Pat DiNizio, vocalist-guitarist-songwriter for the tough yet tuneful New Jersey rock band the Smithereens, died Tuesday. He was 62.
The group announced his passing on their web site. No cause of death was given, but the musician had been beset by health problems in recent years; in 2015 he was sidelined after losing the use of his right hand and arm following a pair of falls that incurred serious nerve damage.
I remember being knocked sideways hearing the Smithereens’ “Behind the Wall of Sleep” on the radio in 1986. I was always scanning record stores and the airwaves for tuneful, Beatle-ish power-pop, and this filled the bill nicely:
Three things about the song grabbed me: the misquote of H.P. Lovecraft in the title; the 1960s callbacks in the lyrics; and the killer combination of catchy melody and hard-rock groove — more Cheap Trick than Marshall Crenshaw.
After that, I was always excited to hear the Smithereens on the radio. Maybe the melancholy skew of their lyrics (“Blood and Roses,” “In a Lonely Place,” “Only A Memory,” — sensing a theme yet?) was another factor in their favor during my self-pitying single years. When they had an actual hit (“A Girl Like You”) off a solid album (11, also featuring Belinda Carlisle’s duet with DiNizio on the Rubber Soul homage “Blue Period”), it felt like a triumph!
The window to mass culture closed on the Smithereens after their next album Blow Up, but not before they came to Grand Rapids and played a free show at the Civic Auditorium the night before my 30th birthday. You had to go to the main location of the local chain Believe in Music to get tickets, which is where the band autographed the t-shirt pictured above. It was a good show; I remember lots of audience interaction, including guitarist Jim Babjak venturing into the audience for the guitar solo on “Blood and Roses.”
The Smithereens made one more major label album, A Date with the Smithereens (first line of lyrics: “Guess what, there’s a black cloud inside of my head”) before fading into where-are-they-now territory. Which turned out to be their original stomping ground of Carteret, New Jersey. They made occasional albums: some new material — including a Christmas disc; some live retreads; some tributes to the Beatles and the Who — for my money, their take on Tommy has more guts than the original.
The Smithereens were planning live shows in 2018, but it wasn’t to be. In one of his final Facebook posts, Pat DiNizio turned to thoughts of Christmas:
In early December the church that I live directly across the street from here in Scotch Plains builds a life size classic manger scene that is among one of the most beautiful and detailed one that I have ever seen. I can’t say that I’m a church goer, but I was raised Catholic, and the aforementioned church was where I was baptized, received Holy Communion was confirmed, where my parents were married (as well as every other member of my family) and where the funerals were held for my father, grandfather, grandmother, aunts, uncles and virtually every member of my family. Most of them were married there too. So when Hollingsworth House, the home that I have lived in the past 20 years or so became available, it seemed to me a stroke of good fortune to be able to live a hundred yards away across the street from the church that was and has been such an important part of my life.
Here’s hoping that Pat DiNizio now enjoys the peace embodied across the street from his house. Buona Natale!