Essays

I Realize It Was You That I Forgot: Revisiting Bill Janovitz’s Up Here

September 11th, 2001, was my day off. My plan for the day was simple. Get up, grab a bite to eat, and go to the college library to access the Internet and register the domain name for my website, Mundane Sounds. My home Internet service was dialup, and I needed a faster, more secure connection in order to complete my transaction. It was an annoyance, but one that I didn’t mind; it was just a short bus trip there and back; a quick breakfast, a check of the email, and I’d be on my way.

Suffice to say, I didn’t register my domain name that day.

That afternoon, in my little West Texas apartment, I felt the spinning of the world, confused, frightened, afraid. I’d spent time tracking down friends in New York and spreading messages of safety out to mutual friends on mailing lists, all the while dealing with this nagging feeling that something else was sure to happen at any moment. That endless morning transitioned into an afternoon that felt like two lifetimes, as the country and the world sat punch-drunk and dazed.

I turned to music. As I was about to launch a music website, I had a handful of records to listen to that day; three of which (Mercury Rev’s All Is Dream, Ken Stringfellow’s Touched, Departure Lounge’s Jetlag Dreams) were released that day and shrouded in tragic irony. The fourth album on my review pile that day, Bill Janovitz’s second solo album, Up Here, had been released a week or two earlier, and had arrived the day before. I’d opted not to listen to it until Tuesday afternoon, as I’d planned for an afternoon listening and reviewing session. The Mercury Rev album would become one of my all-time favorite releases, bar none; Departure Lounge’s one-off instrumental album would also become a favorite, and I do enjoy Ken Stringfellow’s record ever so often. Up Here, however, was listened to, appreciated,  contemplated for a few hours, and then filed away, seemingly for good.

That evening, as I started to write,  I made a conscious decision not to make reference to the day’s events—I felt that doing so would make it too dated, and as everyone would be viewing art and culture differently, I wasn’t really comfortable doing that for my website’s debut. With that in mind, I wrote the first review of and for my new online presence:

 

 

What do you think of when you think of “alternative rock?” Do you think of the soaring guitars and “heartfelt” lyrics that really make you think? Though that the term is utterly worthless, Bill Janovitz is a definite veteran of those heady, “alt-rock” days. As leader of Buffalo Tom, a band that always stood on the verge of making it, but always seemed to fall one short step of landing in the spotlight. Hits like “Sodajerk” and “Summer” were quite lovely, and deserved to be heard, but for whatever reason, Buffalo Tom’s hard work for 15 years went unnoticed, while upstarts such as Gin Blossoms and Goo Goo Dolls capitalized on virtually the same sound and style and became household names. It’s probably for the best, though, as both of those bands are considered the nadir of “alternative rock” and are a standard for mediocrity.

Up Here, though, finds Janovitz focusing on quieter, mellower, and more emotional sounds. Indeed, a few of the songs were holdovers from the Buffalo Tom days, for the simple fact that they were too mellow for Buffalo Tom. Most of the songs are very simple in structure, with just an acoustic guitar, piano, and occasional backing effects, creating for some rather sparse moments. Such minimal backing allows Janovitz’s voice to illuminate the songs, making the lyrics resonate as he sings about lost love, the joy of love, the joy of parenthood, and the remembrances of younger, better days. Indeed, he takes the idea of “solo” record rather seriously; he played most all of the instruments on Up Here, and is occasionally backed by female vocals, care of Chris Toppin, who sang on his debut solo album Lonesome Billy, as well as his side project Bathing Beauties.

Up Here is a poignant, sad, yet satisfying album. Janovitz is a storyteller at heart; his voice echoes the tradition of such classic songwriters as Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello, as well as a touch of more modern songwriters Mary Lou Lord, David Gray, Ryan Adams and Eric Bachmann. If Buffalo Tom is Janovitz as alt-rocker, then Up Here is Janovitz as alt-country folkie type. For some reason, I keep thinking about Austin City Limits when I listen to this record, because I think that Janovitz would sound quite at home on there. With Buffalo Tom on indefinite hiatus, and his side project Crown Victoria remaining homeless as of now, with no immediate plans, it’s good to know that Janovitz is far from idle.

Up Here isn’t going to change your world. It’s not going to make you go out and form a band, and it’s certainly not going to be on radio play lists in major markets across the US. It’s not going to be the soundtrack of your life. It’s not going to be something teens run out to buy because it’s hip. It’s not going to languish as a curiousity of hip writers who need something obscure to praise in their year-end “best-of” lists. The only thing Up Here can do is be itself–a man singing the songs that mean something to him.

God bless ’em for that.

As kindly as I spoke of Up Here, I must admit that I hadn’t listened to it in sixteen years. I don’t even know what happened to my copy of it—storage, perhaps. I pulled it up on Spotify last week and gave it a listen, and I have to say that I stand by what I said. It’s a beautiful, simple, heartfelt record; “Atlantic,” with its odd satellite-like introduction, is an instant flashback to that afternoon—the sound effect produced an instant evocation of the darkness and the haze of that day, even though yours truly had forgotten about its existence. I’m really impressed by the duets with Fuzzy’s Chris Toppin on “Half A Heart” and “Goodnight, Wherever You Are.” Of course, it’s impossible to dismiss the occasional references to New York City, death, melancholy, and the album-closing “Long Island”—it’s simply one of those realities of association I cannot escape. (And I don’t feel bad about that last paragraph; it’s awkward, but it’s not meant to be a backhanded compliment. I’d like to think I’m a bit more succinct and diplomatic these days.)

After Up Here came out, Janovitz went into real estate; his band Bathing Beauties never materialized; his new project, Crown Victoria, languished in obscurity and limbo for several years before finally seeing its sole release in 2004, in expanded and rerecorded (and much mellower) form. Unsurprisingly, Buffalo Tom’s breakup would be short-lived; they’d return in 2007, periodically releasing new material and touring when the fancy strikes. Meanwhile, Up Here is a sublime album, one whose downcast melancholy kept me away for nearly two decades (sheesh!), but in listening to it again, I’m glad I took the time to revisit it. It’s a treasure,  in spite of my haunting, tragic associations.

As for the review, it was the start of my journey, one that has been nothing if not interesting…

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