SMITHEREENS, CRENSHAW ARE MORE THAN A MEMORY

Jim Babjak, Dennis Diken, Marshall Crenshaw, and Mike Mesaros bring the Smithereens songbook to the stage of the Pollak Theatre on March 7.   (photo by Neil Seiffer)

Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link (Long Branch, NJ), February 27, 2020

 The Asbury Park Paramount was packed with people and studded with celebs from all walks of public life this past October 27, as The Smithereens found themselves inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame — an honor that placed the “Garage-rock State” institution not only in the company of music makers from Bruce to Basie, but also among a veritable “honor (pork)roll” of leaders in the fields of science, statecraft, the humanities, and athletic accomplishment. Following an introduction by E Streeter Garry Tallent (who acknowledged becoming aware of the band via TV’s Uncle Floyd Show), the surviving ‘reens paid tribute to Pat DiNizio, the vocalist and principal songwriter who passed away in 2017; thanked a litany of friends, family members, managers, producers, club owners, DJs, rock mags — and, in the case of drummer Dennis Diken, cited a “holy place” known as the record department at Two Guys.

The reference to that long-gone but still-cherished discount retailer was simply one more supremely Jersey moment on the timeline, for an internationally celebrated group whose relationship to their forever-home state can be said to be of the “perfect-together” persuasion. For Diken, guitarist Jim Babjak, and bassist Mike Mesaros (all of whom grew up in Carteret) — as well as for proudly proclaimed “Scotch Plainsman” DiNizio (who wore hometown hats ranging from neighborhood garbageman, to candidate for U.S. Senate), the mutual love affair had a favorite trysting place in and around Asbury Park.

“Asbury, and the Shore have always been special to us…going back to 1980,” says Diken, himself an in-demand player (and occasional WFMU disc jockey) whose skills on the skins have been sought by the likes of Tallent, Ben E. King, and ex-Kink Dave Davies. “Lance Larson let us have the opening slot for his band Lord Gunner, for a couple of months…so there we were, just starting out, and with a residency at The Stone Pony!”

The band would return numerous times to the Pony hitching post, all during a nearly 40-year run that would see them navigate the ups and downs of the record-industry rollercoaster, get into rotation on MTV (as well as “alternative” radio outlets like the late lamented WHTG-FM), and make additional local stops at stages like The Fast Lane, where The Smithereens would first share a bill with their spiritual kin and contemporary, Marshall Crenshaw.

It was at the Wonder Bar that Babjak, Diken and Mesaros would play one of their last gigs with DiNizio in July 2017; the frontman by that point having lost the ability to wield a guitar after a protracted struggle with injury-related health issues. For the singer (whose local connection was such that he would come to be named to the Asbury Angels memorial hall of fame), it was no obstacle to delivering a set of those signature songs — “Blood and Roses,” “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” “Only a Memory,” “In a Lonely Place,” “Blues Before and After” — moody, mature, magnificent songs that staked out the crossroads of alternative/punk energy and the ambitious “teenage symphonies” of such heroes as Brian Wilson and The Beatles. And, because it was a Smithereens set, there were covers of everything from the Fab Four’s “Yesterday” and the 60s staple “Gloria,” to the pre-Elvis chestnut “Milk Cow Blues,” and the classic theme from TV’s “Batman” (this last in tribute to the late Adam West).

“Pat always gave it a thousand percent…he admired, we all admired, those showbiz people who were real troupers,” says Diken — with the legendary expert authority on popular culture adding, “we believe that you perform til you drop…and I always loved Dick Shawn!” (a reference to the 1960s-70s comic actor who literally died on stage).

“As far as being more mature sounding than other bands, I guess it just related back to the fact that we liked to read books, take in movies, and just experience life,” the drummer observes. “We appreciated being able to go to places like Scandinavia, where we played pretty early on, in 1984….and a place like The Stone Pony helped us to step out of our little North Jersey womb.”

