The Smithereens are a loud ‘n’ proud Central Jersey-originated rock band, whose renowned live shows and radio hits channel the essence of joy and heartbreak into hook-laden, three-minute power pop songs. Infused with a lifelong passion for rock ‘n’ roll nurtured in the Court Tavern in New Brunswick, The Dirt Club in Bloomfield, The Stone Pony and the Fastlane, both Asbury Park, and New York City’s Kenny’s Castaways and The Other End, then blasted worldwide by the Enigma, Capitol, RCA, Koch, and eOne Music record labels, The Smithereens—guitarist Jim Babjak, drummer Dennis Diken, bassist Mike Mesaros, and dearly departed lead singer-guitarist Pat DiNizio—will be inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame on Oct. 27 at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park. The induction will be surrounded by a swirl of activity, including performances Oct. 24 at The Grammy Museum in Newark and Oct. 26 at the Pony.
The Grammy Museum, Pony, and one of two songs during the induction ceremony will feature lead vocals by longtime friend Marshall Crenshaw, who contributed keyboards and six-string bass to their 1986 debut album, Especially for You. The induction ceremony also will include a tune sung by long-time fan, Robin Wilson of the Gin Blossoms, who greatly were influenced by The Smithereens, as were dozens of New Brunswick music acts—including Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, according to journal entries enshrined in Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture. With Pat’s 2017 passing, the surviving members—together since their school days—decided to persevere and carry on their shared musical legacy using Marshall, Robin, and others as guest vocalists.
After the NJHOF induction, Dennis will participate in USA Today’s Storytellers series on Oct. 29 at Little Firehouse Theater in Oradell, with Johanna Calle, director, New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice; Rania Mustafa, executive director, Palestinian American Community Center; Dr. David Butler, obstetric and gynecologist at Holy Name Medical Center, and chairman of Crudem Foundation, and Jeff Tittel, senior chapter director, New Jersey Sierra Club.
Founded in Jim, Dennis and Mike’s hometown of Carteret and Pat’s hometown of Scotch Plains in 1980 after Dennis answered an Aquarian Weekly classified ad placed by Pat, The Smithereens will celebrate their 40th anniversary as a continuously working band next year. The milestone will include a tour, an album of new material featuring special guest lead singers, and an archival album with unreleased tracks. The tour will include the inaugural performance in the forthcoming Carteret Performing Arts Center, next door to Klein’s, a shop where the three pre-Smithereens band mates hung out after school, and around the corner from where Mike and Jimmy had accordion lessons together as lads.
During a three-hour tour of their hometown followed by a sit-down interview with Dennis and Jim, who still live in Jersey—Bergen and Monmouth counties respectively—then a phone interview with Mike from his residence in the San Francisco area, we chatted about the band’s history, the loss of Pat, their bright future with Robin and Marshall, and, of course, their NJHOF induction. Enjoy the following interview and for more information about The Smithereens, visit https://www.officialsmithereens.com/
How does it feel to be inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame?
Dennis: Well, it’s an honor as you can imagine. You start out doing this, you never know where it’s going to take you. When you’re a little kid growing up in New Jersey, having fun, listening to music, playing music, you hope that you can reach certain milestones in your career, and this is certainly one of them to be recognized by the state you grew up in. We’re in very good company with Frank Sinatra, Abbott & Costello, The Four Seasons, Albert Einstein. It’s thrilling.
Jim: I don’t like the term rock star, and I don’t think that I’m a rock star. Mick Jagger’s a rock star. I’m not a rock star. I play guitar in this great band, so this is all a bonus to me. Being on Saturday Night Live was a big moment. You know how many bands want to be on Saturday Night Live? So that was a milestone. This is another milestone. It’s great to be honored by your state. The Governor said this is the highest honor a civilian can get in New Jersey… so it’s very cool.
Mike: It’s slightly unreal when you look at the company we’ll be in: some of the greatest musicians who ever lived starting with Frank Sinatra. Dizzy Gillespie, and Sarah Vaughan. Jazz and rock are closely related. Jazz and blues got married, had a baby, and that baby was rock ‘n’ roll. It’s kind of awesome, very emotional.
