He might be a mild-mannered weekly Jewish newspaper publisher by day — in fact, oddly enough, he is a mild-mannered weekly Jewish newspaper publisher by day — but by night, or at least some nights, or at least the night of Sunday, June 4, James Janoff looked like a rock star. Or at least a very gifted guitarist, on stage playing for more than 1,000 people at bergenPac in Englewood.
Full disclosure — Mr. Janoff — or Jamie, as he is known to almost everyone most of the time — is the owner and publisher of this newspaper, the Jewish Standard. That’s an identity he’s had for almost all of his adult life, and it’s a vocation he cherishes.
But playing music — that’s something different, maybe something even deeper.
And that’s how Jamie came to be onstage for Englewood Hospital and Medical Center’s Survivors Rock concert.
He and two other musicians — Joff Jones on cello, pedal steel guitar, and bass, and Alan Lerner on drums — were the opening act for N.E.D., a rock band whose six members all are gynecological oncology surgeons. N.E.D. stands for “no evidence of disease,” and those four words are the four words people diagnosed with cancer most want to hear.
The band’s members, who come from across the country, and include, on drums and percussion, Englewood’s Dr. Nimesh Nagarsheth, started playing together at a conference, as a lark, just because they could, but have continued to make music as a way of providing a voice of hope to cancer victims and an affirmation to the disease’s survivors.
That’s a message that Jamie knows well. About 15 years ago, he was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer; he’s had N.E.D. for so long that most of the time the memory of the disease is tucked away in a corner of his brain. When he is presented with an opportunity to help people with cancer by embodying a message of hope, that memory pops out of its hiding place, and he is ready to go. (Although, as the old joke goes, when the bandages come off his hands and the patient asks, “Doctor, will I be able to play the piano?” and the doctor says yes, and then the patient says, “That’s funny, because I couldn’t play the piano before,” if you weren’t a rock star before you got sick, you won’t magically be one once you’re better. Assume you’ll just stick to air guitar.)
To see Jamie on stage is to see someone confident in his chops and happy with a guitar in his hand and an audience watching him play. That’s because he’s been doing that for almost all of his life.
Jamie grew up in Jersey City and then in Teaneck, where his parents moved when he was a young teenager. He played in bands — first in middle school at the Yeshiva of Hudson County and then in high school — his first two years at the Rogosin Yeshiva High School in Jersey City, and then in Teaneck High.
“I remember that my first band was called Crushed Ice,” Jamie said, although he cannot remember what that name meant. “We changed its name to The Violations” — that sounded edgier — “but a friend’s dad made us change it back. He thought Violations was too negative.
“We would play at dances, and at Congregation B’nai Jacob in Jersey City,” Jamie continued. This was during the early to mid 1970s, and as he looks back, he remembers things that he hopes are different now. “We had a black drummer,” he said. “I remember a neighbor looking at him, and not in a pleasant way, when we came to practice. But we never looked at color.”
Jamie loved rock, and he was influenced by his idols — Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Duane Allman, Martin Barre of Jethro Tull, Steve Howe of Yes. Of all of those rock legends, he said, the one he worshipped the most probably was Eric Clapton and his early work with Cream and Blind Faith. “We lived right near Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City,” Jamie said. “He came there. It was a major event. I was getting to see one of my heroes for the first time.”
But the concert wasn’t so great. “He was drunk, and people were throwing bottles at the stage,” Jamie said.
“And what a sign of the times — not only were people throwing bottles, but they were able to bring bottles in. There actually were bottles there.
“It was a very bad night for Clapton,” Jamie added. “Don’t let your heroes disappoint you.”
And then there was the radio station WNEW FM. FM was where the exciting new music was. “I would listen to it religiously,” Jamie said. “At the time it played all the new music coming out of England. It was more or less classic free-form radio, where they would play the entire album.
“That was FM in its classic heyday.”
Jamie went to the University of Miami, which had a renowned music school; students on campus then included Pat Metheny, Steve Morse, and Will Lee. Jamie majored in communications, marketing, and business. It was a logical major, because the Standard was the family business, but he always played music. “There were times when I put the guitar down, but I always picked it up again,” he said. “I always returned to it.”
Jamie has a collection of old guitars; they’re mainly electric, some brightly colored, many multi-knobbed, shaped in a way that makes the most reserved, unmusical person want to pick them up and run their fingers over the curves.
“I have collected old guitars, but I have never looked at them as an investment,” Jamie said. “I love them. They’re like pieces of art. I also have a large collection of vintage amplifiers.” Much of his collection has appreciated in value, but Jamie does not buy these pieces of old instruments to make money from them. Sure, a new historic (to be clear on this unclear phraseology, “new historic” means a new historic reproduction) Gibson Les Paul is great, but “once you sit there and play the real deal” — an old-for-real guitar — “you see that there is no comparison.” When you play one of those imitation old guitars next to the real thing, clearly there is a difference.
“I look at the guitar for inspiration,” Jamie went on. “It’s like a good friend. I just pick it up and play something. Sometimes even I don’t know where the music comes from. It’s like what I played on Sunday night. Free-form stuff, interpretations of things that are out there.” Interpretations of well known songs, that is, songs that he plays in non-obvious ways. “I just don’t play it in the same way as you usually hear it,” he said. “Sometimes it’s like I hear it in a dream and play different interpretations.”
Jamie decided to play in the concert for many reasons. The most obvious one is because he’s a musician, and so he relishes the thought of an audience, a big one, sitting together in a darkened room, waiting for him to begin. But probably the deepest and truest one is because “I thought it would be a great opportunity to help a worthy cause,” he said; that’s true even though “I don’t even think about the fact that I am a survivor anymore.”
Having cancer changes you, Jamie said. “Although it has been a long time since I dealt with it, you don’t ever forget getting a call from your doctor telling you that we have to speak. So then what you do is kid around with the doctor, and ask, ‘What do you want to talk about?’
“And then he says, ‘prostate cancer, but don’t worry about it. It’s the slowest growing cancer. So don’t worry — but one day it will grow. One day it will leave the prostate, and that won’t be a good thing.
“So then of course you ask him when it will leave the prostate, and he tells you that he doesn’t know, and then you are in the hospital, having your prostate removed.”
Jamie’s treatment went very well, but “I was in the hospital with my best friend, David Taubenfeld,” he said. “I made it, but he didn’t, and that is something that haunts me to this day.” David Taubenfeld of Closter died of brain cancer in 2005; he was 38 when he died.
“When I would go back for regular checkups, I’m in the waiting room with other people, and I look at their faces, and see how scared they are, and I remember what that felt like,” Jamie said. “I remember that look.”
He wanted to do something to encourage people, and to show them what surviving can look like. “I wanted to help survivors feel happy for a night, and I wanted to remind people who haven’t had cancer to get themselves checked out. It’s important.”
So there Jamie was up on stage, with all these people staring at him, although the lights were shining on him and he could see none of them. “It’s like you’re in a white cloud,” he said. “Being on stage is very different from practicing. It is an entirely different experience.
“Some stuff goes right, and some stuff goes wrong. It’s strange. You can feel the excitement in the room. And you want to get people to react.
“It’s a strange feeling, really satisfying, really physically and emotionally draining but very satisfying.
“Really, there’s no other feeling like it,” Jamie said.