“It is a big deal for us,” says Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken about the band’s performance at the grand opening of the URSB Carteret Performing Arts and Events Center, Dec. 4. Diken, along with band co-founders Jim Babjak and Mike Mesaros, grew up together in Carteret. Since the death of frontman Pat DiNizio in 2017, the group has been performing with either Robin Wilson (of The Gin Blossoms) or Marshall Crenshaw singing lead and playing guitar. But for just one time, this night, they will be joined by both.
“We haven’t really nailed (the setlist) down yet,” said Diken, “but there are certain songs that we do with Robin that we don’t do with Marshall, and vice versa, so I don’t think it’s going to be that difficult. I think it will work out pretty good.”
Though DiNizio grew up in Scotch Plains, and not Carteret, this would have been a major event for him, too, Diken said.
“It would have been so cool had Pat been here, to be able to share this moment, because it’s a big New Jersey moment. So his spirit will be kicking in, too, for sure.”
The show begins at 8 p.m., but there will also be a ribbon-cutting ceremony at noon, and public tours of the new 55,000-square-foot, 1,650-capacity venue from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Though this is the official grand opening, the venue has already hosted acts such as Max Weinberg’s Jukebox, Blue Öyster Cult and comedian Mike Marino. Singer Sal Valentinetti is scheduled for Dec. 3, and other upcoming acts include the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Dec. 11; and comedian Abhishek Upmanyu, Dec. 17.
In addition to concerts, the venue will host theatrical shows, trade shows, small sporting events and more. The building features a gallery, a rooftop event space, and a smaller space on the lower level that can host intimate jazz concerts and comedy shows.
The project took more than a decade to bring to fruition, with the strong support of mayor Dan Reiman and the Carteret Business Partnership, which was created to foster the city’s business environment and economic development.
It is a sleek, modern building. Needless to say, there was nothing like it in Carteret when Smithereens members were growing up there in the ’60s and ’70s.
“It’s almost hard to fathom that the town where we used to ride our bikes and where we learned to play (music), and went to school and grew up … we’re going to perform there,” says Diken. “When I was a kid and I would think about the music I was listening to and the performers, they just seemed so distant. I couldn’t imagine anybody from The Beach Boys, The Beatles or even the Four Seasons, who were from New Jersey, to step foot anywhere near my neighborhood … when you’re a kid, that just doesn’t seem possible that they’re within your reach.”
The band has played Carteret once before, since becoming a nationally known recording and touring act in the ’80s: A 30th anniversary show, at Carteret Park, about a decade ago. “It’s the same kind of emotions,” Diken says.
Carteret, he says, “really was a great place to grow up, for us. Our particular graduating class was just a swell group of kids — bright, funny, creative, curious. We all fed off each other. I think we all have nostalgic feelings about Carteret.”
The theater is located on Washington Avenue, between Pershing and Cooke avenues. “That block, where the theater now sits … there used to be several stores there,” said Diken. “One of which was called Little Klein’s. It was a candy store that sold magazines and we went over there to buy Mad magazine, or 16 magazine. So we’d ride our bikes to that block all the time. And Jimmy studied accordion, I think, at a music studio that was also in that same footprint. There was a movie theater there. There was another magazine shop/candy store.”
Diken and Babjak met on their first day at Carteret High School.
“He and I started playing together that week,” Diken said. “We knew we were kindred musical spirits — and personal kindred spirits, too.
“I really wanted to find somebody that could play ‘I Can’t Explain’ by The Who. I thought if I could meet somebody with those sensibilities, then I’d have a good shot at forming a cool band. And the first day of school, Jimmy opens up his looseleaf and there’s pictures of The Who from Hit Parader plastered in his notebook. So I introduced myself and we started playing.”
They played together for several years before Mesaros, whom they had been friends with, joined them on bass. Several years later, they found DiNizio.
Or, more precisely, DiNizio found them. DiNizio had a cover band called The Like, who advertised in the Aquarian music newspaper, looking for a drummer. Diken was still playing with Babjak and Mesaros but looking for other projects to do simultaneously, and answered it.
“It piqued my curiosity because the covers they were doing were not what was typical of Jersey cover bands at the time,” Diken said. “There were so many bars where a cover band in New Jersey could play. But it was usually Southern rock or a Queen cover band or Top 40 or this or that. But the ad that Pat took out, he said the songs they were playing were by The Beatles, Buddy Holly, The Jam, Elvis Costello. Devo, I think, was in the ad. So I thought I should call this band up. I did, and Pat answered the phone.”
Diken did join DiNizio in The Like. But the group broke up soon after that. DiNizio “started writing originals and asked me to play on them,” Diken said. “I played on his demos and brought Jimmy and Mike in, one by one.”
The Smithereens’ last album of original material was 2011, released that year. Diken says it is likely that the band will release its first album without DiNizio at some point in 2022.
“Jimmy’s doing writing,” he said. “I’ve been writing. Jimmy wrote a couple of songs with Robin. So we’re all going to bring things to the table. We all have ideas.”
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