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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.