Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Jim Babjak: The Clark Kent of Lead Guitar

I imagine Jim Babjak sitting in a bank's office somewhere in the ruins of New Jersey pushing paper from one side of his desk to the other. Okay, there’s more to banking than that, but that’s what it looks like. Babjak’s day is punctuated by phone calls and staff meetings and occasional glances at his wrist watch. Finally, at five o’clock, he takes his suit jacket off a hook, flings it over his shoulder, locks his office door and calmly bids good evening to his co-workers. Then he’s out the door looking for a phone booth to change in. But that’s getting harder these days. Phone booths are fewer and farther between.

At night, Babjak is a super hero. Even better, he’s the lead guitarist of The Smithrereens, the band he cofounded three decades ago with fellow Jersey boys Dennis Diken (drums), Mike Mesaros (bass) and Pat DiNizio (guitar and lead vocals). Need I invoke the band's string of mid-80’s hits? Need I say “Blood and Roses” and “Behind a Wall of Sleep” and “Only A Memory” and “A Girl Like You”? Need I remind you that his music can be heard in films like “Bull Durham,” “Backdraft,” “Encino Man,” “Time Cop,” “Boys Don't Cry,” “Cruel Intentions 2,” “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle,” and “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry.” That’s so cool we forgive him for those radio commercials for Dairy Queen and Nissan.

Cliff: People who attended the recent “The Music of the Who” at Carnegie Hall saw a lot of interesting interpretations of Pete Townshend music, but it was The Smithereens who came closest to that Live at Leeds Sound. Of course The Who are about as close as some people get to religion. It's easy to hear their influence on many bands, but frankly, while the Beatles impact on The Smithereens was obvious from the get-go, I never understood the relationship between The Who and the 'Reens until I actually heard you play Who music. Any thoughts on this?

Jim: We used to play "The Seeker" during our first national tour in 1986, so many of our original fans remember that. Our version of it also appeared on MTV's “Live at the Ritz” and was a live EP released on CD back in 1987. Before we had a record deal, we were playing three sets a night in the bars, “I Can't Explain” was a staple in our live show. We would also throw in “Substitute” on rare occasions.

Dennis Diken, our drummer, and I started playing together when we were 14 years old. We would practice playing songs like “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks, “Summertime Blues” by The Who, “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix, “Shapes Of Things” by The Yardbirds", “I'll feel a Whole lot Better” by The Byrds, “No Matter What” by Badfinger, “Ticket To Ride” by The Beatles, “Dirty Water” by The Standells… These songs give you an idea of how we started out. Then around 1973 we got a little more ambitious and started playing songs off of The Who's “Tommy” album and whatever little snippets I could play off of “Live at Leeds”. Dennis and I went to many concerts during our teen years and besides seeing the Kinks about 30 times and tons of other bands, we saw the Who perform a few times while Keith Moon was still alive. After seeing them live, there's no doubt that Townshend made a huge impact on me during my learning years. It's still very much in our blood and will probably be there forever. So by the time we met Pat in 1979, I already had this aggressive style of guitar playing, which was also fueled by the punk movement of the late 70's.

Cliff: Which of the acts at Carnegie Hall the other night were you most impressed with?

Jim: I didn't get to see much of it because the wings were just too crowded and I didn't want to get in the way. It was a good scene up in the dressing rooms just talking to all the other artists, some of which are old friends. I was very impressed by Bob Mould and had a very nice time chatting with Mose Allison who shared our dressing room. There was a great sense of camaraderie among everyone there.

Cliff: You've done your Beatles and Who tributes now...are there any other tributes that Smithereens' fans can expect?

Jim: It was all fun and the fans have mentioned in their emails about us doing a Kinks tribute, but it's time to work on a new original album. Who knows? Anything can happen… I can't rule out another tribute. But there are no plans for one at this time.

Cliff: Pat and I have spoken many times about his influences. Who are yours?

Jim: There are so many that it's way too long to list. Let's just say that the music of the 50's, 60's and early 70's all mixed up is my foundation.

Cliff: What do you listen to these days?

Jim: When I'm not listening to talk radio or CDs from my collection, I'll tune in to rock radio and it's very rare that I'm impressed by something new. Then again, it could be my mood. I was watching TV one night and saw a concert by Snoop Dogg and liked it! My son got me the Chicken Foot and Wolfmother CDs for Christmas… Of course, I bought myself The Kinks box, Neil Young box and both mono and stereo Beatles box sets. I'm becoming an Amazon sucker! They send me emails about new releases that I might like. I just bought the Rhino handmade “Birds, Bees and Monkees” box set and pre-ordered the “Tami” show DVD… I did go out of my way to order The Duke Spirit's album “Neptune” after hearing the song “The Step and The Walk” on the radio. I Googled the band to find the song and while I was looking I read some reviews by people that said Liela Moss' vocals sounded like Grace Slick, but I don't hear that and I think she has her own thing going. She has a great voice. If I had to compare her to anyone, she sounds more like Mariska Veres from The Shocking Blue. She has a similar sexiness in her voice.

Cliff: When I saw you in Morristown recently we spoke about the fact that you have a "straight" job by day and sort of turn into a rock star at night. How does it feel to be the Clark Kent of lead guitarists?

Jim: I'm still working on it. It's not easy at all. I don't like to mix the two worlds, so I keep a very low profile... It's funny, I've known Willie Nile since the 80's and he also has a day gig. Backstage at Carnegie Hall I asked him if he's going in to work in the morning and he said yes. I said, “Me too” and we both laughed. Here we are at Carnegie hall and then the next day we're sitting at a desk. They're both realities.

Cliff: Is playing out once a month, which is what you seem to average, the right mix of family, business and rock & roll?

Jim: Sometimes it's a very hard balance. I take it as it comes. We played seven shows in January and that was pretty great. Usually we have more concerts in the summer and it gets very busy. It all works out. Sometimes I take my family with me. Last year we played in Spain for a week and I took my wife. We had a great time… I get to see so much of the world. I feel very lucky. I just roll with the punches that life brings me. I look at everything as life experience and try to make it great, even my commute to work in the morning.

© 2010 Clifford Meth


Bruce said...

God save The Smithereens! One of my favourite bands.

Dan Pavelich said...

Great piece...Jim is one of rock's most criminally underrated guitarists...love his style.

Kristin Mast said...

I saw the Smithereens in concert last summer in Colorado. Not only impressed with their musical style, but afterwards they were so cool, patient and friendly with their die hard fans. Not many bands come close to their lasting impact. Especially respect Jim Babjak on the guitar.