A few weeks ago, right before Christmas, I received a text from my uncle telling me that the lead singer and songwriter of the Smithereens, Pat DiNizio, had died. He was only 62. I felt empty. I had just come to accept that Tom Petty was no longer with us. Now, all of a sudden, another hero of mine was gone. Such is life. Nobody lives forever. It's just that the Smithereens have always been one of my favorite bands. And as you probably already guessed, they are also one of my uncle’s favorite bands. As a matter of fact, it was he who turned me onto them years ago in the late eighties – a day I remember very well.
A friend of my uncle's had a record store he was moving to a different location and he needed help hauling his entire stock of records from one side of town to the other. I volunteered to help immediately when I was told that I would get paid in records. In addition, I was excited to talk about music with my uncle and his friend for an entire day. They are both music lovers, sort of walking rock'n'roll encyclopedias, with extensive knowledge on the sort of stuff I like. Besides, it was a beautiful summer's day – a great day to be sitting on the steps of the new store, wiping sweat off your brow, drinking ice-cold soda and watching girls walk by in their summer dresses.
Once the work was done, I was given free hands at choosing ten albums from the LPs we had been carrying. Before I had even started my selection, my uncle pulled out the Smithereens' first album "Especially For You" from one of the piles and handed it to me. He vouched for the record and said that I wouldn't be disappointed if I went home with it. And he was right. I wasn't disappointed – far from it. As a matter of fact, that record didn't leave my turntable for about a month. And so started my love affair with the music of the Smithereens, from the first track of their first album "Strangers When We Meet."
This song captured me from the intro onward. The Spectorish drum accents doubled with a tambourine, the sixties-styled vocal harmonies, the driving bass, the Shadows-like lead guitar parts and the double tracked lead vocal in the middle eight. This music did a great job mixing the hopefulness and naiveté of the sixties with the melancholy and realism of the eighties. This effect was furthered by Don Dixon's brooding production, DiNizio's bittersweet lyrics and his very distinctive lovelorn vocal style. It continues to be one of my all-time favorite songs and indeed, one of my all-time favorite lyrics. Perhaps the best that's been written about the hangover a long extramarital affair leaves you with.
I know there are quite a few songs out there written about this topic. However, they mostly portray people who are unable to call it quits (Bryan Adams' "Run To You"), scared of getting caught (The Rolling Stones' "I Just Can't Be Seen With You"), hiding behind the fact that they are not capable of fidelity (Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good") or trapped in an impossible situation brought on by the wrong choice (The Eagles' "Lyin’ Eyes"). What makes "Strangers When We Meet" unique is that it's about an affair with emotional attachment, not about casual cheating or having a lover stacked away somewhere – they meet on a Sunday after all and not during the lunch hour or after work. What’s more, in this song, both parties seem to be married: the woman even happily. Consequently, the lyrics of the song go rather deep on an emotional level.
The story the lyrics tell reflects how most affairs end: in a sad break-up that brings on feelings of bittersweet longing. The lyrics also remind us of the unavoidable fact that nobody really wants to live a double life forever. In addition, as most of us realize, being in love and loving someone are sometimes two different things and yes, contrary to what people want to admit, you can love two people at the same time – another harsh and unpleasant fact that DiNizio touches upon quite nicely.
She told me Sunday
Baby it’s over
We can’t go on this way
I really love you
But I love him, too
She said take care, okay?
The real challenge of writing about affairs is that they are like Woodstock: Many claim to have been there but few actually have. And if we don't count one-night stands or drunken fumbling at an office party as affairs, it really brings down the number of people who've experienced what DiNizio is singing about – having to go back to being strangers with the person you are madly in love with.
I never really
Thought that she'd leave her
Whole home and family
I've got my own life
You've still got your wife
She whispered tenderly
Please don't look my way
When you see me on the street
We will still be strangers when we meet
Obviously, another nice touch here is DiNizio’s use of the word “still” in the line, “We will still be strangers when we meet.” With this word, the woman of the story quite sarcastically points out that even though they won’t be romantically involved with each other anymore, nothing really changes for them, they just continue doing what they’ve always done: pretending they don’t know each other.
The conflicting, yet incredibly euphoric feeling that one experiences when tangled up in a clandestine relationship is included in the story as well.
All throughout this troubled time
Times I’d wish that you were mine
Spend my nights and days thinking of you
Of course, "Strangers When We Meet" was just the beginning for this band that would go on to become a cult favorite among music lovers around the world with songs such as "Blood And Roses," "Behind The Wall Of Sleep," Only A Memory," "A Girl Like You," "Too Much Passion," "She's Got A Way," and really, the list is endless. It truly is a tragedy that they never achieved the fame many of their less-magnificent peers did – another proof of the fact that the music business has never really been solely about the music. The irony is that even today they remain one of New Jersey's best-kept secrets and as time goes by, there is a danger of fewer and fewer potential fans finding their music. Hopefully this post and the future ones I am intending to write about the Smithereens will remedy this inevitable fact at least a little.
As a matter of fact, help me out here a bit. The next time, you want to listen to some top notch New Jersey music, give Springsteen and Bon Jovi a pass, regardless of how great they are, and venture out to one of the less visited Spotify artist pages that features the Smithereens. I'll leave you with the words my uncle left me on that sunny summer's day decades ago, "Trust me, you won't regret it."
Check out this audio interview. The Smithereens’ lead guitarist and co-founder Jim Babjak, like the rest of us, was taken completely by surprise at the passing of lead singer Pat DiNizio. Here he gives his favorite memories of being in the Smithereens.
Here’s a link to the official music video of another Smithereens classic “Behind The Wall Of Sleep.”
You can learn more about The Smithereens here:
About the curator - Tommi Tikka
Tom Tikka is a linguist, poet, professional songwriter, recording artist and a music aficionado. He started playing guitar when he was four and writing songs when he was six. Consequently, he doesn't remember a time when he wasn't playing or writing. It's fair to say, music and lyrics are not just something he loves to engage himself in; to him, they are a way of life.