My cousin Mike is well-known by those who love him for his generosity, passion, and commitment – not only to his own talent and career, but to the talents of those he loves. He devotes himself to your greatness and potential. It can be quite startling, sometimes annoying (“Mike, today I just don’t feel like being as great as you think I am, get off my case”), and always inspirational. The other day, we were emailing about something else, and he mentioned that he had written an essay to be included in the liner notes for Buffalo Tom‘s latest album Skins (iTunes link here, or you can purchase it through Buffalo Tom’s website). It is the Boston band’s eighth studio album. I read Mike’s essay, and promptly enjoyed a nice long leisurely crying jag about solace, art, lost loves, and happy memories. Mike asked if I wanted to promote, and I said Yes, I want that brilliance on my site. All photos below are by Mike O’Malley, except for the one in which Mike appears – that was taken by Lisa O’Malley (Mike’s wonderful wife); he sent the photos to me with a note: “In the winter of 2000, when the band Buffalo Tom went on tour, Mike and Lisa O’Malley tagged along.”
But I will say no more about Buffalo Tom. I’ll let cousin Mike take it from here.
What Buffalo Tom Means to Me
by Mike O’Malley
Whenever I find myself driving a rental car, and I’ve forgotten to bring my own music along, I will, in desperation, hit the “seek” button on the car radio. My hope is that an unfamiliar station will broadcast some new music that I’m unaware I’m about to love.
Invariably, I will hit a red light and find myself distracted from this music seeking, until I’ve listened all the way through to a song that is either A) one I’ve heard countless times—and could be retired from rotation so that a less-known great song might replace it—or B) a modern song that I cannot distinguish from many numerous other modern songs.
Yet I stick with the seeking because once-in-a-while, the search yields a band that brings forth the unique elation that great art bestows upon the committed: The ability to make you feel less alone, and more alive than you were before you encountered it.
That’s what I felt when I first heard Buffalo Tom almost two decades ago. I walked into the now-defunct and much-missed HMV at 72nd and Broadway in Manhattan and sampled a then-new thing called a listening station. Imagine, back in the early nineties, it was a novel idea to let people sample an album’s tracks before they purchased it…
As my luck had it, Buffalo Tom’s “Big Red Letter Day” was waiting for me to don some city-shared headphones and press play.
I did so with no idea of how hard I would get walloped. As their songs swirled into my ears and took root, I was thumped with recognition, discovery, like-mindedness and familiarity. It was, to me, Rock and Roll at its evolutionary best, delivered via three men from Boston who, with their voices, hearts, hands and instruments, took the influences of what had come before them and transformed it into something so original, passionate, and relatable that I thought it had been crafted just for me.
Here were men my age making music about things that mattered—how we navigate our lives amidst the messes we get handed and the messes we’ve made–and they were doing it with an authentic sound that had heft, texture and drive. They did what we want our rock and roll to do– distill potent observations about life and disguise any sentimentality—eliminate it–by backing up the observations with guitars and drums.
My discovery of Buffalo Tom came three records later than many other folks, but from “Big Red Letter Day,” through “Sleepy Eyed,” “Smitten,” and “Three Easy Pieces,” and then back through their eponymous first album, and “Birdbrain” and “Let Me Come Over”–I return to their music time and again because of the complexity of the lyrics, the propulsion and grace of the music, and the knowledge that whenever I press play, my listening will continue to provide the depth and power I need from music.
Buffalo Tom makes music I drive to, run to, think to, drink to. I listen to them for inspiration, for the way they turn their phrases and for the songs I’m still trying to figure out…
So–whenever I find myself in a car, and a radio station is proclaiming that they play the “Best Mix” of the last few decades, I want to sue them for lying. Because seldom, on any of these stations, do I hear blaring from the broadcast studios, my favorite band, Buffalo Tom.
And I am of the unshakeable belief that you cannot have a “mix” of the “Best” music from the last two decades without Buffalo Tom being included in the conversation.
Thankfully, twenty years later, these men are still making new music for me to add to the library. And their new record “Skins” has hit me in the solar plexus all over again so I can start the conversation anew.
