This chapter from my forthcoming book The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1) was originally distributed privately to my paid patrons on June 1, 2019. This is its first public appearance. You can become a patron of Boppin’ (Like The Hip Folks Do) for just $2 a month.
An infinite number of songs can each be THE greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, THIS is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!
THE SMITHEREENS: “Behind The Wall Of Sleep”
Single from the album Especially For You, Enigma Records, 1986
Beauty and sadness.
These are the things our lives can offer us: the beauty of art and appreciation, friendship, creation, participation, romance, passion, family, trust; the sadness of loss, longing, distance, frailty, mortality, disillusion. The parameters of our experience in this world are rendered in large part by our unequal shares in the beauty of sadness and the sadness of beauty.
There are myriad ways this dance of beauty and sadness can manifest. In this moment, let us speak of its relationship with a band called The Smithereens, and the fans who found the beauty within their sadness.
The Smithereens were from Carteret, New Jersey, blown into the scene in 1980. Drumming by Dennis Diken. Bass by Mike Mesaros. Guitars by Jim Babjak and Pat DiNizio. They channeled The Beatles, The Kinks, Buddy Holly, The Beau Brummels, and everything that was ever cool in pop music. All sang, but DiNizio was the principal songwriter and the guy in front, his voice spinning tales of love lost, found, unrequited, doomed from the start, or discarded with cruel indifference. The hearts on their sleeves had been battered. But the beat went on.
Their first release was a 1980 EP, Girls About Town, establishing the group’s raison d’être by collecting four songs with “girl” in the title (three DiNizio compositions and a cover of The Beach Boys’ “Girl Don’t Tell Me”). The Beauty And Sadness EP followed in 1983, with their first LP Especially For You reaching retail in 1986.
Especially For You is a stunning work, inspired by the British Invasion, influenced by punk and new wave, informed by the inner grit of classic soul, yet in unerring pursuit of its own belligerent vision. “Cigarette” is a devastatingly poignant portrait of true love slipping away, “Strangers When We Meet” and “Time And Time Again” bop like nobody’s natural business, and “Blood And Roses” broods like a bad boy who’s given up on being good.
The album also includes “Behind The Wall Of Sleep,” a darkly fascinating snapshot of obsession, casually emanating hints of danger while falling in too deep to dream of rescue, another paperback-ready slice of pulpy pop noir.
She was tall and cool and pretty
And she dressed as black as coal
If she asked me to, I’d murder
I would gladly lose my soul
MTV and FM radio succumbed to The Smithereens’ alchemic alloy of menace and yearning. There was more to come, public interest probably peaking with the group’s third album 11 in 1989. Although The Smithereens continued to create smoldering works of cantankerous brilliance even into this newfangled new millennium, a crowd of people turned away. The masses were lost. The music of The Smithereens became the possession solely of its faithful, its diehard fans.
Fans like The Front Line.
I only know this story second hand, as it was related to me by some of these Smithereens fans who called themselves by that name, The Front Line. The Front Line was a small group of fans, three couples, who saw The Smithereens as often as opportunity allowed. They called themselves The Front Line because that’s where they were at a Smithereens show: fixed in their spots in front of the stage, with only the sweet veil of dreams (beyond the wall of sleep) separating them from this band they loved; Rich and Kathy Firestone in front of Jim Babjak, John and Melissa Palmer before Pat DiNizio, Steven and Gail Molinari in the line of sight of Mike Mesaros. The band knew them and appreciated them. How could anyone not love and appreciate The Front Line?
The Molinaris divorced. Gail Molinari was taken by cancer in 2014. Within the band itself, Jim Babjak’s beloved wife Betty was also claimed by cancer in 2016. Pat DiNizio died in December of 2017.
Now I lie in bed and think of her
Sometimes I even weep
And I dream of her behind the wall of sleep
The night Pat DiNizio died, I was otherwise occupied. I was waiting in the ER with my mother, who had fallen at home for the second time in a matter of days. Beauty and sadness. While in the ER, I received messages from the Firestones, going through their own process of dealing with impending bad news, as DiNizio slipped away.
Now I know I’m one of many who would like to be your friend
And I’ve got to find a way to let you know I’m not like them
Our obsessions drive us, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Our interests can give us focus and delight, spark, comfort, perhaps even meaning, or at least a step toward meaning. Neither beauty nor sadness alone can tell our stories. And without them, we have no stories to tell, no life to live. We have no other refuge. We persevere. We have nothing else we can do, and nowhere else we can go.
Not even behind the wall of sleep.
“Behind The Wall Of Sleep” written by Pat DiNizio, D-Tunes Music/La Rana Music BMI
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Hey, Carl’s writin’ a book! The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1) will contain 100 essays (and then some) about 100 tracks, plus two bonus instrumentals, each one of ’em THE greatest record ever made. An infinite number of records can each be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Updated initial information can be seen here: THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE! (Volume 1)