It was late summer of 1990 and several hundred music distribution and record label weasels had gathered in Dallas at the Grand Kapinski Hotel for our annual sales convention. The last night of three days of meetings and artist showcases was held in the big ballroom, and by the time the salads were served most of us were severely ripped. A couple of bands that I can’t recall played short sets, and after a rubber chicken dinner, a few speeches were made and some awards were passed out. And then the Smithereens took the stage.
Thirty seconds into “A Girl Like You,” about 20 of us who worked in the Los Angeles sales office spontaneously jumped up and swarmed the stage. Half-dancing and totally drunk off our asses, by the time the chorus came around, we had grabbed the mics and joined the band. I found myself at center stage standing alone next to lead singer and guitarist Pat DiNizio and harmonized with him. It was a music junkie’s fantasy come true. Seven years later, when I had lunch with Pat in Minneapolis while he was promoting his solo Songs and Soundsalbum, he remembered it a different way: “Dude … you totally sucked.”
Today we mourn the loss of our friend, brother and bandmate Pat DiNizio. Pat had the magic touch. He channeled the essence of joy and heartbreak into hook-laden three minute pop songs infused with a lifelong passion for rock & roll. Our journey with Pat was long, storied and a hell of a lot of fun. We grew up together. Little did we know that we wouldn’t grow old together.
Goodbye Pat. Seems like yesterday.
Jimmy, Mike, Dennis
December 12, 2017
Goldmine Magazine’s contributing editor Chris M. Junior wrote an article in 2011 that’s become the band’s official bio, and he tells the story of Pat and the Smithereens, which might resonate with many of us who grew up in the post-Elvis generation.
Pat DiNizio became hooked on The Beatles after seeing them in 1964 on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and he subsequently kept his radio dial set to WABC so he could hear the Fab Four’s latest hook-filled hit singles. By the early 1970s, DiNizio had taken a shine to the heavy gloom of Black Sabbath, and when he saw the metal band perform at, of all places, a Catholic high school in his hometown of Scotch Plains, N.J., he couldn’t believe how loud it was inside the auditorium.
“Listening to it, I realized this was what I wanted to do,” DiNizio says. “It turned my head around completely in terms of the music I had been listening to and what I thought I wanted to do with my life.”
Meanwhile, over in Carteret, N.J., Dennis Diken and Jim Babjak had their own musical heroes. While attending Carteret High School in 1971, Diken noticed Babjak had a notebook plastered with pictures of The Who, one of his favorite bands, so he introduced himself. Soon drummer Diken and guitarist Babjak were jamming together on songs by The Who, The Kinks and others.
A classified ad in a Jersey music publication put DiNizio in touch with Diken in the late 1970s, and they formed a New Wave cover band called The Like. But after just one gig, the group called it a day. When DiNizio wanted to record demos of some original songs and needed a drummer, he called Diken. And it was only natural that Diken would eventually bring his buddy Babjak along to a Smithereens practice, and soon he was part of the band, too.
The Smithereens made their live debut in March 1980 at a place called Englander’s in Hillside, N.J. A lineup change soon followed when bassist Ken Jones was moved to guitar in favor of Mike Mesaros, a Diken friend since grade school. But after some gigs as a five piece, it was clear that another shakeup was needed, and this time Jones was ousted.
During the next five years, DiNizio, Diken, Babjak and Mesaros gigged near home and abroad whenever they could, released the EPs Girls About Town (1980) and Beauty and Sadness (1983) and for a brief time served as the backing band for acclaimed songwriter Otis Blackwell.
In reflecting on the band’s longevity — new dates for 2018 had recently been announced — in a 2013 interview Pat explained the ups and downs of their career:
We’d had a great, 10 year, non-stop run of activity and non-stop touring, playing 300 gigs a year, living on the bus, having hit record after hit record after hit record. And then grunge hit and the bottom fell out of our career and we had to hold on, and we held on, and we held on, and eventually our audience came back.
With the record industry in disarray, the effects of Napster and the terrible idea that music should be free and not paid for, unlike your groceries and the car you drive; after all, it is the composer and the band’s intellectual property. No one wanted to pay a band to make a record unless you were 20 years old, but we’d had a long walk in the sun and we stayed with it. I went to the last label we’d had a record with and presented an idea for the Smithereens doing the Beatles which turned into a re-imaging of the Beatles first album. It was really successful – it broke download records on iTunes – and it put us on the front page of the New York Time’s Sunday leisure section.
It was late in the night when I learned that Pat had passed on. A friend who had been onstage with us that long ago night in Dallas broke the news to me and it literally felt like a gut punch. Pat represented each of us who grew up wanting to live out our rock-and-roll dreams. We bought guitars or drums, practiced endlessly in our basements or garages, spent hours in the record stores flipping through albums, laid in bed late at night with the transistor radios pressed against our ears and the music surged through our veins like blood. Pat DiNizio was just a guy like you, and may he now rest in peace.
This article was originally published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column over at No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music.