Leo Sacks was a staff writer for Billboard when his girlfriend told him about a band that would change the emotional and spiritual fabric of his life. “She was painting a new music venue called Cat Club, on East 12th Street and Broadway,” he recalls. “We were a very new item, and when she told me that she was working with a musician named Pat DiNizio, and that he had a band called the Smithereens, well, I got very jealous, naturally.”
Working through his pride, Leo saw the band soon after at Kenny’s Castaways, on Bleecker Street. The experience, he remembers, “rocked my world.” He would review the band’s “Beauty & Sadness” EP for Billboard, and just as important, stayed friends with the band ever since. He wrote this appreciation about their ongoing collaboration with Marshall Crenshaw.
It was just before show time on a sweltering summer’s night in the subterranean Iridium Jazz Club, on the southeast corner of 51st and Broadway. The faithful used to flock here to worship with the iconic guitar guru, composer and inventor Les Paul. Tonight, redemption will come from New Jersey, in the human form of the Garden State rock legends the Smithereens and their special guest, the iconic songwriter Marshall Crenshaw.
As the clang of dishes from the kitchen, and the rumble of the IRT subway line, reverberated in the dressing room, the guitarist Jim Babjak dabbed a white towel to his flushed face.
The drummer Dennis Diken diligently copied the evening’s set list, in black magic marker, with a focus worthy of a Talmudic scholar. The bassist Mike Mesaros rummaged through a leather valise and produced a large freezer bag. Inside was a ValuePak of Juicy Fruit gum.
“I try to keep each pack fresh, to maximize the sugar value,” Mesaros explained. He handed a stick to Diken, who smiled sweetly and offered up a two-finger salute. “Me and Den always share a stick before we play. It’s our ritual.”
Diken, a student of the world’s great recording studios, was feeling euphoric. “Can you believe we’re sitting in the control room of the old Allegro Sound recording studio? Freddie Cannon made ‘Tallahassee Lassie’ here!”
“Good old ‘Boom Boom’ Cannon,” Babjak chimed in.
This wasn’t idle chatter: this was the Smithereens’ lingua franca. Diken, Bajak and Mesaros were thunder stuck by the power of pop music in elementary school in Carteret, New Jersey; their every exchange is studded with musical, cultural or cinematic references.
As teenagers in the Babjaks’ garage, they bashed and crashed through their favorite songs by the Beatles and the Stones; the Kinks and the Who; the Beach Boys and the Beau Brummels; the sound was thunderous, shaking the tchotchkes from the living room shelves. The aroma of smoky, savory cured salami and kielbasa hung in the air; it followed them into the kitchen where Babjak’s mother and father, Imre and Gizzy, Hungarian refugees from the revolution of 1956, fed the boys cabbage rolls and chicken paprikash. One day in 1980, they set an extra place for another young slave to music, also with a prodigious appetite.
Patrick Michael DiNizio, a trash collector for his father’s carting company from neighboring Scotch Plains, wrote songs with classic pop structures, in the style of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; Gerry Goffin and Carole King; Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich; Jerome (Doc) Pomus and Mort Shuman; Cynthia Mann and Barry Weil. It was a match made in transistor radio heaven. Inspired by the hair-triggered cartoon character Yosemite Sam, who liked to blow things up, they christened themselves the Smithereens.
Around the same time in 1980, the singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw arrived on the cynical New York music scene. Crenshaw was quirky, knock-kneed, and apple-cheeked. He had just fled the cast of “Beatlemania” in Boston, and his original pop songs, including “Someday, Someway,” were like his hero Buddy Holly’s: clever, catchy, indelible. In the rough-and-tumble world of post-punk and pre-hardcore, Crenshaw was a bright ray of musical sunshine.
But the Smithereens were stranded in the jungle. Tastemakers were unimpressed with their muscular rock-pop. But they refused to fade away. At Kenny’s Castaways, on Bleecker Street, they began to back Otis Blackwell, who wrote “All Shook Up” for Elvis Presley and “Great Balls of Fire” for Jerry Lee Lewis. They also earned the respect, and friendship, of Doc Pomus, who created, with Mort, towering American anthems like “This Magic Moment” for the Drifters; “A Teenager in Love” for Dion and the Belmonts; and “Save the Last Dance for Me” for Ben E. King.
Babjak, in his sly, self-deprecating style, says, “Chubby Checker just told us to ‘keep on smitherin’.”
