An Open Letter to Tom Jones

2 Apr

Hello Mr. Jones,

You don’t know me, but I know you. At least, I feel like I know you. I know you in the way that your voice is as familiar to me as my own father’s. That sounds absolutely crazy, but it’s true. When I say my mother was a fan of yours, it goes far deeper than that. You were a fixture in my household my entire life. Her love for you was a large part of my formidable years. If a game show existed in which one had to “name that Tom Jones song” in a few notes or less, I would absolutely win that show and take the grand prize. There is no song you’ve ever recorded that I don’t know backward and forward. I’d be willing to put money on it. Even the country ones. Even the disco ones too. If I’m out in public somewhere and a Tom Jones song should happen to come on, my ears can’t help but tune into it and I have to listen. Your face is almost as familiar to me as a close relative. Your dark curls, tan skin and beautiful aquamarine eyes (my mom would swear they are green) are something I’ve been looking at since I was in diapers. Your beautiful voice, thick Welsh accent is as familiar to me as hers. You were part of my family, my household, and I’d like to share that story.

I was born in 1979, and was in high school in the early 90’s. Not exactly the peak of relevance for who Tom Jones was at that time. Sure, there was a slight resurgence. You had released the Kiss cover with The Art of Noise in 1994 so you were on MTV. Lets be honest, it was more realistically in heavy play on VH1. At the height of grunge and punk rock, it was a tough sell for the Nirvana generation. Yet, every day when I was driven to school you were playing in the car via Maxell 90 minute gold cassette tapes recorded painstakingly by my mom off her LP collection she held on to since a teen. Not sure if you remember, but those were the expensive ones. The “good ones” with best sound quality. She bought a very pricy home sound system just to do this. The kind with the big glass door that you would push in, and door would pop out. It had a record player, a dual cassette recorder, and a CD player. The latter was so state of the art, most stores didn’t even sell cd’s, and if they did, they were 50 bucks a piece. She bought any of those of yours she could find and paid whatever price. This sound system cost close to $2,000, purchased on credit as the unsuspecting middle class in 80s America was duped to do. This was brought into our humble household solely to create mix tapes of Tom Jones songs from her records. I was most definitely NOT allowed to touch it. Nor even play anywhere near it. These tapes were cultivated extremely carefully. All the sad songs together, for when she was feeling down. All the party songs together when she was on a high. Seeking to create the ultimate greatest hits, and there were many of these. She seemed to never be able to make the perfect tape, but continued to try. She would spend hours, donning big can headphones sprawled out on our green shag carpet creating these masterpieces. I knew every word. Every vocal inflection and cadence. No one else I went to school with seemed to know anything about Tom Jones or had heard about you. At a time when being weird was the last thing a teenager wanted to be seen as, I was that. It wasn’t just in the car. Mom would play a VHS tape over and over again while cleaning house with a Winston cigarette dangling from her lips of a live performance of a Tom Jones concert. It was called Live, at this Moment. It was on repeat so much so that I could dance as a child and imitate all of your movements. Let’s be honest. Try to. I have no rhythm, but in my mind at the time, I thought we were dancing together. You have a stage presence and can dance like hell. No one can mimic that. I joined choir in junior high and made an excellent alto, mostly from mimicking your vocal patterns. Tuns out, a solid female alto is a rare find. It carried me through my remaining schooling years and awarded me a college scholarship. My initial audition song was Delilah. Pretty weird song for a 12 year old to sing. You should have seen my coral teacher’s faces, but its what I knew.

(Tom, how sick are you of performing that song over all these decades? Honestly? Its a good one, though)

Nothing excited me more to see pop-culture references of you throughout my life. I always thought of it as a sort of inside knowledge that only I was in on. Obviously not, but for me it seemed like it. When With These Hands was used in the movie Edward Scissorhands, I cried in the theatre. That was my mom’s favorite song of yours. She had many, but that was the one she selected when I asked. When you had a cameo on the Simpsons, I hastily slapped a VHS tape in the VCR and recorded it to watch over and over. Something about Mr Burns kidnapping you to perform for Marge in order to woo her made complete sense. Of course Marge Simpson was a Tom jones fan.

It was not cool to be into singers from decades past when you are in junior high and high school. Teenagers are so concerned with image and fitting in. This quickly drops off once one is launched into the real world of college and the workplace. Why was everything so embarrassing as a teenager? If I could go back and tell 14-year old Christine anything, it would probably be “Stop caring what everyone thinks, because it does not matter” and also maybe “having a boyfriend isn’t the most important thing in the world. Focus on you.” That’s another essay altogether. Anyway, hell is high school. Luckily, my cousin shared this Tom Jones oddity with me. Her mom, my Aunt Judy, was also a fan. We would go on long road trips together, singing loudly in the backseat for hours. It was hard to imagine that a girl in a flight jacket and Mohawk and her cousin who was a Mod in stolen bowling shoes singing in a ska band were so very in to Tom Jones. I tried to convince my band to do a version of Its Not Unusual, but it was unanimously vetoed. I still think that would have been one hell of a cover. I mean, we were a ska band. We had a horn section and a stand-up bass. Seemed like a perfect fit. The world’s loss, I guess.

