When Chuck Berry and Leonard Cohen were given PEN's inaugural songwriters' awards at the John F. Kennedy Library last year, Berry's biggest admirer, Keith Richards, was on hand. So was Buffalo Tom's Bill Janovitz, a Stones fanatic who'd been invited by his friend, the novelist Tom Perrotta, who was the event's host.
"In that backstage room, it was astonishing," recalls Janovitz to Rolling Stone. "I'm not a person to be starstruck, but Elvis Costello, Keith Richards, Leonard Cohen. . . I found myself thinking 'I wish Paul Simon would just step to the left a little so I can talk to Keith.' You know you're in rarefied air when that's going down."
About a month earlier, Janovitz had been watching the Super Bowl when he got a message from a publishing agent from Edinburgh. The agent was familiar with Janovitz's book on the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St. for the 33 1/3 series of books about classic albums. He wanted to know if the singer would be interested in writing a book about the 50 songs that define the Rolling Stones in honor of their 50th anniversary.
"I hadn't anticipated becoming the 'Stones authority,'" Janovitz says. But he loved the idea, largely because it was more about the music than the band's biography. "I really wanted to write about the specifics of what I love, how things work," he says. "I have all this inside information from being in the studio all these years. It wasn't a difficult pitch."
Out today, Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones (St. Martin's Press) does just that, ranging from "Tell Me," the single that established the Jagger-Richards songwriting partnership, to "Plundered My Soul," the reworked bonus track from their 2010 Exile reissue. In between, Janovitz covers the hits ("Let's Spend the Night Together"), the misses ("The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man") and the songs that help him keep the band's long saga marching forward.
"The important thing about the list I made is, look, these are not my 50 favorite Stones songs," says Janovitz, who just released a new solo album, Walt Whitman Mall. "A lot of them are there, but I really wanted to get the whole arc of the career." So he left off "When the Whip Comes Down," for instance, in favor of "Respectable," the Some Girls track that was "about them reclaiming their rock & roll rebellion thing when the threat of punk was being taken pretty seriously by rock fans."
Janovitz, 46, was first introduced to the Stones as an eight-year-old, when his grandmother's neighbors, who had older children, gave him copies of Out of Our Heads and Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass). "I'd been listening to AM radio, and I was conscious of the hits of the time – the Ohio Players and Leo Sayer. I knew 'Satisfaction,' obviously, but I thought the old soul stuff was really cool, with the Stones covering Sam Cooke and Otis Redding and Solomon Burke. Of course, I didn't know they were covers then, but I was engrossed immediately." At the time, he says, the Beatles "were a given. This was something different – edgier, murkier, harder to figure out."
By now, almost four decades into his fandom, he has the Stones figured out pretty thoroughly. Jimmy Miller, the producer behind the band's incredible late-Sixties/early-Seventies run, from Beggars Banquet to Exile, helped the band navigate "away from the dead-end shoals of instantly dated psychedelia and fey hippie anthems, and restored their original bluesy swagger," he writes. "On 'Jumpin' Jack Flash,' the band sounds primal, intuitive and uninhibited. What the hell is a 'jumpin' jack flash,' or a 'crossfire hurricane'? We don't know for sure, but then, what precisely is 'smokestack lightning' [or] a 'mojo filter?' Who the hell cares?"
Janovitz's own band, Buffalo Tom, have always been guided to some degree by their Stones influences, he says, though they've never been overt. "I think people are always surprised to find that out," he says. But the band (including bassist Chris Colbourn and drummer Tom Maginnis) will tell veteran producers Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade, "We're trying to get, like, a 'Moonlight Mile' sound."
After taking time off to care for their families and build careers – Janovitz is a partner in a Boston-area real estate agency – Buffalo Tom cut their first studio album in nearly a decade in 2007 and have been touring and recording since. With his band having passed its own quarter-century mark, he marvels at the Stones' longevity.
"We gave it a really good shot," he says. "We were on the road for 10 solid years. We rode a great wave, and we were given a second life once Nirvana broke."
When the young Stones set out, he says, "I don't think they thought of themselves as careerists by any means. You just kind of keep moving the goalpost a little further."