By Noah Hubbell
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A few years back, I spent an afternoon with Pat DiNizio, the leader of the Smithereens, in Hartford, Connecticut, killing time before a radio interview. At a time when everyone else was replacing their record collection with CDs, DiNizio was looking high and low for a turntable to accompany him on his tour. We even went to a mall. He's the only person I ever let chain-smoke in my car, probably because the Smithereens song "Cigarette" is one of my faves. In fact, it would have been an excellent selection for last year's Drag, k.d. lang's collection of "smoking" songs. DiNizio agrees: "I tried to get the song to k.d. lang for months. It's a matter of not having the right connections. It obviously wasn't put in the right hands. She could've sang the hell out of it."
DiNizio's personal experiences are chronicled in his songwriting, which nearly always comes off as autobiographical. He walks it as he talks it, and his subject matter is generally about adversity. The stance fits him well; after all, the best art, like mushrooms, seems to bloom on life's crap. Writing about wonderful moments often produces flaccid tripe like Katrina & the Waves' "Walking on Sunshine," while chronicles of despair, like Kurt Cobain's "All Apologies," are more compelling for the depth of their emotion. Songs and Sounds, a solo album on Velvel Records that DiNizio cut during a break from the Smithereens, is closer in attitude to the latter. He culled inspiration for it from a pending divorce, career troubles and the death of friend Jim Ellison, who fronted Chicago's Material Issue.
"I try to write the types of songs that I know how to write best," he says. "There were a lot of weird things--stuff that really made me think about what I was doing with my life--and it provided a certain type of inspiration for the songwriting process. It certainly got me out of the slump I was in." Particularly jolting for him was the loss of both the Smithereens' record contract with RCA and his music publishing deal. "For a while there I thought there was no reason to write, because I'd gotten used to composing songs and recording them and marketing them and having a job," he acknowledges. "And suddenly, I was jobless. And it was frightening."
Fortunately, DiNizio had what it took to get through this rough patch. He's a good egg--an agreeable, likable sort. His attire and overall image are somewhere between beatnik, punk and bowling-team chic. He's misunderstood artist and working stiff, Jaegermeister and Guinness stout. There's something retro about the guy, or maybe it's just timeless--like he might have a tattoo, but he'll never have a nose ring. He waits out fads and trends. He's a long-hauler.
The dedication to music that marks DiNizio took root early in his life, and his childhood attachment to his guitar led to a decision when he was 24 to leave the family garbage-hauling business. "My dad and I were partners in a very small enterprise in New Jersey," he elaborates, "and it kind of broke his heart when I moved to Manhattan, into the East Village, to pursue this dream I had of playing in a band and making records."
The Smithereens (DiNizio, guitarist Jim Babjak, drummer Dennis Diken and bassist Mike Mesaros) got off to a slow start, but they continued to write and play whenever and wherever they could. "We did that to the exclusion of everything else for the better part of six years, with no success. It was discouraging," DiNizio remembers. "I started producing records, mixing things. I wasn't particularly good at it, but I guess people thought I could do it. And I was promoting shows in New York and writing press releases; I was starting to branch out as a music-industry professional, a jack of all trades.
"Thankfully, the band was united in spirit, and in our goals; we all refused to give up," he goes on. "And at the darkest hour, the eleventh hour, the phone rang, and there was the record deal. We were extremely lucky, because we were signed to [indie label] Enigma based on the strength of a cassette tape with my name on it and the name of the band and my phone number. They signed us without seeing what we looked like or seeing us play live. They just liked the songs."
It's easy to understand why. The Smithereens have always created tunes that are built to last. In a business where most peoples' memories are only as long as an act's last hit, radio continues to play "A Girl Like You," "Blood and Roses," "Only a Memory," "Behind the Wall of Sleep" and "Too Much Passion." Yet the group never enjoyed the sort of massive breakthrough it deserves. DiNizio has spent eighteen years fronting a great band that's perpetually simmered in the shadow of widespread commercial success.
How has the music industry changed in the years DiNizio's been involved in it? "It's decidedly more corporate than it was, despite the alternative pose," he says. "The labels are certainly more involved now in the imaging and marketing of the artists. It's much more of a planned thing. They tend to interfere more. Not in the case of Velvel, who've let me do what I want to do. But they're a major independent; they're into doing business a little differently.