By Jay Lustig
December 13, 2017
The New Jersey rock scene has suffered a huge loss with the death, tonight, of Pat DiNizio, at 62. The Smithereens singer, guitarist and main songwriter — whose deep, resonant voice was heard on hits such as “Blood and Roses,” “Only a Memory” and “A Girl Like You” — had battled a number of different health issues in recent years, but the cause of death was not immediately announced.
“Today we mourn the loss of our friend, brother and bandmate Pat DiNizio,” said his Smithereens bandmates Jim Babjak, Dennis Diken and Mike Mesaros in a joint statement on the band’s Facebook page. “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.”
Like countless people involved in the New Jersey music scene, I considered DiNizio a friend. I’ve been writing about him since 1987, when I reviewed a Smithereens concert at Obsessions in Randolph for The East Coast Rocker. I interviewed him many times for The Star-Ledger, where I worked from 1989 to 2014, and then for NJArts.net over the last few years.
I wrote about his albums and shows, of course, but considered him unique among major NJ rock figures in that he was always coming up with new things to do, new ventures to explore. I wrote about him playing house concerts — he was one of the first musicians of his stature to do so — and developing his one-man “Confessions of a Rock Star” show, and his side business in which he wrote songs for fans, for a fee. I wrote about his run for U.S. Senate in 2000; his attempt to play minor league baseball in 2006; Smithereens albums featuring songs of The Beatles, and The Who; and his solo album paying tribute to Buddy Holly.
Recently, I wrote about his, ultimately, unsuccessful attempt to raise enough money to convert the house he grew up in, in Scotch Plains, into a nonprofit center that would host concerts, display memorabilia, and teach music to autistic and special needs children. Just this week, I wrote about a new Smithereens show that had been scheduled to take place in January at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank.
“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,” The Smithereens posted on Facebook, when DiNizio’s death was first announced.
Despite the dark streak in his songwriting, DiNizio was one of the friendliest, open and down-to-earth rock stars I knew. In recent years, I’ve seen him frequently at his semi-regular one-man shows at Crossroads to Garwood, and he was always eager to talk, to catch up, to tell me about his new ideas and projects. When I put together the first benefit concert for NJArts.net in 2016, at Crossroads, he was the first person I asked to perform, and he immediately said yes.
DiNizio grew up in Scotch Plains, where he saw bands such as Black Sabbath perform at Union Catholic High School. He and The Smithereens were always proud of their Jersey roots. In 2004, they titled a two-CD collection of hits, live tracks and rarities From Jersey It Came! The Smithereens Anthology.
“I live in Scotch Plains,” DiNizio told The Aquarian Weekly in 2010. “It’s the only place in the world I feel centered. New Jersey is my home. I lived in England for a while, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles. I’m at the point in my life where I don’t want any more surprises. I’m in Scotch Plains for good.”
Through an ad in the Aquarian, DiNizio connected with Babjak, Diken and Mesaros, all from Carteret, in 1980, and they toiled away in local clubs such as the Dirt Club in Bloomfield, the Court Tavern in New Brunswick and Kenny’s Castaways in New York for years, before breaking through with their 1986 album, Especially for You.
“Knowing that The Smithereens were a staple at my hometown’s Dirt Club early on, actually helped me understand that good songs, hard work, and a love of playing music can be a path to making some kind of life out of it,” Ted Leo wrote in a Tweet, after hearing of DiNizio’s death.
Though released, at first, by the indie Enigma, Especially for You was re-released by Capitol, and The Smithereens stayed on major labels through the mid-’90s.
Among the bands they influenced, with their heavy but melodic sound, were Nirvana, who reportedly had just one cassette in their van —with Especially for You on one side and heavy metal band Celtic Frost on the others — in the days directly before they recorded their debut album, Bleach.
A highlight of recent years came when Tom Petty personally asked The Smithereens to open some shows for him, in 2013. “I asked Tom, personally. I said: ‘Is it bullshit? ‘Cause they’re telling me that you asked for us.’ And he said, ‘No, no. Of course [I wanted the Smithereens],’ ” Babjak told NJArts.net. “He heard our song ‘Sorry’ on the 2011 album, on SiriusXM, and he loved the song.”
Perhaps Petty saw something of himself in DiNizio. They were both, after all, rock ‘n’ roll lifers, deeply versed in the music’s history but tenaciously committed to adding another chapter to the story.
“How many melodies are there left in the world?” DiNizio told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “But I’ve forced myself to embrace that fear. I have no choice. I’m a professional songwriter and member of a band. But what could be better?”