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Pat DiNizio: In His Own Words

originally published: 01/24/2018

Pat DiNizio: In His Own Words“It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Pat DiNizio, lead singer and songwriter of the influential New Jersey rock band, The Smithereens – America’s Band. Pat was looking forward to getting back on the road and seeing his many fans and friends. Please keep Pat in your thoughts and prayers.”

That was the message on the official website of The Smithereens on December 12, 2017 and how many learned that the band’s lead singer and songwriter had passed away.  Tributes soon poured in throughout the music industry and it was clear that this was not just New Jersey’s loss, but the entire world’s loss.

“Today we mourn the loss of our friend, brother and bandmate Pat DiNizio,” continued the statement on the band’s website. “Pat had the magic touch. He channeled the essence of joy and heartbreak into hook-laden three minute pop songs infused with a lifelong passion for rock & roll. Our journey with Pat was long, storied and a hell of a lot of fun. We grew up together. Little did we know that we wouldn’t grow old together. Goodbye Pat. Seems like yesterday. Jimmy, Mike, Dennis”

The Smithereens formed in Carteret in 1980 with Pat DiNizio, Jim Babjak, Mike Mesaros, and Dennis Diken.  The band would have a run of rock radio hits in the eighties and nineties including “Blood and Roses,” “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” “A Girl Like You,” “Top of the Pops,” and “Too Much Passion.”  In addition to their own originals, the band also put out wonderful albums covering The Beatles and The Who, furthering their resume as a modern British Invasion band.

To me, The Smithereens are one of the best rock and roll bands to ever come from Jersey, and one of the most underrated bands around. They combined a Jersey rock and roll vibe with a Beatlesque sound. The band’s breakthrough release, Especially for You, was one of the best albums of the 1980s and sounds as fresh today as it did the day it was released. Pat DiNizio was a wonderful songwriter who will be missed greatly. 

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We’ve lost many rockers in recent years, but Pat was one of us. When I first heard about his passing, I instantly recalled one special night at The Strand in Lakewood.  DiNizio was part of a Backstage Pass show (one that turns the theater into a listening room with the audience sitting on the stage with the artist) in which Pat played a few songs and shared stories about his life. He was very introspective that night and might have given us a special New Jersey version of his old Las Vegas show “Confessions of a Rock Star.”  These were stories about growing up in New Jersey, raising a daughter after a divorce, first successes with the band, and the moment he realized he wanted to play rock and roll for the rest of his life.  The show was broadcast live on our internet radio station and after searching through old hard drives, the recording was found.  What follows is one night with Pat DiNizio in his own words… --Gary Wien

Hi everybody, I’m Pat from Scotch Plains, New Jersey.  I’m going to start with a song that was our second number one record from our album, Green Thoughts, which came out on Capitol Records 23 years ago.  And I’ll wake up throughout the process. It’s called, “Only a Memory.”

[After playing the song, the stories began]  I don’t care what anybody says, New Jersey rocks.  About a year ago, my daughter Liza, who’s going to boarding school out in Southern California in Santa Barbara, turned 16.  She’s 17 now.  And I happened to be in California doing a month’s worth of living room or house concerts whereby I drive to the homes of Smithereens fans and supporters - 99% of whom I’ve never met before.  I turn up at their door step with my guitar and I play for three hours.  I was in the middle of this tour and my beloved daughter Liza - whom as a divorced parent I dedicated the last 13 years of my life to and sat through The Last Mermaid more times than I would ever dare to imagine again - I called her up and said, “Daddy’s in Southern California and I’m coming to take you out to dinner on your 16th birthday (which is a red letter day for any young lady).” And I learned from my daughter, whom I devoted my whole life to that I was no longer her dad.  I was crestfallen.  I was bereft, heartbroken to learn I was no longer her dad through an email.  May I paraphrase her response? She goes, “Dude! Dude, I’m really happy to hear that you’re coming to take me out for my 16th birthday.  Dude, apparently you are famous.  Dude, all we listen to out here in California is classic rock and dude you’re on the radio every day!” I thought to myself, “How do you think I’m paying for your boarding school, you little bitch!”

She goes, “Dude, there’s this boy named Matthew.  When he found out you were the guy from The Smithereens but you were also my father he went crazy because he’s your biggest fan.  He bought every album you ever put out - every vinyl release.  He found them all on Ebay.  And this helps my cause considerably because I have the biggest crush on him.”  My response was, “Dude, I will kick your ass.”

