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Makin Waves with The Smithereens: 'Nothing More Precious than Friendship and Family'
By Bob Makin
originally published: 10/03/2019
The Smithereens, from left to right bassist Mike Mesaros, singer-songwriter-guitarist Pat DiNizio, guitarist Jim Babjak and drummer Dennis Diken, will be inducted on Oct. 27 into the New Jersey Hall of Fame at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park.PHOTO COURTESY OF JIM BABJAK ARCHIVES
The Smithereens are a loud ‘n’ proud Central Jersey-originated band, whose renowned live shows and radio hits channel the essence of joy and heartbreak into hook-laden three-minute power-pop songs. Infused with a lifelong passion for rock ‘n’ roll nurtured in the Court Tavern, New Brunswick; The Dirt Club, Bloomfield, The Stone Pony and the Fastlane, both Asbury Park; and New York City’s Kenny’s Castaways and The Other End, then blasted worldwide by the Enigma, Capitol, RCA, Koch and eOne Music record labels, The Smithereens – guitarist Jim Babjak, drummer Dennis Diken, bassist Mike Mesaros and dearly departed lead singer-guitarist Pat DiNizio – will be inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame on Oct. 27 at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park. The induction will be surrounded by a swirl of activity, including appearances Oct. 24 at The Grammy Museum in Newark and Oct. 26 at the Pony.
The Grammy Museum, Pony and one of two songs during the induction ceremony will feature lead vocals by longtime friend Marshall Crenshaw, who contributed keyboards and six-string bass to their 1986 debut album, “Especially for You.” The induction ceremony also will include a tune sung by longtime fan Robin Wilson of The Gin Blossoms, who greatly were influenced by The Smithereens, as were dozens of New Brunswick music acts, plus Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, according to journal entries enshrined in Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture. With Pat’s 2017 passing, the surviving members -- together since their school days -- decided to persevere and carry on their shared musical legacy using Marshall, Robin and others as guest vocalists.
Within The Smithereen’s NJHOF class is fellow Jersey music legend “Southside” Johnny Lyon, leader of the Asbury Jukes. After the induction, Dennis will participate in USA Today’s Storytellers series on Oct. 29 at Little Firehouse Theater in Oradell with Johanna Calle, director, New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice; Rania Mustafa, executive director, Palestinian American Community Center; Dr. David Butler, obstetric and gynecologist at Holy Name Medical Center and chairman of Crudem Foundation, and Jeff Tittel, senior chapter director, New Jersey Sierra Club.
Founded in Jim, Dennis and Mike’s hometown of Carteret and Pat’s hometown of Scotch Plains in 1980 after Dennis answered an Aquarian Weekly classified ad placed by Pat, The Smithereens will celebrate their 40th anniversary as a continuously working band next year. The milestone will include a tour, an album of new material featuring special guest lead singers, and an archival album with unreleased tracks. The tour will include the inaugural performance in the forthcoming Carteret Performing Arts Center, next door to Klein’s, a shop where the three pre-Smithereens band mates hung out after school, and around the corner from where Mike and Jimmy had accordion lessons together as lads.
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During a three-hour tour of their hometown followed by a sit-down interview with Dennis and Jim, who still live in Jersey – Bergen and Monmouth counties respectively -- then a phone interview with Mike from his residence in the San Francisco area, we chatted about the band’s history, loss of Pat, bright future with Robin and Marshall, and, of course, their NJHOF induction.
In 2017, Pat DiNizio, second from left, died. The three surviving members, Dennis Diken, Jim Babjak and Mike Mesaros, who have been performing together since 1975 and friends for many years before that, have continued to perform with guest vocalists. Next year, The Smithereens will celebrate their 40th anniversary as a continuous band.PHOTO COURTESY OF JIM BABJAK ARCHIVES
How does it feel to be inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame?
Dennis: Well, it’s an honor as you can imagine. You start out doing this, you never know where it’s going to take you. When you’re a little kid growing up in New Jersey, having fun, listening to music, playing music, you hope that you can reach certain milestones in your career, and this is certainly one of them to be recognized by the state you grew up in.
