SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ — Smithereens fan Jeff Christian was a frequent patron of Crossroads in Garwood, at least when Pat DiNizio was there playing his solo acoustic shows. “These concerts were more intimate, in a bar setting,” Christian said in a Dec. 15 phone interview. “He would cover his favorites of The Beatles, The Smithereens, all in acoustics. “DiNizio and The Smithereens kept a kind of Jersey rock ‘n’ roll alive in a time when music was getting very synthesized with dubbed vocals.”
The Scotch Plains native, who was The Smithereens’ lead guitarist, vocalist and songwriter, died Tuesday, Dec. 12, at the age of 62. Referring to the The Smithereens as “the little rock band that could,” Christian noted “you could draw a pre-direct line from R&B to British Invasion to The Smithereens.”
DiNizio’s death was solemnly announced by bandmates on their website and Facebook account at around midnight on Wednesday, Dec. 13. “It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Pat DiNizio, lead singer and songwriter of the influential New Jersey rock band, The Smithereens — America’s Band,” a statement on the band’s website said. While a cause of death was not revealed, Saturday, Dec. 9, DiNizio posted on the band’s official Facebook account that he was receiving care and physical therapy at his home in Scotch Plains, and was hoping to get back on the road for upcoming music gigs.
The Smithereens formed in 1980 and was signed by Enigma Records. The group comprised of four New Jersey locals, three from Carteret: guitarist and vocalist Jim Babjak, drummer Dennis Diken, and bassist and singer Mike Mesaros. Best known for a string of hits in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the band gained popularity for their songs “Blood and Roses,” “Only a Memory,” “A Girl Like You” and “Too Much Passion.”
DiNizio’s love of music started at an early age. He graduated from Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School in 1973, and went on to attend several colleges afterwards, including Union County College in Cranford, Seton Hall University in South Orange and later New York University. After college, he worked for his father as a garbage collector at DiNizio and Son Disposal Service.
“I remember completing ‘Blood and Roses’ while on the back of a garbage truck, oddly enough,” he told Terry Gross in an interview for the National Public Radio program “Fresh Air” in 2007.
While many mourn the loss of a rock star who rippled through the entertainment industry and influenced the stardom grunge sound of Nirvana, others will deeply miss a friend, who generously spread his love for music throughout his hometown and beyond. “He loved his hometown, and even at the height of his popularity, he still loved it and moved back,” childhood friend John Haussmann said of DiNizio. “He was very grounded.”
Haussmann, who grew up with DiNizio in Scotch Plains, told LocalSource that he first met DiNizio at their high school battle of the bands. “I was just 12, and Pat was five years older,” Haussmann reminisced in a Dec 14 phone interview. Despite the initial age difference, their friendship grew, later performing together at Scotch-Plains and Fanwood festivals and in their Black Sabbath Tribute band. “A lot of the music I knew was because of him,” Haussmann added. “Black Sabbath was his band.”
In addition to his musical life, Haussmann reflected on the time DiNizio ran for the U.S. Senate on the Reform Ticket in 2000. DiNizio and Haussmann rented a trolley and drove it from Scotch Plains to New York, driving through the streets while playing and blasting their music through amplifiers. The duo later made a stop along the way at the WFMU record fair in New York and played a live set over the air there, Haussmann said.
When it came time for the senatorial debate, DiNizio sat next to well-dressed candidates in his leather jacket. “Pat was really serious about his platform and didn’t really care about looking like a politician,” Haussmann said. “He actually spent a lot of his own money on running and was serious.”
He finished fourth behind Jon Corzine, Bob Franks and Bruce Afran with fewer than 20,000 votes. Haussmann said his friend always remained a innovator and continued to take part in new ideas and events.
“Pat created the living room concert idea, where he would play music for people across the country from the comfort of their own homes,” he said. “He was just a very friendly guy, a kind-hearted person and very knowledgeable. A brilliant musician and songwriter.”