“It seems like we had our private club, playing our own favorite music, and everybody joined it,” said Mike Mesaros of The Smithereens, starting his acceptance speech at the Oct. 27 New Jersey Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park. He and co-founders Jim Babjak and Dennis Diken accepted the award, accompanied by Liza DiNizio, daughter of the band’s late frontman, Pat DiNizio. They also performed two songs, “Blood and Roses” (with Marshall Crenshaw) and “A Girl Like You” (with Robin Wilson of Gin Blossoms singing, and Crenshaw playing guitar), and participated in the evening’s final two songs: covers of The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” (also featuring the Carl Gentry-led house band, Kings of Suburbia, and others), and Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” (for which Darlene Love joined the ensemble).
Below are text and video from The Smithereens’ induction speech (by Garry Tallent of The E Street Band); excerpts from the acceptance speeches by Babjak, Diken and Mesaros; and red carpet interviews I did with Mesaros, Babjak, Tallent and Crenshaw. Also, I’ve included YouTube videos for “Blood and Roses,” “A Girl Like You” and “I Saw Her Standing There.”
Garry Tallent: First of all, I just wanted to say, it’s an honor for me to be introducing my pals into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. I’m here as a fan who happened to catch them on an appearance on “The Uncle Floyd Show” — anybody remember that? — at a time when synth-pop groups were all around. I witnessed a two-guitars, bass and drums rock ‘n’ roll band that had obviously taken the time and effort to study the music that came before them, then to take it to a place that was true to its roots, but had a completely unique identity. With song titles borrowed from film classics such as “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” “Blood and Roses,” “In a Lonely Place” and “Strangers When We Meet,” the songs were fresh, current, and danceable pop music.
I’m not sure exactly how we became acquainted, but when we did, it was apparent that we shared a love for old records, guitars, music in general, and they are just cool guys. So many bands broke up before they ever played a note, because they couldn’t agree on how to split the merchandise royalties. These guys were in it for all the right reasons.
I left New Jersey in the ’80s and I kind of lost contact with them, as their star rose, and their greatness was noticed by the masses. But in 2001, I met up with them back in New Jersey at the Count Basie Theatre, for an event for the families of 9/11 victims. That night, I asked Dennis to play drums. He played great, as usual, and brought along the group to share the bill. It was great to see them, and see that they were doing well, still playing that rock ‘n’ roll music. They have continued on, after having lost their lead singer and major songwriter, Pat DiNizio, a situation that would lead lesser bands to throw in the rock ‘n’ roll towel. And now, here they are, being inducted into the Hall of Fame of their home state — a banner they have proudly waved all these years.
Jim Babjak: Right here, we have Pat DiNizio’s daughter Liza, and I’m gonna read her message. She says: “My father was immensely proud of his New Jersey roots, and always spoke of this great and abiding love for the Garden State. This would have been perhaps the greatest honor of his life. Thanks to all that have made this happen.” And now a message from Pat’s mother, who’s still alive. She said, “It’s sad that my son Pat DiNizio passed away before he was able to receive this award, but his music lives on in The Smithereens. I know he would have been thrilled and honored to be inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. Thank you.”
This actually hasn’t hit me yet. It’s starting to, right now. First, I want to congratulate all the inductees. … We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for our family, friends, and fans. We just wouldn’t be here. I don’t want to make a list of thank yous because I’d be here for an hour, because after 40 years being in this, it’s impossible to list all the names, and all the people that helped us to get to this point. But if I answer your texts and emails, that means that you’re on the list.
But I do want to thank my parents, and my sons who are here tonight: Max, Alex, Tom. And Lauren, my future daughter-in-law. And my late wife Betty Ann, who passed away from pancreatic cancer. I wish they would cure that thing already. My band members. And Robin Wilson and Marshall Crenshaw, for helping us carry on the flame of The Smithereens. And last, before I let these guys talk, Cindy Sivak, who has put all this together for me and has helped me tremendously (and) helped the band tremendously.
Dennis Diken: I just want to say again what Jimmy said: If it wasn’t for our fans, we wouldn’t be here, and we really appreciate them and love them with all our hearts. Thank you very much. For everybody who stood with us for 40 years, thank you.
They said I have 30 seconds. This might take 35 seconds, so bear with me.
When I think about growing up in New Jersey, it’s a long road that brought us here. There’s a lot of memories and feelings and people. I was born in North Newark, Belleville area, where the Four Seasons come from, folks. The Four Seasons were a big influence on us. I first lived on Van Winkle Avenue in Garfield, N.J., and that’s where I was first immersed in the unconditional love of my grandparents, my mom and dad … my big brother, and we moved to Carteret. So many wonderful uncles, aunts, cousins …
There were … so many great characters in Carteret … all these people really influenced the way we behaved and thought. And in Carteret … Lincoln School, when I moved to Elm Street. Hey, Lincoln School! There was a great group of wonderful kids who were creative and fun-loving and we all fed off each other, and that’s where I met Mike in 1966, folks. We go back that long. Mike Mesaros and I went to school together. And we had great teachers … who taught us to think outside the box. And I want to say hi to my mentor, Bobby Zeiss, the great drummer from the Carteret band the Crownsmen in the ’60s. And then in high school, I met Jimmy, first day of high school. He had those color pictures of The Who plastered in his notebook. I said, “I gotta talk to this guy.” That was the birth of The Smithereens, folks.
There were a lot of places that were holy to me in Jersey. Like Two Guys, where I bought a lot of my records, and S. Klein’s in Woodbridge … my first time seeing a picture of The Beach Boys, on the “Fun, Fun, Fun” picture sleeve. Like Jimmy said, we can go on for hours.
