Smithereens: Focusing on the Good Times

The Smithereens continue to be a New Jersey rock and roll staple who, through the best of times and the worst, have come out on top with different sounds, next-door neighbor charm, and a little bit of dumb luck.

Smithereens guitarist Jim Babjak reclines in a lawn chair in a Long Island backyard, puffing on a cigar and relaxing before he performs a livestream concert from the front porch. His bandmates for this show are Gin Blossoms frontman Robin Wilson (whose home this is), Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken, and bassist Graham Maby (of Joe Jackson’s band), playing a “best of” selection of Smithereens songs.

This occasion causes Babjak to contemplate his four-decade career, though he is modest. “I’m not a rock star,” he says. “Mick Jagger and people like that are rock stars.” In contrast, he says, he and his Smithereens bandmates “were always approachable. We looked like the audience. They could see themselves in us. We were just regular guys from New Jersey playing some great rock and roll. Our honesty is on our sleeves, I think. It shows in our music.”

That music has made the band beloved, in New Jersey and well beyond. In 2019, the Smithereens were inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in the Performing Arts category. They have been revered within the alternative rock scene since their 1986 debut full-length album, Especially for You. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana frequently went on record citing the Smithereens as an influence. But the band has also weathered some significant setbacks – including the tragic 2017 death of lead singer Pat DiNizio.

Today, though, Babjak prefers to focus on the good times. He recalls that he was driven to become a rock musician because he adored The Beatles, so he started playing guitar in eighth grade so he could emulate them.

“Frankly, when I took my first lesson, I hated it because they were teaching me notes and I’m like, ‘No, I want to play “She Said She Said by the Beatles,’” Babjak says, “so I didn’t bother to take any more lessons. I put on a record and tried to play along to it. I would spend hours and hours putting the needle back on the record until I got it. Then I got this book that showed me where to put my fingers for chords, but I play chords all wrong because I’m holding them in a different way than people that took lessons.” He shrugs. “It works. Maybe it gave me a different sound.”

Babjak says not everyone was impressed by his early efforts, however: “My dad kind of slapped me in the back of the head one time, he says, ‘What are you doing?’ [I said,] ‘I’m trying to write a song.’ He said, ‘You can’t run before you can walk.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m tired of walking! I just want to run!’”

When Babjak was in high school (in Carteret, New Jersey), he met a classmate, Dennis Diken, who shared his musical obsession. “Dennis and I hit it off immediately,” Babjak says. “He sat behind me in Earth Science and he saw that in my notebook, I had taped a picture of The Who.” Diken, a drummer, asked Babjak to form a band. It was, Babjak says, “Total fate. We started playing immediately.

Jim Babjak by Tom Lilies

“Dennis and I did shows at some youth clubs, just me and him, guitar and drums,” Babjak continues. “It was way before the White Stripes. Instrumental. The reason why we didn’t sing is, we didn’t have a PA, we didn’t have microphones, we didn’t have anything.”

Despite this rudimentary setup, they impressed their classmate, Mike Mesaros. “Mike was watching me and Dennis progress,” Babjak says, adding that Mesaros eventually decided to learn to play an instrument after they’d all graduated from high school. “So he bought a bass and I showed him how to play three songs. Then he went off to college for a semester, and by the time he came back, he’d taught himself how to play – and he was great.”

Babjak, Diken, and Mesaros played with various singers but nothing seemed to work out – until they finally found Pat DiNizio (through an Aquarian Weekly ad). DiNizio played them some songs he’d written, “and I immediately came up with solos for them. Pat was like, ‘Oh cool – we’ve got a band,’” Babjak says.

The Smithereens hit the club circuit hard, building up a loyal fanbase. They released two EPs, Girls About Town (1980) and Beauty and Sadness (1983), both of which received positive reviews. Even with this promising start, though, Babjak says there were still naysayers. “I had family members telling me, ‘You know how hard it is to succeed in the music business? You’re going to fail.’ The soundman at the Dirt Club [in Bloomfield, New Jersey] told us that we sucked. He said that Pat’s voice stinks. Just negative, negative, negative.”

The band persevered anyway. “We just knew we had something,” Babjak says. “We really believed we were going to succeed. We willed it to happen. We just wouldn’t stop.” This self-belief was vindicated when they got their first hit, “Blood and Roses,” in 1986. “That’s when everything took off,” Babjak says. “It was like overnight success after seven years of playing clubs. All the sudden we had thousands of people at shows.”

As for how that hit came about, Babjak says that “It was just dumb luck. We got signed to a label in California called Enigma, a minor label. They had a deal with a film company that was putting out a movie called Dangerously Close [in 1986]. The director’s wife had a cassette, because Enigma was giving that movie company cassettes of all their bands. She heard “Blood and Roses” and said [to her husband], ‘This is the song that’s going to be in your movie.’ I don’t even know her name.”

“Blood and Roses” eventually went to #14 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart and got picked up by radio stations all over the country. More hits followed, including “Only a Memory” and “A Girl Like You.” For Babjak and his bandmates, it was a dream come true. “That was it: it was like a snowball going down a mountain and getting bigger and bigger.” The band released five critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums between 1986 and 1995.

Jim Babjak Archives

But then, the musical landscape changed dramatically as grunge swept aside all other musical styles for several years. Ironically, one of the most pivotal figures of that genre, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, often stated that Smithereens songs were a big influence on his writing. But that didn’t help the band sell albums or concert tickets. “Between 1995 and 2007, our audience was gone,” Babjak says.

Babjak also believes that fans’ lifestyles also had something to do with this lull in interest. “They were raising their kids, having their careers,” he says. Fortunately, he adds, “Then all the sudden, 2008, they started coming back with their teenage kids. Now we’re playing to bigger audiences again.”

In 2013, the Smithereens opened for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers on their summer tour (at Petty’s request). The next year, the band released their twelfth full-length album. It seemed like their difficult years were behind them.

But then, in 2015, DiNizio began suffering from health problems. He passed away on December 12, 2017, at age 62. He had been with the Smithereens for 37 years, and it seemed like the band would not be able to continue without him.

Babjak and the other remaining bandmates decided to carry on with performing, though, with Marshall Crenshaw and Robin Wilson of Gin Blossoms trading off as guest vocalists. Both have long histories with the band: Crenshaw played keyboards and bass on a couple of songs on the Smithereens’ debut album, and Wilson met the band in his pre-Gin Blossoms days when he was working at a record store in Tempe, Arizona and the Smithereens made an in-store appearance during a tour.

As if on cue, at the mention of his name, Robin Wilson shows up and takes a seat beside Babjak. They chat and joke easily, making their close relationship clear. But before this friendship began, Wilson had admired the Smithereens from afar. “I was certainly a big fan,” he says. “I had seen them [in concert] several times.”

Lately, Babjak says he has begun writing new Smithereens songs along with Wilson and Crenshaw. He says he’s using the same songwriting method that he’d used with DiNizio: “I would give Pat the melody and the whole structure of the song. And Pat would come up with the lyrics.”

Wilson is confident about the new material. “It’s going to hold up to the legacy of the Smithereens catalog,” he says. “Jim and I seem to vibe very well. Aa collaborator, and as a bandmate, I think we’ve got a really good thing going.”

For Babjak, writing new material – and continuing to tour and perform their beloved hits – just shows how he and the Smithereens are persevering, just like they’ve always done. “We have people like Robin and Marshall that know and love and respect the band,” he says. “We’ve got songs that people want to hear. We’ve got to keep going.”