The Smithereens reminisce and perform on a special night in Newark

The veteran New Jersey rockers were featured in a night of talk and music at the Grammy Museum Experience at Newark’s Prudential Center on Thursday, October 24th.
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 The Smithereens (left to right: Jim Babjak, Dennis Diken, guest vocalist Marshall Crenshaw and Mike Mesaros) participated in a night of talk and music at the Grammy Museum Experience at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ on Thursday, October 24th. (Photo by John Curley)

The Smithereens (left to right: Jim Babjak, Dennis Diken, guest vocalist Marshall Crenshaw and Mike Mesaros) participated in a night of talk and music at the Grammy Museum Experience at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ on Thursday, October 24th. (Photo by John Curley)

By John Curley

The Smithereens have been busy in the days leading up to their induction into the New Jersey Hall of Fame at a ceremony tonight, Sunday, October 27th, at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, NJ. They have been doing quite a few interviews for print and radio. Last night, Saturday, October 26th, they headlined at Asbury Park’s legendary Stone Pony. On Thursday night, October 24th, the band – lead guitarist Jim Babjak, drummer Dennis Diken, bassist Mike Mesaros and guest vocalist/rhythm guitarist Marshall Crenshaw – participated in a discussion, did an audience Q&A and performed in a stripped-down way with small amps and Diken on tambourine at the Grammy Museum Experience at the Prudential Center, the home of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, in Newark, NJ. It was billed as An Evening With The Smithereens. The discussion was moderated by the museum’s Director, Mark Conklin.

The discussion was freewheeling and, at times, quite funny. Mesaros’ tale of how he dealt with an audience member that threw a lit cigarette at him during a July 1986 opening spot for ZZ Top in West Virginia was hilarious. One thing that came across during the discussion was that the four musicians really enjoy each other’s company, a nice contrast to some veteran bands that fracture over personality conflicts. Babjak, Diken and Mesaros grew up together in Carteret, NJ. They joined forces with Scotch Plains, NJ native Pat DiNizio in 1980 after Diken answered an ad that DiNizio had placed in a local music publication. And they’ve known Crenshaw since the md-1980s. Crenshaw appears on the band’s 1986 debut album Especially For You under the pseudonym Jerome Jerome. He used the name in tribute to one of his favorite musicians, Jerome Green, who was Bo Diddley’s maracas player.

Some highlights of the discussion were as follows:

Diken on the band’s induction into the New Jersey Hall of Fame: It’s a big deal to us to be recognized by the state that we all grew up in . . . Being from New Jersey signifies that what you see is what you’re gonna get. People from New Jersey are pretty straightforward, they say what they mean. We all grew up in blue-collar homes. Our parents were very hard-working people. That work ethic was instilled in us and influenced the way we made music. And it also influenced our attitudes in creating music. It’s pretty hard-hitting stuff.

Babjak on how his working-class background influenced him: We always had this motto that, all four of us, when we go out to play and perform, we always give 100 percent every night, whether you’re sick or have problems at home or whatever. That all goes away once you get onstage and you want to give people the best performance that you can give.

Diken on opening for Squeeze at the Meadowlands in New Jersey in 1988: We were opening for Squeeze on an entire summer tour. Even though they were the headlining band at that particular venue, that was a homecoming gig for us. That was really our gig that night. All of our parents were there and a lot of friends from school. We had a big support system that night. And I’ll never forget while we were playing, you could see the lights in the doorways in the arena and people were just in big circles dancing around the arena. It was really exciting.

Mesaros on the band’s sets in the early days: When we first started, the sets were not all original. They might be half (originals) in 1980, and the rest were covers. Except they were not covers of the day. They were The Beau Brummels, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, The Byrds, The Kinks, The Who. All our favorite stuff. So, it was a good flow into our stuff.

Mesaros on Pat DiNizio’s songwriting process: The process was really cool because Pat made great demos. We’d get a cassette from hm of his new ideas and his new tunes. They’d be 50 to 80 percent done, not fully hashed out. I love that process, that creative process. I would just woodshed and get ideas for bass parts, and then make my own demo of the bass line by overdubbing Pat’s demo onto mine.

Babjak following on from Mesaros above, discussing DiNizio’s songwriting process: Then, I would take his demo and do counter melodies on the guitar instead of just playing chords because Pat’s demos were just him on an acoustic guitar usually, playing just the chords. I had to come up with my own riffs and countermelodies to complement his bass lines.