We’re in very good company with Frank Sinatra, Abbott & Costello, The Four Seasons, Albert Einstein. It’s thrilling.
Jim: I don’t like the term rock star, and I don’t think that I’m a rock star. Mick Jagger’s a rock star. I’m not a rock star. I play guitar in this great band, so this is all a bonus to me. Being on ‘Saturday Night Live’ was a big moment. You know how many bands get to be on ‘Saturday Night Live’? So that was a milestone. This is another milestone.
It’s great to be honored by your state. The governor said this is the highest honor a civilian can get in New Jersey … so it’s very cool.
Mike: It’s slightly unreal when you look at the company we’ll be in: some of the greatest musicians who ever lived starting with Frank Sinatra. Dizzy Gillespie, and Sarah Vaughan. Jazz and rock are closely related. Jazz and blues got married, had a baby, and that baby was rock ‘n roll. It’s kind of awesome, very emotional.
Dennis: Once the band formed in 1980, it took us close to six years to get a record deal. We really fought tooth and nail to get anywhere all that time. When we were shopping around, five of the songs ended up on ‘Especially for You,’ two of which were the actual recordings of ‘Blood and Roses’ and ‘Wall of Sleep.’ We were getting turned down by majors and tiny labels. Nobody would give us the time of day until Enigma signed us. So it’s just great validation after all these years.
Jim: Two of our hit singles were rejected by every label out there.
‘Blood and Roses’ and ‘Behind the Wall of Sleep’?
Jim: Yup. And then when Enigma picked us up, they said, ‘This is great.’ They saw it, they heard it. I didn’t even know that ‘Blood and Roses’ would ever be a single. I was too close to it. I thought everything we did was great, but didn’t imagine many, many people liking it. It went beyond that, and it’s great. It’s just a great feeling.
How does it feel to be inducted into the Hall of Fame without Pat physically there?
Dennis: We wish he could be. He would have loved it. But we’re accepting it on behalf of Pat and us. He’ll be there in spirit, of course. It’s an honor. We’re lucky that the three of us are alive to accept it. There’s a lot of posthumous awards. So we’re proud and thrilled to accept and certainly wish that Pat was here to accept it with us, but he’ll be there in spirit.
Mike: The first thing that went through my mind was that I wish Pat was alive for it. Obviously, he wrote the songs and was the front man and the lead singer of the band. He gave us these great songs we had through collaboration of Pat and the three of us, who already existed as a band when that all happened.
With Marshall Crenshaw on lead vocals, The Smithereens will return with an Oct. 26 Hall of Fame induction eve concert at Asbury Park’s The Stone Pony, where they played Thursdays in the early ’80s with Lord Gunner Group.PHOTO COURTESY OF JIM BABJAK ARCHIVES
You have some great activity surrounding the Oct. 27 induction, including the Stone Pony the night before. How do you feel about that show?
Dennis: The Stone Pony’s always been a special place for us. We started playing there in 1980 through the good graces of the Lord Gunner Group. They had us open for them on a regular basis for a while, which was really important for us to have a foot in the door in Asbury Park at the Stone Pony.
Jim: And if you remember, the whole band got paid $25, so it wasn’t about the money. My bar tab was larger than that (laughs). We played every Thursday for I don’t know how long opening for Lord Gunner.
Dennis: It’s a home away from home. It should be a bit energized hopefully because the next night is the induction, so we hope our fans get the spirit. We’ll have the spirit. It should be a great show.
Jim: It’ll be kind of like a homecoming celebration. And Marshall Crenshaw is going to sing.
The next night, Robin and Marshall will each sing a song. We’ll get to do two songs at the Paramount at the induction.
We opened for Marshall at the Fastlane in 1982. We opened for Blue Angel, Cyndi Lauper’s old band, Robert Gordon …
Dennis: … Steve Forbert. So we had some good shots at the Fastlane before we started playing the Court (Tavern). The other one was The Dirt Club in Bloomfield. We played New York a lot too. Mostly Kenny’s Castaways and a place called The Other End, which was like a sister club to The Bitter End. We played there a lot. These were all little pockets for us that were important to us, where we were able to build our following and learn our craft … how to play in front of an audience.
