Pat's the rub

Sen. Pat DiNizio? It's no stranger than Gov. Jesse "The Body" Ventura.
Michael Daks

What's a rock-and-roll guy to do after the hits have faded and the big major-label record deals are over? Perhaps scale down and sign the band to an indie label. Make a solo record and strike out touring on one's own. Maybe find a liquor company that wants to target the rock audience, and work with them. Possibly recruit new songwriting collaborators. Or, do as some media figures are these days, and run for political office.

For Pat DiNizio of The Smithereens, the answer is all of the above, though not in the usual fashions, mind you. He's currently on a unique solo tour promoting the first Smithereens album in five years, God Save The Smithereens, on the independent Koch label, booking himself into people's living rooms for house concerts at $2,000 a pop. He's also been working for Jim Beam, helping administer a fund that gave away $75,000 last year to aspiring musicians (including Dallas-area artist Jodi Nelson), and hiring himself out to the public via the Web as a songwriting collaborator. In addition, he's the Reform Party candidate for senator from his home state of New Jersey.

As we talk about it all on the phone, DiNizio's driving across Oklahoma toward the West Texas Panhandle. "It's really pretty to me, because I've never seen the country from this perspective, from behind the wheel," he notes. "I've always seen it from the inside of a bus. And a lot of times you really don't see anything. It's like the Beatles said: They saw the back of a van and the back of a bus and the inside of a dressing room and backstage -- they really didn't see much. By driving myself cross-country on this tour, I'm really seeing a lot of neat things."

DiNizio comes off as fascinated, if not nearly obsessed, with seeing things anew. But the good thing about God Save The Smithereens is that it's the same sort of smart pop-rock album -- his Beatles reference above is most apropos -- they've made all along, if only stronger and deeper and wiser. Which is what DiNizio seems to be as well. And even though he put out a solo album, Songs and Sounds, in 1997, this tour on his own is to promote the band's latest disc, in lieu of a tour that might make sense for all four members of the band, which these days means more fairs and festivals than clubs. Because, as DiNizio notes, the musicians and their fans are all older, and often have families.

So why not go to where they live? After all, the folk scene has cultivated an entire circuit of house concerts. He's already enjoyed the ancillary benefit of such touring from a month or so of shows late last year out of the 70 dates he will eventually play. "I've made, in most instances, very good friends from virtually every show I've done," he says. "It's expanded my world, certainly. I think what this is about for me, on one level, is redefining what that whole concert experience means to me.

"I just want to bridge the gap between artist and audience, and en route to that goal or dream, I am rediscovering what I am all about," he continues. "That's a big part of this thing. That's a big part of why I'm doing it myself, why I have to be alone doing it, why there's no driver or handler or tour manager or companion. I'm not planning it. There's no itinerary. I don't know where I am staying tonight. Sometimes I stay with the tour sponsors, if it feels right. Sometimes I'll drive till I can't drive anymore, and then I'll pull into a Best Western or Super 8."

DiNizio carries a suitcase-sized Fender Passport PA, and in addition to living rooms and back yards, the shows are also taking place in everything from a public library to a firehouse to a houseboat. On February 26, he plays the home of the similarly named Jim Dimizio, a Jersey expatriate who lives in Arlington.

DiNizio booked the tour via The Smithereens Web site ( and is bullish on the Web as a means to create a new relationship between performer and audience. He now not only has 65 of his home demos up for preview and paid download with Liquid Audio, but has also solicited songwriting work with amateurs via his Web site.

"Initially it was just a kind of crazy idea that I wanted to see what kind of response I'd get to it," he admits. "But I must say that virtually all the submissions I've received are serious as a heart attack and very well thought-out. The contributors, or my online songwriting partners, are very sincere, and I have to honor their commitment as best I can with these things. What I am saying is that they're no joke; they're real songs." He eventually hopes to release an album of such songs (titled Strangers on a Refrain), perhaps through the Internet, or to stores, or maybe both.

As we talk, DiNizio is heading for the West Coast to meet with Danny Goldberg, former top honcho for Atlantic, Warner Bros., and Mercury Records, about a new Internet program called He's slated to be among such initial artists as Ornette Coleman, Les Paul, Patti Smith, and Todd Rundgren (who developed the program). Fans can subscribe to the service and get new songs and other goodies and features on an ongoing basis. It's much like the old patronage of musical composers by the rich and royalty, but with syndication.

It's all about seeing new things and discovering new means, DiNizio explains as he rolls down the highway. Then he's suddenly distracted. "Wow, there's three jets flying in formation maybe a 100 feet off the ground," he exclaims. "What the hell is this? Where the hell are we? Are we near Area 52?"

But back on the subject, he notes, "You have to have a life to write about. Music is certainly the major part of my life -- writing songs, performing, making records, working with other people. But it isn't the only thing in my life, and I don't think it should be. I've never lived in that sort of vacuum."

At the same time, he's searching for new means of survival in a business "where you have to sell a million records or they'll drop you," he observes. "I am furious that [Capitol Records] merely lent us money to make the records and got it back, yet they own the records in perpetuity. It's a really lousy business. I have no sour grapes, because I'm one of the ones who hasn't had to go back to a day job, thank God." After all, he was a garbageman before The Smithereens hit big.

"We led an insular lifestyle for years, where we were just on the bus and did the shows. And we did everything that rock stars should and shouldn't have done," he adds. But while DiNizio explains how he's sure that Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken "doesn't want to be riding around the country for months at a time in the back of a bus anymore," Pat is savoring this road stint. "I just like to be out there. I'm on the road because I like doing this. I don't need anyone to hold my hand or change my guitar strings or tune my guitar or check me into a hotel or drive me. I had that for years. I am very capable of doing all that."

Since we recently had a president (the elder George Bush) who had no idea that supermarkets read prices with scanners, nor how much a quart of milk cost, such a back-to-basics approach from a former rock star may also help qualify DiNizio for his other cause: upstart political candidate.

"I'm certainly the most unusual candidate to ever come out of the state of New Jersey," he says of his run this year for a seat in the U.S. Senate (see "My main concern is community and family and values and ethics. And the simple notion of telling the truth and being kind to your neighbor. It's mainly an ethics campaign. It's going to be an Internet-driven campaign the likes of which you've never seen before, and a cable TV campaign, and a lot of getting out and shaking hands.

"I started as an independent, but got picked up by the Reform Party. I'm certainly an unlikely candidate, but everyone I speak to in the state says, 'You know what, I'll vote for you.' So we'll see what happens."

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