Corrections or additions?

This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the December

22, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Jersey’s Smithereens Still Rockin’ – Year in, Year Out

For a guy with an upbeat personality, singer-songwriter and

Smithereens co-founder Pat DiNizio sure writes a lot of somber, gloomy

songs. The Smithereens launched their success in the late 1980s with

dark but catchy, guitar hook-laden rock songs. Their first album,

“Especially For You,” released in the summer of 1986 on Enigma

Records, included their hit song, “Blood and Roses.” Other tracks on

the album that captured the attention of radio programmers included

“Alone at Midnight,” “In A Lonely Place,” and “Behind the Wall of

Sleep.” Soon FM rock radio stations from coast to coast were playing

the Smithereens, as well as the BBC in England, and radio outlets

throughout Europe.

In 2005, the band which has its roots in Scotch Plains, Carteret, and

New Brunswick, will celebrate 25 years of success — with no personnel

changes. You can help usher in that celebration at the Starland

Ballroom in Sayreville on New Year’s Eve, with the band performing

live. A quarter century is a significant milestone for a quartet of

musicians who plodded away in relative obscurity (and poverty) from

1980 to 1985. Granted, they packed clubs like the Court Tavern in New

Brunswick and Kenny’s Castaways in New York’s Greenwich Village with

their monthly shows. But it took some time for the rest of the world

to take notice of DiNizio’s finely crafted pop songs.

To be fair, not all the songs that come from DiNizio’s pen are dark

and desperate tales of love and relationships gone awry; the band’s

other early albums also showcase bright, upbeat numbers like “Groovy

Tuesday,” “Baby Be Good,” “Evening Dress,” “Top of the Pops,” and “Too

Much Passion.”

DiNizio, a divorced father of a 10-year-old girl, was raised in Scotch

Plains, where he still lives in the large old house he shares with his

mother. He was an only child, the son of a part-time police

officer/owner of a trash hauling business and a bookkeeper/waitress.

DiNizio, now 49, graduated from Scotch Plains/Fanwood High School in

1973. A crazy-quilt college career included stints at Seton Hall,

Middlesex County College, Union County College, and finally, New York

University.

He says he first had thoughts of wanting to become a musician at age

six: “You’ve got to understand my influences, like growing up

listening to AM stations like WABC in New York, which had all the

great three-minute pop songs in the world. Back in those days, you

could hear the Mersey Beat from England, Stax-Volt, Motown and the

classic California surf sounds, and you heard one-hit wonders, too.

Fortunately, I went to a lot of concerts, and my parents were very

eclectic. I went to see Led Zeppelin and Slade. I liked anything that

had drive to it and good melody.

“My first recollection of seeing a live band was at a clambake in

South Plainfield, which was very undeveloped then, with lots of farms.

There was a clearing behind a church, and they had all the typical

carnival fare and steamers and beer. A band set up a flatbed truck,

and it was the greatest sound I’d ever heard in my life up to that

point,” he says, adding that this was pre-Beatles.

Another factor was his mother’s day job as a bookkeeper at All Disc

Records in nearby Roselle. “She also worked at a pressing plant for

United Artists,” says DiNizio. “She would bring me home copies of all

the Ventures albums, all the Blue Note jazz records, all the stuff on

the Pacific Jazz label. Ironically enough, the first Smithereens’

single, ‘Girls About Town,’ was pressed at All Disc.”

DiNizio got his first guitar from his cousin when he was in second

grade. He began taking lessons at Danny’s Music Center in South

Plainfield, which he says was “the hub, the be-all and end-all for

local musicians. Every year, Danny’s would have a recital at South

Plainfield High School. There was an auditorium with a stage, and

you’d have 100 students on stage, on risers, each with a little tiny

amplifier and guitar. And you’d hear the hits of the day: ‘Red Roses

for a Blue Lady,’ ‘I Should Have Known Better with a Girl Like You,’

or ‘A Hard Day’s Night.’ And it was all done with no vocals, just a

hundred kids with guitars all playing the same notes, one hundred

guitars strong.

What clinched DiNizio’s desire to become a songwriter was seeing the

film “The Buddy Holly Story.” “I was so taken with that film, I quit

the family business (trash collecting) and said, ‘I’m gonna become a

singer and a songwriter,’” says DiNizio. He was 30 at the time, and

his decision hurt his father but DiNizio was determined. He had

already been working for five years with drummer Dennis Diken, bassist

Mike Mesaros, and guitarist Jim Babjak — all of whom hail from

Carteret — in the Smithereens. A mere six months after he gave up his

day job as a trash collector, DiNizio and the Smithereens were playing

Radio City Music Hall.

“My father was there in the front row, singing along on every song,”

says DiNizio, recalling that he and his father had a heated argument

and were both crying at the kitchen table when he decided to leave the

family business. “When I left, my father had to go back from working

four days a week to working five days a week in the trash truck. To

his credit, he let us rehearse at the family house every day from

seven at night to midnight, and we would just drill through these

songs with no vocals.”

