Though the term smithereens has Irish/Gaelic etymology, the hard-pounding British Invasion-influenced band from Carteret, NJ is known to have derived their name, instead, from a Yosemite Sam catchphrase to Bugs Bunny:
“Ya better say your prayers, ya flea-bitten varmint, I’m-a-gonna blow ya to smithereens!”
(the word itself meaning small broken pieces or fragments).
A look through The Smithereens album entitled “Blown to Smithereens,” their best-of compilation covering songs from their first four Capital Records releases (1986-1991), leaves one wondering how this propulsive power-pop quartet brandishing hammer-heavy guitars over such melodic hooks remained so underestimated, and never did exactly – in the parlance of the music industry – blow up.
Hefty, sometimes even haunting gems that might well have left The Smithereens a much bigger deal included ‘Blood & Roses,’ ‘A Girl Like You,’ ‘Only A Memory’, ‘Strangers When We Meet,’ ‘Top of the Pops,’ ‘House We Used to Live in’ and ‘Drown in My Own Tears’ – a roster of tunes that would fit snugly somewhere between Paul Westerberg’s Replacements and Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. Yes, they were badly, and sadly, underrated.
This video for another classic Smithereens slammer, ‘Behind The Wall of Sleep,’ however, was not. You’ve really got to see it. Pat DiNizio, The Smithereens’ intense lead singer and songwriter, not only showcases his trademark beatnik goatee but possibly the strangest hairdo since A Flock of Seagulls landed. And bassist Mike Mesaros employs a series of raging Rockettes leg kicks that would embarrass MTV pariah Billy Squier. Though it’s primarily a straight performance piece, it’s a pretty dated and disjointed disaster.
None of which, of course, takes a thing away from this ripping tune. DiNizio practically sneers through his lyrics, which include references to swinging ’60s supermodel Jean Shrimpton (“She had hair like Jeannie Shrimpton/Back in 1965”) and Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman (“She held a bass guitar and she was playing in a band/And she stood just like Bill Wyman/Now I am her biggest fan”). And midway through guitarist Jim Babjak materializes with a solo reminiscent of a fellow Jersey guy – note, in particular, his squawking, totally Springsteen-esque turn at 1:48.
In a sense, The Smithereens remain in one piece today. Though their leader DiNizio passed away in 2017 they continue to make regular appearances utilizing a singing rotation of Marshall Crenshaw and Robin Wilson (from the Gin Blossoms), allowing them to rightfully claim that 2023 marks their 43rd continuous year as a band. But realistically their notoriety peaked some 30 years ago, and even then never met their merit. For a band named after a Yosemite Sam line, I ponder just what in tarnation happened? Maybe rightful fame did escape them, but I still reckon they were some of the hootin’est, tootin’est, shootin’est, meanest, roughest, toughest hombres that ever crossed the Rio Grande, er, the Jersey Turnpike.
BorisFebruary 15, 2023 4:03 pm
Love the Smithereens. So many great songs with great hooks and that haunting DiNizio voice. I saw them several times, with a memorable show at the new Ritz on 54th St. in the early 90s, at the height of their popularity. I remember Mike Besaros’ bass line was so loud that my chest vibrated every time he hit a note.
Another personal favorite song is “In A Lonely Place”, where DiNizio duets with Suzanne Vega. I later learned that the lyrics were basically stolen movie lines from Humphrey Bogart’s character from his movie “In A Lonely Place”…which impressed me even more.
They should’ve been bigger.
Rob MacMahonFebruary 16, 2023 1:09 pm
Agree, completely. Excellent power-pop. I saw them open up for someone at The Tower in Philly around 87-ish but darned if I can recall who (maybe the ‘Mats or maybe REM??). Good stuff, BG! Keep on rockin’ in the free world! RMac
SeanMarch 10, 2023 11:35 am
Completely agree guys, underrated with a capital U. The Smithereens were basic-imaged and came across as one of the many new, shy alterna-bands at that time. But man, those songs were GREAT. I remember telling myself after seeing them on MTV of course, ‘they’re kind of dorky’ – then I’d be singing ‘Blood and Roses’ and ‘Only a Memory’ all day long. And literally crying the first time I watched/heard the video for ‘House We Used to Live In’ it hit so hard in that ‘ol spot. They were an immense talent and deserved to shine when they did. They should still be more popular today, indeed.