In October, Smithereens fans saw something that many probably thought they’d never see again: a show by the complete, original band, including bassist Mike Mesaros, who rejoined his old friends for the first time in more than a decade. The show, which took place at the Hungarian American Citizens Club in Woodbridge, was a benefit for the Betty Babjak Memorial Fund, created in the name of Smithereens guitarist Jim Babjak’s late wife, who died last February of pancreatic cancer.
Mesaros, Babjak and drummer Dennis Diken grew up together in Carteret and formed the band with singer-songwriter-guitarist Pat DiNizio, from nearby Scotch Plains, in 1980. Last year marked the 30th anniversary of their debut album, Especially for You, and they played that album in its entirety in Woodbridge.
Mesaros is not back in the band, per se. Severo Jornacion, who replaced him, continues to play most of the shows. But Mesaros has signed on for four more reunion concerts: They’ll take place later this month in New York, Philadelphia, Falls Church, Va. and Annapolis, Md. (See the end of this post for more information).
Mesaros has also, incidentally, become more active on Facebook recently, writing about bass playing and other things on his Mike Mesaros on Bass page.
I talked to him by phone last week about playing with the band again, and the possibility of future projects.
Q: Are you in the San Francisco area now?
A: Well, I’m in the East Bay, by Oakland. We moved to the suburbs, to raise our kids.
Q: Why that area? How did you wind up there?
A: ‘Cause the schools were so highly rated. That was the No. 1 thing for us.
Q: Have you been doing music at all since you stopped playing with The Smithereens?
A: Here and there. I’ve been playing a little bit. Actually, some jazz stuff. I’ve been teaching a little, working with three bass players in the school jazz band.
Q: Are you actually a teacher in the school system?
A: I’m not a paid teacher, no. In the private lessons, I get paid. And other than that, I taught myself how to play piano in the time that I’ve been away from the band. It’s something I always wanted to do. It’s been a long process, but I can actually play a little bit now. It’s like a weird fusion of ragtime and stride piano — like Fats Waller-style piano with a little modern thrown in. It’s definitely more from a school of heavy use of the bass, and things like that. Not a light touch whatsoever. It’s bass players’ piano, I guess you would call it.
Q: I saw the benefit show in Woodbridge, which was wonderful. Were you pretty close with Betty?
A: Oh my God, yes. I grew up with Jimmy and Dennis: I mean, I knew Jimmy …we made our first Communion together! So I knew Betty since high school.
Q: So I guess there was no way you were not going to come back and do that show.
A: Yeah, it felt good to be able to do that, and I hope somehow, somewhere, she heard us, and felt the love in the room that night.
Q: What was it like for you to be onstage with them again, playing all those songs?
A: It was so emotional. I had to fight to keep my emotions under control. I’m a very emotional person, but if you get over-emotional while you’re playing, you’re gonna screw up and make mistakes. Sometimes when I’d glance over at Pat, and I’d see him being emotional, with tears in his eyes … we all were like that throughout that whole night. It was hard to hold it together. That was the biggest challenge.
I think these next gigs coming up … I’ve kind of got that emotion out of the way. It was like a family reunion … the bond between the four of us is as strong as any family bond, maybe even stronger, considering all that we went through together, and how much dues we paid for our success. It took us five years just to get signed, and we went through thick and thin together, and then, for whatever reasons, I left. And then, to be back with those guys is a very emotional thing. It’s a joyous thing for me.
Musically speaking, it’s absolutely amazing how easily it fits. It all fits, I just say, like an old, comfortable pair of shoes that have been broken in. Because I really learned how to play, playing with Dennis and Jimmy. And then Pat came in at a very early point in my career as a bass player. So it was almost like, all the little nuances of your playing are all complemented by everybody else. We literally grew up in Jimmy’s garage, and learned together. It’s such a real band, in that sense.
Q: I honestly don’t have a real clear idea why you left the band. Do you want to talk about that?
A: Mostly, just to raise my kids, and not going on the road anymore. It just didn’t make sense for me to be going on the road anymore.
Q: Do you think, beyond these four shows, you might do some more shows?
A: I’m certainly open to it. I know that there’s a thing: When I’m there, the band’s different than when Severo’s there. Certainly, nothing negative against Severo at all. But you can’t replace that original thing, that I was just talking about.
We’re hoping to make another record together. So, what’s going to be in the future … you know, one reason that all this is happening is because we’re looking at each other and going, “Oh my God. How much longer are we going to be here? And look at what we had. Look at how great it was. And people still appreciate it. So, let’s get together and do it again, as Brian Wilson once wrote.” People have been so nice about it, and it’s so gratifying: I never felt so gratified before, about people liking what we, collectively, have done, and my playing, personally.
We’re feeling our mortality, to be honest. So why wouldn’t we get together again, and do it? Thirty people from our (high school’s) senior class are gone. Thirty, out of 300. And we’re always hearing about people dying who are our age. Carrie Fisher just died, at 60. That’s my age: I just turned 59. I’m the youngest one in the band, by a little bit.
Q: I assume this would never be a full-time thing, though, since you’re still in California, and they’re all here. Maybe some occasional shows, though, or occasional recording?
A: I can’t speculate on what it would be. Who knows. I’m just open, and I’m happy that we’re doing this, and we’re going to try to do some recording together again, and writing. I’m just happy that we’re looking to do that.
For information, visit officialsmithereens.com.