The Smithereens will bring their blue-collar, Jersey-bred brand of rock and roll to downtown State College on Saturday, Feb. 8 for a concert at Café 210.
The band hails from central New Jersey and had a string of hits in the late 80s and early 90s, the biggest being 1989’s ‘A Girl Like You’ that cracked the US Top 40.
The band formed in 1980 with Pat DiNizio (lead vocals/guitar) of Scotch Plains, NJ and three friends from nearby Carteret; Jim Babjak (lead guitar), Dennis Diken (drums) and Mike Mesaros (bass). Amazingly, the band has only experienced one personnel change during its’ tenure when Mesaros decided to retire after 25 years with the band in late 2005 and was replaced by Severo “The Thrilla” Jornacion.
It obviously takes a special bond to play music together with the same people for that long.
“They are part of my extended family,” saiys DiNizio. “Dennis and Jimmy are the brothers that I never had. We’ve never disagreed on anything musical and that’s the key to our ability to have been able to maintain this musical coalition for nearly 34 years.” But it wasn’t just the music that brought them, and kept them, together.
“It was our love of pop culture," DiNizio explains. We grew up reading the same comic books and Mad magazine. We watched the same TV shows. We liked the same movies. We shared the same sense of humor and the same dream which was to be in a rock-n-roll band and to make records.”
While DiNizio admits that the band’s name came from the Looney Tunes character ‘Yosemite Sam,’ an interviewer in Berlin once sought out a more introspective meaning behind the name. DiNizio explains, “The writer said ‘The name is not translate-able in our language. We’ve done some research and we’ve found that it comes from the Gaelic language meaning ‘many pieces of a whole.’ Did you pick this name intentionally because it reflects your myriad of pop influences.’ I just laughed and said ‘Yes, yes we did!’ I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that we got the name from Bugs Bunny cartoons.”
Even with over three decades of making music under their belts, DiNizio says the band doesn’t take anything for granted. “Back in June and July (of 2013), we were touring with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and it was like it was our first gig. You know, it felt like that,” DiNizio says. “In other words, we still have the same enthusiasm and excitement. The thrill was still there for all of us.”
DiNizio credits college radio and shows like ‘120 Minutes’ on MTV for the band’s initial success. “They helped make us a success. We were one of the few bands that were lucky enough to have simultaneously hit on College Radio, Rock Radio and Top 40 without losing our career or alienating our audience,” says DiNizio. “For example, ‘A Girl Like You’ was number one on College Radio, number one on Rock Radio and in the Top 40. That’s a very rare achievement.”
The band wasn’t an instant success. It took some time to finally get signed to a major label. In fact, DiNizio was already 31 years old when their major label debut ‘Especially For You’ hit in 1986. They all had day jobs in those days leading up to getting their big break. DiNizio worked with his Dad in the family business as a garbage collector. “I was the kid you’d hear rattling garbage cans at five in the morning,” DiNizio explains. “My perspective was that we were extremely lucky. We were standing on the right corner at the right time, but we were ready because we had done our due diligence and didn’t feel that world owed us anything. We were just extremely grateful.”
The band spent many years crafting its stage show, but DiNizio says they knew early on that the studio was a different animal. “We were trying to replicate the live sound of the band; that energy,” says DiNizio. “We didn’t understand how the recording studio works and that a lot of it is a sonic illusion. Once we realized that the two were different, we were able to deal with it. We figured out how it worked. And then, both (live shows and recording) began to compliment each other.”
As they perfected that live sound in the early years, DiNizio admits that he didn’t have the best stage presence. “I didn’t feel particularly comfortable on stage. I realized at one of our early gigs in New York City that, my goodness, I’m singing songs with lyrics that are totally about my personal life,” DiNizio remembers. “I’m opening myself up by revealing so much of myself. I didn’t feel comfortable with it because everything I wrote was from the heart.” Soon, DiNizio realized that this was the job he’d chosen and he had to take it all the way. “Once I realized that this was for keeps, I stopped thinking about it.”
DiNizio credits one the band’s early mentors, Pat Kenny, owner of Kenny’s Castaways in Greenwich Village, as helping him with his stage presence. DiNizio says Kenny told them to see the early rock and roll movie The Girl Can’t Help It and watch the part with Little Richard performing. Kenny told them, “That’s a textbook example of someone who puts on an exciting rock & roll show.” DiNizio said, at that point, they realized, “We have to, sort of, up the game a little bit.”
Another pivotal moment in the maturation of the band’s live show came when they saw an influential English punk band on the Tomorrow show with Tom Snyder. “It wasn’t until seeing Paul Weller and The Jam and the live excitement that they generated during that brief TV performance that I realized this is more like what we need to be,” DiNizio explains. “You’ve only got one shot when you get up there to get across what you’re saying musically in a visual sense as well. It turned my head around, you know.”
The latest release from the band is a one-off limited release CD. With 2014 marking the 50th Anniversary of the Beatles’ first U.S. concert in Washington, D.C., The Smithereens have recreated that concert note-for-note, song-by-song and will have the CDs available for sale at Café 210. The Beatles had a huge impact on the members of the band and DiNizio says they had to do something to commemorate this event. “It’s something to celebrate for sure,” DiNizio says. “We had to make some sort of statement about it and we wanted to do something that no one else would attempt. So, we’ve recreated or reimagined the Beatles first concert. Done, of course, with our own guitar tones and our own style, but pretty much playing the notes as written.”
But the band still holds true to its’ mission of making original music and DiNizio says new material is in the works. They plan to return to the studio this year and release a new album produced once-again by legendary producer Don Dixon. “As soon as I finish the songs, we’ll get together and rehearse them and we’ll record them with Don,” says DiNizio. “That’s the primary objective; to put out new original albums.” Working with Dixon is much more than just a band-producer relationship. He explains, “Dennis Diken has referred to Don Dixon as our ‘George Martin’ or the fifth Smithereen.”
Some Beatles songs and some newer material may be in store for fans at the Café 210 show, but DiNizio also knows what the audience wants. “There’s so many songs now and everybody’s got their favorite so you can’t not do the hits and we love doing the hits and we play them exactly the way we recorded them, but there’s a lot of material now and you’ve got to do a great cross-section of it,” DiNizio says. “And that’s part of the philosophy. People have to go out of their way to see you. We’re tremendously grateful to people who come out to see us so we’ve got to give everything we’ve got, you know?”
After all these years of playing live together, DiNizio feels that the band is better than ever. “I believe, on many levels, despite Mike’s departure, we’re a better band now than we were then,” says DiNizio. “We realized what an awesome responsibility it was to be the best we could possibly be and to be different from everyone else. We’re a lot more focused on the songs and the presentation because the expectations are higher. We joke that we come from coarser, sturdier material because we were lower-middle working class kids from Jersey.”
DiNizio says they never imagined that they’d sell any more than 3,500 albums, yet nearly 34 years later, they’re still together making music. “It amazes me that we’re still doing this all these years later and we’re able to make a living doing it,” he says. “We’re still doing that so I guess we’ve succeeded.”
DiNizio and crew will take the stage at Café 210 on Saturday night, Feb. 8. The show starts at 9:30 p.m.