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Tom Jones: “I wanted to be a man, desperately”

How the veteran pop star made a career out of masculinity.

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Each morning Tom Jones hangs upside down in the bathroom, ankles strapped to a board, blood rushing to his head. Inversion therapy is generally employed for backache, but Jones has used it to put an extra inch on his height. At 80, he is back up to five foot ten and a half, the same as when he sang “Delilah”. He is ready to tour as soon as the venues will have him back – he fastens a top button on our Zoom call.

He has had both jabs, and as for the health scare in 2018 when several shows had to be cancelled, that was just your standard urinary tract infection (UTI) blown out of proportion: “I thought, this is strange because I haven’t been with anybody!” he lilts, eyes wide. “I used to think you got something in that area when you’d been dabbling where you shouldn’t be. But the doctor said you don’t have to go with anybody – it can develop by itself.”

His singing voice – as anyone who’s seen him mentor a young hopeful on the TV talent show The Voice will know – is still impressive. He preserves it by drinking lots of water and getting lots of sleep. Yet Jones is known to go to bed at 4am. “That’s right. But I don’t get up till 12,” he says. “That’s why they used to call me Tommy Eight Hours. Kelly from the Stereophonics – I was always Tommy Eight Hours, as far as he’s concerned.”

Kelly from the Stereophonics is just one of the younger musicians Jones partnered up with in a sustained cultural reboot that stretches back over 30 years – half his career – to 1988, when he covered Prince’s “Kiss” with the synth-pop group the Art of Noise. In the 1990s, when there was a nostalgic fondness for the Seventies and it was fashionable to be Welsh in pop music, his popularity rocketed. There were duets with Cerys Matthews and the Cardigans, Mousse T and Wyclef Jean. And in 2009, he took the most important decision of his career: to stop dyeing his hair, transforming him overnight from Las Vegas Casanova, recipient of flying knickers, to singer of tasteful gospel with a Jools Holland brass section.

Now, he is one of those veteran pop stars used as a lens through which to view British social history: when he speaks, the mind’s eye swims with BBC archive footage of Welsh miners down the pit, and children practising putting on gas masks. It is a huge achievement – the knickers nearly killed his career. Even now, people ask about them, and being an old-fashioned entertainer he plays along – it was particularly galling, he once offered, if they were thrown in the middle of a serious song like “Green, Green Grass of Home”. But as Jones goes into extra time on Zoom, you notice how much of his storytelling is centred not in his career but before it began, leapfrogging over the lost years as though they never happened, obscuring them behind a flaming wall of anecdote. At one point, he even mentions the Battle of Britain, which started one month after he was born.

Jones lives alone in a flat near the Houses of Parliament. He moved from Los Angeles when his wife of 59 years, Linda, passed away from lung cancer in 2016. His son Mark urged him to come, and having always loved staying at the Savoy, he agreed to do so if they could find him a place on the Thames in view of “the wheel”, as he calls the London Eye. Linda always wanted to return home too. “But she’s with me, because I’ve got her ashes in the thing here” – he puts a thumb over his shoulder, in the direction of another room.

“She said, ‘Don’t leave me in America, don’t put me in the ground anywhere,’” he continues. “I said, ‘I won’t.’ She’s in my bedroom. In a lovely box, a beautiful box. She liked nice things, so I said, ‘She would like this box,’ when I had to go and pick something to put the ashes in. Having her ashes with me has really helped, because she’s there every night, you see. In this flat, even though she’s not alive to witness it, she’s here.”

Jones describes the casket as, “a modern box with a modern design on it, which I’m sure she would like”. Linda was always the one interested in home furnishings, the one with the taste: “Whatever the wife wants!” he says. In 1970 he recorded a song called “It’s Up to the Woman” and he mentions it today.

“That’s the truth! I’m saying this, not as a macho person. If you’re going to be married to somebody, she has to have the say, especially with the house, I think. I always wanted to live by the sea – did I live by the sea? No. Because my wife didn’t want to!”

It is hard to imagine living alone after 59 years in a marriage: Tom and Linda met when they were both 12. How has he adjusted? “Well, I’ve got the remote control! You know how couples are – it’s all who’s got the bloody remote!”

***

Jones seems to love his life, and work, and all the opportunities that come his way. This attitude serves as a kind of pop carbon-dating: he is part of a generation of musicians for whom singing was a lucrative route out of manual labour. Like Glen Campbell or Johnny Cash in the Deep South, for whom country music was a workable alternative to life as a sharecropper, Jones would have been a miner like his father, had he not made a career out of the family pastime, singing down the pub. He is worth a reported £170m.

When he talks, many areas of a pop star’s experience – the difficulties maintaining a place in the charts, the struggle over image, the effect of it all on your sense of self – are obscured by a fearsome work ethic and almost evangelical sense of gratitude. Long ago, he admitted he’d sometimes have intrusive thoughts on stage: he’d imagine saying, “Fuck you all” to an audience, and losing their love in a minute.

