Bill Janovitz’s musical ethos, an amalgam of classic rock, punk, alternative, reggae and noise, has brought him back home, thematically and musically. His latest collection of tunes, Walt Whitman Mall, recalls the kinetic strumming and catchy arrangements of his epic work with Amherst-based college/indie icons Buffalo Tom. Parts of Walt Whitman Mall also paint a warm and fuzzy impressionist picture of what Janovitz refers to as his “Long Island of the Mind.” It’s not a concept album as much as it’s a collection of tunes coming from a heart space, carried on the warm winds of nostalgia.
“I found myself writing a lot of songs with a sense of a specific space, my hometown [Huntington],” Janovitz recently said. “The songs we love during those years buffer us through, while informing our musical taste for the years that follow.”
Growing up, Janovitz was torn from the nest. The Long Island- born musician/author enjoyed an idyllic childhood and teenage years in and around Huntington Bay. While attending St. Anthony’s High School, he played in bands and bounced in and out of all the record stores in Huntington Village, laying the foundation for what would become his lifelong quest for encyclopedic musical knowledge. Then his family relocated to a quiet suburb of Massachusetts. In this exiled inertia, Janovitz found three things: Good college radio, an unquenchable thirst for all musical genres and the drive to start a very influential band.
“My first albums were given to me by neighbors, Dylan and the Stones,” Janovitz said of his early musical memories. “The first LP I bought with my own money was Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life and second was Sgt. Pepper’s. Then I started listening to FM: WPLJ, WLIR and WNEW. Elvis Costello, Bruce, Patti Smith, Graham Parker, Joe Jackson, Talking Heads—all played next to southern rock and more mainstream rock.”
Walt Whitman Mall is also Janovitz’s first experiment with public funding gained through social media, a move he was initially skeptical about. But it proved to be a successful response to the implosion of the music business. By giving listeners at large an opportunity to help with funding, Janovitz gave his hardcore faithful a chance to joyfully buy into and enjoy the evolution of the music.
“I have found that music fans love getting involved,” said Janovitz of the DIY process. “It is really just a cool way to pre-order a record and follow along. It was a thoroughly satisfying way to finish this last record.”
To catch Janovitz on YouTube doing Dylan covers (“She Belongs to Me”) or Springsteen covers (“Atlantic City”) is to catch him as a music fan first and a musician’s musician second.
His own playing consistently surfs on heartfelt guitar jangle and throaty vocals floating between despair and possibility. It’s a formula with roots in the music of Appalachia, bluegrass and Delta blues. The Band gobbled amphetamines and pumped it hard through small amps. R.E.M. perfected it and made it internationally recognizable. And Janovitz, mixing it with his myriad of influences, made it his own.
“I was in the thrall of R.E.M., who I had discovered in 1982 when they opened for the English Beat. I loved all that stuff,” Janovitz said as he detailed the hops, skips and jumps that led to the formation of Buffalo Tom. “And of course, The Jam, Psychedelic Furs, Echo and the Bunnymen, XTC, all that stuff from the UK. But it was really Sonic Youth, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü and Dinosaur Jr. that were the immediate influences. They all combined the classic rock elements we loved from Neil Young, the Stones, the Who, the Byrds, the Faces and Buffalo Springfield with the punk and post-punk volume, aesthetic and energy. We knew what we wanted to do and be before we could even do it.”
Somewhere on that radio and MTV soaked journey of listening and playing and listening again, Janovitz has become the literary authority on the Rolling Stones. His most recent book, Rocks Off, is a fifty-song chronicle of the life of the Stones. It covers all the requisite Stones drama and gossip and then goes beyond—into the studio, through the mixing board and into the vinyl grooves of the Stones’ most pivotal tunes.
The book is thoroughly researched and tightly executed; the early contributions of Brian Jones, the underrated musicianship of Mick Jagger, the understated excellence of Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman, the devilish genius of Keith Richards and the inimitable contributions of producer Jimmy Miller through the Stones’ peak period of 1968-1972, are all explored in rich detail. It’s the ultimate book for Stones geeks, by the ultimate Stones geek.
“It was a band at the peak of their powers playing the music they wanted to play to entertain themselves and only themselves, with no presumptions about the marketplace,” Janovitz said of the Stones’ iconic Exile on Main Street. “[It’s] a perfect album of all that was essential to rock ‘n’ roll to that point, and arguably after that point.”
For thirty years, Janovitz has done well to run alongside his heroes, taking what he needs and blending it with his own sensibilities to leave his own mark on music history. And even better that he’s carried those musical memories with him, grinding them, churning them and running them through his own filter to make musical memories for us all.