Not Standing Pat

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.

"I tend to look at my career as the glass being half full rather than half empty, and I don't harbor any weird feelings toward the industry that has given me a career," he continues. "The one thing I can say is that it's a decidedly different time we're living in; obviously the record industry is a reflection of these times. In this new consumer society, where it has to be done yesterday and the Internet is not fast enough, attention spans are very limited. Back in the old days, we only wondered when Springsteen and Michael Jackson were coming out with an album. There were maybe ten or twelve records released a week. Now there's a lot more. It's a whole different industry. And the marketing of rock has become gigantic."

Still, DiNizio's pact with Velvel has given him the luxury of not only keeping the Smithereens in the public eye (the group's first disc for the imprint is due in October), but of assembling a lineup for his solo project that's helped him grow as an artist. "I was looking to do a hybrid of musicians who really had no business being in the same recording studio together and see if it would work," he notes. "That was the challenge, one of the exciting aspects of it--the fact that it didn't make sense on paper to anyone but me."

True enough, the quartet on Songs and Sounds seems unlikely on the surface. But each member brings something special to the project, including notorious Stranglers bassman J.J. Burnel, who contributes lean, mean undertones and signature vocal harmonies. "Next to the Beatles, the Stranglers were always my favorite band," DiNizio declares, adding that he went to virtually every Stranglers show on the East Coast and became friendly with Burnel along the way; he even wrote a press release for the outfit's Oral Sculpture album in the late Eighties. As DiNizio puts it, "When it came time to do this first solo effort, there was no one I could think of who I'd rather work with than J.J." Another key to Songs and Sounds is renowned saxophonist/ flutist Sonny Fortune, known for his work with Miles Davis and numerous solo efforts. And anchoring the foursome is drummer Tony Smith (Lou Reed, Jan Hammer Group, Santana), whose spare style melds with Burnel's to create a powerful rhythm section.

The songwriting on Sounds isn't a total departure from his past work, DiNizio says, "but the approach is completely different than what the Smithereens might have recorded having been given that material. It's a highly aggressive record in certain instances. The playing was really unusual. I pretty much gave [the musicians] the freedom to do whatever they wanted to do on the record."

The result is a custom blend of punk, jazz, blues and film-noir soundtrack. There's very little space between songs; one theme leads right into another. You've gone twelve rounds with DiNizio before you know it--and just when you think it's over, it's not. A couple of minutes after the last tune, listeners are treated to an impromptu peek behind the scenes at the studio courtesy of Mr. Fortune. "That's pure Sonny," DiNizio explains. "He's tried to cultivate a certain type of serious image his whole career, and he was not happy when he heard it. He called me and said, 'Pat, you know that thing at the end of the record? My lady thinks that people will like it, but, man, I don't know.' But he was doing something not unlike what he did on the record."

Though a four-piece on the album, DiNizio and company are touring as a trio because of Fortune's unavailability for an extended tour. However, Fortune did turn up for a gig at New York's Mercury Lounge. "He just pinned everyone against the wall," DiNizio raves. "His saxophone intro for 'No Love Lost' lasted about eight minutes. It was overwhelming. He went into the stratosphere and then brought it all back in and started playing melodically and very pretty, and we broke into the song. And it was absolutely majestic. It was a great moment for me."

That tune, as well as "A World Apart," concerns the difficulties inherent in balancing the life of a musician with a permanent relationship. "I got married, and two days after my honeymoon I was on the road for fifteen months," DiNizio recalls. "My daughter was born, and two months after her birth I had to go out on the road to promote an album for eight months." (A father often in absentia, he included "Liza," a lullaby named for his daughter, on the new album.) "And the fact of it is, [the band] never made enough money that we could retire or we could stay off the road. It wasn't as though we ever put out a record that just sold. We had to go out and meet people at radio and do in-stores and tour relentlessly to promote the work that we had to offer. And I found that that continued absence, coupled with other personal problems, led to a whole lot of trouble."

Equally frustrating for DiNizio has been what he sees as a lack of appreciation for the Smithereens on the part of music-biz heavyweights. Although the band has inspired many performers, including the members of Nirvana, who reportedly were listening to its albums during the making of Nevermind, it has never truly been given its due. In an effort to remedy this situation, DiNizio says, "I'd come up with the idea of a Smithereens tribute record, and marketing it at the same time as the new Smithereens record to show that indeed the Smithereens did have some sort of an influence on a generation of bands that were in junior high school listening to our records."

When asked about possible contributors to such a collection, DiNizio tosses out names like the Gin Blossoms, Cheap Trick, Everclear and a guy from Candlebox before hesitating and reiterating that nothing has been finalized. But he acknowledges that such a recording would certainly confirm the Smithereens' legacy and underline the group's relevance in the rock landscape. "I'd say at this point that the band is little more than a minor footnote in the history of rock and roll, and that kind of offends me, because I do believe that some of the work we did--in fact, most of it--had some significance. I don't think the credit's been given in that regard. I know that there are a lot of bands who would definitely want to be involved with this project, and it would let people know that the work had meaning. And that we haven't given it up, and what we're doing currently is still as valid as anything we ever did. It's an idea that we've talked about that I think is a good one. It could be fun."

In the meantime, there are other discs to make--not just the next Smithereens offering, but a second solo CD. According to DiNizio, "The original plan was to do an album tentatively entitled Dark Standards, and I already contracted Larry Coryell, Ron Carter, Sonny Fortune and a guy named Louis Nash to play drums, with Don Dixon producing. But this band is playing so well on the road, and the empathy and the interplay between Tony and J.J. and myself is so fabulous, that I am entertaining the notion of making another record with these guys. Although I don't like to repeat myself, it may be too good to pass up."

That's the way things are going for DiNizio these days. He's fought through the hard times and hit another artistic peak by doing what he's always done. "I write about my life and what I see around me," he says. "I don't read the trades. I don't listen to the radio. I don't have television. I kind of isolate and just try to stay true to whatever my particular vision is of what I need to be doing."

Pat DiNizio. 8 p.m. Tuesday, February 17, Bluebird Theater, 3220 East Colfax, $8, 322-2308 or 830-

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