Some Words on Tom Jones

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In a different life, when I was off on a youthful Kerouacian sojourn across the mythical as well as physical landscapes of North America, some well-meaning American friends thought they would give me a taste of home by surprising me with tickets for a Tom Jones concert in the odd, claustrophobic, cuboid setting of the Fort Myers’ Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall. This was in the late nineties, and Tom Jones, although never really on my musical radar, was far from his nadir, over a decade away from the lowest points of his abandonment of relevance and cool; it was somewhere between the hen party shtick of ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’ (1997) and the indie cool resurgence of Reload (1999). So we went. And it was a very entertaining show – he had always been a fabled performer, but the Vegas years had clearly put some extra swing in those hips, and his tan, as it still is, is hardly burnt from the glow of the rolling Welsh hills.

The music, I remember, was obvious, bland, wedding-singer material, delivered with an above-par, gale-force bravura. Not long into the set the women’s underwear began to be flung onto the small stage. I was naively surprised to find out the cliché had basis in fact, or rather, I was shocked to discover middle-aged women having little concern in embellishing that cliché with their participation in it. Jones, a famous perspirer, in an unhelpful leather shirt-come-jacket, used the pause between lyrical bursts to dab the underwear across his sweaty physique (and, I swear, I remember him rubbing one pair of panties under his armpits at one point) and throwing them back, presumably – hopefully – to the original owners. This element of the show in particular – although grotesquely entertaining – did nothing to give me the taste of home my American friends had hoped. But none of it did. The truth is that Tom Jones, the Welshman’s Welshman, has never really had any relevance to me, or, far more importantly, anyone I’ve ever known.

This is just one of the reasons why it was so interesting to get the chance to see Alan Yentob’s Imagine profile of Jones repeated on BBC Four over the Christmas period. Originally shown in 2010 as a documentary celebration of Jones’ upcoming 70th birthday, it is a decent attempt at being frank and extensive while also not lingering over the elements of Jones’ character and career that could only serve to smother the proverbial fried potatoes with the proverbial urine. Jones’ story is, after all, a classic. Working class valleys boy escapes the mines to conquer the world of pop stardom; indeed he conquers America – the Conquistadores in extremis of twentieth century pop culture. He then falls foul of the lures of unimaginable wealth and popularity, drifts from his musical passions and dips his toes into the casually and copiously populated adulterous waters of wealth’s upper echelons. (Of course, Jones did not ‘dip his toes’ at all, did he? It is widely documented that he was a serial philanderer and the rumours of parades of illegitimate children have never gone away – but we’re not pissing on chips here, it was Tom’s birthday).

This period of his personal life saw a correlation in the dipping of his career. By the time the eighties came along, the death knell for many of the uber-stars of the sixties and seventies, Jones was hardly even considered a has-been. To those listening to The Smiths, The Redskins, or even Depeche Mode, the bloke who sang ‘Delilah’ was little more than joke if he registered at all. Yentob’s documentary, as I said, does not linger on this period for too long, and rightly so in some respects, because the story of how Jones got back into the game is far more interesting than how he drifted out of it.

Jones was never a musical visionary, never a producer or songwriter, or even a musician, he was just a voice, a big high speed, juggernaut of a voice, so he was never going to break back by, for instance, recording Gracelands. A fascinating (and cringeworthy) clip in the Imagine programme shows him on some garish and obnoxious Jonathan Ross vehicle in the late eighties, Jones in full leather trousers and leather shirt-cum-jacket combo where he debuted his version of Prince’s ‘Kiss’. Of course, it was a massive hit, and Jones has slowly maintained a fairly credible pop profile ever since (in fact now he is a fully-respected and adored elder statesman of the music business – young popstars even court his approval on The Voice). He had some big hits in the nineties and then released a very shrewd duets album (Reload – that paired him with some of the most popular young indie acts of the day) which brought Jones to a new young audience who knew nothing of his leather-clad, audience-snogging, lounge-lizard past. But it also confidently positioned him as slightly-odd but alluring uncle to the serious, brow-furrowed pop of artists such as Cerys Matthews, Portishead, and the Cardigans. Now with white hair and Armani suits replacing the medallions and boot polish, Jones was one of the coolest things in a music business largely defined by the death of cool through corporate rock and indie music more and more designed to look like the bloated stadium nonsense punk had so gleefully driven a stake through in the seventies.

