One of the rarest and most sought-after vinyl records to come out of early 1980s Los Angeles is Tom Jans’ “The Champion”. Up until its recent CD release on Japanese label Pony Canyon, the only way to get to hear this mellow soft rock gem was by way of bootleg CDs – or if you happened to own a copy of the Japanese radio promo vinyl. The album itself was never released commercially on vinyl, as Tom Jans tragically died in the time between the recording and the album’s scheduled release date. This LP was one of mye personal holy grails as a record collector, and I had to pinch myself when I finally got it in the mail from a Japanese eBay seller.
A few years ago, I decided to play the LP on my NAD record player through my Pro Tools rig, do some light remastering, and film the whole session from start to finish with my iPhone. Please go buy the reissued CD if you like the music.
Here’s the article from tomjans.com by Hans Nijs that led to my search – and eventually my nerdy vinyl fetish video:
About 25 years back Tom Jans was as much an artist’s artist as Tom Waits. The larger part of the public knew their names only by reading. Waits’ name was in a kind of hip Apache-style on the sleeve of The Eagles “On the Border” as the writer of OL’55 and Jans’ name was on an Elvis record. He wrote “Loving Arms”, since then covered by just about everyone (I prefer Millie Jackson to the Dixie Chicks here). By the mid-seventies both were solidly anchored on the Westcoast. Remember these are the years TW sang, voluntary or not, alongside Jackson Browne on the Bonnie Raitt-album “Homeplate” and wrote “Tijuana” with Jack “Peaceful Easy Feeling” Tempchin. Waits & Jans must have known each other from this time on. West Hollywood wasn’t bigger than it is now and besides that there was … Bette Midler who seemed to be on friendly terms with both Toms in those days.
Tom Jans started as a more or less conventional folksinger. He made a record together with Mimi Farina (Joan Baez’ sister) and an untitled solo-album for A&M in 1972. At this point Jans got in touch with Lowell George and he started to work with the clan around Little Feat. Two minor masterpieces came from that: “The Eyes of an Only Child” in 1975 and “Dark Blonde” in 1976. What made them special is the original perspective in the songs and their wide scope. Intense love songs are combined with songs that deal with the state of society, the Spanish Franco-regime etc. and it all seems to fit in. What keeps it together is autobiography. In fact the two records seem to be two episodes out of a larger work. This guy was trying to give shape to his life by putting it on records. So when in the Spring of 1977 Jans came to Europe and told his eager interviewers that he rented studio-time to record the next part that summer, a select group of fans couldn’t wait for it’s results. But then it became very silent and after years of waiting the news couldn’t have been worse. In 1984 Jans died, probably in connection with depression & dope although there are also reports he was involved in a car accident shortly before. Bette Midler put up an advertisement to his memory in Billboard in which the lyrics of “My Mother’s Eyes” were printed and that was it. Until “Bone Machine” came out.
The beautiful thing about “Whistle Down The Wind” which is dedicated to Tom Jans is that it fits in Waits’ idiom as much as in that of Jans. Those who know the work of Jans well can actually hear him sing this song. For a long time I thought it must have been written earlier than the rest of Bone Machine (Jans died 8 years before, Kathleen not co-writing, the more conventional style than the rest of the songs) but since I heard Mule Variations I’m not so sure about that anymore.
So much for the history, here’s the mystery:
Once in a while after Jans’ tragic death articles emerged in different magazines with references to a mysterious last record which nobody had actually heard. It’s called “Champion” and it must have been released in the US only in 1982. What is known is who collaborated on the album (the same LA-bunch as on the earlier records, which even opens the possibility that it is in fact a late release of the planned ’77 record) . Well, of course there are (sometimes funny) rumours: Once there was a guy in Tokyo who had a copy but wasn’t in the possession of a recording-machine (we’re talking about Japan here!). There are roadies who had a tape of it but lost it, or they just can’t find it or whatever. The people who actually played on the album don’t react at all or only confirm that they have known Jans and played with him. Why? Well, maybe they think the record is not worth the fuss, a lack of interest in a project that wasn’t too succesful, copyright problems, or simply a story that is too sad to be reminded of. Still, it’s a shame that (the) story is incomplete, so if someone ever comes across …. let it be known….
A few years ago “The Eyes of an Only Child” and “Dark Blonde” were released on CD on Sony Records in Japan. At least in Holland they’re in some cheap import bins.