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Now and Then: An Interview with Jim Babjak of The Smithereens

There are dates in our lives that really stand out and a key one for me was 30th January 1987. I was sat watching the chaotic UK TV show ‘The Tube’ and The Smithereens were introduced and launched into ‘Blood and Roses’. There – that throaty haunting bassline from Mike Mesaros, the solid backbeat of Dennis Diken, the beautiful storytelling rock vocal of Pat DiNizio and the highest level of cool and brilliance on lead guitar – Jim Babjak. I was hooked.



Hailing from the borough of Carteret in Middlesex County, New Jersey, Jim grew up listening to many of the sounds that underpin the mod subculture. You can imagine then my joy when Jim Babjak, ‘Tex’ as he is often called by fans, agreed to answer a few questions for ‘Mods Of Your Generation.

Did you come from a musical family?

Not professional. My dad played the accordion at house parties. My parents love entertaining to this day.

What is your earliest musical memory?

My earliest memory is hearing a song called, “Cherry pink and Apple Blossom White“ by Perez Prado. I can’t explain it, the melody just grabbed my soul. That song set up my love of music.

Who inspired you to want to play the guitar?

I know it’s sounds cliche, but it was seeing The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan show in February of 1964. It took another 5 years to convince my parents to buy me a guitar.

Then I started listening to The Rolling Stones and The Who.

Why did you choose a Rickenbacker as your main guitar?

At first, I admit it was purely because of the way it looked. I thought it was sexier than any other guitar. My first Rickenbacker was a black 12 string purchased in 1980. I got lucky. The sound coming from it suited me.


Were you aware of the mod subculture in the UK?

Absolutely. I love the early period records of The Who, Small Faces as well as The Move, The Kinks, Etc. I bought all of The Jam records when they were released.



Did it influence your music?

Yes, it did. Maybe more in spirit. But I must say that I am influenced by most everything I hear.

Can you share some memories of coming to the UK?

It was an exciting time in my life. We stayed at the Columbia Hotel by Hyde Park during all of our British tours. I remember giving the night manager 20 Pounds to keep serving us beer after the pub closed. Martin McAloon from Prefab Sprout seemed to always be there and was my drinking cohort. We played the Glastonbury and Reading festivals a year apart. We even filmed a video for our single “Drown in My Own Tears” all throughout London.




Left to Right – Pat DiNizio, Dennis Diken, Sir George Martin, Jim Babjak


Tragedy struck The Smithereens in 2017 when principal songwriter and vocalist Pat Dinizio died. When my tears had dried I, like many others, wondered what would happen to the band. Making the decision to carry on with their musical legacy the band now use guest vocalists Robin Wilson of the Gin Blossoms and Marshall Crenshaw.

I know it works well with the current setup but when Pat died did you consider taking on lead vocals?

I’d rather stick to the songwriting and maybe sing one, or two songs. I really feel most at home when I’m in the zone playing guitar. That’s when I feel like I’m floating. It’s a natural high.

This is a timely reminder that Jim is also a brilliant songwriter and musician. Apart from his contribution to the Smithereens there is his other work in television, film, radio and his other band ‘Buzzed Meg’.


What is your process for songwriting?

Most of the time I come up with a melody first, followed by the words to a chorus. I like to arrange the whole song, verse, chorus, bridge before I fill in the words. But, there are times when I write the lyrics first and then add the melody and music later. I don’t stick to one formula. I prefer writing on acoustic guitar rather than electric. If the song sounds good in its simplest form, broken down to its basic core, then there’s a good chance it will come out alright.

You have achieved so much musically, what ambitions do you have left?

I still have a lot of music in me that’s dying to get out. I’d like to keep recording new music as long as I can. It’s my passion and the continuation of life.



Postscript

I’d like to say a personal massive thanks to Jim for the music and answering these questions – he is right up there for me with the greats. I remember playing a small festival with my band The Kite Collectors a few years back and a chap came up afterwards and said one of the songs sounded a bit like The Smithereens, particularly a ‘twinkly’ guitar bit. Of course, I hugged him back then, we were allowed to before Covid – compared to Tex…it was the biggest compliment ever.


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Copyright © Mods Of Your Generation, Robby Allen 2020, All Rights Reserved. No part of this review may be reproduced without the permission of the authors. All images used are that of their respective owners and no copyright infringement is intended.


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