Dennis: Once the band formed in 1980, it took us close to six years to get a record deal. We really fought tooth ‘n’ nail to get anywhere all that time. When we were shopping around, five of the songs ended up on Especially for You, two of which were the actual recordings of “Blood and Roses” and “Wall of Sleep.” We were getting turned down by majors and tiny labels. Nobody would give us the time of day until Enigma signed us. So it’s just great validation after all these years.
Jim: Two of our hit singles were rejected by every label out there.
“Blood and Roses” and “Behind the Wall of Sleep?”
Jim: Yup. And then when Enigma picked us up, they said, ‘This is great.’ They saw it, they heard it. I didn’t even know that “Blood and Roses” would ever be a single. I was too close to it. I thought everything we did was great, but didn’t imagine many, many people liking it. It went beyond that, and it’s great. It’s just a great feeling.
How does it feel to be inducted into the Hall of Fame without Pat physically there?
Dennis: We wish he could be. He would have loved it. But we’re accepting it on behalf of Pat and us. He’ll be there in spirit, of course. It’s an honor. We’re lucky that the three of us are alive to accept it. There’s a lot of posthumous awards. So we’re proud and thrilled to accept and certainly wish that Pat was here to accept it with us, but he’ll be there in spirit.
Mike: The first thing that went through my mind was that I wished Pat was alive for it. Obviously, he wrote the songs and was the front man and the lead singer of the band. He gave us these great songs we had through collaboration of Pat and the three of us, who already existed as a band when that all happened.
You have some great activity surrounding the Oct. 27 induction, including the Stone Pony the night before. How do you feel about that show?
Dennis: The Stone Pony’s always been a special place for us. We started playing there in 1980 through the good graces of the Lord Gunner Group. They had us open for them on a regular basis for a while, which was really important for us to have a foot in the door in Asbury Park at the Stone Pony.
Jim: And if you remember, the whole band got paid $25, so it wasn’t about the money. My bar tab was larger than that (laughs). We played every Thursday for I don’t know how long opening for Lord Gunner.
Dennis: It’s a home away from home. It should be a bit energized, hopefully, because the next night is the induction, so we hope our fans get in the spirit. We’ll have the spirit. It should be a great show.
Jim: It’ll be kind of like a homecoming celebration. And Marshall Crenshaw is going to sing. The next night, Robin and Marshall will each sing a song. We’ll get to do two songs at the Paramount at the induction. We opened for Marshall at the Fastlane in 1982. We opened for Blue Angel, Cyndi Lauper’s old band, Robert Gordon…
Dennis: … Steve Forbert. So, we had some good shots at the Fastlane before we started playing the Court (Tavern). The other one was The Dirt Club. These were all little pockets for us that were important to us, where we were able to build our following and learn our craft… how to play in front of an audience.
Why did you want to keep The Smithereens going without Pat, and what has that transition been like?
Dennis: Well, we wanted to keep it going because the three of us are still doing this. It’s what we do is play. The three of us have been playing together for about 40 years. It’s what we do, so that’s why we decided to keep playing. It’s all we know how to do (laughs).
Jim: We love to play, and we had been playing before we met Pat—six years or more—and people still want to hear the songs, and they still want to hear us play. We love our audiences. We just came back from Detroit and Cleveland and Chicago, and the audiences were just amazing. It’s so much fun, so why stop?
And we have Marshall and Robin and whoever else in the future. We’re not interested in having a permanent lead singer. Permanent is a hard word. It’s too permanent (laughs). There are a lot of people out there who want to sing with the band, old friends of ours in the music business. They’re all professionals. Marshall’s a professional, Robin’s a professional, and we didn’t want anybody to necessarily sound like Pat, just someone who can capture the essence of Pat’s lyrics and our sound. It’s still our sound, the three of us.
What do you like most about performing with Robin and Marshall, and how and why have they been able to appeal to your fans?