Who is Buffalo Tom?
The basics are: In the late 80’s, three guitarists at The University of Massachusetts, Amherst formed a band. One of them, Tom Maginnis, shifted to the drums, another Chris Colbourn, focused on bass and backing vocals while the third, Bill Janovitz, fronted lead guitar and most of the vocals.
They collaborated on music and lyrics, and with their friend J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr, producing, they made two records and soon found themselves playing throughout the US, all over Europe and way down in Australia as the world discovered its appetite for this new brand of music dubbed alternative.
Alternative meaning—substantial, genuine. Songs that came from everywhere, and traveled musically to unexpected places, songs sung by people unfamiliar with the makeup chair, songs sung without the varnish that preserved popular music with a flavor more manufactured than captured.
For me, more than any other band during this tectonic shift in the music industry, Buffalo Tom harnessed their talent and delivered record after record filled with fantastic songs—and they did it by being unafraid to write about what they thought was important…
In the song “Sunday Night,” Janovitz sings:
“Where’s the solace you find, at the bottom of your mind?”
It’s terrain that Buffalo Tom continually tills—wondering where to locate some relief after friendships and relationships break, people move in and out of our lives, and wondering what to do while recalibrating our expectations. They’ve produced eight full albums of original material, and have had two anthology compilations of their music entitled “Asides,” and “Besides.” For the whole pedigree go to their website, but I’ll furnish you here with some other particulars.
Before Jon Stewart hosted the president and other famous people on the set of “The Daily Show,” he had a late night syndicated talk show called “The Jon Stewart Show.” On his final show, he asked his favorite band to play. That band was Buffalo Tom. They’re still Jon Stewart’s favorite band, and he’s currently the most trusted man in America. They’ve had song titles turned into feature films such as “Taillights Fade” and were featured guests on the Claire Danes series “My So-Called Life.”
And for those who fell for the Buffalo Tom of “Taillights Fade,” “Soda jerk,” “Tree House” and “Summer,” this document exists, in part to proclaim that Buffalo Tom’s new album Skins (click to buy on iTunes) is worthy of your attention.
It has all the things that Buffalo Tom does well: Songs about situations and subjects that the average human can relate to—with all the gravity you’d expect from a band that still has something to say. Throughout Skins, Buffalo Tom is unafraid to go deeper than the surface layer, and they spend much of this record bringing forth warnings, laments and admonishments.
They sing about men and women who’ve been harmed by pledges they once made and who now display the pockmarks to prove it. With note building upon note, the incision they start with grows larger and with each song an overarching theme about the density of life bleeds through.
Colbourn continues to take on his share of the lead vocal duties, as the beautiful lift and clarity of his voice counteracts the sadness that comes through in his songs “Not Your Thing,” “Kids Just Sleep” and “Hawks and Sparrows.” He sings about love and marriage, prayers not being answered, people not listening to one another, skin being lovely to touch but too thin to bear the weight of another’s criticisms…
He sings that in “Not Your Thing” that maybe it’s not your thing: “If you gotta think about it, talk about it, call about it, shout about it.”
Janovitz, slays me with the weary, earned wisdom that he smashes together with pomp and fervency…and he’s backed by Maginnis always staying with him, stride for stride, helping take him and us to the places we need to go to in order for the songs to give us the emotional journey we ask from them.
He sings in “Down” about thin ice and life bringing people low with the intention of never letting them get up again. He forewarns: “You will fall down! Down, down, down.”
And in “Don’t forget Me” he tackles growing up, moving away and remembering the you that you were before the you that you now are was formed—that time in your early teen years when you’re starting to build a life separate from your family and form your own identity. He pleads with intensity—“Don’t forget me! Not me! No, no not me!”
On “The Big Light” Janovitz sings about the aftermath of his Uncle Vincent’s death, as he sorts through his Uncle’s personal effects in an attempt to get his affairs in order:
“Wade through your life, wade through my life, all of the small things, shine in the Big Light.
Make sure when you leave, you leave someone else there to care.”
It’s a wish and a hope for us as well as an admonishment to craft a life where you’ll keep close to those you love, and give the correct and necessary import to people that you should….