I only got to see you perform live once. You came to my hometown of Fresno, CA which was rare. Usually, mom would drive to Vegas to see you. My mother absolutely loved Vegas. The bright lights, the excitement, and of course the gambling. Turns out, she had a bit of a problem with gambling. Enough so, I refuse to partake. I learned by watching that it can be a dangerous game. I get it. It has always been an alluring place, by design. She was a moth to a flame. This one time, however, you played locally. She took me to see you perform. She was very annoyed with our seats. She would always get front row usually, but this time the tickets sold out too fast and we were in the middle. She was accustomed to a certain type of experience when she saw you. She knew how to bribe ushers with cash slipped into palms to get upgraded. This was not her preferred experience. I confess I’m not sure what year this would have been, but I think it was between 1994-1997. Vague, I know. I remember the night, though. I had never been to a concert with my mom before, and we were seeing you. It was important to me, because it was important to her. All these years she had gone and seen you and this time, I got to go with her. The seats weren’t VIP, but they weren’t bad. You sounded great. Of course you did. It was a soft, summer night and the concert was at an outdoor amphitheater. Mom always said that you sounded better live than on the recordings, which I have to agree. She once told me a story about a time she saw you live during a storm. The electricity went out in the venue and you sang accapella and everyone in the hall could hear you and it made the hair on her arms stand up. It was that amazing. My mom was angry with the amount of people throwing pairs of underwear on stage. She said that was tacky, and the real fans would never do that. She said real fans hand you a silk scarf to wipe your sweat with, and you would hand it back as a memento. She had a collection of these from all the shows. She had a sewing room, and kept the scarves in a glass vase next to her sewing machine and no one was allowed to touch it. I remember going to Macy’s with her, to carefully select and purchase these silk handkerchiefs solely for this purpose. She always chose silk because the stain would remain visible. This was normal, day-to-day life for me with my mom. I’m not sure how many times she saw you live, but I’d like to say it was upwards of 20-30 times, maybe more. The time I saw you live, she gave me the scarf and wanted me to go hand it to you. I did, but I was so embarrassed. You looked 10 feet tall to me. I was a scrawny, blonde teenager and clearly out of place. Of course you looked that way to me. God-like. Can you imagine growing up in a household where a parent loved someone so much, they’d save their body fluid?

Tom, I’m struggling to remember what my mom said you smelled like. I remember her saying it may have been a hint of Patchouli. Am I remembering that right?

Around this time, mom met and struck up a friendship with a woman living in Santa Barbra that was in charge of an official Tom Jones fan club. I’m sure there have been, and still are many. She had an unusual name. “Lala”. Not just a nickname, that was printed on her driver’s license. I remember her being as odd as her name. My mother would make me go on trips to see her, which were terribly boring. I remember sitting in her 2 bedroom apartment, petting her orange cat and looking on as they chatted about you and your music. Lala, my aunt, and mom started coordinating Vegas trips regularly to attend your shows together. We eventually started referring to my mom as the “Vice President of the Tom Jones fan club”. At least then I could give this strange obsession a name.

I want to state for the record that for all the passion and obsessiveness my mom had with you, she was never what I consider a stalker. She never believed you’d meet and fall in love. Never thought you’d spot her in the crowd and ask her backstage. Never thought you were singling her out or sending secret messages just to her. She never sent you letters or tried to find your hotel. She was just a fan. A huge one. I understand that celebrities have many people who become obsessed to a level that is dangerous to a person’s personal safety. I cant imagine anything scarier. From what I know and remember, she wasn’t that. She loved the music and your performance. Of course, she also thought you were devilishly handsome. The epitome of the perfect man. Well-dressed, talented, worldly, object of many women’s desires. Now that I’m a fully-formed adult and not swooning over dirty rockers with long hair and tattoos, I would have to say I agree.

She never met you. Only brushed fingers with you when passing handkerchiefs.

My father hated this, by the way. He was jealous. He didn’t necessarily resent her for it, he just didn’t care for it. How could he not? His wife kept a jar of “sweat rags” of another man in a makeshift shrine. He quietly accepted that you were the other man in our house, as did I. He loved my mom very much and just wanted her to be happy. Unfortunately for him, her happiness lied with you, the trappings of Vegas, and gambling. Unfortunately for my mom, my father’s happiness lied in the drink. Of course I won’t go into it, but my parents had a troubled marriage. Both sought escape from their lives. One chose booze, the other you. I like to think that there were 4 people raising me in my house: Mom, Dad, whiskey and Tom Jones. It wasn’t too bad until my mom left in the middle of Christmas dinner with a house full of friends and family and drove to Las Vegas. Neither my dad nor I heard from her for almost a week. When she came back, they got a separation. I was 17 years old. It’s not because of you, Tom. I think escapism is a sign of deep unhappiness. If she weren’t escaping with you, it would have been something else.

