Jim Babjak - Blow to Smithereens

When you first see Jim Babjak, you’d take him for a typical suburban dad whose weekends are given to mowing the lawn and schlepping  the kids to soccer. And he does have a solid day job in banking, has been married to his wife, Betty Ann, for more than 30 years, and  prides himself on his three sons’ successes.
But Babjak has another life the rest of us can relate to only as fans: Babjak rocks hard with The Smithereens, one of New Jersey’s best- known cult bands. For more than 30 years, with his guitar wailing, he’s shared the stage with singer Pat DiNizio, bass player Mike  Mesaros, and drummer Dennis Diken to create hits such as “Blood and Roses” and “A Girl Like You.”
Born in a refugee camp in Salzburg, Austria (his parents, James Sr. and Gizella, native Hungarians, had fled during their country’s uprising  against Russia in 1956) and arriving in the United States as a 1-year-old in 1958, Jim grew up in Carteret. His parents became factory  workers, and the family were middle class. He got into music early, inspired by a performance of The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show,”  and played a few instruments before getting his first guitar in middle school. In his freshman year at Carteret High School, he met Diken,  and the two formed a band that would evolve into The Smithereens. The band’s name comes from a phrase bellowed by the cartoon  character Yosemite Sam.
Babjak graduated high school in 1975 and took classes at Middlesex County College, but dropped out in 1976 after making a trip to  Manhattan’s CBGB music club. Music, he saw, was his future, and he was determined to follow that dream. The Smithereens officially  formed in 1980 — “the world’s greatest G-rated rock `n` roll band,” says the Chicago Tribune — and would go on to press gold and platinum  albums.
They also saw some lean times with the rise of grunge. Touring slowed, and Babjak began penning music for soap operas and  commercials. Through it all, their core fans kept the flame alive, and The Smithereens are enjoying a musical renaissance.
They’ve recently released a new CD commemorating The Beatles’ first concert in the United States: “The Smithereens Play The Beatles  Washington, D.C. February 11, 1964 Concert” (www.officialsmithereens.com/store/cds).
Now Babjak, who’s lived in Manalapan for more than 20 years, sits down with Living In Media to discuss growing up in Central New Jersey  — and his life in music.

LIM: What was it like growing up in Carteret?
JB: I liked it a lot. I tended to hang out with the older kids. I was pretty much a loner until high school. I had a few friends and played on the  soccer team. I listened to records all theJim's parents, Gizella and James Babjak, laid the foundation for the American Dream. time, tried to pick things apart and learn how to play Beatles songs or The Who. When my dad  owned a tavern I hung out with the older people. I was a pool shark by the time I was 15. Before school he’d have me sweep the floor and  stock the beer coolers. After school I’d try to do my homework at the bar and shoot pool. My dad was hell-bent on opening a tavern  because my grandfather in Hungary had a vineyard and a tavern that the Communists took. Dad saved every penny, borrowed money, and  opened a tavern in Carteret, then Babjak’s Corner but now Kelly’s Pub. We lived above the bar. So I learned how to sleep with the jukebox  blaring until two in the morning and people fighting. It was mayhem, but I look back fondly on that.

LIM: When did you first get into music? What did you listen to?
JB: It was definitely The Beatles. I wanted to get a guitar right after “The Ed Sullivan Show,” but my parents got me an accordion and I  learned how to play that. In middle school I switched to violin. In 1968 I finally talked my parents into getting me a guitar. I met Dennis  Diken in 1971. That’s when things started to click. We both liked The Beatles. He also turned me on to other bands. He was a record collector, and very knowledgeable about 1980, Jim backstage at the Stone Ponybands. He opened up my whole musical world. Dennis and I actuallymet the first day of my  freshman year in high school, in Earth science. I had a loose leaf notebook, and inside I put a picture of The Who. I didn’t know any music  by them, I just liked the picture. After class he asked me if I liked The Who, and I said that I liked The Beatles better. Then he invited me to  his house for lunch. He was a drummer, and asked me if I played an instrument. I said I played guitar. He happened to be looking for a  like-minded musician to start a band. We started playing together the next day.

