May 31, 2011 § 2 Comments
For those of you who saw Tom Jones on the “American Idol” finale and are new to the blog and my story, have a renewed interest in the singer, (known as The Voice long before the British or American version of that TV show with the same name), I encourage you to check out his two latest original CDs, 24 Hours and Praise and Blame. You will be amazed at the range, tone, and texture of his big, rich voice. On June 7, Jones will hit the age of 71, and he has, indeed, raised the bar for “aging pop stars” in terms of the quality of vocals and the desire to keep working purely for the love of singing.
Let’s go back to the 70s, when as a super-tall young woman, I felt like the Jolly Green Giant, a frequent misnomer given to me – huge, visible, and vulnerable to the world. Sometimes, I felt like a flea – a small speck, burrowing into whatever safe host I could find, such as my house, my room, and my car. At all of these “safe” places, The Voice was with me, singing my heart full and occupying my mind.
That was the thing about Tom Jones. Because he was on TV, on the radio, and on my stereo, I could listen to him in the comfort of all of my safety zones. For the most part, I could live my life comfortably in the safety of my own home with Tom Jones. And then, because he was so accessible, (I’ve looked through a thesaurus and this is the only word that really describes it), I could somehow muster up the courage to leave my safety zone and venture out to the man, or should I say, superstar I put all of my hopes and dreams upon.
I didn’t understand this need to disappear from the world. I just knew that unfamiliar places and unfamiliar faces were not “safe” and caused me to feel such anxiety that I would have panic attacks. But, if I was going to make Tom Jones fall in love with me, I knew I had to learn how to be around a lot of people and learn to talk with people. So I had to work harder be more comfortable with my peers; do something as simple as accept a piece of gum from a fellow student, instead of keeping my distance and saying “No, thank you” to everything. I was very good at saying “No, thank you” to everything, including living life. You can’t really live life if you hide.
I remember one day reading one of my mother’s ladies’ magazines, like Redbook or Good Housekeeping. There was an article about something I had never heard of before called agoraphobia. Say what? Agoraphobia? I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce it, let alone understand what it was and determine if it related to my life. I got the phobia part – fear, my constant companion. It was defined as a fear of being in open or public places. It also included fear of unknown people, fear of traveling to unfamiliar places, fear of separation from certain close relationships, as well as fear of having a panic attack in a situation from which there is no perceived escape. Uh oh.
That pretty much lumped all of my fears and social anxiety with panic attacks into one big category and left me feeling a bit bereft. At first, I thought I was a huge hot mess with a label. But then, I felt relief. For years, I thought that because I had all of these strange and awkward feelings that no one else I knew had, it meant I was crazy. This little article I just happened to come across gave me freedom from that crazy label, and let me know that there were others who felt like I felt… and survived and thrived. So there was hope!
It did seem to explain why I couldn’t go to Tom Jones venues as an independent young woman, like when he taped “The Midnight Special.” I got a call saying that he would be taping the show at NBC studios in Burbank. Perfect. It would give me an opportunity to try to spread my wings. Or not. Nope. I couldn’t drive the freeways. Remember, this was in the Dark Ages of the 70s with no cell phone or GPS to provide assistance or aide. The mere thought of driving to Alameda Avenue, not far from Hollywood, a not-so-easy drive for anxious me made me start to shiver and shake. Gratefully, I didn’t have to work too hard to twist my sisters’ arms to join (and drive) me.
“The Midnight Special” stage was just a simple box stage close to the ground and the audience. The audience, small and mostly women, actually sat on the floor – thank heavens we three sisters wore pants. There were lots of lights and multiple cameras on wheels, with one cameraman who kneeled with and walked through the audience with a huge, hand-held camera. There were lots of professionals on the sidelines, and a non-famous “host” who introduced the real host, Tom Jones, and his guest, Chuck Berry.
The first part of the taping was Chuck Berry’s solo. He was, well, wild. He was fun and funny and wild. He really worked at pumping up the audience to get them to engage in Chuck Berryville, even though it was a big Tom Jones audience. And he could play that guitar like no man’s business! I remember being totally impressed how he won over that TJ fan base during his musical moments. It was fun, too, when Jones came out and did his duet with Berry. There was no separation between age, race, or style – they were soul singers.