For this resurgence – resurrection, in fact – full credit is given by both Yentob and Jones to Jones’ eldest son, Mark (just sixteen years younger than his father). It was Mark who convinced his father to change his image in the eighties and to cover Prince, and he has guided his hand ever since, with obvious and remarkable success. It is clear not only from the narrative of the programme, but also from the unrestricted praise Mark gets from all involved, that were it not for his son’s intervention and guidance Jones would now be in musical obscurity, maybe doing panto with Leo Sayer or forcing Chris de Burgh to sit and watch old episodes of his seventies American network TV show, This is Tom Jones.

And yet, strangely, it is the footage from this show, the show that made him as rich as Croesus, but also led him toward the imminent disaster of the banal lounge music he would put out for much of the seventies and eighties, that gives perhaps the real tragedy of the man. Jones’ success and popularity has always been down to his willingness to lend his remarkable voice to rather uninteresting mainstream pop tunes, from ‘Delilah’ all the way to ‘Sex Bomb’. But Jones really has the sensibility (albeit largely wasted) of a soul singer – just as Elvis had that of a gospel singer. On This is Tom Jones he had the opportunity to pick and choose with whom he could duet, and the footage of him going toe to toe with the likes of Janis Joplin and Stevie Wonder makes you wonder what he could have achieved with a musical manager rather than a showbiz manager. Although Jones is tellingly short of both Wonder and Joplin it is not his talent that makes him second to them, but his culture. While Jones was in a frilly shirt and grinning out the dreadfully chipper lounge version of murder ballad ‘Delilah’ on Ready, Steady, Go!, Little Stevie Wonder was learning his trade from Holland-Dozier-Holland after Berry Gordy signed him to Motown at the age of 11. And Janis Joplin was saturated in the heat of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury recording blues and country demos with Big Brother and the Holding Company, the finest psychedelic rock band of the era.

There was something always wide-eyed about Jones when confronted with the real deal. Yentob’s documentary is subtitled What Good am I?, after Jones’ cover of Bob Dylan’s dud from his excellent 1989 album Oh, Mercy! And the profile is clearly supposed to reflect a journey of self-discovery for the lad from Treforest. But Jones, even now in his seventies, comes across as a man who has never really known what to do with the gift of that voice he was given. All he has ever done is go out on stage armed with it, singing songs he has been given, be it ‘Delilah’ by his manager in the sixties, or ‘Kiss’ by his son. He is a belter, a showman. Subtlety does not reach the cheap seats, and Tom Jones, more than anything, has always needed to be loved by everyone, to be popular, to be recognised on the streets. This much is obvious in the Yentob film when Jones gives a live rendition of ‘What Good Am I?’, trying to hush himself and grimace a pained whisper as he asks the question of the title. Well, the song is one long bum note, and Jones struggles with the restraint. When Janis Joplin was not bringing down city walls with ‘Cry Baby’ or ‘Try Just a Little Bit Harder’ she was making mountains quiver (to use a phrase of Woody Guthrie used about Ingrid Bergman) with the pained subtlety of ‘Little Girl Blue’.

There is little doubt that Tom Jones has a love for music that runs deeper than most of us can imagine, and it is no fault of his that Berry Gordy or Big Brother and the Holding Company didn’t spot him as a teenager and give him guidance, but he is now simply Vegas through and through, if he was ever really given the chance to be anything else. He says the highlight of his career was singing with his guests on that TV show in the late sixties and early seventies, and there is a suggestion there that the reason for it is that it was a glance for him into a parallel universe where he was the real deal, too; where he was better than Elvis (he could have been), and he would never have to cover Prince on a Jonathan Ross late night show.

When I saw the underwear gliding towards Tom Jones on that small stage in Fort Myers in the late nineties the one thing that struck me was just how much Jones was not really playing a part, but that he was the embodiment of a passing showbiz fad, only he had not passed. Gifted with immense charm and energy he has remained with us, and has been largely a pleasant and entertaining presence. The sadness comes from a frustration that perhaps even Jones himself does not fully appreciate. His voice is a natural wonder, untempered, raw, a soulful bellow wasted on showbiz. The question was not What Good Am I? but How Good Could I Have Been?

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis