In 1962, he mastered the fine, primitive art of banging out rhythms on coffee cans with a pair of Lincoln Logs. Soon after, he graduated to a toy Indian tom-tom, and by January 1968, he had himself a real--albeit secondhand--drum kit.
Twenty-six years later, Dennis Diken is all grown up but still behind the skins, pounding it out for the Smithereens. The band has been together for almost a decade and a half now, existing through punk into New Wave into college rock into alternative by pumping out basic rock n' roll. Singer-songwriter Pat DiNizio is a man of simple chord changes and dark lyrics, a man whose driving, moody songs come trailing a placenta of Kinks and Beatles.
"Strangers When We Meet," "Blood and Roses," "Only a Memory," "A Girl Like You" are hits that cut a pop swath through a car speaker as well as musical eras, taking the best of then without sacrificing plenty of now.
A Date With the Smithereens is the latest invitation from the New York quartet, recorded with the band's original producer, Don Dixon. The album is strong as ever, 12 songs that include DiNizio's pounding salute to the state of his brain (War for My Mind"), an ode to naughty Italian John Gotti (Gotti") and a swipe at the sacred home of grunge (Sick of Seattle").
But everyone interviews the singer-songwriter for articles like this, so from behind the kit and over the phone from Biloxi and Houston, here's Diken. He's arguably one of the finest, no-nonsense drummers going, up there with Max Weinberg, Ringo, Hal Blaine, even Sandy Nelson. Diken is also a passionate pop historian/collector, and has worked on the Capitol reissue boxed sets of Louis Prima, the Four Freshmen and Frank Sinatra. He's over six feet tall, has shaken hands with Al Green and has never heard of the Donner party. New Times: Nirvana allegedly listened to the Smithereens during the recording of Nevermind. Did you know Cobain?
Diken: I never met him, didn't know him and none of us did, but we heard from several sources that they were into our records when they were in the studio recording Nevermind, and there's a bit in that Michael Azzerad [biography] book about them driving around listening to the Beatles and us.
NT: Is that surprising to you?
Diken: Yes and no. In all honesty--without trying to toot our own bugles--we really think that we gave a lot to the whole Seattle thing. The minor chord, stark feel of our stuff, especially the first two albums. We've heard it from a lot of people.
NT: Were you a fan of Nirvana? Diken: I wasn't particularly into their music. I think that Nirvana had a real thing with Kurt, he had a certain look and really embodied that whole thing. Smithereens have never been a terribly strong image band, unfortunately, in this business of show. That's a big part of it for a lot of people. We're not pretty boys.
NT: Has the band suffered for that? Diken: We've suffered for a lot of things, and that very well might be one of them. Speaking as a musician and a big music fan, and trying to be an outsider as well as a member of the band, I really believe that we offer a lot of variety in our music, but in this show-business thing, people really need to pigeonhole you to sell you. Whatever we've done was just on the virtue of our music. We never tried to be anything or create an image. We just played music reflecting all the things we always dug. Maybe that confuses people.
NT: You've been together for 14 years; does it amaze you that the Smithereens still exist?
Diken: It does when I stop to think about it. What's even more amazing is that the roots of the band go beyond that. I've known Mike [Mesaros, bass player] since third grade, and Jimmy [Babjak, guitarist] and I started playing together in freshman year, 1971.
I was really hoping to meet new people to form a band with, cause all the people in grammar school weren't players, or weren't into the Who and stuff--Chick-A-Boom" by Daddy Dew Drop was all the rage, which I kinda like now but I didn't at the time.
So the first fucking day of high school in Carteret, New Jersey, I go to earth science class, period one. And there's this kid in the front of the class and he's got a loose-leaf notebook, and he had kind of a Beatle haircut, so I thought, "This kid might be all right, he might know something about music." And this kid opens his loose-leaf notebook and right there plastered on the inner cover are these color photos from Hit Parader of the Who.
I thought, "I've got to talk to this guy," you know? The next day, I went up to him--he had his name on the side of his books with one of those label makers, James Babjak--and I go, "Hey, Jim, I saw you had those pictures of the Who, you like the Who?" And he says, "Well, I really like the Beatles and I kind of like the Rolling Stones. I just liked the way those pictures looked." He came over for lunch a couple times and we played records, and he had a cheap guitar and an amp, and we started playing that week.
NT: I hear you've had some recent chance meetings with celebrities? Diken: We did this charity baseball appearance in Norfolk, Virginia, and Pat got up to bat. He gave it his all but he struck out; he turns around and the ump was Ollie North! We went up to him, "Hey, Mr. North, can we take a picture with you? We're with the Smithereens." "You guys are great!" is what he said. And he made sure--by his own design--that we took two photos, one of me shaking his hand and one of Pat shaking his hand.
NT: Anybody else?
Diken: We were flying from LAX to Seattle, walking through the airport, and I spied this man--That's Allen Funt!"--and indeed it was. I always have my camera in pocket and hand it to our tour manager immediately upon celebrity sightings, so the four of us got around Allen Funt and said, "Mr. Funt, you don't know us, but we're a band called the Smithereens and we're real big fans of yours." He says, "Well, aren't you boys nice!" As our tour manager was snapping the photo, Pat says, "Mr. Funt, thanks for all the happy memories!" It was one of those great moments.
NT: How's this tour going? Diken: I think we're doing some of the best shows we've ever done; we really like playing the stuff from the new album. The stuff is easy to play, mostly because of the nature of the songs and the way we recorded them. They really lend themselves to live performances. . . . We recorded the album more live than any album we've done. The first two were done on the run. We did this one, in all honesty, in four weeks, though we're telling people two weeks cause it sounds better.
NT: The Smithereens were recently dropped, after seven years, from Capitol. You've said there "was a feeling within a certain part of the industry that we were done or washed up or too old or whatever, in the wake of all this alternative mania." Yet the band signed three weeks later to RCA. What's your take on the record industry?
Diken: I'll tell you, the whole "label industry" really has got its head up its ass, I firmly believe it. It's always been a bandwagon type of thing, but, man, when the standards get set so low by a band like Counting Crows or even Pearl Jam--I fucking hate Pearl Jam--who's selling zillions, so that's the standard, it's just breeding shit.
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NT: How about MTV?
Diken: I cannot express to you the disdain I have for the whole video thing. I just fuckin' loathe the idea of having to put a visual image out there just to have people dig music. It has nothing to do with music at all. I just think it takes away the joy of loving music; to have to sit and look at an image to enjoy music is so bass-ackwards, it's so detrimental. I had a really good interview with this guy in Seattle yesterday, and we were talking about how music should take you somewhere else, and it should have that fire--that's what's missing anymore. It's not just about playing your instrument real loud, it's about the heart and the fire and the emotion.
NT: Do you feel that's what's missing from music in general today? Diken: Oh, yeah. There's always that thing about danger and rebellion that made rock n' roll great, too. And I kind of saw that in Nirvana's music and some other bands, but not a whole lot of em. NT: But danger and rebellion aren't all that makes great music.
Diken: That's true. I mean, I love Neil Sedaka and there's nothing particularly rebellious about him.
NT: Though maybe just admitting you love Neil Sedaka is rebellious enough.
Diken: Oh, I love old Neil Sedaka records, and I will go on record to say that I love "Laughter in the Rain." Come on, it's a great song. . . . There's another thing that I recognize in a lot of great records, and that is a real yearning; you find that in a lot of stuff in the early Sixties. Even in a record like "Diana" by Paul Anka, that record blows me away. That stuff doesn't wear at all, doesn't wear one bit.