NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Dennis Diken is the drummer of the Smithereens, the New Jersey Hall of Fame rock group considered as native sons here in New Brunswick.
On Saturday, December 4, the Smithereens will play once again in Middlesex County, in their hometown of Carteret for the official “Grand Opening” concert of the Carteret Performing Arts & Event Center (CPAC).
Preceding the 8 p.m. Smithereens concert will be a 12 p.m. ribbon cutting ceremony attended by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy. A public tour of the venue will take place from 12:30 to 1:30.
Tickets for the show are available as of December 2.
Located at 46 Washington Avenue, CPAC is the cornerstone project in creating a “vibrant downtown and an inclusive Arts District that would serve as a destination for the performing arts, educational events, live entertainment, and community engagement,” said Carteret Mayor Dan Reiman.
Reiman wrote that opening the venue is “a defining moment for the Borough of Carteret as we take our place among New Jersey’s sought-after downtowns.”
In a press release from the borough, CPAC is described as “a 55,000 sq ft state-of-the-art theater and event venue located in the new Carteret Arts District at the site of the former Vaudeville Era Ritz Theater.”
“CPAC features a 1,650-seat flexible meeting and performance space, a 300-seat black box theater, a 5,000 sq ft art gallery, and a rooftop space that accommodates up to 250 people,” reads the release.
With all due respect to Carteret-born saxophonist Jim Conti of legendary ska band Streetlight Manifesto, there is no better act to play the CPAC Grand Opening than the hometown favorite Smithereens.
Founded in 1980 by grade school buddies Dennis Diken, Jim Babjak and Mike Mesaros of Carteret and Pat DiNizio of Scotch Plains, the Smithereens had their big national breakthrough in 1986 with the single “Blood And Roses.”
In 2019, the Smithereens were inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. It was a posthumous honor for DiNizio, the band’s lead singer who passed away in December 2017.
This Saturday, Diken, Babjak and Mesaros will be joined on stage by guest vocalists Marshall Crenshaw and Robin Wilson of the Gin Blossoms, both of whom have regularly performed with the band since 2018.
But in the six years prior to “Blood And Roses,” the Smithereens were just four hard-working New Jersey lads cruising the local circuits, working day jobs and honing their sound.
Keen among their home venues was an intimate, decades-spanning association with New Brunswick’s own Court Tavern, which began fostering the city’s rock and roll scene in 1981.
Ahead of the Carteret show, New Brunswick Today spoke with Diken, diving into the Smithereens’ origin story, their early days in New Brunswick, memories of the Court Tavern, and how they achieved their national breakout.
NBToday: I want to start at the beginning. You, Mike and Jim were schoolmates and bandmates. And then by 1980 you’re the one who answered Pat’s well-known ad in the Aquarian. And I believe he was just looking for a drummer for some demos. So I’m curious how that first interaction went, and how the band came out of that.
Dennis Diken: Actually I’ll go back just a little further. Jimmy and I had been playing in high school since 1971. And Mike started playing bass right after high school in ‘75. So the three of us were kicking around and we wanted to form a band. We were looking for a lead singer, and it was really difficult to find somebody who had the same sensibilities as we did. So we placed an ad, and I was answering ads before we found our fourth member, and I was playing in other bands as well. So I was always checking the musicians’ classifieds, especially in the Aquarian. It’s a New Jersey paper, it was around back then and it’s still around. And at the time they had a really vibrant musicians’ classifieds section, pre-internet days, a lot of musicians were using that to form bands. So, it was actually in 1978 that I saw the ad that Pat had put in the Aquarian for his band at the time. That band was called The Like. And they were a cover band, they were doing Elvis Costello, the Jam, the Beatles, Buddy Holly, Beach Boys, all kinds of music. And that struck a chord with me because I liked a lot of those artists. And it was hard to find somebody that had those sensibilities. And I said, well let me give them a call.