Diken on the 1986 breakthrough of “Blood And Roses”: (Enigma Records) were doing soundtracks for Canon Films . . . Anyway, they were doing (a soundtrack) for this really low-budget B-movie called Dangerously Close, a teenage vigilante movie, 1986. The way I heard it told was that the attorney for Canon Films had an advance cassette of Especially For You, the first album, in the car. And his wife takes the car out one day and plays the tape and heard “Blood And Roses,” which we never considered as single material. But she spoke to her husband: "That film you’re working on, I think this song fits the mood of that film." So, they flew us out to shoot a video for “Blood And Roses” where it was cut with scenes from the movie Dangerously Close interspersed with our performance .And the film died a pretty quick death. But, fortunately for us, the fact that they chose that song to do a video and an advance 12-inch single that they sent to radio, it caught on big time with radio and MTV, much to our surprise. So, the film goes away and they edit the video, taking out the scenes from the film so that it remained a performance piece. It did the trick.

Mesaros on the band’s first tour: On our first tour, we were sleeping on the floor of the van. We just had a van pulling a U-Haul. Nothing unusual about that. That’s how most bands do it. But it’s so thrilling after all those years to walk out and there’s a roomful of people that really dig you. We worked so hard to get that. It wasn’t lost on any of us. Anything was worth it to have that feeling.

Babjak on backing Ray Davies and Dave Davies of The Kinks in Boston in 1991: At the Boston Garden, Ray and Dave were playing acoustic before us and we were going on after them. We got a message to Ray saying, "What if we do "You Really Got Me” with you after you’re done electric," because they were just sitting on stools, playing acoustic. And he thought it was a great idea. So, Ray comes into our dressing room and says, 'Okay, at the end of “Lola,” you guys all come in and finish “Lola” electric and then we’ll do “You Really Got Me.” " And I remember standing next to Mike before we went on and I said, "Mike, we’re in The Kinks tonight!" So, when we ripped into “You Really Got Me,” the whole Garden stood up. It was amazing! Pat played tambourine that time because there wasn’t an extra guitar.

They also discussed the artists that they enjoyed opening for, with The Ramones and Lou Reed being particular favorites. Backing Otis Blackwell was mentioned as one of their career highlights as was the time that Del Shannon joined the band onstage in Los Angeles to perform “Runaway,” which led to Shannon participating in the recording of their 1988 album, Green Thoughts. Babjak talked about how detuning his guitar gave it a deeper sound and that it fit the mood of their music. Crenshaw discussed participating in the January 2018 tribute show to DiNizio (who passed away in December 2017), how much it meant to him and how he tries to keep that special vibe going in his current performances with the band. And Diken revealed that next year, the band’s 40th anniversary, they will be releasing an album of new material featuring Crenshaw and Robin Wilson of the Gin Blossoms (who also performs with the band) on vocals.

The four-song, stripped-down performance began with one of the band’s signature tunes, 1986’s “Behind The Wall Of Sleep.” It featured a strong vocal by Crenshaw and great work by Babjak and Mesaros on guitar and bass, respectively. Babjak’s guitar break was outstanding. That was followed by “I’d Like To Say I’m Sorry But I Won’t” from their 2011 album. The band delivered a very effective performance of the song, with a nice lead vocal by Crenshaw and good backing vocals by the band.

Prior to the performance of “Especially For You,” which appears on the 1988 Green Thoughts album, Babjak explained that he and DiNizio decided that it would be a good idea to write the song since there wasn’t a song of that title on their Especially For You album. He went on to say that the song was not a leftover from the Especially For You sessions, that it was written after the release of that album. It is a ballad, and Crenshaw and the band delivered an excellent performance of it that was highlighted by Babjak’s terrific guitar work.

The evening ended with the performance of 1986’s “Blood And Roses.” Diken’s tambourine and Mesaros’ doleful bassline opened the song, were soon joined by Babjak’s stinging guitar and then Crenshaw’s resonant vocal. It was an extended version, with a lengthy guitar break that led into Babjak windmilling Pete Townshend-style. When the song ended, Babjak said that he felt that he had to do the windmill in the intimate environment of the night to prove that he actually plays when he does it. It was a great conclusion to a very entertaining night of talk and music.

Additional information about The Smithereens, including tour dates, can be found at https://www.officialsmithereens.com/.

Goldmine’s feature piece on The Smithereens from the October 2019 issue can be read at https://www.goldminemag.com/articles/the-smithereens-proud-to-be-among-new-jerseys-finest.