“People say showbiz is hard work,” he says. “I say, ‘Look, I haven’t worked since 1962, when I used to carry bricks up a ladder on a building site.’ Work, to me, is doing something that you don’t really want to do but you’ve got to do it in order to make money. That’s what most people have to do.”

[see also: “We rely on Europe”: how Brexit will impact Metronomy’s next tour]

Jones’s father, Thomas, worked in the coal mines of the Rhondda Valley. He never forgave Churchill, chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, for his stance on the 1926 General Strike. “They said, ‘The coal miners in south Wales are starving,’ and Churchill supposedly said, ‘Tell them to tighten their belts.’ My father never forgot that. So after the war, when we were kids, going to the pictures, the newsreel would come on: we were taught to boo Churchill and hurrah for Clement Attlee.”

It was more than music that kept Jones from following his father into the pits. At 12 he caught tuberculosis and spent two years confined to his bedroom in quarantine – two years in which, he points out, his body was developing all sorts of propulsive urges, and doing things it had not done before. He used to watch his future wife from the window, climbing up the mountain with her friends. Her father had died of TB and they kept her away from him.

Valley boy: Tom Jones and dancers on the This Is Tom Jones television series, February 1969.
Credit: Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives

He was installed on the middle floor of the family home – the one with the greatest views, with the window perpetually open for his lungs. “There was a road across the valley from us, going from Cardiff to Merthyr, and I saw the Queen come down it,” he says. “She came there with Prince Philip when they toured – and there she was.” She would knight Jones half a century later.

His parents bought him a television in 1952, the first on the street: he breaks into a short rendition of the theme from Muffin the Mule. He made a promise to himself that if he made it back to play with the other children he would – a pattern is beginning to emerge – never moan about anything ever again. Did it trigger any old memories, when he was forced to isolate, during the pandemic, in the house alone? “Yes, definitely,” he says enthusiastically – but only talks about his teenage urges.

In Jones’s anecdotes, a third party often speaks up Socratically to illustrate his way of seeing the world. In 2018 a doctor said to him: “You don’t have to do this tour. You’ve done enough, haven’t you?”

“I said, ‘No, I haven’t done enough!’” he booms. “There’s people out there, they want me to go and do the bloody show. I’ve got, not an obligation, but I’ve got a thing…People have paid money to get to that show, and I’m not showing up? I don’t like that. But he didn’t understand – because he wasn’t an entertainer. Only entertainers know this: that you don’t want to let the public down.”

These days, pop stars are much more likely to cancel shows for issues in their personal lives – how does he feel about that? “Oh, that’s a load of bollocks,” he says. “I’ve never had trouble in that area, thank God.” In his day, there was “no such thing as anxiety, was there? You know, I’m a Welshman. After my wife passed, I saw a grief counsellor. I saw her for one session and I said, ‘OK, that’s that.’ They said, ‘Just a minute, it’s only the beginning!’ I said, ‘No, it’s in there,’” he taps his head. “That’s the way I am, you see?”

Jones is tactful about The Voice, whose gong this year went to Craig Eddie, a young singer from Falkirk, Stirlingshire, who suffers from anxiety and depression, and not to the smiling 18-year-old Grace Holden, who seemed for many weeks to be a shoo-in. Craig won, according to Jones, because he was “different – and they look at that, because they’re looking at a record contract. He writes his own songs. They’re thinking, ‘How big can this one get?’ He’s different enough. I got a chance to talk to him afterwards. His mother was with him all the time.” When required to comment on Craig’s final performance from his big red chair, Jones urged the Scots to vote for him – “They’re good at voting,” he added.

Jones first appeared as a judge in 2012, was replaced for a year by Boy George, about which he was livid, then returned in 2017. The gig has fostered an image of Jones as a wise lion of the music industry – something he wasn’t seen as before. He doesn’t talk a whole lot on it, and watching him observe the young singers you yearn to know what he’s truly thinking, as the post-X Factor melismas ring out to instant applause and the stories of personal struggle, so much a part of being a pop star these days, are mined for each contestant. Occasionally his face tightens at a high note, eyebrows frozen in an arch. His own mentee this season, Hannah Williams, was “the best singer”, he says – he made a point of focusing on her lower register: “I said to her, what I’ve got to do is pull you back because you’ve got a lovely quality in your lower voice. Don’t go for those cash notes! You don’t have to go up there all the time. You’re wonderful in the lows, which a lot of singers fall down in.”

Then he talks about how, in his day, you knew how to perform by the time you got the record deal: The Voice, he says, is “completely reversed”. Almost anything you ask him sets him back on the centre of his spiral, his biography – but he is entirely happy to be interrupted. If you laugh at something he says, he suddenly looks taller in his seat and he ramps up the story.

Jones made a career out of his masculinity at a time when male pop stars were supposed to look like girls. Supporting the Stones in London’s Beat City club in 1964, he saw that he left Jagger’s audience cold: they looked at him “funny” while he thrust and gyrated in his post-Elvis way, but went mad over the gamine, “effeminate” Mick. “I had to do my masculine thing and hope that it worked,” he reflected in 1991.