Anyway, she used to come to living room concerts when she was six years old being raised by her mom in the greater Chicagoland area.  So, every other weekend, I would fly out from Jersey; maintaining an apartment and residence in Chicago so I could be her dad.  And occasionally, I would drag her along to a living room event.  She’d be sitting there like you guys and she kind of missed the boat on her dad’s entire career.  She missed seeing dad on Conan O’Brien and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and who was that guy Arsenio…. we outlasted him! Oh, by the way, The Smithereens are currently celebrating our 31st year together.  Thank you very much… She missed seeing her daddy on Saturday Night Live.  I remember it vividly.  How the total shock and realization of just how out of my depth and out of my league I really was when I sat in the makeup chair at NBC Studios in Rockefeller Center getting ready to go on for The Smithereens’ appearance on Saturday Night Live.  I was sitting in the makeup chair next to the host that evening - Corbin Bernsen from L.A. Law.  He glanced over at me and recognized me.  I was in shock because we’d been perennial outsiders our entire career, you know.  He looked at me and goes, “You’re Pat DiNizio from The Smithereens.” I went, “wow.” He goes, “You know, I really love your new album, Smithereens 11.  It’s the first CD I played in my brand new Ferrari.” Liza would come to these shows and I really wanted her to understand and know and even like what her dad was doing so I’d be rocking. Inveritably, she would point to this invisible wrist watch.

[He played, “She’s Got a Way” and then returned to his stories]

I was born and raised in Scotch Plains and after my divorce I wanted to heal a bit, so I moved back home.  My hometown hadn’t changed that much and I never really felt comfortable anywhere but New Jersey. I’ve live in New Orleans, Los Angeles, England, and Chicago.  So I came home.  And I’m in deep shit.  I’m a 55 year old man living in a 135 year old house with my 80 year old mother.  And I’ve got a 17 year old daughter who calls me “dude” - I’m in deep shit folks.

My relationship with my mom hasn’t changed since I was 9 years old.  And, as she’s old, living in the house and won’t leave her room, I can hear her voice much the same as when she’d call me when I’d be putting a model kit together. Like a Frankenstein model kit in 1964.  I’d be gluing it together with Tester’s Glue and painting and stuff, and I’d hear from downstairs, “Patrick! Patty!”  Now she calls me from her room on her phone to my phone in the office - “Patrick! It’s Mommy!” I’m 55 fuckin’ years old… “It’s Mommy, don’t forget to take the garbage out!”

I’m an Italian-American kid from New Jersey who was a garbage man till I was 31 years old.  I went to bed one night a garbage man and I woke the next day a rock and roll star! Strange but true. My parents neither discouraged nor encouraged this dream of a lifetime.  Ever since I saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show - even before that - all I ever wanted to be was in a rock and roll band.  But they didn’t watch television.  They didn’t go to the movies.  It was a very simple life for them.  And they were devastated when I quite NYU to form a band called The Smithereens.  They didn’t talk about it, but they were really disappointed because the hurt registered on their face whenever I mentioned the band.  They just kind of looked down at their bowl of spaghetti and sighed.  

So anyway, my mother’s older sister, Florence, would call her up.  I was living in New York, but I was still working on a garbage truck until the day before we went on tour for the first time, opening for our rock and roll heroes.  Do you remember a band called The Ramones? That was our first experience on the road, but we were experienced ourselves on some level in terms of life.  You didn’t quit your day job until you had something lined up, right? That was old school.

So, basically, what did it mean? Let me start again.  In 1986, the height of technology was probably the telephone answering machine.  Think about it.  It ran on this now forgotten, but beloved system called cassette tape.  Remember that? When was the last time you had to use play/record? Remember that? Play and record… And the telephone machine was a boon.  It was great because you could let the machine pick it up.  It was always a pain in the ass in-law or someone wanting to borrow $10 dollars on a Friday night - let the machine pick it up. I don’t want to talk to them, right?

So, there were no cell phones, no Internet, no paging, no texting; cable tv was in its infancy.  And when people had to get a hold of you they could one way or another.  I remember no one even made long distance calls.  I can remember being 15 years old in Scotch Plains and I had my first girlfriend.  I was happy as a clam.  After dinner, I reached for the telephone to call her and before I could even reach the phone, my dad slapped my hand down.  He said, “Get the fuck off the phone!” I said, “Dad” and he said, “Get off the phone. We’re not rich!” Remember that? You know what I’m talking about.

So I’m about to go on the road and we’ve got a hit record. “Blood & Roses” was on the charts for rock nationally.  Another creepy horror movie title - a song called “Behind The Wall of Sleep” and “Blood & Roses” - and my parents don’t give a shit.  All I ever wanted to do was please them and make them happy and prove that I wasn’t a failure.  Because occasionally I’d hear my mother on the phone with her older sister, Florence.  “Antoinette, how’s Patrick doing?” She’s say, “I don’t know.  That god damned kid living in New York is a fuckin’ bum.  He’s 31 years old.  He’s not married.  He’s no good.  I don’t know what I’m going to do with this kid, Florence.”

So we’ve got a hit with “Blood & Roses” and “Behind The Wall of Sleep” from our first album, Especially for You.  We’re about to go on tour with The Ramones  and I’m living in New York City in an apartment that I still have (which is probably an eighth of the size of the bathroom here, but I hang on to that apartment with dear life because it’s only $500 dollars a month.  And you’ll take that apartment from me when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.) I’m about to embark on the rock and roll journey of a lifetime with “Blood & Roses” and “Behind The Wall of Sleep” under our belt as The Smithereens, opening a tour for The Ramones, when the phone rings at two in the morning.

Now, what did it mean in 1986 when the phone rang at two in the morning? Somebody was sick, somebody died.  I said, “God, why are you punishing me? We’re just about to do everything I always wanted to do and it can’t be good.” I let it ring and then I picked it up. “Patrick, it’s Mommy.  Patty!”  I’m 31 years old.  “Patty, it’s Mommy.  Son, Aunt Florence called.  You’re in the TV Guide.  Son, you made it, you’re famous!”  That was the criteria by which my Italian-American New Jersey parents based my success.  My mother goes, “Do you have it there?” I said yes.  She goes, “Page 27, left column.” Aunt Florence had briefed her thoroughly.  So I’m reading from the TV Guide.  “July 2nd, Tuesday night, 1986 - NBC television, New York, 1 AM.” It’s a Tuesday night.  Who the fuck is up at 1am on a Tuesday night? Didn’t everybody fall asleep watching Johnny Carson? Remember when they had a great guest on that you wanted to see.  You’d wait up to 11:30 and fall asleep before the guest came on. You’d wake up the next morning, “Shit! I missed David Hasselhoff!” or “Shit, there was a preview of BJ and the Bear I wanted to see!” [laughs] Sorry, this is what happens when you’re on 16 flights in 10 days…

So, I begin to read from the TV Guide.  “Tuesday, July 2nd, NBC television, 1AM, Channel 4 New York - The David Brenner Show.” Remember David Brenner, the comedian? He had a variety show for like 10 minutes in the summer of 1986.  “David Brenner’s guests tonight include the actress, Jane Seymour, and making their national television debut from New Jersey, power popsters, The Smithereens, performing their hits “BREAD & Roses” and “Behind the Wall of Sleep.” 

No matter what you do, no matter how much you achieve, someone’s always got to fuck it up!  

“Behind the Wall of Sleep” is in the key of E Minor, which many musicians and non-musicians alike consider to be the saddest key of all.  [He then performs it.]

I want to thank you all for coming out on a school night.  Since Mr. Jeff (Raspe) mentioned it, may I do a new song for you? From Smithereens 2011, this one’s called “Rings On Her Fingers.” 

[Following the song, he returns with] Thank you.  Is that song any good? I don’t know. What do I know? I just write these things…  Yeah, rock and roll put the hook in me since my cousin Leonard in 1959 took me to see an Elvis Presley movie called King Creole at a movie theater on the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey.  He tells me I made him sit through it four times.

One day, several months before my sixth birthday in 1961, my dad said, “Son, we’re going to do something really fun tonight.” I said, “What’s that Dad?” He goes, “There’s a carnival behind the church.  It’s a fundraiser in Scotch Plains.” I said, “Really?” I was like 5 and 3/4 years old, a little guy, dressed just like Dennis The Menace.  I had a crew cut.  All the kids would get a crew cut for the summer because it was like no maintenance for the parents.  They just shaved all the hair off of your head.  You could just run in the woods and you didn’t have to worry about fleas, lice, or any of that shit.  And I had a pair of blue jeans cuffed up.  I had a white pocket t-shirt, crew cut, and a pair of white high top PF Flyers - remember those sneakers? “You can run faster and jump higher!” 

I was content at 5 1/2 to merely run faster and jump higher.  That’s all I wanted to do.  So, I’m walking around and Dad said we’re going to go to the carnival for the fundraiser for the church.  I had never been to one and when the lights went down, we went there.  He said it’s also a clam bake.  I saw people eating these strange, exotic foods called steamers.  And I got my first ear of corn on the cob! I died and went to heaven.  I’m walking around - you know you’re 5 years old back then you could walk around and your neighbors looked out for you and you had friends there.  The place was overloaded with people.  There were ferris wheels and garish amusement rides and colored midway and games of chance.  There were amusement rides that I had never seen before with names like Tilt-A-Whirl and the even scarier name, The Scrambler.  Imagine you’re five years old. The Scrambler, what’s it going to do to me?

So, I walked off from the family.  I was drawn to this strange sound in the distance.  It was the sound of my first rock and roll band.  I wasn’t even 6 years old.  Did you ever see those cartoons from the forties where the mouse smells the cheese and he floats through the air towards the smell? That was me.  I’m eating that corn on the cob when I hear that sound.  I’m walking towards the sound and the butter is dripping on my shirt.  I hear this sound and it’s a rock and roll band set up atop a flat bed truck powered by a gas generator in the fields behind St. Bart’s Church in Scotch Plains, New Jersey.  

Did you ever see the movie, American Graffitti? Remember the band Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids? This band was just like that.  The Beatles hadn’t been heard of yet.  This was pre-Beatles… 1961.  They had the greatest hair cuts I ever saw.  They had black ties, matching red blazers with this jaunty red crest.  And they had pointy shoes and were chewing gum.  They were doing Ventures stuff - instrumental rock.  They were powered by a gas generator because they were in the middle of a field. I could hear the sound of guitar strumming [he strums the guitar] but I couldn’t quite make it out because of that gas generator.  So what I heard was more like this [strums the guitar while making a muffled whistling sound].  C’mon folks, this is good shit! You don’t get this just anywhere.  This is Jersey humor for a Jersey crowd! What the fuck do you want from me?

I stared at them and said to myself, “My God, what is this?”

The next day at Sunday dinner… I don’t know how many of you are Italian here, but my mom would get up at 6 or 7 in the morning and start the gravy right? Sunday was very important because not only was my dad a garbage man, but he parked cars, was a caddy, and he was also a cop in Scotch Plains.  These were industrious, hard working people.  My mother had a day job as a bookkeeper and at night she worked at Alphonso’s Pizzeria in Scotch Plains.  So, Sunday was really important - we all sat down and ate together…

After the meat was eaten, my dad’s wiping his face and is in a good mood.  I said to him, “Dad, there’s something I want to do.” He said, “Son, what it that?” Because if these old Italian guys said three words to you the whole year you remembered it, right? They didn’t even look at me.  I said, “Dad, I know what I want to do for the rest of my life.”  I’m not even six years old! He looks at me, smiles, and goes, “What?” I said, “I want to play guitar in a rock and roll band.”  He looks at me, gives me one of his stares, puts his head down, and goes, “Well, learning a musical instrument is a good thing for a kid your age.  You think about it for a couple of weeks.  If you’re still interested, Dad will send you for guitar lessons.” I said, “Gee Dad, thanks!” like I was Eddie Haskell from Leave It To Beaver or something.

[After his family had finished the macaroni and his dad had drank his Italian coffee and had a shot of his Italian liqueur, Pat asked for something else.]

“Dad, there’s something else I want to do.” He said, “What is that son?” I said, “I want to be a Cub Scout.” 

It was the beginning of the year and the Cub Scouts were really cool.  They had these great, magnificent blue uniforms and had cool hats.  And they had merit badges for achievements that showed people how great you were.  While us dweebs had to salute the flag and say the pledge of allegiance, the cub scouts were cool.  They lorded over us.  They got to leave school early because they had to go to their scout meeting.  What it was was permission sanctioned by the community to run roughshod and destroy the neighborhood one afternoon per week.  And I wanted to be part of that revolution.

My dad said to me, “Son, being a Cub Scout or being a Scout is a good thing.  You learn civic responsibility and to help your neighbor.  It’s a good thing.  You learn a great many good things, but you have to choose between the guitar and the Cub Scouts.” I asked why and he said, “It’s because we’re poor, son, and we can’t afford both.”

I thought about it and two days later I gave him my decision.  What do you think I told him? [someone yells Cub Scouts] Cub Scouts my ass! I’ll play the guitar baby! So, did I make the right decision?

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