many people may still think of me as a ‘folk’singer because of my cooperation with Mimi but I had never heard of folkmusic before.’ The new duo toured through Europe, even records an album and then falls apart. ‘Only then I felt there were things inside my head I had to say by myself and at that point I started writing seriously.

 

Presley

Thursday afternoon: Tom Jans is rehearsing with his guitarist and a Dutch band that is put together for the occasion in a movie theatre in Aalsmeer [village in the vicinity of Amsterdam] The room is dimly lit and the only people visible are on the stage. Somewhere in the middle stands a small guy, his guitar loosely around his shoulder. He looks around satisfied, the collaboration is going on exceptionally well. ‘This song I wrote for Gary Stuart’ he jokes when they’re trying out ‘Out of Hand’. In reality Stuart covered Jans’ song and took it to the upper regions of the Country-listings while Jans stayed in the cold. [literally. The suggestion here is: financially] The same thing happened to the first hit from his first album, ‘Lovin’ Arms’ which was covered by more than a hundred artists, Elvis Presley and Petula Clark among them.

‘You’re already so happy that you’re able to make a record as a writer and a singer that it’s hard to imagine that even on top of that there are people out there who actually want to hear your voice and your songs. If someone else has a relation with a song I can only approve of that, even when it becomes a hit. It felt like getting -through Elvis- new energy in my life. I didn’t know if I had enough to say that was worth it. I wanted to get over my own uncertainties. When I did make that record I realized that that’s an eternal process. ‘Lovin’ Arms’ indeed was the song which contained the most of what I wanted to say at that time.’

Looking back on it from a different perspective in time the record is a cautious first try. With the help of, among others, producer Mentor Williams and the guitarists Lonnie Mack and Troy Seals Jans delivered an album full of strongly country-orientated, often acoustical songs. Those first songs about unanswered love, desires and memories and the advertisement for the writer of Lovin’ Arms are a foretaste. [In Dutch this line is not very clear]

Thursday evening: In the Rotterdam Ahoy’ Hall, with a rickety voice and a rickety band Valerie Carter is trying to work herself through her set as a support act for The Eagles. Timidly she announces her songs and at the moment that hardly anybody is listening anymore Tom Jans joins her. In that immense hall they succeed to sing Jans’ ‘Back on my Feet’ together, supported only by Jans’ acoustical guitar. The applause is more polite than enthusiastic which is inevitable when the contrasts are so enormous. Once The Eagles have kicked off for their half of the game I’m roaming the concrete corridors in search of the dressing rooms. Somewhere in the back a door is ajar. I push against it and between the benches, coat-hangers and tumbled-over beer cans someone is sitting with his back to the door, Tom Jans … alone.

 

Insanity

‘ But those last lines of ehm: ‘The sky may be burning but I don’t wanna close these eyes of an only child’, that means that I don’t wanna give up, it just goes on’, he is telling me later, when, for a short while, we’re going back in time and talk about his second album, ‘Through The Eyes of an only Child’.

‘ Although many people look upon me as a melancholic because of that album I myself think it’s an optimistic record. One tends to see childhood as something light, those innocent days full of delightful purity and I wanted to fight that notion. This doesn’t mean my childhood was black, but I’ve know some dark days. The album’s cover is symbolic: On the left in the shade a squatting young boy secretly smokes his first cigarette, on the right a grown up Jans stands in full sunlight, a cigarette loosely in his hands. ‘The guy in the light hasn’t got a clue yet of what his destination will be, but he stands in the light, that’s for sure!’

It’s a concept-album about his childhood: the music is spicier, more rocking, electric but still it’s faithful to its c&w-roots. A very clear and honest record with quit a lot of Little Feat- influences. Lowell George produced the record. Tom: ‘I wanted to make a further step and do something more in the way of ‘Dixie Chicken’ and ‘Sailin’ Shoes’. So I asked Lowell to produce a couple of things for me and through him I met a lot of other people. That’s the most brilliant thing about him: he brings together all kinds of people, although in the studio he is absolutely crazy. He’s a perfectionist you know and you have to be a perfectionist when you put together an album, that’s what I learned from him. I met Lowell through Bill Payne, who was immediately crazy about my ‘Struggle in Darkness’.

‘After my first record I had a very hard time. For a year and a half I have been thinking about things and have been writing songs for the ‘Only Child’-album. I lived in a small house I L.A. and at a certain point I was in a terrible condition. I suffered from low blood pressure which originated in the fact that I almost didn’t eat. I became rather seriously ill. I had been eating nothing but salads and didn’t drink anything but coffee. And in that state of total insanity I just kept writing without knowing if it’s a sunrise or a sundown, what day it is etc.. God I’m glad I left this period, that whole coming-of-age-thing as a matter of fact, behind me.

Memories are dominating his songs. Jans can talk about them for hours ‘because of the distance I created. For instance ‘Inside Of You’, do you know what I wanted to say with that one? From time to time we all have those images of how it is to be of the opposite gender, especially when you make love to each other. And physically part of a man comes very close to the heart of a woman. I tried to imagine what it was like to have a part of someone so close to your heart …

At night we drive back from Rotterdam to Amsterdam. Right after we have entered the capital we’re held up by the police. Control of documents, a routine-matter. From the backseat Jans is hissing ‘I hate cops’.

 

Critic

Friday afternoon in the lobby of the hotel we meet each other again. Handshaking. Now we really have to do an interview. For the next hours he spends his time lying on the kingsize bed and talking. About music, about people, his parents. My mother called me after I had sent her a copy of ‘Only Child’. We spoke for a long time and she cried and said that she had never known I had so much pain inside me. And I said to her that these things were over now, that it taken a few years but that with this record I had set things straight and that I wanted to go on on a different level now.

