Called To Attention By Tom Jans

Originally posted September 26, 2008

The work of the long-gone and frequently mourned singer/songwriter Tom Jans still has the power to pull people out of an mp3 coma and make them say, “What the heck was that?”

At least, that’s the case with me. Several times in the past few weeks, as the RealPlayer has settled on one of Jans’ songs, I’ve stopped whatever I was doing – reading, setting up my fantasy baseball team, talking to Oscar the cat or eating a sandwich – and looked to see what was playing. Once it was from 1974’s Tom Jans and once it was from Take Heart, the 1971 album he recorded with Mimi Fariña.

This week, it was the opening track to Jans’ 1975 album, The Eyes Of An Only Child, and once I realized who it was, I leaned back and listened:

Have you ever been lonely in the middle of the night,
Even though the one you love got her arms around you so tight,
And a far-off freight train makes a hollow sound,
And the mockingbird singing a sweet sad song as your feet hit the ground.

I gotta move, that’s all I know.
I gotta move, gotta hear the west wind blow.
I gotta move, but I’m running out of somewhere to go.
So I just move . . .

Yielding to serendipity, I sorted the player for all of Jans’ work, then sorted that for The Eyes Of An Only Child and sat back to listen.

As I wrote in February a year ago:

“Jans was born in 1948 in Yakima, Wash., and raised on a farm outside San Jose, Calif. All-Music Guide says he learned to play piano and guitar and played in a rock band in high school, sometimes writing his own material. He earned a degree in English from the University of California in nearby Berkeley. In 1970, a gig in a San Francisco coffee shop led to his meeting Joan Baez and then her sister, Mimi Fariña, who had recorded with her husband, Richard, a series of folk albums in the 1960s. Mimi Fariña was looking to return to music, and she and Jans teamed up, performing in the Bay Area and at the Big Sur Folk Festival before touring and then recording Take Heart.

“The record didn’t fare well, and Jans and Fariña parted, with Jans heading to Nashville to push his songs. In 1973, Dobie Gray recorded ‘Loving Arms,’ and in 1974, Jans included it on his first solo album, Tom Jans, with Lonnie Mack playing guitar and Mentor Williams – Gray’s producer and the composer of the classic song ‘Drift Away’ – producing. The record didn’t sell well, despite critical acclaim.

“Jans returned to California, and in 1975, released The Eyes Of An Only Child, produced by Lowell George of Little Feat. That record, too, failed to generate mass interest, and the same thing happened to 1976’s Dark Blonde. Jans dropped from sight, AMG notes, until 1982, ‘when a new LP, Champion, appeared solely in a limited-edition release on the Japanese label Canyon International, its existence virtually unknown in the U.S.’

“That was Jans’ last recorded work. He was severely injured in a motorcycle accident in late 1983, and although he seemed to be recovering, he died, AMG says, of a suspected drug overdose March 25, 1984.”

As I listen to The Eyes Of An Only Child, I can’t help but wonder how music this good could have been ignored in 1975. Then I remind myself that I wasn’t listening to it then, either. There was so much stuff out, I guess. And, unhappily – from the perspective of thirty-some years – Tom Jans was hardly a household name when the record was on the racks.

A few other songs grabbed my ear as I listened this week. There’s the sorrow, resignation and hope of “Once Before I Die.” And then there’s “The Lonesome Way Back When,” with its clear-eyed assessment of sad and wild times gone by that are remembered nevertheless with affection, almost as if they happened to someone else.

The record is reminiscent in some places of Jackson Browne’s best work around the same time; I think of Late For The Sky and For Everyman. Like Browne’s work on those records, Jans’ songs on The Eyes Of An Only Child tells tales of mid-Seventies pilgrims trying to make sense of the external and internal landscapes that confronted and sometimes confounded them:

And there’s no comfort in your lover’s eye.
You’re making love to a perfect disguise.
You’re so far gone it should make you cry,
It should make you cry, then you’d realize
You’re just another lonely brother
Rolling to tomorrow.

And there’s a sly joke near the end of the record: As Jans’ “Directions and Connections” – the record’s next-to-last track – fades out, ushered off the stage by the slide guitar of Jerry McGee, some snippets of bar conversation move in. No matter what your age or where you’re from, if you’ve been in a bar – any bar where folks gather to assess each other – you’ve heard that conversation, so crucial when you’re in it, so vacuous when you hear it taken out of its environment. And as the song fades entirely, one can imagine Jans laughing darkly somewhere.

The album is available on vinyl at a number of on-line dealers; check GEMM. There is a CD issue out there, but it’s hard to find, at best. This rip is one I found at a forum I frequent (thanks, bearwil), and there are a few pops and snaps throughout, but it’s in pretty good shape.

I found a list of album credits and links to lyrics on a page at, a site that looks like it would be worth exploring. Musicians on the record are: Tom Jans on piano, acoustic guitar, electric guitar and vocals, Bill Payne on piano, Colin Cameron and Chuck Rainey on bass guitar, Lowell George and Jesse Ed Davis on acoustic guitar, Fred Tackett on acoustic and electric guitar, David Lindley on electric guitar, Jerry McGee on electric and slide guitar, Jeff Porcaro and Jim Keltner on drums, Mike Utley on organ and Valerie Carter, Lovely Hardy and Herb Pederseon on background vocals.

Gotta Move
Once Before I Die
Where Did All My Good Friends Go?
Inside Of You
Struggle In Darkness
Out Of Hand
The Lonesome Way Back When
Lonely Brother
Directions and Connections
The Eyes Of An Only Child

Tom Jans – The Eyes Of An Only Child [1975]

Edited slightly during archival posting, August 15, 2011,


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