I've grown accustomed to writing farewell pieces over the past few years. We've lost so many of the greatest of the greats, and so often, we are collectively grieving, looking for a way to send our heroes off with a little gratitude for all they've given us, while simultaneously clinging to the illusion of closure as a balm for the soul. That's my impetus when writing such tributes.
Most the folks we've lost since the aggressive death train left the station with the loss of David Bowie in January 2016 – Prince, Tom Petty, Chris Cornell among them - have been mega-stars, artists who fled this mortal coil with their artistry, their commercial standing and their cross-cultural fan-base intact. They were household names.
On Dec. 12, we lost a beautiful musician whose name is not likely to be mentioned on Entertainment Tonight or during the local news broadcast. Pat Dinizio, a former garbage man from New Jersey, wrote some of the finest power-pop tunes this side of Big Star and Cheap Trick. His band, the Smithereens, released a string of indelible guitar jangle-driven gems that actually became hits at the tail-end of the '80s. Then the bubble burst, and DiNizio and his band-mates spent the next 30 years touring like madmen, releasing great records that only true fans and rock aficionados appreciated, and making a living through a string of club gigs and the occasional casino date pay-off.
The Smithereens represent the old music business model. They played scummy clubs, they became very good at what they did, they built a following one enthused concert-goer at a time. Their integrity was hard-earned.
Dinizio looked at songwriting as an art form to be studied, practiced, devotedly attended to. His role models included Buddy Holly, the subject of a 2009 tribute album on which Dinizio layered his own voice in heavenly harmonies and offered brave arrangements of the Holly songbook, crossing the border of mere "tribute album" territory in search of a land where reverence and inspiration commingle in the present tense.
It was not difficult to deduce that Dinizio had heard plenty of "AM gold," the often smart and sophisticated pop music that filled the airwaves in the late '60s and '70s, unabashedly sharing space with adventurous FM radio formats in the imaginations of listeners who quite likely didn't realize how good they had it in those days before the death of knell of strict formatting was sounded.
"I'm very conscious about song structure," Dinizio told NPR's Terry Gross in 1988. "And I was always a fan of the classic pop songwriting structure, a structure or type of songwriting that was more prevalent in the 1950s and '60s. And those sorts of songs included hooks. There are hooks today in a lot of popular music, but it seems as though the song itself is being ignored in favor of writing songs around a beat or a drum machine."
While he was still working as a garbage man, Dinizio wrote 3-minute pop songs with ridiculously effective hooks, and the Smithereens turned them into bangers, power-pop paeans delivered via chiming guitar arpeggios, power chords, a rhythm section that dwelled perpetually in the deepest of pockets. Always at the core of these songs was a bitter-sweetness, a sense that Dinizio had endured heartbreak and disappointment, that he knew that love and pain lived right next door to each other on a rundown street in some Jersey suburb, and you could often hear them battling it out through the paper-thin walls.
That sense of doomed struggle pursued with good humor and tenacity in Dinizio's songs was mirrored by the arc of the Smithereens career.
“I was beginning to entertain the notion of pursuing other things,” DiNizio told the New York Times in 2004, recalling the days when the Smithereens were slogging it out in the club trenches while being ignored by the broader, major label music industry. “I had already turned 30, and no one was interested in the band.”
Enigma records signed the band before Dinizio's misgivings could be acted upon, however, and after nearly a decade battling it out in obscurity, the band was uber-tight and sitting on a stockpile of songs that any sane rock lover would have to consider classics-in-waiting. "Blood and Roses," "Behind the Wall of Sleep," "Yesterday Girl," "A Girl Like You" – these songs backed up another Dinizio statement to Gross in that NPR interview: "I learned to sing and develop my sense of vocal harmony by listening to Beach Boys and Beatles records and Yardbirds records and just singing along with the records."
Soon, the Smithereens were on MTV, looking cool as hell in black turtlenecks, classic Rickenbacker guitars akimbo, hammering home mini pop symphonies like their lives depended on it, which they did, really. It looked like they might make a leap toward the bigger time in 1990, but then grunge came along, and suddenly, Beatle-esque song-craft seemed quaint, old, out of date. So it was back to the bars, where they'd stay, playing to the faithful, grateful to be making a living in music and only occasionally having to resort to day-jobs to feed their rock 'n' roll habit.
The songs kept coming, too, reaching critical mass with the 1999 release of "God Save the Smithereens," perhaps the band's finest statement on record. It's a power-pop masterpiece.
Dinizio pursued a solo career concurrent with the Smithereens, releasing 4 solo albums – among them, the exquisite "Songs and Sounds" in 1997 – and pursued offbeat ventures, a la his intimate living room tours and songwriter workshops. The Smithereens never stopped touring and recording. An album of all-new Dinizio compositions was released as "The Smithereens 2011," and urged critics (including this one) to excitedly point out the obvious – this band was an American power-pop treasure. The albums didn’t sell particularly well, but then, it didn’t seem that anyone really expected them to.
In the wake of Dinizio's death, I was hanging around his Facebook page as if it was a wake, looking for some way to thank a guy whose songs have meant so much to me. I found a post from the man dated October 2014, and for some reason, it spoke to me. Dinizio was an awful lot like a few people I know in Buffalo. Struggling, getting by, driven by a love for music that never translated into riches and spoils, and haunted by memories of love lost and opportunity squandered, always associating these scars with songs.
"Captain & Tenille 'Love Will Keep Us Together' # 1 on the pop music charts 40 years ago today! Where were you in 1974?" Dinizio wrote.
"I was a year out of high school, working on the garbage truck, playing in cover bands, and going to a local community college part-time, more or less directionless, like many kids of my post-hippie generation. I took each day as it came, and despite being broke all the time, I was happy, because I was in my first serious relationship, and desperately in love for the first time in my life. My girlfriend and I knew that 'Love Will Keep Us Together' was a totally goofy song, but we'd still smile at each other and laugh whenever it came on the AM radio of my 1967 VW Squareback station wagon, and she would squeeze my hand a little tighter as the song played. I was content and wanted to marry her, lead a simple life, and never leave my home town, while she couldn't wait to get out of her small town, wanted to travel the world, and never stay in one place. The exact opposite happened to us, and I wound up on the road for most of my life while she pretty much stayed in one place and raised a family.
"Life is funny, isn't it?"
Yes it is. But the laughs are getting harder to come by.