By John Curley
The four original members of one of New Jersey’s finest rock bands, The Smithereens—lead singer, rhythm guitarist and songwriter Pat DiNizio, lead guitarist Jim Babjak, drummer Dennis Diken and bassist Mike Mesaros—will be inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame along with other Garden State luminaries such as fellow rocker Southside Johnny Lyon, actor Jason Alexander, author Peter Benchley, author George R.R. Martin and former New York Giant Harry Carson at a ceremony to be held at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, New Jersey on October 27.
The Smithereens formed in 1980 when DiNizio, from Scotch Plains, New Jersey, joined Babjak, Diken and Mesaros, who attended Carteret High School in Carteret, New Jersey together, to round out the quartet. The band recorded 11 studio albums, releasing their debut LP, Especially For You, in 1986. (Mesaros left the band for a decade, returning in 2016. He was replaced by bassist Severo Jornacion during his time away from the band.) The band made quite an impact with rock fans via their ’60s-tinged power-pop songs filled with heartbreak and hope.
Among the bands that The Smithereens influenced was Nirvana. Krist Novoselic, Nirvana’s bassist, cites The Smithereens’ 1988 album Green Thoughts as one of the albums that served as an influence to Nirvana in the exhibition Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses, which is currently on at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture.
Following DiNizio’s death at the age of 62 on December 12, 2017, the surviving band members decided to continue in a unique way. The role of lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist would be filled by both the singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw and Robin Wilson of Gin Blossoms, with the two singers alternating in the role depending on their and the band’s schedules. The Smithereens are the only band to use two lead vocalists following the death of a lead singer. And while many veteran bands change their sound as they get older as a concession to age, The Smithereens rock as hard in their sixties as they did in their twenties. Their incendiary cover of The Who’s “Sparks,” a Smithereens live staple, is just one example of this. (See my review of their July 13, 2019 show at The Iridium in New York City’s Times Square in the Concert Reviews section on Goldminemag.com for more on the live Smithereens experience.)
Goldmine recently conducted interviews with Babjak, Diken and Mesaros. The results follow:
GOLDMINE:The Smithereens will celebrate their 40th anniversary in 2020. Do you have anything special planned to mark the occasion?
DENNIS DIKEN:We’re planning on a series of archival releases with material from our vaults. Stay tuned!
MIKE MESAROS: I’m sure we will. It’s a momentous occasion for us.
GM: What does it mean to you that the band has existed for four decades?
JIM BABJAK: Pat used to joke about that on stage by saying “We’ve been together so long because we have no other job skills,” and it would garner a few laughs! The truth is, Dennis, Mike and I were friends. We learned how to play together as a band before we even met Pat and it remains a passion we’ve had since we were kids. Dennis was already a world-class drummer when we were teenagers. I had to keep up with him and, as a result, it made me a better guitar player. I initially taught Mike how to play a few songs on bass when he started because he wanted to be part of what we were doing. He took it from there and absorbed the playing of Paul McCartney, John Entwistle, James Jamerson and Dee Dee Ramone all rolled into one and made it his own. So, why stop now? This is not a career you retire from unless you’re totally not capable of performing anymore.
DD:We must have been doing something right all this time! Seriously, when I see bands that have been around for several decades, I find in them something tangible that can only exist because they’ve played and grown together for so long. We are among the groups who have forged such an essence. It can’t be manufactured or duplicated.This isn’t braggadocio, we can’t help it. It’s just us being us but with years of experience under our belts. Fortunately, our fans really identify with us as people and as a band. I think the fact that we’ve stuck with it and they’ve stuck with us gives them a sense of kinship with us and loyalty toward us.
MM:Den, Jim and I have been friends since elementary school. The band really started in high school before we met Pat. So, it’s a testament to our brotherhood and a mark of musical collaboration and perseverance. I don’t take it lightly. I cherish the band and am thankful every day.
GM:How did playing in New Jersey venues such as the Court Tavern in New Brunswick help to shape the band?
JB: There was a vibrant music scene at the time when many bands in the area were playing original music and putting out independent 45s. The Court Tavern was a big part of that scene. In those days, we would play three blistering, sweaty, pure rock and roll sets a night which shaped us into a tight unit. We built a following of fans from that era which remains to this day.