Pat picked up the phone and we instantly could tell that we were on the same wavelength. And I went down and I auditioned for that group. It was a four-piece group. We rehearsed for about six months, and it wasn’t really going anywhere, it didn’t seem to be getting off the ground, so I decided I was going to part company with them. But they had one gig booked, and that was actually in North Brunswick, at a place called the Red Fox Inn. I don’t think it’s there anymore, but I think it’s on Route 27. And so I did that gig and I left that band. That gig was in early 1979. Pat and I stayed in touch, and I guess it was very early in 1980, and he called me to play on some of his demos. And so I did, and it was just me on drums and him on bass and guitar.
I think we cut three or four tracks that day. And I said, you know, I know a couple guys who would be really good for your material. And so I brought in Jimmy and Mike. And I had had the name The Smithereens kicking around a few years prior to that. So, that’s how it came together.
NBT: And then, as the Smithereens, what was your first big break locally, and what was your first break into the New Brunswick scene?
DD: So, our first break… Well, I guess I could say… Fundamentally, our first gig ever was at Englander’s Club in Hillside, New Jersey. And just being able to play original music in a venue, with somewhat of an audience, was heading towards a break anyway I guess you could say.
But first big… you know, Mike and I had played in a band prior to the Smithereens, and that band was called Mark Mazur and the Targets. And we were playing around New York. This was before the Smithereens. So we had a bit of an entrée into the club scene in the Village. And through that connection, the Smithereens started playing Kenny’s Castaways on Bleecker Street, New York. And that opened our vistas a little beyond just playing in Jersey bars. So that connected us a good bit with the music business in New York. There were plenty of other musicians hanging out at that club, singers, songwriters, artists who were signed, like Steve Forbert, and some others. And producers and some other players would hang out there and other people that worked at labels. So our eyes were open to that side of the business a bit more.
So that was a big break for us. That was in 1980 also. And then I think it was in ‘81 that we started playing the Dirt Club, which was in Bloomfield, New Jersey. And the owner Johnny Dirt was very generous to a lot of bands and he gave them a place to play and it was all original music again, which is… it was tough because back then, in New Jersey especially, there were so many bars that featured cover bands, you know? Bands that would play the hits of the day, or like today you might have a band that just does all Stones or all Queen or whatever it might have been. So the Dirt Club was really important to us to be able to play there. And we played there frequently.
And then, I guess it was maybe ‘81, ‘82, that we started playing the Court Tavern in New Brunswick. And of course, the Court became legendary. At the time it was also a cellar bar, where bands set up and played. And they really did give us, and a lot of the other original area bands, they gave us a platform, they gave us a place to play, try out our material. And because it was so close to Rutgers and a bunch of other cities and towns where kids lived, there was a readymade audience and kids just wanting to have a good time. We built a following there, and it was very instrumental in our continuation and development as a band.
And the crowds were great, we used to have the best times at the Court. It was always packed and people were there to have a good time. And they liked our music. Because we had to play three sets, we had to pad it out with covers. But the covers we’d play were fairly obscure, so a lot of people thought that the covers we were playing were our originals. So the Court was very important to us.
NBT: Within New Brunswick, the music scene really kind of took off starting in 1981, since that’s when the Court started doing music at its new location, and that’s when the Melody Bar also started having music. So I’m curious, did you guys play any other shows in town, at places like the Roxy, or the Melody, or you know, Doll’s Place, Patrix, anywhere else that you guys played?
DD: We played Patrix once I think, but not those other places you mentioned. However we did play at Rutgers once or twice. There was a place, it was called the Ledge, I don’t know if it’s still there. So we did play Rutgers, Patrix once, but mostly the Court. The Court was really our mainstay.
NBT: And then you mentioned the Dirt Club, you mentioned Kenny’s Castaways. I think you have, you kind of have a few, almost like home bars: you know, Stone Pony and Fastlane in Asbury, I think the Other End in New York.
DD: Ah yea.
So it’s kind of funny that you have these handful of places that you’re associated with. What about the Court especially stands out to you in your recollections of those places?
DD: Well I guess going back to what I said before, it really did become a home away from home for us. The audience really, we were able to build an audience there and build a following there. It just became a very friendly place for us. We always felt if we were going to play the Court, we were going to have a good show. And we’d see our friends, we’d see our fans, we’d make new fans and new friends, it was just a very supportive atmosphere for us.
