If you smell something rather unusual at the Birchmere Friday night March 17, there’s at least a chance, however remote, that the Smithereens’ fans have brought them…crabs. That actually happened once at the venue back in the day when the Jersey boys played the famous Alexandria stage.
“One of our fans, a longtime fan, brought me a dozen crabs,” recalls guitarist Jim Babjak. “I had them [wrapped] in newspapers, and I stunk up the back! But the band tolerates me because they know I love Maryland crabs.”
Smelly crustaceans in the green room, or not, the Smithereens are excited to return to the Birchmere. Babjak will have on hand his traveling Guinness glass, which he knows will be on tap at the vaunted performance hall—and quite appropriate for St. Patrick’s Day.
“I like to have a Guinness on stage and a bourbon. I put [the Guinness glass] in a freezer bag so in case it breaks it won’t get all over my stuff,” he said. “I just don’t believe in drinking that out of a plastic cup. It’s a little quirk but it’s the right thing to do.”
The Smithereens played the State Theater in Falls Church in January 2020, but a few short weeks before covid lockdowns shuttered venues all over the country. Their scheduled return to the Birchmere later that year was scrapped, which makes their upcoming swing back that much sweeter.
“I like the layout of the room. It’s spacious and welcoming,” added Babjak’s bandmate, drummer Dennis Diken. “Bands like to play there and the audience likes to come there, so it’s kind of a win-win for everybody. It looks good, sounds good, [and] the crew is great to work with.
“When a venue gets it right, you like to go back to it. And they get it right.”
Diken and Babjak have played together in one form or another since they met as 14-year-old high schoolers in Carteret, New Jersey. Incredibly, the Smithereens have been performing since 1980, with Mike Mesaros on bass and Pat DiNizio on vocals besides Diken and Babjak.
Diken recalls that the Garden State “scene” of the ’70s and ’80s largely centered around cover bands. Having original compositions gave him and his mates a chance to stand out from the rather crowded pack. He remembers vividly playing on both sides of the Hudson River, winning fans one show at a time.
“Our stronghold was a place called Kenny’s Castaways on Bleecker Street,” he says of the famous—but now closed—New York venue where Diken and Babjak played with Mark Mazer and the Targets prior to reforming as the Smithereens. “Pat Kenny and Don Hill, the two guys who owned and managed the venue, really provided a home base for us in New York to hone our craft and get into the real world of the music business. We were also playing CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City and a host of other venues.
“It was kind of tough for us to make a go of it, but we stuck it out. It took us about six years to get a record deal.”
Sadly, DiNizio, one of the founding members of the Smithereens, passed away in 2017, and the band now tours with alternating vocalists Robin Wilson from the Gin Blossoms as well as Marshall Crenshaw. Crenshaw will be front and center with the band at their Birchmere gig.
Babjak said it was impossible to “replace” DiNizio, and many people who first offered their vocal services to the band claimed they could sing precisely like their late singer.
“I didn’t want to go that route,” said Babjak. “I know Pat’s gone, but people still want to hear the songs, and we’re the ones that played on the record and wrote some of the songs. It’s different, yes, [but] you just gotta keep moving forward.”
“Marshall is actually an old friend of the band’s. It just seemed very comfortable,” added Diken of Crenshaw. “And then Robin Wilson…we discovered was a huge fan of ours, and that worked out really good too.
“Again, it’s not trying to look or sound like Pat DiNizio; they are interpreting the music. They do a great job and the audience digs it.”
Loss is part of anyone’s life, and so has it been for Babjak, who not only lost his bandmate DiNizio in 2017 but also, only a year earlier, his wife Betty to cancer. Loving another person is certainly possible, Babjak says, adding that he is currently in another relationship. But grief and adjustment nonetheless take both their toll and time from which to recover.
“You just gotta keep moving forward. Life is for the living,” he said. “And it’s the same with the band. When Pat died, it doesn’t mean that we have to die also, because then I’ll end up sitting on the couch eating Cheese Doodles watching HBO or something. It’s a lot more fun going out and playing.”
Babjak has never stopped writing music, even during the band’s lean years in the early-2000s. At the same time, he also worked a “day job” that allowed him enough flexibility to continue playing with the Smithereens at night. However, during covid times that other job was outsourced, allowing him to focus on the band.
“I just turned 65 anyway, so here we go,” he said of being “retired” from the tech world—and admitting he didn’t speak about that other life too openly with Smithereens fans. “Pat used to say, ‘Don’t tell people, because they want you to be like a rock star or something.’ And I’d say, ‘Pat, I’m not a fucking rock star, I’m just a guy that plays guitar in a band and writes songs.’ And I’m having fun with it.”
“That’s the way I look at it. There’s no retirement in this business.”
Meanwhile, Diken says he finds life as a touring musician easier as he’s aged. His drumming has gotten more consistent, and he and his bandmates are symbiotic onstage.
“When you play with someone for almost 50 years…you develop a certain bond and unspoken language,” Diken said. “Or it speaks through the music, when it’s that much easier to play together [and] communicate within your playing. It’s that essence that is forged by having all those years’ experience together.”
Babjak recalls a radio interview he sat for beside Joey Ramone in Norfolk back in the day, right as the grunge movement was beginning to hang fire. When the host asked Ramone what it felt like to be the “godfathers” of punk, the artist responded: “Well, it’s great and everything, but the people we influenced are making a lot more money than we ever did.”
“I can’t believe he said that, but sometimes it’s true,” Babjak said, then added, “you stick around long enough, then people look back and go, ‘They weren’t so bad.’”
The Smithereens have been playing together for 43 years now, and the band will continue as long as the fans show up. Diken and Babjak say they are both eager to bring a joyful experience to the Birchmere audience—and hope people will leave with a smile on their faces and their spirits stirred.
“Once we hit the stage, everything else just fades away. We’re like kids playing in Jimmy’s garage again,” said Diken. “People need live music in their lives. This is all about lifting your spirits and having fun.”
Babjak shared similar thoughts on continuing on with that adolescent dream.
“We’re fans of music, and we just enjoy playing and having a good time,” he said. “The Birchmere is a special place because the crowd there is very enthusiastic. That actually makes me play better.”
The Smithereens come to the Birchmere in Alexandria March 17. Tickets are available by going to Birchmere.com.
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.
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