LIM: How good a guitarist were you then?
JB: I don’t think I was very good at all. Dennis was amazing. He sounded like a world-class professional. He made me play better, since I  had to try to keep up with him. I developed much quicker with him.

LIM: Where did you go after teaming up with Dennis?
JB: It was just the two of us for a while. We couldn’t find anyone else into the same music. We liked The Kinks, and it seemed there wasn’t  one kid in high school who liked The Kinks. And at that time The Beatles were passé. Kids were into the Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin.  We weren’t stuck in the ’60s but we liked that style of music. We played some youth organizations. It was instrumental. It was a lot of fun to  play Who songs. We did play in front of the entire school in the auditorium, and our future bass player, Mike Mesaros, who wasn’t playing  bass at the time, had written, with Dennis, a rock opera about the teachers and our football season. He took songs from The Who, The  Kinks, and The Beatles, and from wherever we could grab, and wrote lyrics pertaining to the teachers.

LIM: When did you think that music would be your path, compared to a more traditional career?
JB: I worked at the tavern and kept changing majors. I didn’t know what I wanted to do other than be in a band. I started playing in a band  with Dennis. I didn’t think that’s what ILookin’ so cool in 1987: Jim Babjak, Dennis Diken, Pat DiNizio, Mike Mesaros was going to do for a living until we went to CBGB one night in 1976. There was this whole new  scene. I don’t know if you could call it punk rock yet, but the fact that you could see a real good band in a club play original music — that  was something I wanted to do. Before that all these big concerts were in Madison Square Garden, and playing there didn’t seem possible  to me. I thought, How would I ever be on a stage that big or be able to achieve that? Going to CBGB made me rethink that. Then we saw bands get signed from there, like the Ramones and Blondie. I thought that this was really possible, so I dropped out of college. It was  another six years before we got signed to a label. Those six years were difficult. In that time my dad sold the tavern and moved to Arizona, I got married, and I was making $25 a night playing at some bar somewhere. That wouldn’t even pay my bar tab at the time. We saw all our  friends getting married and going to buy their first condo. So my wife decided to go to law school. We thought she would be the  breadwinner at the time so I could pursue my musical career. At the same time I opened a record shop in New Brunswick that turned into  a video shop, and then CDs as the technology progressed.

LIM: How did The Smithereens form?
JB: In the summer of 1975 Mike wanted to play with us. We said, “How about bass?” So he went off to school in Maine with his bass, and  by the time he came back he sounded like a pro. The summer before he left, I taught him three songs to play on the bass. We played a  little bit in the summer. At that same time is when we started going to CBGB and decided to form a band. We had a different lead singer,  but that didn’t work out. We just floated around. We all still worked. I opened a T-shirt store with Dennis, and worked at my dad’s bar. I  started taking it seriously in 1979 when Dennis had an ad in the Aquarian, and Pat DiNizio also had an ad looking for likeminded  musicians. That’s how we hooked up. Pat was looking to put together a band, and we were looking for a lead singer.

LIM: What was that initial meeting like?
JB: We instantly sounded like a band. I think it’s because Dennis and I had been playing together for much of our childhoods, and Mike  had been playing with us for four years. We already had a sound. Pat was developing as a songwriter, coming up with interesting songs.  So we immediately put out an EP of four songs [“Girls About Town”] in October, 1980.

LIM: What was your first concert as The Smithereens?
JB: We played at Englanders in Hillside in March, 1980, then progressed to the Dirt Club in Bloomfield. We played at CBGB, though not  right away. Our stomping ground ended up being the Court Tavern in New Brunswick, where I was living. Our New York haunt was Kenny’s  Castaways, where the owner really liked us and believed in us. It’s people like that who give you hope that you’re going to succeed.

