Smithereens Take the Stage at The Suffolk - 27 East

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Smithereens Take the Stage at The Suffolk

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The Smithereens perform at The Suffolk on May 23. NEIL SEIFFER

The Smithereens perform at The Suffolk on May 23. NEIL SEIFFER

The Smithereens perform at The Suffolk on May 23. COURTESY THE SUFFOLK

The Smithereens perform at The Suffolk on May 23. COURTESY THE SUFFOLK

authorAnnette Hinkle on May 21, 2024

If you happened to be young, carefree and out and about taking in the music scene around New York City in the 1980s, there’s a good chance that on your circuit of small clubs hosting regional bands, you would have encountered The Smithereens.

This is a group born and raised in New Jersey, literally, by founding members Jim Babjak (guitar), Dennis Diken (drums) and Mike Mesaros (bass), who grew up together in Carteret, and their lead singer and guitarist, the late Pat DiNizio, who hailed from nearby Scotch Plains.

Together, they formed The Smithereens, a band with a unique sound that defined an era. Not disco, not punk and definitely not pop, they evoked a pre-grunge aura that probably fit best into the genre of college radio. And they played live — a lot. Jersey clubs like Maxwell’s in Hoboken, The Dirt Club in Bloomfield, Court Tavern in New Brunswick and Stone Pony in Asbury Park were The Smithereens’ familiar haunts, along with Kenny’s Castaways in Greenwich Village.

The group quickly found their groove and a regional following, and then, a national fan base. Their first album, “Especially for You,” came out in 1986 and included hits like “Blood and Roses,” “Behind the Wall of Sleep” and “Strangers When We Meet.” They appeared on “The Tonight Show,” “Conan O’Brien” and “Saturday Night Live.” Another 16 albums and more than 2,500 live shows across the country would follow over the years.

Now, The Smithereens are back, and on Thursday, May 23, the band will perform an 8 p.m. concert at The Suffolk in Riverhead with special guest vocalist Marshall Crenshaw filling the vocal void left by DiNizio, who died in December 2017 at age 62.

It was not an easy hole to fill.

“The whole premise of finding someone who could fit in with the band was daunting,” admitted drummer Dennis Diken in a recent phone interview. “When we lost Pat, it took a while to process and mourn.”

Diken explained that when DiNizio died, The Smithereens had a performance date booked for just a month later at The Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey. It was a concert that was produced by Steven Van Zandt (aka Little Steven) of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.

“We said, ‘Why not keep the date and we’ll enlist a bunch of other vocalists and turn it into a tribute to Pat?’” Diken said. “And we did.”

Marshall Crenshaw, who enjoyed his own successful career as a musician in the 1980s, was among the singers who performed that night, along with Robin Wilson of the Gin Blossoms, Patty Smyth and others. The evening ended with an all-star rendition of “A Girl Like You,” led by Van Zandt.

“It was one of the most special events of our career,” Diken recalled. “You could feel the love and the vibe of the room that night. Such talented singers working as one.”

Diken said the band had known Marshall Crenshaw since the early 1980s — they shared a producer — so were in his orbit, and that night, it became clear that Crenshaw might be capable of filling DiNizio’s shoes as The Smithereens’ lead singer.

“It was a mutual respect society thing. We dug his talent as songwriter. He had played on demos in our first album and keyboards on ‘Strangers When We Meet,’ so he was already part of the extended family,” Diken said. “With Marshall that night at Count Basie Theatre, he just felt good. We were not seeking a replacement for Pat, but someone who could interpret the music and someone we could hang out with. Robin Wilson of the Gin Blossoms was also there that night. He was a huge fan and when he sang, we realized he could work with the band too.”

Having the ability to rely on not one, but two singers when they were out on the road proved to be a good, workable solution to DiNizio’s passing and The Smithereens now bring in either Crenshaw or Wilson to sing his parts, depending on availability.

Ironically, finding the right singer for the band is a familiar challenge, and one that Diken and his friends Jim Babjak and Mike Mesaros faced when they first started performing together before any of them were even old enough to drive.

“The three of us had known each other since grammar and high school and we wanted to play in a band. Jimmy and I met our first day of high school and began playing that week — Beatles, Stones, The Who, Kinks — that was our meat,” said Diken, adding that at the time in the mid-1970s, music leaned heavily towards Top 40 and artists like Helen Reddy, Elton John and Southern Rock. “It was the beginning of corporate rock, Golden Earing and Beatles solo stuff.”

What opened Diken’s eyes to what was possible with their fledgling group came in the summer of 1976 and a trip to Madison Square Garden to see Paul McCartney perform in concert.

“Afterward, a friend said, ‘Let’s go downtown to CBGBs.’ I said, ‘I’ve been wanting to see it,’ and when we get there, who’s on stage but Television,” recalled Diken. “It was such a juxtaposition with the MSG concert, and Jimmy, in particular, said we could play original music in smaller venues — and not just start at the level of bigger theaters and arenas.”

All the band needed to up their game was a sympathetic singer who connected with their music, which was different from anything else being performed at the time.

“We scuffled throughout the ’70s with one or two singers who never clicked — until we met Pat — I met him in The Aquarian,” said Diken, referring to an alternative weekly newspaper in New Jersey where he saw an ad looking for a drummer. “I played in a cover band with him for a year.”

“We felt fish out of water. What attracted me to that ad and Pat’s band was that he was into Elvis Costello and DEVO,” said Diken. “We really clicked. Pat’s sensibilities, his musical taste, was similar to ours.”

Now that they are back on the road and touring again, this time with either Crenshaw or Wilson singing DiNizio’s parts, Diken is please to reconnect with fans who knew them and followed them way back when.

“When people tell us our music helped them, it’s very meaningful to us,” said Diken. “I often refer to one incident that says it all. We were checking out of a hotel in New Hampshire and the clerk said, ‘Oh, you guys were in The Smithereens, sorry I missed the show. I’m a big fan. My friend had words from ‘In A Lonely Place’ inscribed on her tombstone.

“Someone proposed to their spouse or played our songs at big events,” he added. “You never know how far reaching what we do can be. Really, music at its best should be there to help people and help them forget their troubles for a while.

“We’re so grateful our audience is sticking with us 44 years later,” Diken said, adding that in addition to those who have followed their music for decades, The Smithereens are also attracting a new crop of fans in their 20s and 30s.

“We always strive to just be ourselves and not follow music fashion. While we are able to do it, we’ll play like we’re 14. We really have fun when we hit the stage.”

The Smithereens with special guest vocalist Marshall Crenshaw perform at The Suffolk on Thursday, May 23, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $49 to $79 at thesuffolk.org. The Suffolk is at 118 East Main Street in Riverhead.

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