What Buffalo Tom Means to Me, by Mike O’Malley

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.


Mike O’Malley the roadie with Drummer Tom Maginnis, Tour manager Tom Dube, Mike and bassist Chris Colbourn

What Buffalo Tom Means to Me
by Mike O’Malley

Introduction

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.


Buffalo Tom in Minneapolis with Hüsker Dü’s Grant Hart

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.


Buffalo Tom at the Troubadour in L.A., December 2000

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.


Backstage in San Francisco 2000 with Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz and Lisa O’Malley

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.


Lisa O’Malley enjoying a pre-show malted beverage with Chris Colbourn in Seattle 2000

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.

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23 Responses to What Buffalo Tom Means to Me, by Mike O’Malley

  1. brendan says:

    Great essay. Great band. Mike’s ability to put things into huge contexts is so unique. He perfectly articulates what it is like to love a band. Awesome!

  2. sheila says:

    Bren – yes, very unique. Very emotional.

    I love the picture of Lisa with the guitar – hahaha – it looks like they all were having so much fun traveling around with the band.

    I remember you, back in the day, telling me about Dinosaur Jr. but I can’t remember what you said.

  3. brendan says:

    Dinosaur Jr. is great…the lead singer sings like a geek with a mean streak and plays guitar like a mo-fo. Such an odd combo, he’s like Slash of Guns ‘n Roses if he were in Revenge of the Nerds.

  4. Marisa says:

    Well, first off – it makes me want to listen to them. And that’s the best thing you can accomplish when trying to encapsulate a band in an essay – passing on a desire to hear their work.

    Overall this is such a great description of a familiar feeling. We all have bands who have – for whatever reason, whatever combination of the right chemistry and timing and just the right sound, are VITAL to us. Music that transports us and never fails to click for you, personally. And it’s such a rare and amazing thing to find artists whose work CONSISTENTLY (album after album – such a feat) makes you feel a certain way and reaches you and connects.

    So it makes me want to listen to them, but it also made me think about bands that have personal importance to me.

    I also love how he encapsulates how he feels about these guys as people – as individuals who are now a part of his life as well as musicians whose work means so much to him:

    //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.//

    It’s a simple thing to say, but how many people in your life would you say that about? And you know Cousin Mike means that. And it’s wonderful to see that they don’t just create music that matters to him – THEY matter to him. How wonderful is that? What a gift for your favorite artists to turn out, each one of them, to be a real mensch, a friend, a good man?

    I LOVE that.

    Also? Lisa is gorgeous. Second favorite line: “I met my wife at a party saying what ended up being a smart thing…” LOL. It fascinates me to know the context and impact of specific music in a person’s life.

  5. sheila says:

    Marisa – It’s interesting, Mike’s piece makes me think of the times in my life when I picked up something or heard something BY ACCIDENT – and how it ended up becoming so so important to me – and it gives me a shiver to think of how coincidental the first encounter was. Like, what if I hadn’t seen that book, or what if I hadn’t heard that song played at a party – or whatever. These things can become so important to us – not just for entertainment value, but for expressing something we can’t express.

    Pretty cool that a first conversation between a future husband and wife would be about Buffalo Tom and then eventually they would have the opportunity to tag along on the damn tour bus?? How awesome is that??

  6. Kristine says:

    Amazing. Really, just amazing. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Kate P says:

    I had no idea there was more to them than “Soda Jerk,” which I have on an audiotape from the radio. (I guard that tape with my life because my late friend wrote all the titles/artists on the liner.)

    The trouble with good essays like this is that they make me want to spend all my cash on music!

  8. .: What a brilliant, articulate essay. Like Mike, I discovered Buffalo Tom in the early 90s, but not by discovered one of their early albums. I had (somehow) obtained a copy of No Alternative, a collection of songs recorded to raise money to fight AIDS. It featured the Buff T song, “For All To See”. Like Mike experienced listening to Big Red Letter Day the first time, this song walloped me hard. I listened to it repeatedly, and started seeking out their early recordings. I remember learning the song on guitar and loving to be able to play along with them. From that time, Buffalo Tom’s music, as well as the music Bill has made in his other projects, has meant the world to me.

    Thank you, Mike, for these wonderful words about my favorite band of the past 20 years.

  9. Ronnie says:

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. In all the ups and downs of the last 20 years I have always been able to put on a BT album and get comfort or relief or just fucking rock!

  10. Tom from Santa Cruz says:

    Thanks so much for the article – huge fan of the band, and will be for life –

    Cheers,
    Tom

  11. Sean says:

    I read this whilst listening to Skins, having already been blown away by the brilliance of the album – those sounds and these words said it all. A fantastic essay and exactly what those of us lucky enough to know the music feel when we hear it.

    And the bit about meeting the band – I’ve met Bill twice now, had a quick chat, bought him a beer… and he was great. What else can you ask from your heroes ?

    Thanks for posting this.

  12. sheila says:

    Sean – // What else can you ask from your heroes ? //

    Totally.

