Several years ago, I saw Smithereens frontman/songwriter Pat DiNizio perform a solo living room show in St. Louis, Missouri. It was everything you’d want from a house show: energetic, driven by hits and jovial banter, and full of the intimate moments you often can’t experience at a club show.
I attended the concert with my then-boyfriend (now-husband), Matt, and after the show we went to say hello. Matt was (and is) a massive Smithereens fan, and we introduced ourselves by name. DiNizio’s face flashed with recognition, and he immediately said, “Let me tell you how I know this guy: I know his name, because he buys every single piece of merchandise I put up for sale on my website.” This was no exaggeration; we all laughed.
DiNizio, who passed away on (December 12) at the age of 62, inspired that sort of devotion. Certainly it was because of the Smithereens’ meticulous, ’60s-inspired rock and power pop. But he was also an uncommonly approachable musician who always welcomed fans into his world, and never took their support for granted. DiNizio answered queries himself via email, and was a generous and colorful storyteller. (Just last week, he posted a heartfelt and personal note on the Smithereens’ Facebook page about the Catholic church he lived across from in his hometown of Scotch Plains, New Jersey.) He threw Memorial Day barbecues in his backyard featuring (who else?) The Smithereens, and assembled Halloween “fan jams” in New Jersey, with major guests such as Graham Parker.
The Smithereens’ music possesses that same sort of welcoming, compelling quality. That has a lot to do with their accessible inspirations: the British Invasion’s jaunty pop and shaggy garage rock, blues-inspired early rock ‘n’ rollers, and harmony-favoring power-pop practitioners. Their songs exude reverence for the Beatles and the Byrds, the Who and the Kinks, Buddy Holly and Nick Lowe. But rather than being slavishly retro, Smithereens songs instead echo familiar moments — a jangly Beatles riff here, the Who’s windmilling solos there, a crisp, Elvis Costello-caliber turn of phrase elsewhere — with contemporary urgency. (“There’s never been a conscious attempt to emulate the style of the ’60s, but maybe an unconscious attempt to reflect the spirit of those times,” DiNizio told The Boston Globe in 1988.)
That ensured the band fit right in on radio and MTV when they emerged in 1986 with the Don Dixon-produced Especially For You. Although eclectic—the Suzanne Vega duet “In a Lonely Place” is a hushed bossa nova number — the record brims with classic rock ‘n’ roll signifiers. Menacing bass line and guitar riffs snake through “Blood And Roses”; waterfalling harmonies introduce “Strangers When We Meet”; and “Behind The Wall of Sleep” is a propulsive stomp on which the protagonist daydreams about a woman who “stood just like Bill Wyman” when she played bass onstage. None other than Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was an avowed fan of the band, and this record in particular.
Especially For You was followed by two more consistent and hook-laden efforts, 1988’s Green Thoughts and 1989’s 11; the latter spawned the band’s first top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, the storming “A Girl Like You.” The Smithereens’ 1991 follow-up, Blow Up, wasn’t as successful, although the soulful, waltzing “Too Much Passion,” which boasts ornate strings, also crossed over to the Top 40. Across the board, no matter the sonic approach, DiNizio’s voice was choir boy-pure: While he could be tough and brash — witness the raucous rager “Top of the Pops” and 1994’s cranked-up A Date With The Smithereens — it was impossible for him to eschew vibrato or an earnest melodic approach.
Lyrically, that translated to unabashed vulnerability. The Smithereens provided anthems for sensitive hopeless romantics — the yearning “A Girl Like You” places a woman on a pedestal — and solace for the lovelorn, in the form of romantic laments and tales of relationship uncertainty. “I want to love, but it comes out wrong,” DiNizio sings on “Blood And Roses,” while “In A Lonely Place” nails how a breakup cut to the quick: “I was born the day I met you/ Lived a while when you loved me/ Died a little when we broke apart.” The title track to Green Thoughts, meanwhile, is a veiled ode to being torn up by real (or perhaps just imagined) jealousy.
Such succinct devastation was a DiNizio trademark: In the middle of “House We Used to Live In,” a sudden, turn-on-a-dime key change leads to the matter-of-fact statements, “A house is not a home/ And when you live alone you’ll find/ That it’s much harder then/ So much harder to believe.” But he was also concise about the good times, too: “Too Much Passion” expresses desire (“Whenever you touch me I feel a fire inside“), and the ringing power-pop gem “Yesterday Girl” masks hurt about rejection in the guise of braggadocio.
But despite the moody subject matter, The Smithereens were anything but weighed down by melancholy. Live, the band was fiery and life-affirming, mainly due to the interplay and chemistry between DiNizio, drummer Dennis Diken, guitarist Jim Babjak and bassist Mike Mesaros. (After Mesaros left the band to focus on family in 2008, bassist Severo Jornacion, who DiNizio frequently introduced as “The Thrilla from Manilla,” added similar, energetic punch.) The band members barely paused to catch their breath as they tore through songs and select covers, both during their heyday and in recent years — underscoring their workmanlike, garage-band roots.
And the members of the Smithereens were (and are) music fans, and relished elevating the favorite bits of their collective record collections. They covered The Beatles’ debut (and called it Meet The Smithereens!) and The Who’s Tommy, and issued eclectic covers: the Allen Toussaint-penned soul “Ruler Of My Heart,” T. Rex’s grimy “The Slider,” and The Outsiders’ garage-pop chestnut “Time Won’t Let Me.” (The latter appeared on the Timecop soundtrack, of all places.) DiNizio’s vocal versatility made these nods to the classic songbook sound both cool and effortless.
“Hey everybody — it’s your old friend and colleague, Pat DiNizio from ‘America’s Band,’ the world-famous Smithereens!” DiNizio began what will now stand as his last Facebook update on the band’s page. The greeting was classic: Even if you didn’t know DiNizio personally, he was the kind of gregarious person who was always up for cementing new relationships and reconnecting with old friends. That charisma glued the Smithereens together for decades — and, it’s safe to say, is wholly irreplaceable.
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