LIM: Did you enjoy those times?
JB: It was a lot of fun. We would play three sets and leave there at three or four in the morning then go to work the next day. It was exciting.  Who knew what was going to Founding members Pat and Jim jamming at the Stone Pony, 1980. happen. We just kept dreaming that one day we were going to have a record out and play at Irving Plaza and  sell it out. I made this bet with my best friend who lived in Arizona at the time that by 1986 we were going to have a video on MTV. It was a  pretty bold statement to make because I didn’t think that was going to be possible. We had people coming to see us regularly, but you  couldn’t expand beyond those clubs until you had something on the radio. It wasn’t until we signed with Enigma Records that things really  took off.

LIM: What was your general outlook for the band at the time?
JB: We persevered. We got so many rejection letters from every label out there saying we weren’t ready, and they didn’t like the songs.  This one guy at Enigma listened to our tape and signed us without seeing a photo or bio. By that time, Pat was just sending stuff out to  everybody.

LIM: What was the experience like hearing the band’s song on the radio for the first time?
JB: I was on the Turnpike. It was on WNEW. It sounded pretty good. It sounded different. It sounded really big and powerful. It was exciting.  I didn’t know it was us at first. That still happens. They used one of our songs in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. I didn’t know about  it. I was watching it, hearing this song, really getting into it before I realized that it was one of our songs.

LIM: What do you remember about getting that first record deal?
JB: Pat got the call. It was pretty anticlimactic after six years. We already had six of the songs recorded for the first album, so they  recommend this producer, Don Dixon, who engineered the first R.E.M. album, [“Murmur”]. We recorded six more songs and had an album.  It was lowbudget. I think it took us a week to put together. We didn’t expect that album to go gold.

LIM: When did you know that the band had broken through?Jay Leno hosts the band on the Tonight Show in 1994.
JB: When I heard it on the radio and found out we were being played all over the country. We met with a booking agent with Premier  [Booking & Management Co.] in New York, and he wanted to see us because he’d heard our first single "Blood and Roses" on the radio.  This was the same guy who booked the Ramones. We did a showcase for him at CBGB. This guy loved us and signed us to Premier. And  he threw us to the lions immediately. Our first show was opening for ZZ Top at an arena in West Virginia. We had never played in an arena.  Our song had been on the radio for two weeks. I didn’t even have an amp. I had to borrow money for one.

LIM: How did the touring continue from there?
JB: Bookings started coming in. That tour lasted about 18 months, because as the record gained momentum we would go back to the  same markets. All of a sudden we were playing in L.A. five nights at the Roxy, and they would sell out. That’s when I knew something  extraordinary was happening.

LIM: Describe playing live before a packed arena.
JB: At this point in our career we were playing smaller theaters, like the State Theater in New Brunswick, and summer festivals. In 2013 we  toured with Tom Petty, and it was exciting. I hadn’t played in places like that since the 1980s. Doing the Tom Petty thing brought me back. It  felt like an old shoe. The first show I had to get used to the size of the stage, but other than that it went smoothly.

LIM: Did you get the same feeling as you did 20 years ago?
JB: Back then I had a rush every night I played. We were selling out all the venues. They were smaller when we first started out. I was trying  to appreciate the towns I was in. Instead of sleeping, Dennis and I would go for walks in every city we were in, including in Europe. We  went to Europe three or four times, and it was cool going to bars wherever we were and talking to the local people. I remember going to  someone’s house in Iceland once, and having this discussion about this new band, the Sugarcubes (Björk’s first band), which opened up  for us the first two nights we played at the opera house in Reykjavík, where our album was number one, above Madonna and Michael  Jackson. They treated us like The Beatles there.