Another crucial step outside the cradle came courtesy of the dearly departed Greenwich Village landmark Kenny’s Castaways, where the frequently featured Smithereens became the last band to play in 2012 — and where “we cut our teeth; met people in the industry, and found a spiritual godfather” in the owner, Pat Kenny.

For Di Nizio’s bandmates, then, there was never any question that the road would wind on — and on March 7, that road will lead once more down-the-Shore, when The Smithereens are joined by guest vocalist-guitarist Crenshaw for a Pollak Theatre concert on the Monmouth University campus.         

Jim Babjak, Dennis Diken, and Mike Mesaros pictured at the podium, during the 2019 NJHOF induction ceremony in Asbury Park.

 Apart from that Hall of Fame ceremony, the 8 pm show represents the first sit-down concert for the partnership since January of 2018, when a star-studded tribute to DiNizio at Red Bank’s Count Basie Theatre cemented that working relationship with Crenshaw (as well as with another frequent collaborator, Gin Blossoms vocalist Robin Wilson).

“The love in that room was so palpable,” says Diken of the event that also drew the participation of Southside Johnny, Steve Van Zandt, Dave Davies, Lenny Kaye, Ted Leo, The Bongos’ Richard Barone and many others. “We realized then that we helped our fans get through a tough time, every bit as much as they did for us.”

In Marshall Crenshaw, the surviving Smithereens connected with a passionate musicologist, radio veteran (the Bottomless Pit program on New York’s WFUV) and headliner artist whose own celebrated originals have been covered by everyone from Ronnie Spector and Bette Midler, to John C. Reilly and those aforementioned Gin Blossoms. And, while the Detroit native has had great suceess channeling the likes of John Lennon (in the national touring company of Broadway’s Beatlemania), Buddy Holly (who he portrayed in the feature film La Bamba), and Detroit underground legends the MC5, his presence in the lineup is not that of a musical chameleon or casino-act impressionist, but a true kindred spirit with his own long-standing connection to the Jersey Shore audience (even recording his live album I’ve Suffered for My Art…Now It’s Your Turn at the Pony).

“Marshall’s just part of our extended family…I’ve sat in with him a number of times, and the feeling is like an old comfortable shoe!” laughs the drummer. “And we played with Robin just the other night, in Peekskill…we were never seeking a sound-alike replacement for Pat; it’s a different ballgame with each of those guys, who are both really into The Smithereens, and both real interpreters of the songs.”

Regarding those songs, the discography speaks for itself; not just through the aforementioned tunes but also “Beauty and Sadness,” “Strangers When We Meet,” “A Girl Like You,” “Too Much Passion” — a songbook of latter-day standards that most of their one- or two-hit contemporaries would have sold their collective soul for, and the foundation for a live concert set that also promises a selection of “deep album tracks” and of course, those canny covers.

As Diken tells it, it was the inspiration found in the old records that the individual members grew up listening to and learning from, that saw the band through its experiences inside and outside the major label music-biz mangler machine — with the Beatles recreation Meet the Smithereens sparking the momentum to take on a tribute to The Who’s Tommy, a Christmas collection, and a Fab Four followup (there’s also a career-spanning compilation of Covers that assembles the group’s reverently rendered channelings of The Kinks, Beach Boys, Buddy Holly, Bruce, T. Rex, Billie Holiday, and Iggy Pop, to name but a few).

“When we did Meet the Smithereens, we were just doing it for fun; putting it out there to see what happens,” the drummer says of the project that became one of the band’s most successful releases, and a record-breaking iTunes commodity in the era of the download. “It really took on a life of its own…and for us, the excitement was like being a kid again.”

“We’re still Jimmy, Mike, and Dennis…and we still play like we’re 17 every night,” declares Diken of the core lineup that welcomed Mesaros back after a ten-year break in 2016. “This is what we do…we’ll always find a way to make it work, and there’s no stopping us.”

Tickets for the March 7 concert by The Smithereens with Marshall Crenshaw are priced at $35, $50, or $60, and can be reserved at 732-263-6889, or online at http://www.monmouth.edu/arts.