Dennis: They have a feel for the music. They like the music and make it their own when they sing. Turns out that Robin, unbeknownst to us, was a huge fan of ours going back to the eighties. The Gin Blossoms in their formative years, apparently The Smithereens were quite a fixture and influence on the music scene around Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona, so he’s been a huge fan of ours for all these years. When we did the tribute for Pat at the Count Basie in January of 2018, he made a note to us that he would love to do more with us. He did a great job. He really gets inside the songs. And Marshall’s an old friend. He has a great sense for pop tunes.
Marshall’s on the first album?
Dennis: He played keyboards and six-string bass. We’ve known him for a long time, part of our extended family. It’s a pretty good fit, and we’re having fun with it. The audiences are really diggin’ it.
Jim: A lot of our fans have records by the Gin Blossoms and Marshall Crenshaw. It’s almost a no-brainer. I don’t know if I like that term, but that’s what it is. It makes total sense, and we’re all having fun with it. The musical library of both of them: we can do soundcheck and knock off a song that we just knew independently, and then do it that night, so we would do a different song every night, throw in a cover. A good example is “No Matter What.” Even a song like “Hanky Panky” we did one time—I forget where—just screwing around in sound check. We did it during the show, and the audience loved it. It was unexpected.
Mike: And The Who’s “So Sad About Us.” We’ve been doing that one. It seems Marshall knows every song that’s ever been written and can play it in any key. They appeal to the fans because they honor Pat’s songwriting in their performance. They’re not putting themselves above the song. They’re serving the song, but at the same time, still making it their own. They’re not changing the melodies to any degree, and there’s feeling in them because they genuinely love the band and love Pat’s writing. Both those guys are songwriters themselves. This gives them that appreciation of Pat’s abilities and uniqueness of what Pat did. At the same time, they make it their own. They’re not trying to imitate Pat. That’s what jazz musicians have been doing since the Jazz Age, taking the song and personalizing, but at the same time honoring the song by making it totally recognizable to the audience. That’s what Frank Sinatra did with the American Songbook. Playing with those guys, each one is completely different. Robin is a great rock ‘n roll front man. Playing with Robin, we’re a three-piece again back in Jimmy’s garage. That’s very cool. We love that because it brings us back to our beginning. But with Marshall, it’s different. Marshall is a masterful guitarist. Equal to his vocal abilities is his guitar playing, which he takes very seriously. We’ve done enough gigs with Marshall now that it just feels like a band. It doesn’t feel like it’s the three of us, and we have this guest. I’d say that about both guys, but Marshall particularly because he’s playing guitar, which requires more time for him to mesh with the three of us, just honing his parts so they fit perfectly but not copying the record. The band was founded on the two guitars, bass, and drums approach. Pat’s playing really different from Jimmy’s, something that made the band sound fuller. The same can be said for Marshall’s playing.
How and why have The Smithereens endured continuously for 40 years, and what impact have loyal fans and lasting friendships had?
Dennis: We couldn’t continue if there wasn’t an audience for us. Audience is everything. You can go play in bars if you want to nobody, but what fun is that? This is the way we’ve made our living for almost 40 years. The fans’ loyalty is so important and so appreciated.
Mike: People have been with us for many years. It’s a tremendous complement when they say, ‘You were the soundtrack to my life.’ Or ‘We played your songs at our wedding.’ Or ‘When I was in college, I listened to you guys.’ Or ‘Your records got me though some really tough times growing up because I was very alienated.’ Pat wrote about that extensively. It may be his No. 1 subject: writing social alienation. Now here they are still coming, and the band really means something to them. So that’s something that is inspirational … the music playing a big role in people’s lives. I consider music like food or religion. I have fervor for it myself.
Dennis: The friendship keeps us together too. It really is like a family. Like any family, any unit that has grown up together, you wanna stay together. There’s nothing more precious than friendship and family, and that’s the way I feel about this band.
Mike: That’s my other family.
Jim: We go back 49 years (to) ’71.
Dennis: I met Mike in 1965, 66 at Lincoln Elementary School.
Jim: I knew Mike back in ’64.
Mike: Jimmy and I met when we had our First Holy Communion together in second grade. And Dennis and I friends have been friends since fifth grade.
You will be opening Carteret Performing Arts Center as the first-ever act in September 2020. Any plans to tie that show into the band’s 40th anniversary, will there be an anniversary record release and tour, and would either include unreleased or new material?