Jim and Dennis also were inducted in the White Castle Hall of Fame because of a song from your first album called ‘White Castle Blues.’Tell me a little bit about that.
Jim: My friend Bob Banta wrote the lyrics. He gave me these lyrics. I remember I had the flu. I was lying in bed, and the lyrics were right there, and my guitar was right there, so I got up and for some reason, I banged it out … and then I went back to bed (laughs). And I woke up, and I said, ‘Well, I finished this song.’
Dennis loved it. This was in the late ’70s. When we went to record our first album in 1985, we had a little time left, so Dennis suggested that we do it. And Don Dixon, our producer for that album, said, ‘Yeah, Jimmy, do that hamburger song.’ And we did it in one take.
Marshall Crenshaw happened to be in the studio that day. Marshall played keyboards on ‘Strangers When We Meet,’ so we go way back with Marshall. And he had a baritone guitar, which is like a six-string bass, so he had this idea to put that on ‘White Castle Blues,’ so he’s on the original version of ‘White Castle Blues.’ And now Marshall’s singing with us.
Why did you want to keep The Smithereens going without Pat, and what has that transition been like?
Dennis: Well, we wanted to keep it going because the three of us are still doing this. It’s what we do is play. The three of us have been playing together for about 40 years. It’s what we do, so that’s why we decided to keep playing. It’s all we know how to do (laughs).
Jim: We love to play, and we had been playing before we met Pat – six years or more – and people still want to hear the songs, and they still want to hear us play. We love our audiences. We just came back from Detroit and Cleveland and Chicago, and the audiences were just amazing. It’s so much fun, so why stop?
And we have Marshall and Robin and whoever else in the future. We’re not interested in having a permanent lead singer. Permanent is a hard word. It’s too permanent (laughs). There are a lot of people out there who want to sing with the band, old friends of ours in the music business. They’re all professionals. Marshall’s a professional, Robin’s a professional, and we didn’t want anybody to necessarily sound like Pat, just someone who can capture the essence of Pat’s lyrics and our sound. It’s still our sound, the three of us.
A lot of people think we just picked these people like that. No, they’ve been friends of ours for years. Or somebody like Robin Wilson. He’s not going to be looking at cheat sheet lyrics or anything. They all know the songs.
When we first met Robin, he was working at Zia Records in Tempe, Ariz. There was no Gin Blossoms yet, and we came though on the Green Thoughts Tour to do an in-store. He was a big fan of the band, and he came to see us that night at a place called Chewie’s … with some of the future Gin Blossoms band mates.
Dennis: Turns out that Robin, unbeknownst to us, was a huge fan of ours going back to the ’80s and The Gin Blossoms in their formative years. Apparently, The Smithereens were quite a fixture and influence on the music scene around Phoenix and Tempe, Ariz., so he’s been a huge fan of ours for all these years. When we did the tribute for Pat at the Count Basie in January of 2018, he made a note to us that he would love to do more with us. He did a great job. He really gets inside the songs.
And Marshall’s an old friend. He has a great sense for pop tunes.
Dennis: We’ve known him for a long time, part of our extended family. It’s a pretty good fit, and we’re having fun with it. The audiences are really diggin’ it.
Jim: A lot of our fans have records by The Gin Blossoms and Marshall Crenshaw. It’s almost a no-brainer. I don’t know if I like that term, but that’s what it is. It makes total sense, and we’re all having fun with it. The musical library of both of them: we can do soundcheck and knock off a song that we just knew independently, and then do it that night, so we would do a different song every night, throw in a cover. A good example is ‘No Matter What.’ Even a song like ‘Hanky Panky’ we did one time – I forget where – just screwing around in sound check. We did it during the show, and the audience loved it. It was unexpected.
Mike: And The Who’s ‘So Sad About Us.’ We’ve been doing that one. It seems Marshall knows every song that’s ever been written and can play it in any key.
They appeal to the fans because they honor Pat’s songwriting in their performance. They’re not putting themselves above the song. They’re serving the song, but at the same time, still making it their own. They’re not changing the melodies to any degree, and there’s feeling in them because they genuinely love the band and love Pat’s writing. Both those guys are songwriters themselves. This gives them that appreciation of Pat’s abilities and uniqueness of what Pat did. At the same time, they make it their own. They’re not trying to imitate Pat.
That’s what jazz musicians have been doing since the Jazz Age, taking the song and personalizing, but at the same time honoring the song by making it totally recognizable to the audience. That’s what Frank Sinatra did with the American Songbook.
Playing with those guys, each one is completely different. Robin is a great rock ‘n roll front man. Playing with Robin, we’re a three-piece again back in Jimmy’s garage. That’s very cool. We love that because it brings us back to our beginning.
But with Marshall, it’s different. Marshall is a masterful guitarist. Equal to his vocal abilities is his guitar playing, which he takes very seriously. We’ve done enough gigs with Marshall now that it just feels like a band. It doesn’t feel like it’s the three of us, and we have this guest. I’d say that about both guys, but Marshall particularly because he’s playing guitar, which requires more time for him to mesh with the three of us, just honing his parts so they fit perfectly but not copying the record. The band was founded on the two guitars, bass and drums approach. Pat’s playing was really different from Jimmy’s, something that made the band sound fuller. The same can be said for Marshall’s playing.
Is there a song that when you’re playing it most reminds you of Pat?
Dennis: Well, they all do.
Jim: Even the ones I wrote because he sang them (laughs). I do enjoy seeing the audience, the smiles on their faces. Certain songs just get them up. They just stand up, especially toward the end of the set.
Dennis: I think all the songs remind us of Pat. It’s certainly a different thing having a different vocalist sing them, but it’s still in your head to hear him singing them. It’s still vibrant.
The fact that the three of us are still playing together, it’s still the essence of the sound. You can’t take that away. Pat’s voice is missed, but it works because the other people are respectful. They’re not imitating him, the other singers. They’re interpreting the songs with their own heart and soul, and they dig ’em, so it really works.
Jim Babjak, Dennis Diken and Mike Mesaros in 1979 at White Castle, a year before they formed The Smithereens with Pat DiNizio. PHOTO COURTESY OF JIM BABJAK ARCHIVES
How and why have The Smithereens endured continuously for 40 years, and what impact have loyal fans and lasting friendships had?
Dennis: We couldn’t continue if there wasn’t an audience for us. Audience is everything. You can go play in bars if you want to nobody, but what fun is that? This is the way we’ve made our living for almost 40 years. The fans’ loyalty is so important and so appreciated.
Mike: People have been with us for many years. It’s a tremendous complement when they say, ‘You were the soundtrack to my life.’ Or ‘We played your songs at our wedding.’ Or ‘When I was in college, I listened to you guys.’ Or ‘Your records got me though some really tough times growing up because I was very alienated.’ Pat wrote about that extensively. It may be his No. 1 subject: writing about social alienation.
Now here they are still coming, and the band really means something to them. So that’s something that is inspirational … the music playing a big role in people’s lives. I consider music like food or religion. I have fervor for it myself.
Dennis: The friendship keeps us together too. It really is like a family. Like any family, any unit that has grown up together, you wanna stay together. There’s nothing more precious than friendship and family, and that’s the way I feel about this band.
Mike: We went through so much together. What gets you through the tough times is that bond you create when there’s nobody there to see you. You have to hang onto each other, and little by little, it grew.
Then the amazing thing is hearing ‘Blood and Roses’ on WNEW, the thrill of hearing Scott Muni playing your record. I used to listen to Scott Muni as a child, then he’s playing your band’s record. That’s something we have together, and all the great things that happen to you during your career.
That’s my other family. I have my wife and kids and sister, and then I have the band. Jimmy, Denny and I are friends since childhood and our friendship still exists. Most people don’t have that in life.
Pat became a part of it. It was like he went to Lincoln School and Carteret High School because we spent five years paying our dues at the Dirt Club and the Court Tavern and Kenny’s Castaways and crappy gigs where nobody heard of you. That’s what created a bond that no matter what will never go away. That exists underneath it all.
Jim: We go back 49 years (to) ’71.
Dennis: I met Mike in 1965, ’66 at Lincoln Elementary School.
Mike: Dennis and I have been friends since fifth grade. I met him waiting on line to go into class. We just clicked immediately because we had the same sense of humor. That still exists exactly like it was in fifth grade. It must make us intolerable for some (laughs), but we don’t care. A lot of it had to do with imitations and impersonations of our teachers. Dennis was very skilled at that. Not to blow my own horn, but I’m not bad at it either. We still do these imitations of our teachers when we’re in the van.
Jim: I knew Mike back in ’64.
Mike: Jimmy and I met when we had our First Holy Communion together in second grade. And we had the same accordion teacher. Through Denny, I got to know Jimmy better.
Jim: I met Dennis in earth science class freshman year of high school.
Dennis: Jimmy was sitting in the first row, first seat. It was the first day, first period of freshman year. And I sat in the second row, second seat. And I wanted to meet a guitar player who could play ‘Can’t Explain.’ That was my big goal in high school. On that first day of high school, Jimmy opens his loose leaf, and there are color pictures of The Who plastered inside his loose leaf from Hit Parader magazine. We spoke that day, and we started playing together that week.
Jim: I had no idea I was going to meet someone who played drums (laughs), so I wasn’t looking. He was looking, and I wasn’t.
Dennis: It pays to look.
Jim: Dennis talked me into being in the choir. He grabbed me in the hallway, and said, ‘You’re going to join the choir.’ All of a sudden, I’m in Mrs. Nichols’ music class, and I had to audition and sing ‘God Bless America’ or something. And she said, ‘You’re in.’
It was cool. We went to old-age homes, a mental health facility. When they opened Terminal C at Newark Airport, we did Christmas songs right in the terminal. It was brand new then.
Our first show together was a high school variety show. Mike hadn’t learned to play the bass yet. I taught him how to play the spoons. We did a jug band song, ‘Washington at Valley Forge.’ Dennis played a washboard, I played an acoustic guitar and Mike played the spoons. And we told jokes. We were supposed to do a Kinks song with electric guitar and drums, and the singer backed out at the last second, so we couldn’t do that. We were going to do ‘Victoria’ by The Kinks. After that was when I taught Mike to play the bass.
Then Mike and Dennis wrote a rock opera about our teachers. It was like The White Stripes, but in 1975. I played guitar, him on drums. That was it, guitar and drums. And Mike imitated one of the teachers. He wasn’t playing the bass yet. So we did a whole rock opera in front of the senior class. I was doing windmills back then, and in my yearbook, it says, ‘Pete Townsend has nothing on you.’
Dennis: It was called Class Day. Every senior class right when they graduated the last week of school would do a pageant of some kind. We decided to do our own story based on the high school football team and the football season. We called it ‘It’s Only a Game.’ We took pre-existing songs and wrote new lyrics to them. Jimmy and I played. Mike didn’t play, but he portrayed the football coach.
Jim: We took songs from The Who’s ‘Tommy.’ We even did an overture.
Dennis Diken, Mike Mesaros and Jim Babjak as What Else?, one of their pre-Smithereens bands in 1979 in Carteret Park.PHOTOS COURTESY OF JIM BABJAK ARCHIVES
Dennis: We took songs from a bunch of different sources, and we had guys imitating the teachers. And we had some audio visual. We had the lyrics projected and some footage and slides. It was a pretty big production. That was June of ’75. We were calling ourselves What Else? at the time.
Jim: Like The Who.
Dennis: But it was just Jimmy and I. It wasn’t a full band yet. Mike just started learning to play bass that summer after graduation.
Jim: After that performance was when he wanted to start playing bass.
Mike: Dennis was the advanced one. Jimmy and I had to keep up with him. Dennis really made us better musicians. He was so good at such a young age, way better than anybody normally is when they’re young. He’s gifted in that he knew the changes in the songs. Most kids are like, ‘Are we at the bridge or chorus?’ He never had to do any of that. I had to have this discipline … even to play in Jimmy’s garage. I had this kind of feeling of obligation to match Dennis’ musical acumen.
