Dispatch June 2007

Reviving the Beatles

Beatles fan Mark Bowden chats with Pat Dinizio about his band's new Beatles tribute album, "Meet the Smithereens"

I was 12-years-old when I first heard the Beatles. There was suddenly this melodic, infectious, completely new sound on the radio, these four witty British musicians with shaggy haircuts showed up at Kennedy airport, appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and, after that, everywhere. For me and for millions of Americans, there was pop culture before the Beatles, and pop culture afterwards.

It is hard for those born later to grasp how dramatic this shift was. I had never seen an audio or video recorder, and there were no FM radio, MTV, or Internet. The Beatles' music was addictive, and there were only two ways to hear it. One was to carry a transistor radio with you at all times tuned to a top 40 station. The other was to buy the new Beatles album, Meet the Beatles, an unthinkably expensive item for a 12 year-old, even one with a paper route.

I am no neuroscientist, but a lifetime of listening to music has taught me that when you hear a new song that grabs you, it cuts a new pathway through the pleasure centers of your brain, setting off sparks. The pleasure grows and then peaks around the 15th time you hear it, when you have learned by heart its rhythms, chord changes, choruses, vocals, instrumental breaks, and harmonies, so you can, in effect, lean into the small rushes of pleasure as it swoops to a familiar and satisfying final note. But in those days, unless you owned the record, sometimes songs would appear and disappear before exhausting that process. So I remember vividly when Meet the Beatles first showed up in our living room in Port Washington, Long Island, in early 1964. I don’t even remember how it came. It might be that my older sister got it as a birthday present. I just remember lying on the rug in our living room listening to it over and over again, until my parents made me turn it off (commercially available earphones were still about a decade away). “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “It Won’t Be Long,” “This Boy” … every song was a thrill, every song a hit. “Meet the Beatles” was the first album I learned by heart, as it was for millions of boys and girls my age. It was the first record in our house that was not “grown-up” music: Frank Sinatra, Broadway or movie show tunes, Mitch Miller sing-alongs or Lawrence Welk. I was too young to have been swept up in the phenomenon of Elvis. I caught him in his chubby, clean-cut movie star phase. For me and for millions of other kids my age, it was first and foremost, the Beatles.

One of us was Pat Dinizio, who was growing up not too far away in a suburb of New Jersey. Dinizio wasn’t just a listener; he had a guitar.

“My parents had signed me up for lessons, and all of a sudden, every kid in America with an instrument had to be in a band,” he says. Then, reflecting further, “Ultimately, what we all wanted was not just to be in a band like the Beatles, but to be the Beatles. What could possibly be cooler?”

Dinizio learned the strange, startlingly original minor chords of Beatles songs in his first guitar lessons—“‘Hold Me Tight’ has one of the weirdest bridges of all time,” he says—and then started writing his own songs and eventually formed his own band, The Smithereens, which enjoyed a respectable level of coolness and success during the 1980s and has managed to stick around. They are polished, clever New Jersey rockers with a strong early British Invasion flavor, and they have earned through talent and hard work a loyal following all over the country. The group never enjoyed anything like the tsunamical success of the lads from Liverpool—no one else ever has—but Dinizio and his band mates have had a taste.

“I’ve never managed to actually feel like a Beatle,” he says, chuckling, now a round middle-aged man from Scotch Plains with thick fingers and a graying goatee, “but  I do recall one specific moment, playing at the Palladium in Hollywood, where we had sold out for every show. They had built a runway that ran out into the audience, so I could walk out, oh, about 25 rows, and in the middle of our show I had kids reaching up trying to tear my clothes off. Literally, they were trying to pull my pants off! And it occurred to me, in that moment, that this was as close to Beatlemania as I was ever going to get.”

The biggest dreams are always just out of reach. It isn’t possible for four middle-aged men from New Jersey to actually become The Beatles, but Dinizio and buddies found a way to come close, as musicians. Over five days in a basement studio in New Brunswick last year they recorded their own version of the entire 12-song Capitol Records Meet the Beatles album, lovingly reproducing it song by song, chord by chord, like an orchestra reproducing a Beethoven symphony from sheet music, or Andy Warhol painting a Campbell’s soup label, or Roy Lichtenstein reproducing a panel from a comic book. They made no effort to imitate the Beatles voices as professional “tribute” bands do, nor did they reinterpret the songs, inventing their own versions, as, for example, the band Phish has done. Instead they produced a loving homage, exactingly faithful to the Beatles melodies, rhythms, harmonies, tempo, and keys, making a recording that sounds almost exactly like the original but … not.

Dinizio lives today in an old suburban house in Scotch Plains not far from where he grew up. His family has operated a trash disposal business for generations, and for the longest time despite his best efforts his life seemed headed in that direction, too. Until he was 30-years-old, he says, he was never very far from a garbage truck. He has the thick features and big hands of a laborer, and remembers his father sitting him down about six years or so after forming his band to suggest that perhaps he had given this music thing enough of a try and it was time to rejoin the family business and make a real living. Dinizio refused. Both men wept. It would be a few more years before his band had a hit song—Dinizio’s “A Girl Like You”—and achieved a measure of celebrity status. (His father loved to see them perform before a big crowd at Madison Square Garden.) They have released eight albums, and have evolved into a solid mid-list, hard-working road band, touring the country to play small concerts for devoted fans. Dinizio and his band mates—Jim Babjak, Dennis Diken, and Mike Mesaros—have always been considered throwbacks. One British critic dubbed them “four pop professors from New Jersey.”

Presented by

Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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