Dawn of the Smithereens (Part 1 of 3)

Beginning with their major-label debut Especially for You, New Jersey rock quartet the Smithereens enjoyed widespread critical acclaim and a degree of commercial success. The band’s trademark synthesis of diverse influences – beat era rock, girl group pop and heavy metal thunder a la Black Sabbath – came together to create a distinctive, powerful and melodic sound. The band’s first album Especially for You rose to #5 on the UK indie chart; its followup, 1988’s Green Thoughts made it to the #7 spot.

But as the record industry (and popular tastes) changed, the group found itself dropped by one label, signed with another. Over the course of The Smithereens’ career, they went from self-released records to deals with Enigma, then Capitol, RCA, Velvel, Koch and eOne. And during a period between labels, the group recorded an album’s worth of top-notch material that would languish in the vaults for nearly 30 years. Finally released in 2022, The Lost Album shows a band without a record deal that’s nonetheless writing and playing at the top of its game.

With more than a dozen superb albums to their credit, the core band continues to present day. Bassist Mike Mesaros left the group in 2006 but returns on occasion; the rest of the time, longtime Smithereens fan Severo “The Thrilla” Jornacion takes over on bass. Lead singer Pat DiNizio passed away in 2017; since that time, the band has enlisted longtime friends Marshall Crenshaw or Robin Wilson (Gin Blossoms) to fill the lead vocal spot. Along with live dates, The Smithereens are currently working on new material. And while the group has been together for more than 43 years, its musical beginnings extend back much farther.

Both born in 1957, Dennis Diken and Jim Babjak both grew up in Carteret, New Jersey, a borough just across the Hudson River from Staten Island, New York, and – depending on traffic – less than an hour’s drive from the heart of New York City. The two met and became lifelong best friends while attending high school, but Diken’s interest in music had begun much earlier. “When I was two, three years old, I started picking up my Lincoln Logs and beating on the plastic lids of coffee cans,” he recalls.

Diken got his first drum kit at age 11; by summer 1971 he was in a band. “It was not a super great band,” he admits. “But it threw me in the position of playing with other musicians and actually playing in front of people.” He soon left that band, hoping to start one of his own. As he prepared to start high school that fall, he recalls thinking, “Maybe, just maybe I could meet a guitarist who can play ‘I Can’t Explain.’” That was his litmus test.

“It was day one of high school,” Diken recalls. “Period one. I was in the second row in the second seat. And in the first seat in the first row, there was this kid with kind of a Beatle-ish haircut.” As the kid opened his looseleaf binder, Diken leaned forward and looked over his shoulder. Plastered inside the binder were color photos of The Who from Hit Parader magazine. After a quick introduction, he discovered that this Who fan called Jim Babjak played guitar.

The two started playing music together in the garage of Babjak’s parents’ house. They bonded over their shared love of most all things British: the Who, the Beatles, the Kinks, the Move, Small Faces, the Troggs and the Pretty Things. They learned about those bands – some of which were comparatively unknown in the U.S. – through Sire Records compilations, and fanzines like Who Put the Bomp, Trouser Press and Alan Betrock’s Rock Marketplace.

The musical tastes of Diken and Babjak were unusual for Jersey kids of that era. “That made it hard to find other musicians who were coming from the same place,” Diken says. “We were kind of in our own little bubble.” But they kept looking. It was shortly after graduating high school that they added Mike Mesaros to their band.

Mesaros had known Diken and Babjak since third grade; his and Babjak’s families attended the same church, and they made first communion together. Mesaros took an early interest in music, too: he studied accordion and became proficient. But by the time he neared high school graduation, he couldn’t help but see the fun that his friends Jim and Dennis were having playing in a band. So he decided to learn bass guitar.

“I taught Mike to play bass,” explains Babjak. “I taught him ‘No Matter What,’ ‘I Can’t Explain, ‘We Gotta Get out of This Place’ and Elvis’ ‘My Baby Left Me.’ Babjak says that Mesaros headed off to college that fall, and when he returned after one semester he “was playing like a pro.”

“We were called What Else at the time,” Babjak recalls. “A spoof on The Who, I guess.” Playing guitar in that trio, Babjak was already interested in moving beyond a set of cover tunes. “And when we did play covers,” he emphasizes, “people thought they were originals: obscure songs by the Beau Brummels” or Byrds deep album tracks.

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