Almost every early interview compared him to the Texan singer PJ Proby, deep of voice and over-tight of trouser – the press engineered a spat that kept them both in the pop magazines. Proby dissed Jones, saying he would never be a sex symbol – but he was. He signed three-year contracts for Las Vegas residencies and hosted prime-time American TV shows. He was so famous in the US that he was on Charles Manson’s hit list, alongside Steve McQueen. Tellingly, it was reportedly thought that the easiest way of dispatching Jones was for one of Manson’s female followers to seduce him and slit his throat in the act of love.

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At the very start of Jones’s career, his audience had in fact been exclusively male: he performed in the working men’s clubs of Wales, earning a pound for six songs. Later, he’d get the thumbs up from builders if he happened to pull his sports car up by a construction site. He appreciated that. He clearly still considers himself a man’s man: he goes into an extended digression, complete with unrepeatable joke, about how pubs used to be the place where men could fart and be vulgar together, and women were “protected” from that, and what a shame it is that it’s all changed now. He was never into drugs – and his ideas about masculinity appear to lie behind that, too: visible intoxication would always be a sign of weakness.

“The culture that I was brought up in, you see, was drinking beer with my father and my uncles. I wanted to grow up – I wanted to be a man, desperately,” he says, shaking a fist. “They used to come to get my father on a Sunday morning, my uncles and cousins – the ones that were old enough to go. I wanted to be with him. And the more beer you consumed, you know, if you started to show it, they’d go, ‘What the fuck?’”

“Cocaine, to get high fast, was going in the deep end right away. It was the reverse. Just like The Voice is a reverse – with people going in the deep end right away! I want to stay out of the deep end: I want to swim for a while!”

Like Elton John, Jones is rarely out of the tabloids – a steady stream of amusing revelations keep him there. He once said he used Listerine to sterilise his undercarriage before a backstage assignation. Many stories came as he hit middle age – useful, because for the first half of the 1980s he didn’t scratch the UK top 100 with a single song.

“If I’m going out with some young lady, that isn’t a bad thing to say, is it?” he told Tom Hibbert in a 1991 interview. “They’re not saying that I’ve killed somebody or that I’m molesting children. I’m just a virile chap, so as long as the missus doesn’t get pissed off, it’s OK.”

There is more thought given to how Tom Jones’s late wife felt about his behaviour than is given to any other pop star spouse. She stopped going to his shows very early on when she saw the level of female attention he was getting – when he’d come back off tour, he says, she’d just say: “You got any good jokes?” Jones still insists that had Linda explicitly been faced with his infidelities she would have “chinned him” – and it always gets a laugh. Instead, as one sometimes hears people say about open relationships, they didn’t talk about the other women – and they didn’t talk about the not talking either. Linda developed agoraphobia. Jones fathered another child with a model in the 1980s but refuses to have a relationship with him.

***

His son with Linda, Mark Woodward, is the brains behind the act we know today. Mark took Jones’s career in hand in 1987 when his previous manager died: only with a family member, perhaps, could such things as tightness of trousers and blackness of hair be discussed.

“I do tell him to fuck off, many times, and he says it back to me many times,” says Jones. He calls Mark “my wife reincarnated. He’s taken her place – she kept my feet on the ground.”

In Jones’s stories, Mark is always with him: at the clinic with the UTI, at the grief counsellor’s. There are only 17 years between them. In a 1968 interview, when Mark was 11, Jones said he discussed all details of his career with his son and envisaged him in show business one day (“He could be in an agency, or with a recording company.”) At 11, the boy could “tell a corny song from a good one”. At 16, he started coming on the road. There are photos of him straightening his father’s bow tie.

Less than a year after Mark became his manager, Jones had a No 2 hit with “A Boy from Nowhere” (he’d not entered the UK top ten since 1972). In pairing him up with surprising younger acts, he made a positive out of the stylistic fluidity that had dogged his father’s career (“I’m just too bloody versatile!” Jones once cried). Like Johnny Cash via Rick Rubin, Jones began to tell his own story through increasingly tasteful cover versions – a habit so ingrained that he actually talks in song titles: “One More Cup of Coffee for the Road” by Bob Dylan became all about Jones’s temptations with women; “I Won’t Crumble with You If You Fall” by Bernice Johnson Reagan is a promise he made to his wife.

These tracks happen to appear on his new album, Surrounded By Time – Jones apologises for promoting it. But it is more than a plug. If you’ve never not been on stage, if you’ve never not been singing, there must be a dreamlike overlap between your material and your sense of what you are. He didn’t care what his son did with the record’s production.

“I said: as long as it’s my voice, you can do whatever the fuck you want with the sound. As long as I sound like me.”

“Surrounded By Time” is out now on EMI

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Kate Mossman is a senior writer at the New Statesman

This article appears in the 28 April 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas