by John M. Borack
“It was long ago, seems like yesterday…”
I’m one of the many who was a fan of the Smithereens from the first time I heard them in the mid-’80s. Everything about the band resonated with me: Pat DiNizio’s sharp, smart songs and deeply emotive vocals, Dennis Diken’s powerful-yet-understated drumming, the rumbling bass of Mike Mesaros (and later, Severo Jornacion), and Jim Babjak’s slash-and-burn guitar. DiNizio once described himself in a very self-effacing manner: “A Buddy Holly/Beatles-influenced three chord pop singer/songwriter who happened to be standing on the right corner at the right moment and got lucky with his band, The Smithereens.” There was much more to DiNizio and his music than that, of course, as his varied and impressive catalog of tunes has proven.
I had the good fortune of meeting Pat on a number of occasions, but the first time certainly stands out. I was invited to meet the band before a Smithereens show in California, and I made my way upstairs to their dressing room. The door was cracked open a bit, and not wanting to barge in, I knocked. I heard someone bark, “Come in,” so I tentatively walked in the room, only to stand face to face with Pat – who was clad only in boxer shorts. Quite a sight.
I stood there frozen for half a second, and Pat starts yelling at me: “What the hell are you doing, just walking in here? What the hell’s the matter with you?” I may have stammered an apology in reply as my face turned beet red, when Pat suddenly smiled, laughed, and said, “I’m just f*cking with you, man, come on in.” He was just busting my chops, as they say.
I was saddened to hear of Pat DiNizio’s recent untimely death, and I’ve been spinning his records ever since and enjoying the wonderful music he played a major role in creating. Here are 10 prime examples of his singing, songwriting and performing prowess fronting the Smithereens:
“Behind the Wall of Sleep” (from Especially for You, 1986) – A true story about a female bassist named Kim Ernst (from a Boston band called The Bristols) who caught DiNizio’s attention. Ms. Ernst apparently “had hair like Jeannie Shrimpton back in 1965” and “stood just like Bill Wyman,” and she not only became the object of DiNizio’s affections, but also inspired one of the many marvelous tunes off the Smithereens’ debut album. Dennis Diken once claimed this tune reminded him of an “American Indian war chant.”
“Blood and Roses” (from Especially for You, 1986) – From Mike Mesaros’ menacing opening bassline to the dark lyrics about suicide, this one’s an unforgettable, foreboding tune that stands out as perhaps the band’s signature song.
“Elaine” (From Green Thoughts, 1988) – A sprightly, Beatlesque confection that melds a downcast set of lyrics (“I think that I’d rather be dead than to be this lonely”) to one of DiNizio’s typically inviting melodies. Jim Babjak’s compact, Byrdsian guitar solo is a treat as well.
“If the Sun Doesn’t Shine” (From Green Thoughts, 1988) – The absolutely glorious, Beach Boys-inspired backing vocals help make this winning love song one of the low-key highlights from Green Thoughts.
“Maria Elena” (From Smithereens 11, 1989) – A tender little number written about Buddy Holly’s widow that borrows a bit from Buddy both musically and lyrically (“I believe in true love ways”). The accordion that bobs in and out of the mix is a cool addition.
“One Look at You” (From 2011, 2011) – With a lead guitar riff that sounds like “Day Tripper” turned on its side, backing vocals on the bridge that are equally “Tripper”-like, and a vaguely psychedelic outro, this one comes off like a Beatles ’66 homage imbued with the Smithereens’ trademark power and finesse. Dennis Diken’s drums are a thing of beauty throughout.
“She’s Got a Way” (From God Save the Smithereens, 1999) – The leadoff track on what is perhaps the band’s most under-appreciated album, it showed that even after a five-year recorded layoff, the Smithereens could still dole out the powerful pop songs for which they had become revered.
“The Long Loneliness” (From God Save the Smithereens, 1999) – Undoubtedly the most obscure track on this list, this brief (1:39) track seems to be a heartbreakingly autobiographical look at the dissolution of DiNizio’s marriage.
“Tracey’s World” (From Beauty and Sadness, 1983) – Powered by a simple, repetitive guitar riff, this ditty from the band’s second indie EP benefits from Diken’s drums pushed forward in the mix, as well as a bit of harmonica from DiNizio.
“William Wilson” (From Smithereens 11, 1989) – Beginning its life as a song about Brian Wilson (hence the “William Wilson, let him run wild” chorus), DiNizio later mentioned that the song’s lyrics were also influenced by an Edgar Allan Poe story about someone with a self-destructive bent. In any event, a damned catchy tune.