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It's Kind of Unusual 

In lieu of a conversation with the real Tom Jones, we bring you Steffanos Xanthoudakis

Wednesday, Dec 8 2004
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It began in Queens, N.Y., in the late '60s, in the closet of Steffanos Xanthoudakis' mother. There, on the back of her closet door, hung the lordly image of the singer who is known by many names, but whose admirers refer to him simply as "The Voice." There, in Xanthoudakis' childhood memory, was a life-size poster of Tom Jones.

"I know now that we walk through the world in a similar way," Xanthoudakis (pronounced "zan-thu-DOCK-is") reminisces 30-some years later. "There are traits that are just naturally inherent in me that are naturally inherent in him."

Sitting across from him, I have to agree. It's not just the way that Xanthoudakis (aka "Tantric Tom") wears the mutton chops and pinstriped ass-pants (and he wears them well, oh boy!); there's some other intangible parallel between the star of local tribute act Tom Jonesing (aka "The World's Most Powerful Tom Jones Band") and the man he impersonates. There's something in the casually libidinous manner that Xanthoudakis shares with the man who decorated his mother's closet.

If Xanthoudakis were a little shorter, a little rounder, and spoke a little more with a Welsh lilt (his speech is inflected with a touch of the Brooklyn yawp from his childhood), he'd be a dead ringer for the Voice, the Big TJ, Sex Bomb. And since it was impossible to get said Bomb on the other end of the phone to preview his four upcoming San Francisco shows ("I can't even explain how busy Tom is," fluttered the Voice's PR flack), Xanthoudakis is my only method for understanding the man who has been the target of so many tossed panties -- or at least the man pretending to be the man who has been the target of so many tossed panties. Even that, at times, seems like cooking a little too close to the fire.

"A lot of tight pants," Xanthoudakis purrs when asked about the secret to understanding Tom Jones' magnetism. "A lot of tight pants. And a lot of texture. When you are buying clothes, buy for texture. You gotta wear the clothes that people want to rub."

"We like his pants period," says Xanthoudakis' friend and Jonesing keyboard player Dean Mermell (aka "The Tickler").

The three of us sit together in the living room of Mermell's tastefully decorated Bernal Heights bachelor pad, musing about the explosive impact that Sex Bomb continues to have on pop culture. Mermell cues up footage from Jones' short-lived television show and he and Xanthoudakis comment with awe as the Big TJ does classics like "It's Not Unusual" and "Delilah" while cavorting and giggling through a stage show that would shame a Super Bowl halftime. "Look at this," Mermell says, rewinding the tape to Jones executing a particularly embellished dance step. "It's beautiful."

"It's hard in some ways," Xanthoudakis says, "because you are being held up to a true legend. When you are doing your own stuff, only you know how it's supposed to go and no ones else does. But, when you do something like 'It's Not Unusual,' everybody knows what it's supposed to sound like. You have to hold yourself against the Voice, the icon."

The two men, who refer to themselves as "the mom and dad of the band," both used to do originals in a laundry list of now-defunct bands. They first met while Xanthoudakis, who works during the day as a carpenter, was performing in a "tribal opera" at Burning Man 1998. Mermell, a filmmaker and editor by trade (his short, Modern Life, won several prizes, including the San Francisco International Film Festival's Golden Gate Award), was at Burning Man making a documentary. When they got back home Xanthoudakis grew out his sideburns, and the inspiration for Tom Jonesing was born.

"I was walking down the street and people kept coming up to me saying, 'What are you supposed to be, Tom Jones?'" Xanthoudakis says. He bought a greatest-hits compilation, and when an attractive young lass at an airline counter told him he resembled Jones he sang a few lines for her. "She just about fell over," Xanthoudakis says. "I knew what I had to do."

"When he's doing [Tom Jones], he's very personable," Mermell adds. "Let's just put it that way."

When I ask them to explain Jones' mystical allure to the ladies (a question I would have chewed my arm off to ask Jones himself if I'd had my druthers), Xanthoudakis says simply, "Sex sells." Mermell chalks it up to the spirit behind his voice.

"He has a really, really powerful sexual persona," Mermell says. "He's just so comfortable in his own skin and then he lets it fly from this magnificent voice. He expresses himself so completely that it's almost like it's a fire that burns up, and people feel that, and are attracted to that."

Five years back, with the lanky (and recently single) Xanthoudakis attempting to keep those fires stoked, the newly formed Tom Jonesing booked its humble first gig at the Last Day Saloon. By the second show, the panties were flying. ("I still have those around," Xanthoudakis sighs. "My first panties.") Today, the World's Most Powerful Tom Jones Band has played about 100 gigs, in about every venue in town.

"At first we wanted to get together and do this kitschy Tom Jones cover band thing, but it's expanded into a project of American musicology," Mermell says. (Note here that Tom Jones is not American and Mermell is not joking.) "We went beyond just being a Tom Jones band; now we are kind of curators of American music. It's more like an art show. I think of each piece like a little painting, and a little story."

But even so, the 10-piece homage to the Big TJ struggles to make its mark in San Francisco's bustling and overcrowded cover band scene, which has produced nationally touring tribute acts like Super Diamond (aka "The alternative Neil Diamond experience"), and big-draw locals like AC/DShe (aka "The first ever all girl AC/DC tribute!!!"), Tainted Love (aka "Dance Hits of the '80s"), and Stung (aka "The Ultimate Tribute to The Police").

"It's a subculture of a subculture," Mermell says. "Cover bands thrive in this town. But what makes a Neil Diamond cover band succeed and a Tom Jones cover band struggle? I don't know."

"The most frustrating thing," Xanthoudakis says, "and this is not an ego thing -- is how do you get over the hump? How do you get to a level like a Super Diamond or a Tainted Love?"

Maybe it will be something Xanthoudakis will glean when Tom Jones himself swoops into San Francisco like a pair of flung skivvies. Xanthoudakis holds tickets for opening and closing night of Sex Bomb's four engagements at the Fillmore. "I was going to go to all four," he says, "but, shoot, I'm not obsessed."

However, when Xanthoudakis himself is under the lights booming through a husky retelling of "What's New Pussycat?" the line between obsessed and possessed becomes quickly blurred. His impersonation of Tom Jones isn't flawless, but it's close. He prances around with a wireless mike, his ruffled shirt unbuttoned all the way down to his business. His radiant medallion bounces atop a velvety plot of chest hair, and on Jones' better-known hits he makes a good go at the Voice, especially for a New Yorker who might just as easily be impersonating Kramer from Seinfeld.

"Being a nonreligious person, it's about as close to praying as I get," Xanthoudakis says. "It's communing with the spirits that be. I invoke the spirits of people like Edwin Starr, who just died, or Ray Charles. I say to all of these spirits that have passed on, 'Let's just go out and party, let's go out, all of us, and sing tonight.'"

About The Author

Nate Cavalieri

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