Smithereens, Meet the Beatles

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 12, 2007

Turns out making "Meet the Smithereens!," a song-by-song cover of "Meet the Beatles!," is a logical move for the New Jersey quartet whose leader, singer-songwriter-guitarist Pat DiNizio, recalls how his life was affected by its central single.

"I first heard 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' one morning as I was brushing my teeth, preparing to go to school -- third grade! -- and I remember how stunning it was," DiNizio says. "I dropped my toothbrush, and it was as if I was hearing for the first time some strange new music from another planet."

The "I Want to Hold Your Hand/I Saw Her Standing There" single was officially released Dec. 26, 1963, "Meet the Beatles" on Jan. 20, 1964, just a couple of weeks before the Beatles Came to America -- an event worthy of capitalization. Technically, it wasn't the Beatles' first album here (Vee-Jay's ignored release, "Introducing the Beatles," had come out six months earlier), but it was the most Beatle-y, with only one cover. DiNizio further distinguishes "Meet the Beatles" from its cover-heavy British counterpart, "With the Beatles."

"This was the genuine article," DiNizio says, "with 11 out of 12 songs that were strange, minor-key, very odd rock-and-roll originals that changed things forever."

The album, the Beatles' seminal performances on "The Ed Sullivan Show," the historic Washington Coliseum debut all helped "spawn a lot of great American groups that influenced the Smithereens -- the Byrds, the Beau Brummels and so forth," DiNizio says. "And they also lifted the country out of the funk it seemed to be in after the Kennedy assassination, which is why I believe 'Meet the Beatles' is historically the most important rock-and-roll album ever released in America. It just started a cultural revolution that hasn't stopped."

Still, the cover album came about in typically Smithereen-y fashion: Last year, the band was invited to perform at Abbey Road on the River, a Beatles festival in Louisville. "Someone had seen us do Beatles songs as encores and was impressed, and they asked us to do a whole set of covers live," DiNizio explains. "We knew the tunes, and it was one of those nights where we could do no wrong. And then people began to demand Smithereens material as well, so we got a chance to do both and realized there was some crossover between the Smithereens audience and the die-hard Beatlemaniacs."

Soon after, DiNizio started getting e-mail from fans suggesting the band record an album of favorite Beatles songs. "We were intrigued enough to solicit advice on what their song 'wish list' would be -- and it turned out to be daunting because it was all over the map. How do you go from Beatles phase to Beatles phase with those ever-changing production values and still make it sound like the Smithereens?"

The idea of covering "Meet the Beatles" crystallized after DiNizio came across the October 2006 issue of American Heritage magazine titled "1964 -- When a New Age Was Born." The resulting album, recorded in five days in November, "sounds like us, sounds like them . . . sounds retro but also sounds new," DiNizio says. "It was done with the proper amount of reverence and respect for not only them but ourselves."

It was 1980 when the impact of "Meet the Beatles" played out in the lives of DiNizio and three high school friends: bassist Mike Mesaros, drummer Dennis Diken and guitarist Jim Babjak. As the Smithereens, they earned good notices with a pair of EPs (1983's aptly titled "Beauty and Sadness" became a No. 1 import in several European countries), but success was slow in coming. DiNizio might have been having second thoughts about giving up his job in the family business driving a trash truck in home town Scotch Plains, N.J., a job he'd kept until the Smithereens went on their first tour.

"I was driving a truck and working sound at Gerde's Folk City in New York at night, Mike was working in a factory loading boxes and the others weren't in what anyone would call pleasant jobs," DiNizio recalls. "It was mind-numbingly dull and boring, so I always had a melody in my head and kept a tape recorder, pen and notebook in the cab of the truck." In fact, the group's breakthrough song, "Blood and Roses," first took form along the trash route. According to DiNizio, the bass line was written "coming home from Folk City as the sun was coming up and I was walking in the cold rain -- it matched the tempo of my stride. I completed it in the garbage truck." The song appeared in 1986 on the Smithereens' debut album, "Especially for You," produced by Don Dixon (R.E.M.).

The band's hook-laden sound, with tight guitar interplay and vocal harmonies, recalled the Merseybeat, but the feeling in such songs as "A Girl Like You," "Too Much Passion," "Only a Memory" and "Behind the Wall of Sleep" was also full of foreboding. Thanks to college radio and early support from MTV, the Smithereens had a good run into the early '90s, only to fade from public consciousness with the onset of the grunge era. The band's last album was 1999's "God Save the Smithereens."