NBT: You owned a store in Carteret, I think it was a printing store, t-shirts?
DD: Yeah it was a silk-screening shop where I did original designs. Actually Jimmy and I started that in 1975. And I did that throughout the 70’s and into the 80’s actually. And then Jimmy opened up a record store [in New Brunswick] and he and I were partners in that for a while called Flamin’ Groovies. And I left that and Jimmy turned it into Captain Video there on Easton Avenue, not far from the train station.
NBT: Jim lived in New Brunswick, but as far as the place where you guys practiced as a band, was that Pat’s house in Scotch Plains? That was where you guys would rehearse?
DD: Yes that’s right. When we started out, before the Smithereens started out we would mostly practice in Jimmy’s garage. But once we all got together with Pat, we practiced in his parents’ basement. And his father had to get up really early for work, and he still didn’t complain, he let us practice sometimes ’til midnight and make a lot of racket. His name was Nick, Nick DiNizio, and we were always very grateful to him for his support.
NBT: What kind of process would you guys have for songwriting, would somebody bring a melody in and then you’d jam on it, or what was your process in there?
DD: Yeah, a lot of the times Pat would have song ideas, and we would get together and we would all play together and work out the arrangements and work out the songs together in a rehearsal. Oftentimes we would also record demos of them as well. So a lot of times in the studio, that’s when ideas would come together.
NBT: Skipping forward a few years, you guys had your big breakout in 1986, and by that time you were all about 29 or 30, so you had paid your dues. So I’m curious how things might have changed on the local circuit, because I know, you know Jim in an old article, he had a quote where someone asked him, “Some might think the days of seeing the Smithereens at the Court Tavern are on the way out.” But Jim even in ‘86 said, “No, we’ll always play here.” So I’m curious how, if anything changed as far as the dynamic you had locally, once you had that big breakout.
DD: Locally? Well I mean, we continued to play local venues, as a matter of fact we went back to the Court a number of times. We even recorded a live album there, I forget what year it was.
NBT: ‘08 I think.
DD: Yeah that sounds about right. So, we always came back to play the Court and some other venues as well. So the dynamic? No, it was always, people were the same in a way. Like I said the Court was always pretty crowded when we played there [laughter], and the audience was always boisterous and enthusiastic, and that was pretty much the same case when we went back to play there after when we were already touring and doing our thing.
NBT: And you guys have actually played there across four different decades. There was the 80’s obviously; there’s a great video of you guys just playing pinball in the Court Tavern in the 90’s sometime
DD: Yup, yup I remember that.
NBT: And then the live album in ‘08, and you know a Pat tribute show in ‘18. So did you see the same type of crowd there over the years, same faces, same type of reaction?
DD: I’d say so. You know, again uh, as I said before, the crowds were always enthusiastic. And a lot of us, yeah you know what, it’s true that quite a few of our fans from back in the day would come back and see us, and still do, for that matter. So, the spirit never changed with our fans. It maybe intensified a bit. Well maybe that’s not a fair assessment because they were always pretty supportive and pretty into having a good time.
And what’s cool is that when we were touring back then, a lot of our audience were college age. We played a lot of colleges, and so those folks that were in college at the time, eventually they left school, they marry, they settle down they have kids, and now, fast forward to current times, their kids are out of the house, they’re empty nesters and they’re coming to see us again. [laughter] And they’re really enjoying it. So, it’s all good.
NBT: Here’s another Court Tavern question. What recollection do you have of the Albert family? There was Bob Sr., who, he passed away in about ‘97 but he was there in the 80’s, and then Bob Jr. really kind of ran the club for those years. So what are your recollections of those guys?
DD: Well I remember Bob’s dad had a great crewcut. [laughter] And uh, I remember we would always hang out with him upstairs at the bar. And I just remember him being there, and being supportive. And Bob was our guy. That’s the best way I could put it. They were very supportive, they were very welcoming, and we always had an open door there. It was a place we could rely on, they were great to us.