Guitarist Jim Babjak, who was raised in Carteret and is now based in

Manalapan, says that the band was inspired to make their own way in

the music business by the late 1970s scene at CBGB’s, New York’s famed

punk rock club. Babjak met drummer Diken in high school but he and

bassist Mesaros had even earlier connection — they had their

communions together in 1964. Each brings his own distinctive element

to the band. Through the last 25 years, Babjak’s unique, fiery,

sometimes snarling guitar stylings and crunchy chord progressions have

been as much a part of the band’s sound as DiNizio’s lead vocals and

Mesaros’ throbbing, full-bodied bass lines.

Babjak says his early influences on guitar include the Small Faces

with Steve Marriott, George Harrison, Buddy Holly, and Elvis Presley.

“The playing on those records drew me in. Then, at the time when disco

was really big, and I just totally rejected it, we started hanging out

at CBGB’s. And that’s when we realized ‘Hey, we can do this.’ Some of

the people in these bands were playing their guitars, not very well,

but with a lot of emotion. And that’s exactly what I wanted to be

doing — playing my guitar with a lot of emotion.”

At CBGB’s, the band saw Television, the Ramones, the Talking Heads,

and others. “We used to go there as 17-year-olds and get served,” says

Babjak. “Once we started going to CBGB’s, we realized there was an

outlet. Before that, we would see bands like the Who playing Madison

Square Garden, but once we saw bands sweating and playing in tiny

clubs, we realized we could do that, too.”

Babjak and Diken jammed together through high school. In 1975, they

began working with Babjak’s childhood friend Mike Mesaros on bass.

“Mike goes to the Englishtown Flea Market and gets a used Rickenbacher

(bass), and he comes back and says, ‘Teach me something.’ I taught him

a few bass lines, and he goes away to college in Maine,” says Babjak.

“He comes back after a semester and he is playing like a pro. He was

just phenomenal. After Dennis met Pat in 1979, we got together in 1980

as a band.”

In addition to performing to crowds of over 100,000 at summer rock

festivals in England, Babjak says one of the most memorable

performances was when the band performed on “Saturday Night Live” in

1990. “Being on ‘Saturday Night Live’ is every band’s dream. Imagine,

we were just four guys from New Jersey. I remember the ‘Smithereens

II’ album was just out the weekend we were on. We sold an additional

100,000 copies of the album that week. It made me realize this was

something really powerful.”

Although they were asked twice, the group never appeared on “Late

Night with David Letterman” because it would have meant DiNizio

performing with bandleader Paul Shaffer and the Letterman band,

without the rest of the Smithereens. They performed twice on “The

Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” in 1992 and 1993.

Since getting their start as recording artists in the summer of 1986

with Enigma Records, a label that was distributed by Capitol Records,

the Smithereens have recorded nearly a dozen critically-acclaimed

albums. They include “Green Thoughts” for Enigma/Capitol in 1988,

“Smithereens II,” on Enigma-Capitol in 1989, “Blow Up” on Capitol

Records in 1991, “Blown to Smithereens” in 1992, and a “A Date with

the Smitherens” in 1994 on RCA Records. “The Best of the Smithereens”

was released in 1997 on EMI-Capitol Records. An album of new songs,

“God Save the Smithereens,” was released in 1999 on Koch Records.

In October of this year, in honor of the band’s significant radio

chart successes through the years and their upcoming 25th anniversary

in 2005, Capitol Records released a two-disc set, “From Jersey It

Came! The Smithereens Anthology.” The set includes all their radio

hits.

For a time in the late 80s and early 90s, the Smithereens were managed

by Freddy DeMann, a high-powered Hollywood manager whose other clients

included Madonna and Michael Jackson. Getting in with DeMann took some

doing. The band is now self-managed, but they still retain a good

booking agent.

DiNizio notes that the Smithereens were the only band that was able to

transcend radio formats in the late 1980s. “We were the only band that

had a top 40 hit that was also a No. 1 album rock hit that was also a

No. 1 college radio hit,” he says, recalling the runaway success of

their song, “A Girl Like You.”

The band is still based in New Jersey, except for bassist Mesaros, who

has made his home in San Francisco the last 15 years. Drummer Diken

lives in Bergen County; guitarist Babjak lives in Manalapan, and

DiNizio lives in Scotch Plains. Not surprisingly, DiNizio has

notebooks full of song snippets that have yet to see the light of day.

The band expects to record and release another album in 2005.

“We were Pollstar’s (an industry trade magazine that tracks the live

concert business) ‘Tour of the Year’ for two years in a row,” DiNizio

says, “because every show we did was sold out. This was around the

time of ‘Green Thoughts’ and ‘Smithereens II.’ It was a great honor to

be recognized for putting in the work, and it’s why a band like the

Smithereens can still go out, all this time later, and still sell out

B.B. King’s in Los Angeles or the House of Blues in Chicago or L.A.”

The last time the Smithereens played in New Jersey was at the Stone

Pony on New Year’s Eve, 2001, Babjak recalls. “You know what’s scary?

They’re making a big deal about how rock ’n’ roll is 50 years old,” he

says. “It’s scary to think that we have been around for half that

time, because sometimes I still think of us as a relatively new band.”

The Smithereens: Dramarama, Friday, December 31, 9 p.m., The Starland

Ballroom, 570 Jernee Mill Road, Sayreville. $28 includes two-hour

open bar, champagne toast, Continental breakfast, DJ dancing after 2

a.m. 732-238-5500.


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