Dennis: Well, it certainly will tie into our 40th. I’m sure we’ll promote it as such. We’re talking about doing some things to commemorate the 40th year. Nothing to announce yet, but we do plan on doing a new record.
With Robin and Marshall?
Jim: And maybe others.
Dennis: We have archival stuff that also is going to be released, but we’re talking about doing a new record.
How else did growing up in Carteret impact each of you and The Smithereens?
Dennis: I really liked growing up here. I went to Lincoln School, where I met Mike. I just thought that student body was really bright and fun-loving and creative. It was great to be around those kids. We had some exceptional teachers when I was in grammar schools.
When I met Jimmy when we went to high school, we fed off each other’s creativity. That had a lot to do with the mood or the feeling at the time. Some of the teachers really did go out of their way to encourage creativity and thinking outside the box. It was a good place for kids to be together in the ’60s and the ’70s when we were here.
It felt like home here. It was a different kind of town then. I have very fond memories, and I’m glad I was here. I’m glad I met the people I met, that I had the teachers I had, and do the things I did. Being here had a lot to do with that.
Jim: It was a blue-collar town. There were factories here. My Dad started working at U.S. Metals, which was a metal refinery, and my mom used to work at Metro Glass, which was a glass company. They made bottles. That blue-collar work ethic I always was taught. You work hard. That’s how I thought life was going to be.
We didn’t have a record store in town. That was a problem. We walked to Rahway or road our bikes. The day that Imagine came out by John Lennon, we walked all the way to Korvette’s in Woodbridge on the railroad tracks. But it got dark, so we called somebody to pick us up.
Dennis: Your mom.
Jim: We called my mom from a pay phone because it was getting dark. My brother came with us. He was 7 years old. He walked with us. I don’t know how many miles it is from here to Woodbridge.
Dennis: Four or five miles maybe.
Jim: So we walked to get Imagine on the day it came out.
What impact have New Brunswick and Scotch Plains had on the band?
Dennis: New Brunswick we had a lot of experience playing at the Court Tavern, of course. That was a good place for us to learn our craft, learning how to play in front of an audience and to start growing a fan base. That was very important to us.
Scotch Plains was important in terms of a home base for us to rehearse. We had the support of Pat’s parents at his house. His dad worked on a garbage truck route, and he got up super early. We’d be rehearsing until 11, sometimes 12 at night. Once in a while he would complain, but not really. He let us go. That was really important to have his love and support. Nick DiNizio.
Jim: I owned a record/video shop in New Brunswick, Captain Video. It was called Flamin’ Groovies before that. Dennis came up with the name. I changed the name when videos came out in ’83. Bobby Albert, the owner of the Court Tavern, was a customer of mine. I told him, ‘We have a band. We should play.’ It was a thriving scene at the time. A lot of those bands that played there had independent 45s out that I sold at my store. I sold our record there too; although I probably had to give them away because nobody was really buying them then.
We played on weekends. I remember we played on New Year’s Eve there. We were just part of that New Brunswick scene.
Dennis: WRSU was supportive, the radio station at Rutgers. We played the Court a lot.
Jim: Three sets a night.
Dennis: People associated us with it.
How did The Aquarian Weekly impact the formation of The Smithereens?
Dennis: We met Pat through The Aquarian. That’s pretty important. The Aquarian was always supportive. They always were there for us and helped raise our profile around here. Those classifieds were very valuable. I met a lot of great folks through the years through the classifieds. When I met Pat, it was pretty special. It was for a cover band actually. We rehearsed for six months and did one gig. We were doing songs by The Jam, The Beatles, Buddy Holly, Elvis Costello, Devo. And then he started writing songs and called me to play on his demo, and I brought Jimmy and Mike. That’s how the band got together. It was through The Aquarian. I wouldn’t have met him if hadn’t been for that.
Mike: Bill Chemerka was the first to write good things about us. The Aquarian was really important because Bill supported us. The Aquarian was very important to our career, so we owe a debt to The Aquarian. We got our first good press in The Aquarian.