NBT: Were there other bands at the time that you kind of grew up with or associated with, from about ‘80 to ‘86, that era in New Brunswick?
DD: You mean bands that were playing on the circuit at that time?
NBT: Yeah, bands that you were friendly with that you would see at the Court, that you would share a bill with maybe.
DD: Oh boy. Most of the bands that we would share a bill that I remember came from out of town. There was a band from Worcester, Mass. called The Odds, they came down and played with us. J. Rassler was in the band and was in some other cool groups like DMZ. I’m trying to remember about some of the other local bands. I think there was a band called Louie Louie that we liked a lot. There were some friends of ours from Ohio called the Action, and they came out to play with us. Those are the ones that come to mind.
NBT: Moving forward to kind of nowadays, well especially in 1986, your sound, that era had a lot of synth pop and drum machines, but you guys were always just a classic guitar and drum lineup, and I think that sound has really carried through to today still. And I’ve seen some clips of your recent shows and you guys sound like you did when you were coming up. So what’s your evaluation of your sound right now, how you guys are playing?
DD: Well, you know it’s funny cause as I said before the kids who were in college back in the day who are coming to see us say we sound better than ever. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I think we’re still… We like to, or really we just can’t help but do it, but we still play like we’re teenagers. We have that spirit, we have an appreciation for music that runs deep. And we really do try to play with the same enthusiasm, the same energy as it was when we were kids. So hopefully, that comes through. I guess it does if that’s what you’re telling me.
NBT: And how about back then. The 80’s had a very distinct sound and you guys were of that era largely. But did your sound stand out then from the kind of synth pop stuff? Was it obvious then in the clubs what people were taking from you guys?
DD: You know, the Smithereens, we made a conscious effort just to be ourselves. There were a lot of things going on at that time like you said, synth pop, and New Wave, which became kind of dated sounding. And there was like a rockabilly movement. And that was all well and good but we just, for whatever reason we just stuck to our guns and just created our own sound by playing the way we play. And the culmination of our musical personalities coming together, it kind of stood apart.
And I think that’s why it took us a while to actually get somewhere with what we were doing, because we didn’t buy into any other trends or anything like that. We just did what we did. I don’t know if that answers your question but that’s kind of the way we frame it.
NBT: One other quote I found and this was back in ‘86, and Pat was saying in November, I think it was in Arizona that this article came out, but he said about success, “It’s kind of a shock. Two months ago we couldn’t get arrested.” So I was curious, did it happen that quickly for you, was it unexpected? You had put in your time, so were your expectations that we’re gonna make it or was it, we’re just having fun playing our home bars and touring around a little bit.
DD: I think there were times… Like I said before, I think it took us about six years to get a record deal. During that time, there were ups and downs for sure. And yeah we got discouraged a few times but I think we just had it in our head that we were not gonna, we were never gonna not go somewhere with our career, because it’s what we wanted. And I think it’s that key element, for anything anybody does in life. You gotta want it, and you gotta be able to stick with what you’re doing, and persevere, and work real hard, and focus. So I think that answers your questions. Our minds just never took no for an answer. And we believed we were good. It didn’t come quickly, that’s part of your question, it took close to six years.
But once it did come… I mean it was kind of gradual, there were several steps that led to us breaking out on radio nationally and on MTV. And we were signed to Enigma Records after everybody else turned us down. And they were doing soundtracks for Cannon Films. They did the Death Wish movies. They did some like, exploitation movies, and one of the films they were working on was called “Dangerously Close,” which was a teenage vigilante movie. And an advance cassette of our first album Especially For You ended up in the car of I think the director of the film or the owner of Cannon Films. And one day his wife was driving the car, put in the cassette, heard “Blood And Roses” and said you know I think this would be good for that film you’re working on. [laughter]
And that’s how it kind of happened. Enigma, who was doing the soundtracks, singled out “Blood And Roses” and they put it on the soundtrack, and brought us out to Los Angeles to shoot a video for that song. We had never intended for “Blood And Roses” to be a single, we had thought “Strangers When We Meet” would be more of a contender on that album. So it turned out that the film didn’t really get off the ground, it didn’t do well. But MTV played the video, and got a good reaction to it. And the video initially had scenes from the film intercut with us performing. So what they did was they edited the film scenes out, and because they were getting such a good response to it they kept playing the “Blood And Roses” video. And then radio latched on to it. And that was our big break you could say, in the whole scheme of it.