But a decade of near-constant touring built up enough brand loyalty that the band gets together to play about 50 dates a year, mostly on weekends, a mix of private corporate events, festivals and clubs. Ironically, DiNizio says, "we do better in terms of the bottom line these days than in our more active period. There's no crew, no tour buses, no extra equipment, no semi with P.A. and lights. We fly to gigs with our guitars, and the back line [rented drums and amplifiers] is always the same wherever we go."

DiNizio, who has continued to offer solo CDs, DVDs and downloads on his Web site, lived in Washington for three years in the late '90s while working as program director and host of XM Satellite Radio's "XM Unsigned," the first national radio station to focus solely on the music of unsigned bands, emerging artists and independent record labels. In an odd job segue that might have extended his stay here, DiNizio then ran for one of New Jersey's Senate seats, challenging Republican Rep. Bob Franks and Democratic multimillionaire Jon S. Corzine as a Reform Party candidate.

"I got a little more than 1 percent [of the vote]," DiNizio says. "Considering that I managed to raise $8,000 [in campaign funds, from a kegger concert], I would say I got a bigger bang for my buck than [winner] Jon Corzine, who, I was told by the people who did his marketing, spent $96 million."

Concurrent with his Senate run, DiNizio embarked on his "Living Room Concert Tour," an idea generated by his work as a grant giver for Jim Beam Brands. One grantee, a musician from Washington state who needed money to refurbish her touring vehicle, explained she did house concerts, networking with fans online, driving to their homes, playing in people's living rooms and passing the hat.

DiNizio later learned that in folk and singer-songwriter circles, house concerts had been around for decades. "But my entrepreneurial wheels started spinning when I realized no one who'd been lucky enough to achieve any national prominence musically with a band or otherwise had attempted those sorts of things."

So he put word out on the Internet and two weeks later found himself doing "acoustic rock-and-roll concerts in the homes, back yards and living rooms of 90 Smithereens fans and supporters from coast to coast. I rented an SUV from Budget Rent a Car and set out on the road with just a couple of acoustic guitars and a small P.A., and it was one of the most joyous, life-affirming experiences of my life. I crisscrossed the country five times. When I returned that rented vehicle with those 50,000 'free unlimited miles,' they were not pleased with me!"

DiNizio didn't exactly pass the hat: For $2,000, he would drive to a fan's house, unload his guitar and a keg of beer, and play Smithereens requests. The story of both the house tour and his Senate race are told in Joshua Tunick's documentary "Mr. Smithereen Goes to Washington," which follows DiNizio's campaign from the day he filed his petition to place his name on the ballot to the final tally on election night.

The baseball cap DiNizio sported on the campaign trail served him again in July on ESPN's "7th Inning Stretch," which details his efforts at age 50 to make the Somerset Patriots minor league baseball team. Calling it "George Plimpton meets Ken Burns," DiNizio describes the show as "an exploration of baseball in America and following your dreams and your heart no matter how old you are" as well as "an attempt to fulfill a childhood dream that fell by the wayside when I decided to pursue music."

He did get some coaching from such baseball legends as Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Gwynn, David Wells and Don Mattingly, as well as from some sports-focused pals in music: "Gene Simmons, talking about the relationship between the immigrant experience and baseball . . . Joan Jett, who's a huge fan, as is George Thorogood . . . me and Bruce Springsteen playing baseball and talking about growing up in New Jersey and the relationship between rock-and-roll and baseball." A soundtrack is available on Koch, with some quirky extras, such as the Ramones' "Beat on the Brat (With a Baseball Bat)."

Now DiNizio has embarked on another, for now untitled, project that he calls a logical extension of "7th Inning Stretch," and he's looking for a hit.

"It's about my attempt to write the greatest album of all time with my songwriting heroes and mentors -- Barry Gibb, Neil Diamond, Elvis Costello, Billy Joel, Elton John, Jimmy Webb, Carole King. It will show people who are curious how songs are written, and you will hear the story of rock-and-roll and the evolution of the pop song in America as told by the people who created the songs."

Appearing Friday at the State Theatre

Sounds like: Remember the Beatles? The Smithereens sure do.

Listen to an audio clip of the Smithereens

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