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Remembering Smithereens' Songwriter And Lead Singer Pat DiNizio

Dec 13, 2017
Originally published on December 22, 2017 9:06 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Pat DiNizio, the lead singer and main songwriter of the band The Smithereens, died yesterday. He was 62. DiNizio's music was influenced by all the songs he grew up listening to on AM radio in the '60s. His bandmates have posted a tribute to him on Facebook saying Pat had the magic touch. He channeled the essence of joy and heartbreak into hook-laden three-minute pop songs infused with a lifelong passion for rock 'n' roll. The Smithereens formed in New Jersey in 1980 and were most popular during the late '80s and early '90s.

We're going to listen back to an interview I recorded with DiNizio in 1988. The band had just released their second album called "Green Thoughts." We started with the song "Only A Memory" from that album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY A MEMORY")

THE SMITHEREENS: (Singing) My mind is filled with thoughts of you. I think about the days of two. I search the room, but you're not there. Your perfume lingers everywhere, but it's only a memory of what our love was going to be. Only a memory, broken bits of you and me. Only a memory. Only a memory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: "Only a Memory" has a really good hook, and I wonder if you actually think about things like hooks in your songs when you're writing one.

PAT DINIZIO: Well, I'm very conscious about song structure. And I was always a fan of the classic pop song writing 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.

GROSS: So the hook comes first and then the song gets written around it for you?

DINIZIO: It depends. Oftentimes I'll get a song title. The title "Green Thoughts," for example, came out of nowhere. And it's not the kind of thing that I give a lot of thought to or that I would ever intellectualize. The songs both musically and lyrically tend to come out of nowhere.

GROSS: I want to ask you about the song "Something New." It's a song I like a lot. I'll tell you that I really like the lyric to it because the lyric is so clean, so spare (laughter). Tell me about writing that song and about the lyric.

DINIZIO: Well, quite frankly, that lyric came moments after a breakup with a girlfriend. And I was in the shower, and it just sort of hit. And the song sort of wrote itself. It's just that weird instant when - instance when, you know, you're not really thinking about it. That's why I'm particularly happy with those set of lyrics. Although they are as simple as they are, they're very heartfelt. They have a lot of personal meaning to me. And I think that anyone who's been through a similar experience can relate to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING NEW")

THE SMITHEREENS: (Singing) It is time for something new for us to do. So, darling, dry your eyes. It's time for something new. Something new is what we need. Something new, we have agreed. It is time for us to look for something new.

GROSS: It's nice to hear a very unpretentious lyric, too, something that's just simple and clean and straightforward.

DINIZIO: Yeah, I've never really been into wordplay or being clever lyrically for the sake of being clever. It just doesn't make any sense to me. I need the lyrics to have some sort of meaning that I can relate to on some sort of emotional level. And hopefully that will translate into similar enjoyment for whosever listening.

GROSS: You know, I was listening to your song "Something New," and it was making me think about The Beatles' early songs. It seems a lot of your songs are almost homages to groups that you really like.

DINIZIO: You know, you could say that. I personally believe that there's virtually nothing really new musically under the sun. Everyone is sort of taking what's gone by or the good things from the past and trying to reinvent them in some way. And anyone who has ears to hear it realizes that the song "If The Sun Doesn't Shine" on the "Green Thoughts" album is a definite homage to Brian Wilson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF THE SUN DOESN'T SHINE")

THE SMITHEREENS: (Singing) It was on a day just like this that I first met you and we shared a kiss. Things that used to matter are no longer on my mind. Now it don't matter to me if the sun doesn't shine. We'll lie in bed Saturday and hide...

GROSS: You sing really well. And I was wondering if when you were young - if adults noticed that you can sing and if you had to perform at, like, kiddie talent shows and things like that (laughter).

DINIZIO: Well, my parents were very much lower-middle-class working people. They both worked two jobs for years and years. And 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.

GROSS: Would you sing along, then turn down the volume and see how you did without the record?

DINIZIO: Actually, I think the volume was on 10 most of the time. But 10 in 1966 or '67 was a lot different than it is now.

GROSS: The Smithereens strike me as being in this mid-level place in rock music now in terms of popularity. You're playing a lot of clubs. You're on MTV. Your previous record, I think, made it to the Billboard Top 100. You're not rock stars. You're not really famous. But you're not obscure either. You're kind of in the middle somewhere. What do you do now to take it to the next step? Do you want to go to a next step?

DINIZIO: There are no conscious decisions. The only thing that we can do as musicians or, quote, unquote, "so-called artists" is just to do the best work that we can. If we could do what we do musically, which we've done virtually without change for eight years, and become tremendously successful, to me it would not be a sellout in any way at all.

GROSS: Pat DiNizio, the lead singer and songwriter of The Smithereens, recorded in 1988. He died yesterday at the age of 62. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.