In 1978, The Aquarian is where we met Pat DiNizio, through an ad in The Aquarian, a great publication that’s helped so many musicians. I wanna thank Jimmy’s folks, for letting us practice in their garage and laundry room, and Mike’s folks, for showing us so much love … Our manager, Len, thank you. Len Fico. … Jimmy already said Marshall and Robin, and I guess, most of all, my favorite girl, she’s always there for me, my wife Donna.
Mike Mesaros: It seems like we had our private club, playing our own favorite music, and everybody joined it. Thanks you for doing that. That’s our fans.
Carteret informed our sensibilities. Our work … the way we worked at what we did. And we would not give up. Being from Scotch Plains did the same thing for Pat. Because we persevered for five years of record company rejection slips, and Pat would never quit, he wouldn’t let us quit, and we wouldn’t quit, either. Thank you for your perseverance and leadership, Pat, and the great songs, and friendship. Thank you to Denny and Jim for being such great friends all these years … I want to thank my dad and mom for sticking with me, even though I know you weren’t too happy about it, me having those amplifiers in the basement. My beautiful wife Cindy. My great daughter Ronnie, who is 16 years old tonight. Happy birthday, Ron! Happy birthday, Sweet Sixteen. My little girl Julia.
Our producers were really important to us, and they helped us along the way: Ed Stasium and Don Dixon. We have to acknowledge Meg Griffin, the great DJ who ran the “Prisoners of Rock and Roll” shows at The Bottom Line, and believed in us way before anyone else did. The great club owner Pat Kenny, and his assistant Don Hill, at Kenny’s Castaways. Johnny Dirt in Bloomfield. God bless you, Johnny. Bobby Albert at the Court Tavern in New Brunswick. Al Brown. And thanks to our crew, and once again, thank you to our fans for joining our private club. It’s wonderful to have you with us
Tallent on the red carpet:
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with (The Smithereens), your history with them?
A: Well, really, we’re just pals. I’ve always encouraged them, I always liked them. They’re great guys, great band. This goes back to the ’80s. When I left for Nashville in the late ’80s, we still stayed in touch. I visited Mike when he lived in California. We’re just friends. So, the fact that they asked me to do this was really surprising to me, but I’m happy to be here.
Q: I remember when Pat DiNizio died, you wrote a really nice tweet about him. Can you tell me what was so special and unique about him?
A: I don’t remember the tweet, but Pat was an amazing songwriter, an amazing singer. Nobody ever really knew what a great singer he was. I think maybe they’re catching on now. But Pat is sorely missed, yes. I used to tease him about all his song titles coming out of the TV Guide, and he said, “Yeah, it’s a good source for titles.” (laughs) But yeah, I’m just happy that the band has found a way to continue. It’s a very difficult thing. We lost a couple of band members and, what do you do? The fact that it’s important to them to carry on is just so admirable, and I encourage it.
Crenshaw on the red carpet:
Q: Can you tell me what it’s been like for you to be doing these shows with The Smithereens for the last couple of years?
A: It’s great fun. They’re a great rock ‘n’ roll band. Nothing’s more gratifying to me than to play with a great rock ‘n’ roll band. They’re also super-cool people. I’m very fond of them. I like the music. I just kind of got asked to do this in the aftermath of the tribute show that happend for Pat in January of last year. That was such a moving night, like a family reunion kind of thing. So I’m just kind of here, still, in the wake of that. It was a really memorable event.
Q: Would you ever think about writing some songs with Jim and Dennis and Mike?
A: They’re talking about doing a record, yeah. Don Dixon was their producer on most of their records. We were talking about it. I said, “He could be really important to the whole thing. He’s been inside your music, more than probably anybody, except the people in the band.” But to answer your question, yeah, if I can help them, I will.
Q: I know you’re not really trying to sound like Pat when you sing. Is it important to you, to kind of do the songs in your own way, rather than trying to sound like him?
A: I can’t sound like anybody else but myself. So that’s it. I just have to do that. But, I mean, the songs are great, the ones that we play. I can really engage with those songs, they’re beautiful.
Babjak and Mesaros on the red carpet:
Q: So, you’re working hard on your acceptance speech?
Mesaros: It’s been floating around in my mind. There are so many people that I want to thank. I think the audience will start leaving by the time I got through with them all. So the hard thing to do is knowing, Who do you thank? I want to mention our whole road crew, every guy, you know. And you can’t.
Q: And you have to say something about Pat, too, of course.
Mesaros: Pat is first, naturally. He’s why we’re here. Him and the fans. We’re here because of those songs, that voice, our collaboration, and the fans of ours who took our music into their lives.
Q: It’s kind of corny to say it, but Pat really would have loved this honor. He would have gotten a kick out of this night.
Mesaros: Yeah, Pat loved things like this.
(Babjak joins conversation)
Q: Congratulations. It’s a big deal, I think, that you’re getting this honor. I’m really glad to see it.
Babjak. We’re from Jersey, you know, and … damn! You know what? I would be as bold as to say that we belong in there. Now I’m starting to get cocky.
Q: So what do you see coming up next year? Do you think you might work on a new album, or anything specific coming up for next year?
Babjak: Well, we recorded enough material for two albums back in 1994, so we have a whole album that’s a lost album. And we’re working with Robin Wilson and Marshall Crenshaw on some new material. Hopefully by 2021, we’ll be doing that. We’re already working on it, but it’s going to take some time, because we’re continuously touring. People always ask, when are you touring? We’re always playing.
Mesaros: We play a lot of weekends now
Q: So these songs from the ’90s, are they finished?
Babjak: Oh, they’re done.
Mesaros: We have a record in the can. It’s a matter of opening the can and throwing it out there.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.