I can’t not think of you when I think of my mom. I like to think of her at Bally’s, dressed in the teal-green pantsuit and gold strappy heels she would only wear to see you. Walking down the strip in a cloud of White Diamonds perfume, mixed with cigarettes. Her honey-colored hair done in curls, frozen in hairspray. I picture her sitting in the front row, center. I imagine you, dressed in your perfect black and white suit under the stage spotlight singing just to her. Any song in the repritore except for What’s New Pussycat or Thunderball, the only ones she hated. Sorry, Tom. Even the biggest fans aren’t fans of everything.

If you’re curious, I think my favorite is Love Me Tonight. It’s a hard choice.

Patricia Heeley, my mother, passed away in September of 2001. I was 22 years old. I don’t want to disrespect her memory by printing the details, but I will say that it was sudden and without warning. It was a shock to all of us, and we quickly threw together a memorial service for her. Well, my Aunt Judy did, as my father and I couldn’t bear to do it. That service happened to be on 9/11. Yes, THAT 9/11. Everyone in the world was devastated by the national tragedy. I was dealing with my own. Throughout the service and following reception, we played only your music. I sat in the reception space of the cremation facility, holding my father’s hand as I Who Have Nothing wafted through the speakers. I could not listen to any of your albums for a very long time after this day. I hope you understand.

My dad never recovered from this loss. He passed in 2007.

Today, I am a 41 year-old bartender and working writer in Portland, OR. I moved out of Fresno after dad died. Sometimes you need a big change in order to be able to try and move on. Over the years of being here, I’ve managed to make an ok life for myself. Thinking of Fresno makes me incredibly homesick, and the few times I’ve gone back, its nearly broken my heart so I avoid it. I think that’s what made Portland so attractive to me. Its completely different than Fresno, and miles and miles away from Las Vegas. Back then, I was a corporate business manager. The first few months after moving here, I found myself sitting in a karaoke bar with work colleagues. Its someone’s birthday, and I’m there to play nice and get to know everyone better. Although we are out at a bar, i have to remain professional and I can’t let my hair down. I’m dressed in my stuffy business attire, trying to crack jokes and be personable without having too much to drink. Being my father’s daughter, this is hard. A tall, thin guy in his 20’s hops up on stage and takes the microphone. He proceeds to sing Kiss, but not the Prince version. He does the Tom Jones version. It came out of nowhere, and he absolutely nailed it. I begin to cry. Cry in a round leather booth with 4 other people who were directly under me and I was their boss. I hide it well, stating the cigarette smoke from the patio was triggering my allergies. Everyone thinks that’s normal, and goes back to their drinks. I excuse myself to the bathroom. I go up to this stranger an give him a bear hug and thank him for doing the Tom Jones version with all the right inflections. He looks confused and frankly, a little scared. I back off. It just seemed like he was in my special club. The one I’ve been in since birth.

Today, I have a strange relationship with you and your music. Videos of you make me cry. I regularly play your LPs on Mother’s Day and January 27th, Mom’s birthday. Also, when I want to meditate and smoke grass. Sometimes, just to get a good cry in. It’s not all negative associations. If I find a Tom Jones record at the thrift shop, I have to buy it. Even if I already have it. I need to save it and have it in my house. Sometimes I’ll get drunk and yell all the words and really wow (scare) my friends when it happens to come on in a bar because people appreciate the classics a little more. Sometimes I play your albums in my bar and if anyone complains, I tell them to shut the hell up or I throw them out. Tom Jones, I want you to know that you are important to me. When I see you, I see my mother. I hope to see you perform again, but honestly I don’t know if my heart could take it. I know you are a famous musician, with millions of fans. I just wanted you to know the story of just one of them.

The old home town looks the same

As I step down from the train

And there to meet me is my mama and papa.

Down the road I look and there comes Mary

Hair gold and lips like cherries.

Its good to touch the green, green grass of home.

Yes, they’ll all come to meet me, arms reaching, smiling sweetly.

Its good to touch the green, green grass of home.

2 Responses to “An Open Letter to Tom Jones”

  1. Julia Ann Parisi (Aunt Judi) at 4:54 am #

    Chrissy, your Mom would be so proud of you. I know I’am. Your writing is amazing. You keep writing sweetie and please let me read more of your stories. Love you kiddo, your loving Aunt Judi.
    P.S. And anytime you need me to Pie You An Egg, just give me a text or call. I’ll always be there for you, I did promise your Mom.

  2. Alyson at 8:38 am #

    This was a wonderful open letter. Thanks for sharing your story.

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