Music Interview: Talking to Dennis Diken of The Smithereens — Unapologetically Inspired

By Blake Maddux

The Smithereens have released only two albums of original material since 1999, so it was pleasantly surprising when The Lost Album, consisting of a dozen songs recorded in 1993 but never released by the band, appeared last September.

The Smithereens was formed in 1980 when Carteret, New Jersey, classmates Dennis Diken (drums), Jim Babjak (lead guitar), and Mike Mesaros (bass) met Pat DiNizio, a singer, songwriter, and guitarist from the nearby town of Scotch Plains.

Between 1983 and 1995, this quartet of Jersey boys would release a debut LP that Kurt Cobain named as one of his favorites; record and/or tour with — among others — Marti Jones and Don Dixon, Marshall Crenshaw, Suzanne Vega, Belinda Carlisle (click the links to read my interviews with each of them), Otis Blackwell, Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Del Shannon, and Lou Reed; and score two top 40 singles (including “A Girl Like You,” which was intended to both be used in the 1989 movie Say Anything and have Madonna on backing vocals) and one gold album.

Over this 13-year span, The Smithereens distinguished themselves with British Invasion and new wave-inspired songs that were flavored by a literate moodiness that suited the temper of ’80s alternative rock.

Sadly, DiNizio died on December 12, 2017. Fortunately, Diken, Babjak, and Mesaros have continued touring, with Marshall Crenshaw and Robin Wilson of Gin Blossoms taking turns as lead singers. They remain, as I described them in a 2015 concert review, unapologetically inspired. (BTW, I don’t know why I said that they weren’t lyrical poets. And it was two Beatles covers albums, not three.)

The fact that The Smithereens have released only two albums of original material since 1999 made it all the more pleasantly surprising when The Lost Album, consisting of a dozen songs recorded in 1993 but never released by the band, appeared last September.

Dennis Diken — who has also toured with Ronnie Spector, Dave Davies of The Kinks, and others — spoke to me by phone from New Jersey in advance of his band’s Saturday night show with Marshall Crenshaw at The Center for the Arts in Natick.

The Arts Fuse: When and under what circumstances were the songs on The Lost Album first recorded?

Dennis Diken: In 1993, which was 30 years ago (laughs), we were between record labels. We had been on Capitol and later that year we got signed to RCA. We decided we’d go into the studio by ourselves to a place in New York City called Crystal Sound. For the first time since 1980, we decided to produce our own record. We cut about two dozen songs, and shortly after we wrapped that up, which I guess was springtime of ’93, in short order we got signed to RCA. So we ended up taking 12 of those songs and we recorded them with [producer] Don Dixon for A Date with The Smithereens, our only RCA album. And the other 12 songs just kinda stayed on the shelf for all these years.

AF: How were they rediscovered after more than 25 years?

DD: We were cleaning our cupboard during the pandemic lockdown and came across them. We hadn’t forgot about them, we just didn’t consider them for a long time. After we did A Date with…, there was new material to consider. I guess in the back of our mind we just thought, “Ah, that’s the old stuff. We’ll just let it lie until we feel like we want to deal with it at some point.”

So we listened to them and said, “These are good. These should come out.” And the 12 songs held together well as an album, so it was just up to us to sequence them, master them, get a cover together, and put it out there.

AF: What has the reaction from fans been like?

DD: We thought it was good material, but kinda to our surprise, our fans have really gotten behind it. We’ve had a lot of favorable reaction to that group of songs. We’re very pleased that there’s a new old Smithereens album out there that people are digging, which in a way is kinda a little taste of what’s to come, because we have more archival material that we’ll be releasing, but we’ll also be working on new material for a new album this year.

AF: In a 2015 Arts Fuse interview with Pat DiNizio, journalist Brett Milano — who wrote the liner notes to Blown to Smithereens — described you as “practically an honorary Boston band,” and quoted Pat as saying, “The kids in Boston accepted us unconditionally.” Would you like to comment on the band’s relationship to Boston?

DD: (laughs) Well, that’s a really nice honor indeed. It’s always been a real stronghold for us, you might say. Ever since we started hitting the road, on our first tour, it was a very exciting place for us to play. Really great audiences. We used to play the Paradise a lot. You know what, we played Boston even before we were signed, when I think about it.

I remember one gig in particular, again, this was before we got signed. There was this club called Storyville, where we were on a bill with Chris Stamey from The dB’s. There was another place, I think it was in Cambridge, I can’t remember the name of it. Joyce Linehan was our manager for a little while and she’s from Boston. It was through her that we started to play up there and build our fan base. [Linehan served from 2014-2017 as Chief of Policy and Planning during the administration of Mayor Marty Walsh.]  The reaction was always really positive and very supportive. So yeah, Boston’s been a real sport to us! (laughs) [Diken also confirmed DiNizio’s story in Milano’s interview about the inspiration for the song “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” adding, So yeah, that’s another important facet of Boston in the early makeup of The Smithereens.”]