DD: It was one thing to spend a lot of time in the garage or in the basement rehearsing material amongst ourselves but a band can’t really get the music under their skin until they play it in front of an audience. These are the venues where we learned to play together as musicians and as a band and where we learned what worked and what didn’t work with an audience. Their support gave huge shots to our confidence and made us want to be better players. Pat learned how to be a front man. And receiving positive feedback from a group of friends and strangers let us know that there was a bunch of people who wanted to hear our music. And they gave us hope that there might be a larger audience out there for us one day. Another club that was very instrumental in the shaping of the band was Kenny’s Castaways on Bleecker Street. It was our first New York gig and it opened our eyes to the horizons beyond New Jersey. The owner Pat Kenny was our spiritual godfather in Manhattan. Both he and the house talent booker Don Hill believed in us and championed us. We could never say enough about the support, love and nurturing that these wonderful gentlemen gave us.
MM: The Court Tavern, Dirt Club and Stone Pony and lesser-known bars kept us playing regularly in front of people. Although in the early days you could count them on one hand. That is so important because just rehearsing in a garage can only get you so far. Jimmy and I used to say, “One gig is worth one month of practice.” We developed our musical chops and identity in those places. We grew up and were ready when the door opened for us with “Blood and Roses” in ’86. But we stuck together through five years of dues’ paying. And our persistence and belief in what we were doing served us well. We were a really good band, with lots of seasoning, when we broke nationally. We were able to rise to the occasion and perform well under pressure.
GM:How have the band’s fans reacted to your decision to continue touring with Marshall Crenshaw and Robin Wilson?
JB: Our fans have been overwhelmingly positive about us continuing to perform. Each singer brings his own style into the mix while retaining the essence and spirit of The Smithereens. It’s also a big plus that they are friends of the band and are fans of the music. We are a working band and this is how we make our living. Always was, always will be. Sometimes people ask us, “When will you be touring?” I answer, “All the time.” It’s not like the old days when we were on a major record label and toured when there was an album to promote. Those days are gone. We are playing because we love to play and people want to hear and see us play the songs they love and grew up with. There are also plans to record new songs with guest singers down the line. It is ever evolving, as life is.
DD: Our fans have always been very loyal and they continue to be very supportive. The music has great meaning to them and they’re happy that we’re keeping it alive. The grooves and grit of The Smithereens are intact with Jimmy, Mike and me playing and we celebrate Pat’s spirit every time we take the stage. We didn’t necessarily seek a singer who sounded like Pat after his tragic passing. We’re fortunate that both Marshall and Robin have great respect for the songs and interpret them in their own respective ways.
MM: Marshall and Robin have made an emotional commitment based on love of Pat’s works and our band. This is obvious when we perform. The boys and I are so fortunate that these two are doing this. Marshall and us is a very old friendship (our first album) and Robin is a new one. Both are different in performing style and also the same in that they make Pat’s melodies their own while staying true to the original—the mark of a great musician since the very beginning of jazz. When we play, rock and roll lives. Our fans have gotten behind us. I see tears, laughs and release from the everyday world, embodied by them at our gigs. All of us are in their debt because they have supported us through a devastating time.
GM:How do you view the legacy of Pat DiNizio?
DD: One of the best songwriters of our era. He had a magic touch of channeling the sadness and heartbreak he felt and the joy of living into three-minute pop tunes. His baritone, somewhat of a rarity in pop music, set our sound apart from the pack. He conveyed real emotions with deep feeling in a way that resonated with our listeners. His was one of the most unique voices of his time. He loved his fans and loved making music, being creative and performing on stage and on mic in the studio.
MM: I believe there is a spiritual quality to music. The songwriter infuses a tune with his innermost feelings and often unexpressed emotions. When he leaves this earth, those things remain in the songs. Therefore, we can still feel his essence when we listen or, in my case, perform. I feel this phenomenon particularly in the bridge to “Strangers When We Meet.” When people get emotional at our shows, they are feeling Pat’s presence. It’s an honor to be someone who helps keep Pat’s beauty and sadness alive. Because that’s what is going on at our gigs. His legacy is being kept alive by his bandmates and brothers who shared an unbelievable career with him. And those who come to our shows are part of it.
Additional information about The Smithereens, including tour dates, can be found at www.officialsmithereens.com.