NBT: What you just described reminds me of what John Lennon would say before the Beatles broke out. He had a mantra that if things were going poorly, he’d say, “Where we going boys?” and then he’d say, “To the toppermost of the poppermost!”
DD: That’s great yeah.
NBT: And you guys had the song “Top of the Pops,” so was that a nod to that notion maybe?
DD: Um, possibly. But it’s funny you mention that saying because even though we didn’t verbalize that, I think that that was in our minds. That was our M.O., we were gonna just keep going and do our thing. And that’s all we knew how to do. [laughter]
NBT: A lot of the lyrics are about relationships or emotions or social alienation. Is there anything in there that you associate with a specific time or place, maybe even a little New Brunswick association? Do you have anything that is stirred up lyrically like that?
DD: It’s hard to say lyrically specifically. But when I think about that period, that led up to us coming up with the songs and recording “Especially For You” which we completed in December of ‘85, I mean I certainly flash on all the wonderful times we had at the Court, and all the friendships we made, just enjoying that part of our youth. And I think about New York, cause my current wife and then girlfriend lived in New York, and Pat lived in New York.
And Jimmy’s apartment, I should say that, Jimmy’s apartment in New Brunswick was a real hub for us. We spent a lot of time having parties, and guys getting out the acoustic guitars and we’d all sing. Yeah, New Brunswick was certainly a big part of our formative experience and like I said we had our record store, but Cheap Thrills was another great place to buy records and meet up with people. And the Court even if we weren’t playing sometimes we’d just go and hang out. And Rutgers, we went to see a lot of shows at Rutgers too. I remember seeing the Kinks there in ‘77 I think it was or thereabouts. So New Brunswick was certainly important to us.
NBT: Jim’s apartment, was that above his shop or was that somewhere else in town?
DD: It was not above the shop, I’m trying to remember what street it was. Oh ok, do you know where the Ale ‘N ‘Wich is? It was right across from the Ale ‘N ‘Wich. Let me look it up real quick.
NBT: Was it Louis Street? Somerset? Hamilton?
DD: Hamilton! That’s right. It was right across the street from there. Oh I can see the picture now, on Google whatever it is where you can see around. Right next to this Tae Kwan Do place now I guess… His apartment was upstairs there. The second floor. That’s it, yup. [laughter]
NBT: Maybe we’ll get a plaque there someday for you guys.
DD: [Laughter] Yeah and Jimmy’s then girlfriend Betty was going to school, later his wife, who is now deceased. But she had an apartment in another part of town, I can’t remember, I really don’t remember how to tell you where it was, but there you go.
NBT: And lastly, Carteret show, big homecoming for you guys, how do you feel going into that show?
DD: It’s very exciting. Carteret was a great place to grow up in. Great town for us. We had a lot of cool kids, creative, bright, funny, curious kids, so it was really a great experience having grown up there. And where this new venue is, the Carteret Performing Arts Center, the block that its on, the original block there were a few stores there, including there was a shop that had Jimmy’s first guitar teacher there, and there was a place called Little Klein’s, which was a magazine and candy store where we’d buy our comic books and Monster magazine. So that actual block where we’re playing had a lot of meaning for us as kids, we would ride our bikes there all the time. But to go back, I know there’s gonna be a lot of our friends from grammar school and high school there, so it’s a big deal to us, it really is.
NBT: You got anything special planned for it?
DD: Yeah, we’re talking about it now I guess… Come out and see and we’ll let you know.
Bennett Kelly reports on music for New Brunswick Today. He has twice won the Best Arts & Entertainment Coverage award from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists, for his features on the music scene in 2022 and 2023.