LIM: What’s it like being on tour?
JB: Our tours now are more like weekend hops. We’ll do maybe three shows in a cluster. What’s different about now is that people are  there to see us. When we first started out, it The Smithereens in 2014 - Jim Babjak, Severo "The Thrilla" Jornacion, Dennis Diken, Pat DiNizio.was curiosity; they only knew one or two songs. All the other songs were foreign to them. Even  by our third album, [“11,”] we had fans but they weren’t real fans. When grunge hit, it kind of put our career on hold. We were older, and a lot  of younger bands were coming up. Kurt Cobain was a huge fan of ours, but at the same time our fans were already out of college. So there  was a dead period there of 10 years or more where we weren’t playing that many shows, but it all came full circle.
Then Pat had an idea: It was the anniversary of “Meet the Beatles,” and he wanted to re-record the entire album and call it “Meet the Smithereens.” What happened was the New York Times picked up on it and did a full story on it for the New Jersey weekend section. That  album brought us back. Then all of a sudden our fans were coming back, saying they had seen us in college. We ended up getting more  bookings.

LIM: What’s the best road story you’re willing to share?
JB: We played the Reading Festival in England with hundreds of thousands of people. They do things differently in England. The crowd  would urinate into these two-liter plastic bottles and then throw them on stage. It was a three-day festival, and we knew about this. I was  prepared. It didn’t mean they didn’t like you; it’s just what they did. One of the bottles missed and ended up on stage. With my soccer  background, while playing guitar, I was able to kick it up from behind and back into the crowd. It spun and sprayed urine all over them. After  that they stopped throwing bottles.

LIM: What’s the best place to play live?
JB: B.B. King’s, in New York City, is on the top of the list. People from Canada will come down, and people from certain parts of the country  that we don’t play much, like Nebraska, will come.

LIM: What’s the most memorable music moment?
JB: Playing Brendan Byrne Arena. It was a co-headlining bill with Squeeze, but we really packed that place in. The place was packed right  from the beginning. We had at least 150 The Family – Jim and his wife, Betty, with sons Max, Thomas, and Alex. people backstage as guests, and if you think back a couple of years before, we didn’t have 150  people coming to see us play. It was sold out. I remember taking a limo to the show. It was bittersweet because, my wife couldn’t be there  since she was eight months pregnant. I had a wireless system at them time and for the solo at the end of “Blood and Roses” I decided I  would do the entire solo while running around the entire complex. I didn’t tell anybody. I jumped off the stage and I am running around the  whole middle section. Security guards were running after me, fans were running after me. It was great.

LIM: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
JB: My family. I have three fantastic kids and a fantastic wife. I think any man would think that’s a great accomplishment. In our music room  we have our gold records, but on top I have this sign that says Number-One Dad, which one of my sons made.

LIM: When did you know it was time to do something other than play music full time?
Jim listening to Elvis in 1961, age 4. JB: That goes back to grunge. I felt like I was floating on an inner tube in the ocean. My kids were young at the time. It’s strange, but right  after 9/11 we did a benefit at the Count Basie Theatre. My neighbor, Andy, had been in the Twin Towers working for a bank. For four hours I  didn’t know if he was alive until he got to a landline uptown. I’d been thinking about my kids going to college. We were going to try to pay for their college education. In a strange way, I wanted to be in New York.
I saw Andy. It was October and I didn’t have a show until May. I told him that I thought I needed to find a job, and he told me there was an  opening at his company. I didn’t know anything about banking, but he convinced me I could learn. That was a Saturday. On Monday I went  for an interview at the bank. I had to buy clothes. I’m more a T-shirt and jeans guy. I ended up working on the Avenue of the Americas, right  across from Radio City Music Hall, where we had played five times. I almost cried, since I didn’t know what I was doing, and one of my  friends said that I was supporting my family. I kept the balance between that and the band in check. I like the two different worlds. It gives  me structure. Before that I would get up at noon; now I get up at 5:30 a.m.

Favorite Restaurant: Solo Trattoria in Freehold and Federici's on Main St. in Freehold for their pizza.
Favorite Movie: It’s A Wonderful Life
Favorite Music: The 1960s
Pet Peeve: People who text while walking
Like to Dine With: President Barack Obama, paternal grandfather Peter Babjak, and chef, Emmy Award-winning television host, author, and restaurateur Lidia Bastianich

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08 Sep 2016

By Chad A. Safran