AF: How far back do The Smithereens go with Marshall Cresnshaw?

DD: We met him probably around ’81 or ’82. We were working with the late, great Alan Betrock, who produced our Beauty and Sadness EP. He had also produced early recordings for Marshall, as well as Blondie and Richard Hell & The Voidoids. He was a great New York music guy. A journalist and producer. We met Marshall through him and started opening shows for him as early as ’81 and ’82 and continued to do that. He came in to play keyboard on “Strangers When We Meet” on Especially for You.

AF: Why is he credited as “Jerome Jerome” in the credits of that album?

DD: It’s funny because I didn’t know this until Marshall told the story on stage recently that when he asked to get paid, Pat said, “Oh, we’re not gonna pay you,” and he said, “Okay, well then I’m gonna use an alias.” (laughs) I was not privy to that! He chose Jerome because he’s a big Bo Diddley fan and Jerome [Green] was his maraca player.

AF: Was there any possibility of the band not carrying on after DiNizio’s death?

DD: It’s five years and change already that he’s gone. It’s hard to believe. When he passed away in December of ’17 were just shell-shocked. We didn’t know what the future might hold for us, although we certainly wanted to continue playing because Jimmy Babjak and I started playing together during the first week of high school in 1971. Mike Mesaros, the bass player, we’ve known since third grade. But without Pat, we didn’t know what was going to happen.

AF: How did Marshall Crenshaw and Robin Wilson become the new lead singers?

DD: We already had on the books a gig for January of 2018 scheduled for the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey. The producer of that event happened to be Little Steven Van Zandt. And he said, let’s keep the date, you three fellas play and we’ll bring in guest vocalists — we probably had a dozen singers come in — we’ll sing Smithereens songs and we’ll turn it into a tribute night to Pat DiNizio. Everybody that turned up did a great job, but in particular, Marshall just clicked. It felt like an old comfortable old shoe with Marshall up there. Mind you, he wasn’t trying to imitate Pat or affect his persona, but he really interpreted the music and it felt good.

The other singer that made an impression was Robin Wilson from Gin Blossoms. We had met him when he worked at a record store in 1988 in Arizona, but we don’t really quite remember meeting him! He also just had a feel for what we were doing and he made it clear to us that night that we should give him a call if we ever wanted him to sing for us. So we did, and it just clicked. So we were very fortunate that we were able to find a way to carry on.

We’re very lucky in that we have a very loyal and supportive fan base, and they were very accepting of us with different vocalists. I guess in part because we could never, ever hope to replace Pat, but we did feel if we could find interpreters then we could continue.

AF: When can fans expect to hear newly written and recorded material?

DD: It’s a little early to report much on it. We’ve been writing with Robin and Marshall. We have a ton of ideas and there’s a lot of good energy surrounding the notion of making this record. It’s just a matter of scheduling right now, but we will get to it this year. We will carve out the time and make it happen. We’re really excited about that.

AF: How did it feel to be enshrined into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2018?

DD: It was a great honor. It meant a lot to us, because we grew up in Jersey. Jimmy and I still live in New Jersey. Pat lived in New Jersey until he died. He moved around a few times, but he landed in Jersey again. It’s our home. It’s in our blood. We still know a lot of folks that we grew up with. We’re still friends with some people that we’ve known since kindergarten. We stay in touch with our roots. Any honor like that is very special.

AF: Do you remember who your fellow inductees were that year?

DD: The other inductees the year that we got in, the ones that come to mind are Jason Alexander from Seinfeld, who played George Costanza. He was there and he was very cool. We had actually done a show with him in Las Vegas some years ago, where he opened for us doing some kind of magic act.

I’m not a sports-minded person, but I know there were some very prominent athletes that got in, but I can’t remember who. [Harry Carson, Anne Donovan, Laurie Hernandez, Bart Oates] And there was another inductee, I can’t remember his name, but he was the creator of Game of Thrones [George R.R. Martin].

When you think about who else is inducted, it really kind of brings it all into perspective. We’re sharing honors with Frank Sinatra, The Four Seasons, Albert Einstein. It’s pretty special stuff.

AF: March 22 was the 35th anniversary of Green Thoughts. Is there a possibility that this occasion might be commemorated in some fashion?

DD: I’ve been trying to get together some archival material for that, and maybe I’ll finally do it. Even if we get it done before December 31, it will still be 35 years, right? (laughs) Or maybe we’ll take an offbeat approach and do a 36th anniversary celebration of it. All these celebrations seem to be set in stone, but there’s no reason why you can’t create your own parameters!

Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to the Arts Fuse, the Somerville Times, and the Beverly Citizen. He has also written for DigBoston, the ARTery, Lynn Happens, the Providence Journal, The Onion’s A.V. Club, and the Columbus Dispatch. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife and five-year-old twins — Elliot Samuel and Xander Jackson — in Salem, MA.

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