Dennis has been our archivist since then. He still has notebooks going back to seventh grade. I started going to his house to hear tunes on CBS-FM. We would listen incessantly. They played a lot of doo wop, and he would have it in his 45 collection. I’d say, ‘Can I take this home? I want to borrow this.’ He always had a great record collection.
I’d say the band equally was born in Dennis’ and Jimmy’s bedrooms. Jimmy had a lot of records, but not like Dennis. We would listen, and then we would take it to our instruments and try to play it together. Knowing that you have that deep-down affection for what you’re playing has a lot of do with the band. And that all comes from Dennis’ record collection.
Dennis: It really is special to us to have sustained a career and friendship this long.
Jim: It doesn’t seem like 40 years, does it?
Dennis: No, it’s really doesn’t. Some days it does in terms of sitting and thinking about it, and if you look at the photos. It does stack up that this year we did this and that year we did that.
Jim: We’re always on tour. Back in the day when we had albums, it was called the tour of that album, and then we would take a break, but we played every year. And then after we lost our record deal, we just played whenever we could. We never took a break from playing. We always played.
Dennis: Not a lot of bands can say that.
Jim Babjak and Dennis Diken stand in front of the construction site of the forthcoming Carteret Performing Arts Center. The Smithereens will be the first-ever band to play there next September.PHOTO BY BOB MAKIN
The only other bands I can think who’ve played together continuously like that are U2 and The Rolling Stones. That’s good company.You will be opening Carteret Performing Arts Center as the first-ever act there in September 2020. Any plans to tie that show into the band’s 40th anniversary? And if there is an anniversary record release and tour, would either include unreleased or new material?
Dennis: Well, it certainly will tie into our 40th. I’m sure we’ll promote it as such. We’re talking about doing some things to commemorate the 40th year. Nothing to announce yet, but we do plan on doing a new record.
With Robin and Marshall?
Jim: And maybe others.
Dennis: We have archival stuff that also is going to be released, but we’re talking about doing a new record.
Jim Babjak, right, and Dennis Diken, left, have been friends since their freshman year at Carteret High School in 1971. They are pictured in front of the garage where they practiced with pre-Smithereens bands from 1976 to 1980 in Babjak’s parents’ home.PHOTO BY BOB MAKIN
How else did growing up in Carteret impact each of you and The Smithereens?
Mike: We had a great English teacher, Mrs. Fritz, when we were in eighth grade. She let us take a good month from our regular studies to work on and rehearse this play. We got the whole class involved. Dennis and I wrote it. A teacher like that who stimulates children regarding creativity may have many manifestations. Obviously for us, it was in musical form.
And Jimmy was involved in a film we did in high school. It was the three of us, and it was called ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.,’ a really ridiculous comedy about communism.
Dennis: I really liked growing up here. I went to Lincoln School, where I met Mike. I just thought that student body was really bright and fun-loving and creative. It was great to be around those kids. We had some exceptional teachers when I was in grammar school.
When I met Jimmy when we went to high school, we fed off each other’s creativity. That had a lot to do with the mood or the feeling at the time. Some of the teachers really did go out of their way to encourage creativity and thinking outside the box. It was a good place for kids to be together in the ’60s and the ’70s when we were here.
It felt like home here. It was a different kind of town then. I have very fond memories, and I’m glad I was here. I’m glad I met the people I met, that I had the teachers I had, and did the things I did. Being here had a lot to do with that.
Jim: It was a blue-collar town. There were factories here. My dad started working at U.S. Metals, which was a metal refinery, and my mom used to work at Metro Glass, which was a glass company. They made bottles. That blue-collar work ethic I always was taught. You work hard. That’s how I thought life was going to be.
We didn’t have a record store in town. That was a problem. We walked to Rahway or road our bikes. The day that ‘Imagine’ came out by John Lennon, we walked all the way to Korvette’s in Woodbridge on the railroad tracks. But it got dark, so we called somebody to pick us up.
Dennis: Your mom.
Jim: We called my mom from a pay phone because it was getting dark. My brother came with us. He was 7 years old. He walked with us. I don’t know how many miles it is from here to Woodbridge.
Dennis: Four or five miles maybe.