About women, about songs, about songwriting: ‘When you feel alright, you want to keep feeling alright and you write a ‘goodtime-song’. But I don’t wake up on a certain morning and start to write because I feel good (or bad). I write words, practically all the time and anywhere, because I love words, to use them, to pronounce them. Words are the nicest toys in the world. Everything I write ends up in my big book; That’ll keep you sincere and shows you where you come from.

Or: ‘I try to write songs like little movies, strongly visual. I want someone to see something.’

About Europe, America and critical journalism: ‘They talk like: That album is a decisive step ahead. But what do they actually mean? It says nothing as long as you don’t really understand what I’m up to. The most decisive step was that I spent a year writing. The most important was that I came out of that room.’

‘As a critic you should help the artist; Shouldn’t the artist also have some advantage from a review? But what do you read in most American magazines? They talk about how well someone looks or how he is losing his hair. ‘the bolding [sic] 33-old songwriter writes quasi-Dylanesque verses with the Paul Simon-approach to life and a Jackson Browne-like touch’. When I read things like that …

Long after the tape-machine has been turned off, Jans still fascinates me.

Saturday night: He wanders around nervously , just before his only gig in the Netherlands, on the occasion of the OOR-party. ‘Does this shirt looks O.K. on me? Do they know me here? What do you think of that band?’ He told me earlier that it suited him well to be here. In June he will return to the studio again after having been writing for the last seven months. And he hasn’t been on stage for four months now, so this opportunity is very welcome. But even more important ‘that there are people here who want to see me; that’s really a great honour to me and it makes that you want to come out of your room some 8000 miles from here.’ His performance that night doesn’t disappoint me at all; Swallow proves to be a god-like slide-guitarist with a fine sustain-technique and Jans comes over zealously and convincing. The songs he is playing form a cross section through his three records. Especially those from his last, third album, ‘Dark Blonde’ are tight and solid, funky and rocking which makes a perfect background to Jans’ sparkling lyrics. ‘I have learned an awful lot from making that last record. I already had my own band for a year and a half and had been touring extensively with them. So I could sing with much more vigor and courage. And I learned for instance that I could use eight or nine different mikes in the studio.’

 

Franco

‘Many of the songs were learning processes in itself. ‘Why don’t you love me’, ‘Ready to Roll’, new ways to put choruses together, more punch. On some of the songs I spent a very long time, like ‘Rosarita’, I worked for about a year on that one. But ‘Starlight’ I wrote in eight minutes, I was with Valerie then; we had been in a similar kind of situation of tormenting each other … And ‘Distant Canon Fire’, that is dealing with Franco. It meant very much to me that I was able to write that song. I too have some Spanish blood in my veins, maybe that was the reason why I was so angry that he just died without (at least in the US) somebody ever telling what kind of a monster the man was.’

 

‘Till my dying day I’m gonna stay
A young man in trouble’

‘I don’t think that it is a bad thing to be in the shit, for me it always was a most creative period ….. I have to say that when I wrote that song, I was very confused. I tried to be very honest to myself, all those lines are confessions. When I look back on it I think: ‘It’s over, it’s an evolution. When I wrote that song I was in trouble, I’m out of that now, but who knows what it will be in fifteen minutes.’

The production of ‘Dark Blonde’ was in the hands of Joe Wissert, producer of among others Boz Scaggs. ‘It was his first record after Boz and maybe that was of any influence.’ Again the album is packed in a symbolic sleeve. ‘The same boy, a year and a half later. The picture shows an exact copy of the room in which I grew up in. I remembered every detail and everything was copied. When I walked into my room as a little kid from time to time I just saw a man peeking through the window. Maybe it was the light, but for a second or so you see it. Like the image just after you’ve turned off the TV. I wanted to preserve that image and those elements on that cover: the writer, the little boy, the window image (satan), the fear. Oddly I came across an album by Andrew Gold the other day. He used the same room: When I see that cover than, Jesus … ehm …’

Sunday: day of rest. Have been trying, to no avail, to get me a book by Byron. ‘Byron said all his life he enjoyed only 30 minutes of real happiness. That interests me. I dig those three, Byron, Shelley and Keats very much, they were desperado’s. They tried their whole lives to stay close to a feeling and to turn it into poetry … and I love their way of living. Byron or instance was literally banned from England because he didn’t want to maintain his garden, hehehe, and he married his thirteen-year-old cousin and all that but where it’s at is that that guy could write, boy, so sincerely, ….so damned sincere.’

Monday afternoon: Tom hands over a beer and tells about his plans: ‘Eyes’ and ‘Dark Blonde’ are both elements in me, elements which have to come together in the next project. I want the next record to be a little warmer than ‘Dark Blonde’ and …. ‘Ehm, I’m going to work on it in the studio for a long time. It will be a synthesis of the previous two, the best I’ll ever make. I want to surprise you, not to show you half the movie. The music will stay a little closer to my roots but at the same time it will be an attempt to a expand things. The lyrics are very special: I’m writing about subjects inside me I have never touched before. Some of the themes may not be generally accepted, but I know they’re feelings that people with a certain sensitiveness will pick up.’

He shows a strip of photo’s. Between Polaroids of yellowed toilet-seats and a travelling-companion making faces, I am to find my spot. ‘You my records, me your picture’, he says, ‘that’s communication.’


an aside:
this is the album by Andrew Gold that Tom mentioned

when talking about the sleeve of "Dark Blonde".

 a-gold.jpg (22694 bytes)
Andrew Gold
"What's Wrong With This Picture ?"
1976
Sleeve photography by Ethan A Russell


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 that Art Jans was in fact very well read.



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photo credit:
tom sheehan London 20th May 1977

This page updated October 2001 by Geoff
GMGough@clara.net