Did you hear the one about three friends from Carteret High School who recruited a lead singer from Scotch Plains and became one of the most dynamic rock ‘n’ roll bands to come out of the Garden State? In 1980, the quartet adopted their moniker from Yosemite Sam’s favorite threat to Bugs Bunny: “Varmint, I’m a-gonna blow you to smithereens!” And for forty years, they’ve been doing the same to audiences.
On Friday, March 6, 2020, fans old and new will be able to witness the Smithereens with special guest vocalist Marshall Crenshaw hit the stage at the South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC). While the band continues to deliver consistent, hot-blooded rock ‘n’ roll, a lot has also changed.
In December 2017, the band suffered a tremendous loss due to the death of lead singer and songwriter Pat DiNizio. They were slated to perform a show just four weeks later. The surviving band members — Jim Babjak (guitar and vocals), Dennis Diken (drums and percussion), and Mike Mesaros (bass and vocals) had to figure out the future of the Smithereens.
Babjak, Diken, and Mesaros decided that the show must go on. On the same night as the band originally planned to perform, “Little Steven” Van Zandt turned the show into a tribute to DiNizio. The evening featured a collection of talented musicians as well as guest vocalists, including Marshall Crenshaw, Little Steven, and Robin Wilson of the Gin Blossoms.
“The concert was four or five hours long. I mean, we did a lot of songs,” recalls guitarist Jim Babjak. “And after that show, Marshall [Crenshaw] and Robin [Wilson], and a few other people said, ‘You know what, if you need us for a show, let us know.’ And we’re thinking, you know what? It sounded so good and the audience just loved it. We still love playing. And so why not?”
Babjak, Diken, and Mesaros took Crenshaw and Wilson up on their offer, and they are enjoying their next chapter — albeit with the continued memory of DiNizio.
Crenshaw felt the same way about the memorial concert and was happy to join the band as guest vocalist. “This will keep the spirit of that evening going, because it was a great night for all of us,” says Crenshaw. “It was very emotional, but really fun and magical.”
Of course, Babjak, Diken, Mesaros, and Crenshaw discussed how to approach this new phase. “When we went into this after Pat died, we all decided we don’t want somebody to sound like Pat. We just thought that would be really creepy,” says Babjak. “And you know, Marshall has been a friend of ours since 1981. We opened for him at the Fast Lane in Asbury Park in 91. He actually played keyboards on our first album [Especially for You] and six-string bass on ‘White Castle Blues.’ He just happened to be there when we were recording it.” (For those checking out the album’s liner notes, Crenshaw is credited as “Jerome Jerome.”)
Babjak and Crenshaw both agree that they share common influences that connect them together. “Dennis [Diken] and I — and all of us — grew up with AM radio in the 60s. You’d hear Johnny Cash, the Beach Boys, West Coast surf, and British Invasion,” Babjak says. While MTV had the Smithereens on heavy rotation, the song selections were often limited to a fraction of what the band was capable of. “Radio gravitated towards playing our heavier stuff like ‘A Girl Like You.’ But if you listen to our albums, we have more than just that. We have our ballads, too.”
“I’ll echo what Jim said about that,” says Crenshaw. “I’ll say it about myself, too: there’s just one little fraction of my stuff that got the spotlight shined on it … but if you manage to get anything out there that’s recognized by people, it’s a great thing.” Audiences will certainly recognize Crenshaw by his 1982 hit, “Someday, Someway” as well as his portrayal of Buddy Holly in “La Bamba,” the 1987 biopic about Ritchie Valens.
“As far as influences go, it’s a really wide spectrum,” says Crenshaw. “The 50s stuff is really my main squeeze. But I listened to anything and everything. I’d hear Igor Stravinsky and then the Amboy Dukes, Howlin’ Wolf, and the Beatles. There was a lot of jazz on the FM stations in Detroit [where he grew up]. Archie Shepp, John Coltrane. I heard all of it and loved all of it.”
Babjak is amazed at Crenshaw’s musical range and knowledge. “Every sound check, we just pull out different cover songs,” says Babjak. “Marshall has an incredible pop sensibility.”
“I don’t know why I can do what I do, or why my mind works the way it does,” adds Crenshaw. “It’s the common ground that we have.” The audience at SOPAC shouldn’t be surprised if the band pulls out a song that they played at sound check mere minutes before taking the stage.
In addition to the loss of DiNizio, Babjak’s wife passed away from pancreatic cancer four years ago. However, he stays very active with the Smithereens both onstage and off. He explains that years ago, the band recorded a series of songs when they were in between record labels and before they got signed to RCA. “We forgot about this, but we have a whole album’s worth of stuff that was never released and nobody’s ever heard,” says Babjak. “We’re going to try to put that out, probably this summer or this year sometime. By next year, we should have a brand new album out with new material.”
In addition to Crenshaw and Robin Wilson, the band has other ideas for special guest vocalists in the future. Susan Cowsill, who got her start performing in the 1960s with her family’s band called The Cowsills is currently collaborating with Babjak on a song. She’s expressed interest in performing with the Smithereens. “I think that’d be so cool – having a female singer to sing our songs,” says Babjak. “We’re just trying to keep everything fresh.”
But for now, their focus is on their upcoming show at SOPAC where the audience will surely get to hear the hits by the band as well as being exposed to the tremendous breadth of their oeuvre. And great covers, of course.
“The audiences always get excited at these shows. I’m taking that as a good sign,” says Crenshaw.
“Our motto when Pat was alive was to just always give 100%,” says Babjak. “And that doesn’t change.”
What: The Smithereens with Special Guest Vocalist Marshall Crenshaw, with opening artist Marc Von Em
Where: South Orange Performing Arts Center, 1 SOPAC Way, South Orange, NJ
When: Friday, March 6, 2020 at 8pm.
Tickets: Purchase ticket online here. The SOPAC Box Office can be reached at (973) 313-2787.