DiNizio was still riding his father’s garbage truck when they band recorded their first album, Especially For You, in 1986. Crenshaw appeared as a special guest, credited as “Jerome Jerome.” They were already bonded: over a mutual love for Beatles’ “B” sides; Phil Spector’s Philles Records; Motown, Sun, Chicago blues and British Invasion; surf songs; cartoon melodies; groovy guitar players, like Duane Eddy, Les Paul and Bo Diddley. Rock radio began to show the ‘Reens some love. They made the Billboard charts. MTV played their videos. They performed on Jay Leno, Arsenio Hall, and “Saturday Night Live.” For years they’ve continued to spill more blood, more sweat and a lot more beer, on the biggest stages, with ZZ Top, Blondie, the Pretenders and Lou Reed. In his memoir, Kurt Cobain said the members of Nirvana repeatedly listened to a mixtape of their music. DiNizio, his tongue firmly in cheek, dubbed the ‘Reens “America’s band.”
DiNizio was an outsize, contradictory personality, worthy of a place on “The Sopranos.”
He wore a cyclist’s cap backwards, and baggy black clothes to hide a massive gut. He was gruff but extroverted. He treated fans like friends but would savage an audience like Don Rickles. His politics were just as polarizing: he “ran” as a Reform Party candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in 2000, and he supported Donald Trump for president.
He was also in declining health. He suffered nerve damage: he could not hold or strum the guitar. A roadie would help him to sip through a straw, on stage. The scene was uncomfortable to watch. Because the reality is that DiNizio wrote a sheaf full of songs filled with hooks and harmonies, and played with pure passion: “Blood and Roses,” “A Girl Like You,” “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” “Only a Memory,” “House We Used to Live In,” “Top of the Pops,” “Strangers When We Meet,” “Crazy Mixed-Up Kid,” “In a Lonely Place,” “Spellbound,” “Drown in My Own Tears.”
If DiNizio’s death, in December 2017, at age 62, of various medical complications, was shocking, it was also not unexpected. A show at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey, was already scheduled; it was quickly reimagined as a celebration. Friends and admirers, including a simpatico Steven Van Zandt, took heartfelt turns at the mic on a bone-chilling night in January 2018. No one captured DiNizio’s sensibility as intuitively as Marshall Crenshaw did.
When they all reconvened at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair, N.J., on June 1, the pews were packed. The symbolism of the setting was like the performance: highly emotional, hugely cathartic. After a long, sustained ovation for Buddy’s “Well … All Right,” Crenshaw turned to the band, and then to the crowd:
“What are these guys supposed to do? (Beat.)
“Just … stop?”
Reminded of the everlasting beauty of musical brotherhood., Crenshaw signed on for more dates.
(Lately, Crenshaw has been making a documentary on the influential music producer Tom Wilson. Wilson was perhaps the only Harvard-educated and African-American record executive on the corporate music scene of the 1960s. He crafted Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” and Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” and also collaborated with the Velvet Underground, the Mothers of Invention, Eric Burdon and the Animals, and as jazz giants like Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor. He died in 1980, his life shrouded in mystery.)
The show at the Iridium, July 14, was loose, loud, exuberant. The band unearthed a jangly jewel in the crown of the Beatles’ Apple Records — “No Matter What,” by Badfinger — that was wholly interpretative and yet note-perfect. Only Mesaros, with his rugged good looks, mischievous choirboy charm and rooster’s haircut, still looks the part of a rock ‘n’ roll avatar. His playing was dogged, defiant. Pouting, preening, making faces, he kicked higher than a Rockette. Having taught himself the history of jazz, his melodic bass lines are now informed with new information.
Diken has never needed a watch to keep time. He may look like a sandy- haired accountant, but he plays with eruptive fire, just like his heroes Hal Blaine and Keith Moon.
Babjak, whom everyone calls Tex, has the manner of a genial salesman. Still, he’s one of rock’s most kaleidoscopic guitarists, an elder statesman of tunefulness, taste and gravitas.
Wielding his own turquoise guitar, Crenshaw meshed with the band like a fresh breeze at the Jersey shore. He found his own freedom, to channel DiNizio’s spirit and make it his own. He was simply an acolyte, serving the music.
At one point, the band stumbled onto a riff from the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” and followed it, almost preternaturally, with snippets from two other songs — “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” by The Undisputed Truth, and “War,” by Edwin Starr — all of them co-written by the monumental Motown team of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, and produced by Whitfield.
Mesaros seemed to shed happy tears.
“That’s how we used to roll with Pat,” he said afterwards, savoring the moment with a beer while another IRT subway train rumbled by.
Leo Sacks has produced thrilling boxed sets which have preserved the legacies of
Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. He won a historical Grammy Award for producing “Bill Withers: The Complete Sussex & Columbia Albums.” Sacks co-wrote two songs on Tower of Power’s 50th anniversary album, “Soul Side of Town (Mack Avenue),” and is currently completing a documentary on the New Orleans gospel icon Raymond Myles. He teaches writing at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.