TOM JONES is so macho that when he walks, his testicles sound like a pair of bowling balls knocking together. And what of the acrid sweat beading up on those testicles? What profane secrets are hidden underneath the Jones scrode? What sort of pungent broth of chlorine and mushrooms distills in that dank cavern of chicken-skinned flesh that has made your mommy throw Jones her underwear and hotel-room keys when he's onstage for the past three and a half decades?
This Welsh amalgam of pheromones, testosterone, chest fur, gold chains, pinkie rings, cologne, ocean breeze-scented hair spray and silk bikini briefs is an old man now, but he can still beat your ass. Tom Jones has always been able to beat your ass, and he always will be able to beat your ass. He's Tom Jones. You're you. You suck. Tom Jones rules.
Jones has a voice like a rabbit punch from Mike Tyson on angel dust. His unamplified pipes could drown out the din of a thousand raging punk bands. On his last album, The Lead and How to Swing It, he posed screaming and flexing in a see-through mesh tank top and skintight, package-revealing trousers. Yet no one for a second would ever suggest that this particular photograph was homoerotic because Tom Jones is all about vagina and how to own it, Jack.
I met a man claiming to be Tom Jones' brother in a bar some years ago. I believed him because he looked like a broken-down, alcoholic version of Tom Jones with a mustache (Jones would never sport a mustache—he's too perfect) and because he had a Welsh accent, something most unbecoming in anyone other than Tom Jones. "He's a koont," Tom Jones' brother said. "He hasn't talked to me mum or me for years, ever since he became famous." Well, of course he hasn't spoken to you in years! HE'S TOM FUCKING JONES! You, on the other hand, are Tom Jones' broken-down, alcoholic brother with a mustache and his nasty, shrewing old "mum," who are too fucking small and petty to appreciate being related to Tom Jones. YOU SUCK!!!
Tom Jones' upcoming album, Reload ("load"—huhuhuhuhuh), is a collection of duets with folks like Barenaked Ladies, Natalie Imbruglia, the Cardigans, Portishead, Chrissie Hynde and the Stereophonics. These poor souls obviously want some of Tom Jones' glory to rub off on them. They believe a holy communion with the sweat from Tom Jones' nutsack will heal, redeem and bring legitimacy to their broken, pathetic lives and careers. And you know what? They're right. They have been chosen and anointed, ordained and consecrated by the perfect master.
Attend the Church of Tom Jones this Friday and Saturday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.
Although he's not Tom Jones, I still really like BILLY BRAGG, who plays the Coach House on Sunday night. Throughout the nasty, selfish '80s, he was a voice of undiluted, unselfish socialist rage; through the '90s, he's been a font of beauty and melody in an era of ugly, trendy noise. In fact, Bragg's capacity for memorable songcraft and poetic turns of phrase often has belied the subversive nature of his work; his blunt messages have been made palatable for the masses by the innate charm of his voice and his songs. In that regard, Bragg comes from the tradition of Phil Ochs rather than Bob Dylan, although his use of Clash-like power, particularly early on, would have given Ochs nightmares.
Last year, Bragg did a truer job than anyone could have imagined of putting music to old Woody Guthrie lyrics on Mermaid Avenue (recorded with Wilco); Woody must have popped a woody in heaven. Bragg's upcoming album, Reaching to the Converted, is a collection of early singles, obscure B-sides and overlooked CD bonus tracks that will serve as a nice primer for the uninitiated and a welcome treasure trove of Braggiana for longtime fans.
There aren't a lot of those in this country, although he's well-loved in his native England. Bragg once expressed his theory on why that is to me. "I've always had difficulty explaining my politics straight across to Americans because you live in a nonideological society," he said. "The American Left can usually be reduced down to those people who drive in carpool lanes. I'm sure the FBI takes down their number plates because they're all socialists, aren't they? Now the soccer moms are creeping in, which is something soft and unpatriotic, right? I don't know what it means, but I've noticed it, and it makes me laugh quite a bit."
If he hasn't quite been able to laugh all the way to the bank, Bragg remains one of our most neglected, idiosyncratic artists of the postpunk age.
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART retired from music in 1982 to live in a trailer in the Mojave Desert and conduct a new career in fine arts; it was the last the pop world heard from him for 17 years. Now, suddenly, we're being inundated with Beefheart product: Grow Fins, a boxed set of rare tracks, and Mirror Man Sessions, a complete remastered serving of all recorded material from Beefheart's 1967 double album album Mirror Man, were released earlier this year. Now Rhino has come out with The Dust Blows Forward (An Anthology), a career retrospective that is, as Beefheart once sang, "The Best Batch Yet."
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A genuine innovator whose sound has been (unsuccessfully) copped by acts ranging from Tom Waits to P.J. Harvey to Nick Cave, Beefheart (ne Don Van Vliet) and his Magic Band mixed free jazz, Delta blues, punk attitude, absurdist lyrics, quirky time signatures and psychotic vocals into something so unique and highly influential that points of reference almost don't apply. This music is extremely difficult to play, and a daunting task to listen to—a case of machine-like precision disguised as anarchic disarray.
The Dust Blows Forward presents a body of work that is nothing short of astonishing. Hypnotic, disturbing, amusing and challenging, there's a cohesion and flow to this collection, from the first strains of bent mid-'60s blooze rock to the last surreal notes Beefheart sang/screamed that bespeak the vision of a true genius—and I do not use the word lightly.
Beefheart is now stricken with multiple sclerosis and couldn't return to music even if he wanted to, but most of this stuff sounds so fresh and inspired it could have been recorded last week. This collection will serve as a fine tribute to a guy who created some of the most interesting, indefinable sounds of the 20th century.
Tom Jones plays the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Dr., Cerritos, (800) 300-4345. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. $47-$57; Billy Bragg performs with Freedy Johnston, at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930. Sun., 8 p.m. $23.50.