Chuck Berry disappeared, and Tom Jones appeared to tape his voice introductions, segues, and voiceovers. It was fun to be part of this show business side, with the non-famous host telling us when to be quiet, when to laugh, and when to applaud. Tom was, as usual, very cute and polite to women who would try to speak to him during the taping, but this gig was serious and down-to-business. I imagine they felt they had to run a tight ship due to the small, intimate quarters in which audience members could potentially get out of control. As usual, Jones delivered pitch-perfect performances.
Sitting Indian-style on the floor I looked like everyone else, but standing up, I stood out like a sore thumb. I discovered that when anything related to Tom Jones, I did not want to disappear like camouflage; I liked being six-foot-two and heads above the rest. I wanted him to see me. How else was I going to get him to fall in love with me and take me from feeling less smart, less beautiful, less normal than others to feeling special and worthy of the love of a superstar? How else would I be vindicated from the bullies? How else would I find value and worth if not through someone whose voice gave me permission to feel every emotion I had experienced and could imagine. And so, whenever he was taping and the audience could stand up, I was up, up, up, heads above all.
I don’t know if Jones noticed me that night of “The Midnight Special.” I put on my best Snow White, AKA Long Tall Sally, smile, as if he might. But, I began to notice something around this time frame. It had to do with Mrs. Jones and how she had virtually disappeared. At the beginning of Tom Jones’ career, there were pictures and taped pieces, and she was a definite presence in the media. And then, like a Marilyn Monroe whisper, Mrs. Jones quietly disappeared. There were no more photographs and rare sightings. She just disappeared.
I was young and I didn’t know much about Mrs. Jones, except what Jones reported about his wife not liking the limelight. I could, however, recognize the signs of someone who disappears. Because of my own challenges, I could sense the presence of something more than not liking the public life. I cannot say I know what went on in Mrs. Jones world, but I have the utmost compassion for anyone who hides. It is not easy. It is lonely. Family and friends who love you the most don’t understand. What seems so easy for them becomes a death-grip conflict for you. Your struggle becomes a family struggle.
The fame and fortune that was a blessing to Tom Jones and his family may have driven his beautiful, loving, and beloved wife inward. How could a young Welsh mother who didn’t finish high school but worked to help support the family, while her husband pursued his passion keep up with a husband who transcended his Welsh coal-mining destiny to travel the world and eventually meet with presidents and queens? How does that wife and mother, whose only child eventually travels full-time with his father, and then essentially focuses his own career on his father, cope?
Only decades later has the media swirled around the word “agoraphobia” and linked it to Mrs. Jones. Even when he was knighted Sir Tom Jones by Queen Elizabeth II in 2006, Mrs. Jones was missing. Simon Hattenstone interviewed Jones and wrote, “They’ve been apart a lot, he says. ‘But we are still in love with each other… we are still in tune with each other, we can still have fun, we still talk. She’s still the Welsh girl I married.’ He says Linda is shy, agoraphobic. When he has well-known friends around, she hides.” (Mail Online 11/08) I can imagine the myriad reasons Mrs. Jones began to disappear, and understand how difficult it would be, as a spouse of a public figure, to identify something that would help transition her out of a private, self-made prison and out into the world again.
Ironically, for me, Mrs. Jones’ husband was one pathway out of my fears, anxiety, and hiding. I later realized that a lot of my fears were based on lack of ego strength, and my quest to get Tom Jones to fall madly in love with me was all about building up that ego. How on earth did a shy, scared, skinny girl unwittingly pick Tom Jones to help her build a sense of self? Because The Voice and his music were there to comfort me 24/7; because he was the epitome of manly self-confidence; because as big as he was at the height of his career, he was still accessible.
Tom Jones was that special someone who had that special something that was important enough to draw me out of my private, self-made prison and out into the world. Although prayer was my main source of hope, listening to Tom Jones’ recordings, seeing him sing live at concerts, and visiting him backstage or elsewhere, was as close to therapy as I got in the therapy-was-not-so-acceptable 70s. Tom Jones was the catalyst in which my desire to become stronger, less fearful, and more mature was made possible, in part, by my strong attachment to him. And all of the “baby steps” I took in order to become the type of person I hoped he would fall in love with, allowed me to ever so slowly begin the ego-building process. It was singer-saved-me therapy made possible by… the singer who saved me.