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The Smithereens carry on … with Marshall Crenshaw

Bill DeYoung

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Meet the Smithereens, 2019: Jim Babjak, left, Dennis Diken, Marshall Crenshaw and Mike Mesaros. Photo by Neil Seiffer.

The Smithereens exploded out of New Jersey in the mid 1980s with a classic rock ‘n’ roll lineup – guitar, bass, drums and a singing frontman – and a sound that was fresh and immediate, and at the same time steeped in the stirring, hook-laden rock songs of the middle to late 1960s. Kinks, Beatles, Who, Stones – the brilliance of the Smithereens was that they evoked those sounds, without slavishly imitating them.

“Blood and Roses,” “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” “Only a Memory,” “House We Used to Live In,” “A Girl Like You,” “Blues Before and After” and others were major hits on the official rock radio charts. Although they weren’t exactly pretty boys, the Smithereens were briefly favorites on MTV.

The band appears Friday at the Central Park Performing Arts venue in Largo, touring for the first time since the death of lead singer and chief songwriter Pat DiNizio in December, 2017.

According to guitarist Jim Babjak, the band’s “retro” approach was a matter of osmosis. “I don’t think any of it was on purpose,” he says. “It’s probably all subconscious. You don’t even realize it until somebody points it out to you.

“But it’s because we grew up on AM radio in the ‘60s, and there was so much … I tell people all the time how great it was being a kid … you had Johnny Cash on the radio, you had the surf music from the West Coast, you had the British Invasion, you had country, the whole ball of wax. And it was all good. Everything on the radio was great.”

Babjak was still grieving for his wife Betty, who’d succumbed to pancreatic cancer, when DiNizio passed away from a lingering illness.

Jim and Betty had been high school sweethearts in Carteret, N.J. He and future Smithereens Dennis Diken (drums) and Mike Mesaros (bass) already had a band going then, and Betty was their biggest fan.

DiNizio, from nearby Scotch Plains, joined the other three in 1980.

The pain of twin tragedies, Babjak explains, was eased somewhat in therapy sessions. “What I learned from that is, your life has to go on,” says the guitarist. “You gotta make the best of it; you gotta make every day count.

“The other thing is, our fans overwhelmingly said ‘Are you going to continue? We still want to hear the songs, and we still love you guys.’ And we just thought well, we have so many friends in the business that might want to sing with us.

“Here’s the thing, though. We definitely did not want somebody to come in and sound like him. Because that, to me, is creepy. And that’s not the right way to go about it. You’ve got to put your own thing into it, capture the essence of the band.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, he adds, the band is a corporation, with employees who depend on the musicians earning an income.

“And it’s our passion. Dennis and I, and Mike, since we were kids. It’s not to be rock stars – it’s really, truly the love of music.”

The seeds for new Smithereens growth were planted in early 2018, when the remaining threesome performed at a tribute to DiNizio at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank.

There, they were joined by a dozen singing friends, including Steven Van Zandt, Marshall Crenshaw, Robin Wilson (of the Gin Blossoms), Ted Leo, Richard Barone, Southside Johnny and others. More than $20,000 was raised for a music scholarship in DiNizio’s name.

“That’s when it really clicked – we can do this,” Babjak remembers. “We can continue, give the audience a lot of joy, and have a lot of joy for ourselves.”

Marshall Crenshaw himself will be the Smithereens’ lead singer at the Largo concert; he won’t be doing any of the songs from his own, formidable catalog – Babjak says the band, and Crenshaw, discussed it and decided to keep it purely a Smithereens set list (which, as fans of the band know, usually includes two or three spontaneous cover songs, from classic artists, whatever the four feel like playing that night).

Robin Wilson will take over frontman duties in a few months, so Crenshaw can get back to his regular touring schedule. And, Babjak says, the band’s been talking with Susan Cowsill about singing with them in 2020.

“It also makes it interesting for our fans to hear all these different styles,” he beams. “And we’re playing things pretty much the same! So it’s pretty cool.”

The shows with Crenshaw, Babjak reports, are more fun than a barrel full of Monkees. “People are coming out to see us and having a great time,” he says. “And we’re having a great time. So it’s a no-brainer.

“Sure, it hurts. It hurts that I lost my wife, it hurts that I lost Pat. But life goes on. I got three kids. I have a new girlfriend. You know, it’s definitely not easy to do this, but it is a lot of fun. And the audiences are amazing.”

Tickets and info here.

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