Jim: So we walked to get ‘Imagine’ on the day it came out.
What impact have New Brunswick and Scotch Plains had on the band?
Dennis: New Brunswick we had a lot of experience playing at the Court Tavern. That was a good place for us to learn our craft, learning how to play in front of an audience and to start growing a fan base. That was very important to us.
Scotch Plains was important in terms of a home base for us to rehearse. We had the support of Pat’s parents at his house. His dad worked on a garbage truck route, and he got up super early. We’d be rehearsing until 11, sometimes 12 at night. Once in a while, he would complain, but not really. He let us go. That was really important to have his love and support. Nick DiNizio.
Jim: I owned a record/video shop in New Brunswick.
Jim: It was called Flamin’ Groovies before that. Dennis came up with the name. I changed the name when videos came out in ’83. Bobby Albert, the owner of the Court Tavern, was a customer of mine. I told him, ‘We have a band. We should play.’
It was a thriving scene at the time. A lot of those bands that played there had independent 45s out that I sold at my store. I sold our record there too; although I probably had to give them away because nobody was really buying them then.
We played on weekends. I remember we played on New Year’s Eve there. We were just part of that New Brunswick scene.
Dennis: WRSU was supportive, the radio station at Rutgers.
I got to New Brunswick in 1983. I never got to see you at the Court, but I knew about you, and when your record came out in ’86, it seemed the number of original bands increased because New Brunswick would play up the fact that you were from there. In fact, for years, I didn’t know you guys were from Carteret and Scotch Plains. I initially thought you were a New Brunswick band.
Dennis: Well, that stands to reason. And Jimmy lived there too.
Jim: Yeah, I lived on Easton Avenue.
Dennis: I think it’s mostly because we played the Court so much, and Jimmy had the store. We played the Court a lot.
Jim: Three sets a night.
Dennis: So people associated us with it. It helped us be connected with the town.
That’s wonderful. We hear that, but when you’re in the eye of the storm, you don’t always fully grasp how far your reach can be, but we do hear that once in a while. That’s gratifying.
Jim: Another band we influenced was Nirvana. Kurt (Cobain) loved us. He talked about it in his diary.
Dennis: Listen to ‘About a Girl’ and listen to ‘Blood and Roses.’
Jim: And I always thought that ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ starting off with the bass was kind of like, ‘Hey, The Smithereens started off a song with bass,’ ‘Blood and Roses.’ Who starts their song with a bass?
Dennis, are you still playing with Dave Davies of The Kinks?
Dennis: I guess. He’s not doing any shows right now, but when he is, I imagine I am. And Ronnie Spector.
Are you going to be involved in The Kinks reunion?
Dennis: I haven’t heard anything about that. I hope they use Mick Avory, the original Kinks drummer. That’s what I’m rooting for.
Jim, are you still pursuing Buzzed Meg?
Jim: I have another two albums worth of unreleased Buzzed Meg material that I just need the time to put together, compile and release it. Some of those songs are over 20 years old now, and nobody’s heard it. I just haven’t had time.
Mike, do you have any other projects going on?
Mike: I’m very good cook. That’s another way I express myself.
I have a piano. I taught myself how to play the piano. I started 15 years ago. It was very frustrating at first, but I became proficient on the instrument … It’s increased my vocabulary. Being self-taught, I play like the records that I like from the 1920s and ’30s, like Fats Waller and George Gershwin, so my playing has a slide and ragtime sensibility, and it swings. I accompany myself on bass on demos. It’s very cool. But my songs don’t sound like rock songs. They sound like they were written in the 1930s.
Do you like a stride piano player named James P. Johnson? He was born in New Brunswick.
Mike: James P. should be in the Hall of Fame. He was Fats Waller’s mentor. James P. is one of my favorite musicians. James P. is not in there, and it’s kind of strange, because he should be. He was a huge influence on Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Duke had James P.’s piano rolls and slowed them down … That’s literally how Duke taught himself, and there’s no more important figure in American music than Duke Ellington. Duke as a composer and arranger would launch into a stride chorus or two. So James P. Johnson definitely should be in the New Jersey Hall of Fame!