In 1980, New Jersey musicians Jim Babjak, Dennis Diken Mike Mesaros and Pat DiNizio formed the Smithereens and brought ’60s power pop to a new generation.
The band came onto the national radar in 1988, with its first single, “Only a Memory,” not only becoming a college and modern rock hit, but crossing over to album-rock stations as well. Soon after, they hit it big with chart-topping tunes “Blood and Roses” and “A Girl Like You.” Over the next three decades, the Smithereens would go on to release countless recordings and tour relentlessly.
Tragically, lead singer DiNizio passed away last December. In honor of his memory, the remaining band continues to play, bringing in special guests to serve as singer each tour date.
On Jan. 11, Robin Wilson of the Gin Blossoms will join the band as the Smithereens play the Ridgefield Playhouse. Keith Loria spoke with Babjak about the show.
Keith Loria: The loss of Pat obviously created a huge void for the Smithereens, but the band has decided to continue with guest vocalists. What do you expect the response to be?
Jim Babjak: I think it will make it interesting for our audience and also interesting for us. With any of these singers — we had Marshall Crenshaw and several others who will be joining us in 2019, a lot of them are choosing their favorite songs, not just the more popular hits, so it’s fun.
KL: You’ll have Robin Wilson joining you for this show. What’s his association with the band?
JB: In 1988, Robin was working in a record store in Arizona as a clerk and we were doing an in-store show, and he has pictures of us from back then. He’s been a fan since the first album.
KL: What can we expect at the show? Will it be strictly Smithereens or will you be doing any Gin Blossom songs?
JB: No. This is the Smithereens with a guest vocalist and we’ll be doing just our songs. We are at the mindset that you come to our show, you can forget about your problems and have fun. That hasn’t changed.
KL: What does the future of recording look like for the Smithereens?
JB: We might have some old tapes that no one has ever heard before and we may be releasing some new stuff with some of the singers we’re playing with. All of that is going to take time though.
KL: What are you looking for in these guest singers?
JB: We didn’t want to get a sound-alike. I know bands like Journey have done that. The sound of the band hasn’t changed. All we ask for from the singers is that they capture the essence of a song. I didn’t want someone to sound like Pat. I think a sound-alike is a little creepy. We’re continuing our legacy and playing our songs.
KL: Do you feel Pat’s presence on stage?
JB: Absolutely. After 39 years, you do. The difference now is he used to call out solos and I don’t hear that anymore so I have to lead the band in a sense now and pay more attention. He always kept us on our toes. With Pat, we would have a list of 40 songs and he would gauge what songs would work best, but now we make a set list and stick to it.
KL: How long did it take you to get back on stage and did you consider stopping the band?
JB: Dennis and I were a band before we even met Pat in 1980, so we already had a sound and we already had the name. We always knew we would continue and I don’t want to be in another band. We had a show booked for January and Pat died in December and we ended up doing the show with 18 different singers — Robin was there, Marshall was there — and people really loved it. We thought we would [do] it this way for a while, so we never really stopped.
KL: The Smithereens are among 50 nominees that are being considered for inclusion in the New Jersey Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019. What would that honor mean to you and the band?
JB: I wish they would have done it while Pat was still alive, and while my wife was still alive. I always wondered why we weren’t in there, but it’s nice that they came around. It would be fun. I’m already in the White Castle Hall of Fame and that’s pretty cool.