  13. GT says:

    “Buffalo Tom makes music I drive to, run to, think to, drink to.”

    Ditto! Could not have said it better myself.

  14. Mike says:

    Attention “MUST” be paid.

  15. B.Rad says:

    Great job, Mike – I’m going to one up you. I first heard “Sunflower Suit” on WMBR back in 88-89 and bought the single, then their first album and first saw them them live at the Channel in Boston. Everything you write about them and their music is right and Skins is an amazing continuation of their body of work.

  16. Pingback: When Falls the Coliseum » Marty Digs: Buffalo Tom

  17. Mark says:

    Mike’s essay is an eloquent, pertinent and unusually personal account of a great band. A lot of people I know listen to music in the same way as Mike describes flicking through radio channels – it’s a disposable background noise. I take time out to sit and listen to music. I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve spent a lot of money over the years on quality hi-fi separates so I can really listen in to all the musical nuances of a recording. Nothing captivates me more than listening to Bill’s soulful, impassioned and occasionally mournful vocals, the bluesy twang of the acoustic recordings, Chris’s perfect harmonies or lead vocals tinged with warmth and empathy, drawing me in; or the sheer rock-out blasts of tracks like ‘Velvet Roof’ or ‘Souvenir’…

    I discovered Buffalo Tom at pretty much the same time as Mike – the release of Big Red Letter Day in 1993 – but on the other side of the pond. Here in the UK, the band has never had the recognition it rightly deserves; most people I speak to haven’t heard of them but whenever I’ve introduced their music to my friends, they’ve been impressed.

    I’ll never forget going to a gig in Manchester around the time of ‘Big Red Letter Day’ and being blown away by the energy and musical impact of the band – inadvertently ending up in the ‘mosh pit’ and half deaf for days afterwards, but it was worth it! Buffalo Tom, and Bill’s solo work, have never been far away from my CD player for the last two decades. They don’t exist in a musical vacuum, and there’s other bands that I love too; I love Crowded House (a different type of band altogether) for many of the same reasons that I love Buffalo Tom. The natural talent of all these guys as musicians, married to their ability to write tunes that can stir the emotions and lyrics that can be interpreted as deeply and as personally as you like, set them apart. Their removal from following fads and fashion in favour of quality music, and the fact that I can identify with the people I see before me and the stories they tell me, engaging in a rapport with them all when I see them live, is also noteworthy. Buffalo Tom are not prima donnas, just ordinary guys and friends, which leads to a kind of ‘friends together’ atmosphere at a gig too.

    There have been some wonderful tunes across the musical spectrum over the years. I can’t think of any other tune off-hand that builds from the quiet melancholy to the potent attack of ‘Mineral’, for example. I hadn’t listened to ‘Let Me Come Over’ for a while until I dug it out again a couple of years back, only to find that although my life had changed considerably (and therefore so had my sense of lyrical interpretation), the album still sounded remarkably fresh, crisp and current. Fast forward almost twenty years and ‘Skins’ is another great album. My favourite song changes from day to day, from mood to mood, but right now it’s there on my way into work in the morning and on my way home at night, easily usurping REM’s more heralded and lauded latest release. I’m unravelling lyrics and interpreting them in relation to my own life all the time. Right now, ‘Out of the Dark’ is a personal favourite, but tomorrow it might be ‘The Big Light’, ‘Lost Weekend’ or ‘She’s Not Your Thing’.

    For me, Buffalo Tom haven’t reinvented the wheel, they’ve just banged out genuine quality music for years, soundtracking my life along the way. I can’t hope to have the personal connection to the band that Mike has but, in a different way, my connection might be just as strong, because the music has spoken to me all the while.

  18. Nale Dixon says:

    Old post, I know. I have read it more than once. And I’m with you on everything you said…except how on Earth can you say Buffalo Tom “eliminate sentimentality”? That part just makes no sense to me. When I hear lyrics like “she handles disappointment like her mom” or “we taught that cat to crawl”, I mean, there you have it. Anyway, these guys are still my favorite band (I’m old) and I hope that they stick around.

  19. This week Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom joins us at the Dig Me Out Podcast for an in-depth discussion about their 1993 album Big Red Letter Day. We cover a wide range of topics that include: writing, recording and touring the album, what happens when special visitors like Gene Simmons and David Lynch stop by your recording sessions with the legendary Robb Brothers, incorporating influences from bands like The Who and Rolling Stones, making videos, guitar rig set-ups, the band history, how My So-Called Life changed fan demographics, and much much more.

  20. Great article, even after a few years. And still one of the best bands around.

  21. Shaun says:

    Remarkable article . Thank you Mike for articulating so eloquently what many Buffalo Tom fans feel . For 25 plus years Buffalo Tom (and Bob Mould) have been the music
    that I continually come back to. Buffalo Tom’s music has been an integral part of my life . The band gave their heart and soul during every live show of theirs I saw. Great venues too in Boston and Northampton, MA. A regret I have is missing the 25 year celebration shows . Please keep playing Bill , Tom , and Chris . From a lifelong fan .

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