At the end of the record, “Out of the Dark” starts with Janovitz singing “I thought you were my friend, but that was my mistake” and ends with vintage Maginnis pounding the drums relentlessly while Colbourn enters the song to sing with haunted resignation: “I’m mistaken, you’re mistaken, I’m forsaken too,” and Janovitz closes it out asking over and over “Is it really me there?”
It is powerful, rich awesome material.
And roughly 18 years after I walked into HMV, I am so grateful Buffalo Tom is making new music.
See, my trip to HMV was just the beginning of a longer, more in-depth story that’s not for now.
But so much of what I related to in Buffalo Tom came from songs like “Velvet Roof,” “Frozen Lake,” “Crutch,” “I’m Allowed” “Late at Night” and “Twenty Points.” I wondered about the particulars of the stories in the songs, I wanted more details, and I filled in the blanks as best I could—and that wasn’t difficult, because it often seemed like parts of those songs had happened to me.
And in song after song, they’d have lyrics that would ask questions. “Do you still fit in?” “Where’d they go—all the golden years?” Questions that augmented a larger question: What is the self you are going to rely on? Who is the self you are going to present to the world?
In so many of their songs, the men of Buffalo Tom are asking questions: Basically wondering with us, like friends in a bar over a beer or a coffee shop, in dorm rooms and kitchens, up late with us groping for answers to what ifs, what might have beens, when’d it-go-wrongs, and what-can-be-dones…They are the friends pushing you from behind to pick yourself up after mistakes made, harm done, after you’ve exhausted all opportunity to prove you want to unsay a stupid thing.
I met my wife at a party saying what ended up being a smart thing—“What kind of music are you listening to?” We soon discovered that other than small apartments and debt, something we had in common was Buffalo Tom.
Buffalo Tom was instrumental glue for us in our long distance relationship. We went to see them play any chance we could. Boston, NY, Connecticut, Rhode Island. We listened to their records nonstop. When we got engaged, part of the engagement was a trip from Los Angeles to New York that was capped off by seeing Buffalo Tom.
This was all before we met them.
And when I got my own television show back in 1999, I finally got to meet the men whose music meant so much to me—when I asked them to write the theme song for the show. They wrote a new song called “Right or Wrong” and I can tell you that not only was it exactly what I loved but that it’s probably the only primetime sitcom theme Song to mention a funeral home, even though a funeral home had nothing to do with the series.
In other words, they keep their alternative bona fides. And the show was cancelled after two episodes. The less said about it the better.
But other than disappointment, the one other indisputable thing that emerged from that debacle was the opportunity to be brought into the real lives of the men in Buffalo Tom.
Some folks believe that you shouldn’t meet the artists you admire. They fear that by getting close to them you run the risk of witnessing the complexities of their humanity and that your admiration will only give way to disappointment.
In the case of Buffalo Tom, nothing could be further from my experience. All three of them are great guys, smart men, driven men, men you’d ask to be groomsmen or pallbearers, men you’d be happy to see no matter the occasion.
I have witnessed these men get married, have children, take on other jobs to pay the bulk of their bills, and 25 years later, continue strapping on the guitars, get behind the kit, and go to work–writing the songs, practicing the songs, and then producing them to sound like something they then want to share. They continue to think about it, write about, talk about, fight over how they want it to sound and then get into a room and pour their guts out so that we, their listeners can receive the antidote their songs inject into us.
And attention should be paid to the fact that they’ve kept the torch lit with the distinctive life-fuel that can only be tapped from the veins of men who have lived lives into middle age and who’ve kept their guitars and sticks readily available throughout those years.
And it is this devotion to their talents, their devotion to their collective, their reliance on one another to make something worthy of struggle and effort—that is a true gift for which I am grateful.
For life is easier to enjoy when the solace we find comes not only from the friends we know who push us from behind, but from those men and women who pour their souls into their art so that strangers will feel less solitary with their pain, and in music’s case, allow the sonic power of their musical heroes to atomize the hurt into less potent, and smaller pieces that we can cope with, so that we can then focus on what’s good, right, and important.